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Minds Made by the Movies

Arthur Kellogg

Managing Editor of Survey Graphic

May 1933

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While one group of the Committee were thus turning the subjects of the films inside out, another was measuring how well children remember them. This study was carried out chiefly by Prof. P. W. Holaday of Iowa State University, a psychologist, under the direction of Dr. George D. Stoddard, head of the Iowa State Child Welfare Station. A careful selection was made of representative films and an intricate set of questions based on them were put to some three thousand young people in Iowa and Ohio, grouped by ages: five-and-sixyear-olds, eight-and-nine-year-olds, highschool pupils, and young adults, either graduate students or junior members of the faculty and their wives. The questions were of a sort to be understood easily. It was made clear that the purpose of the inquiry was not to see who could remember most. The auditors were asked to sit in, in just their usual way and not to be especially intent on memorizing the things they saw.

The result was a sweepstakes for the kids. They remembered things in every category, good and bad, accurate and misinforming, with the indiscriminate fidelity of little cameras. Thus from Ben Hur they greatly increased their accurate information on Palestine, on Roman togas and chariots; but from a Western film, Fighting Caravans, they got an equal amount of misinformation; for example, a tankcar of kerosene drawn across the prairies in 1861 before either kerosene or tank-cars were in use.

Mary Pickford in Coquette
Emotion runs through the child audience. "Pictures play a considerably larger part in the child's imagination than books."
Of highschool students questioned, 64 percent reported "irresistible weeping" at pictures like Coquette

Each of the twenty-six memory tests included from thirty to sixty-four items such as, what was the first present Tom Sawyer received for letting a boy whitewash the fence„a watch, whistle, dead cat, compass, a tooth? Or (after seeing Rango), do the native huts in Sumatra have roofs of slate, grass, bark, boards, shingles? Tested the next day the eightnine-year-olds remembered 60 percent as much as the adults. Tested without warning six weeks later, the secondand-third grade children remembered 91 percent of what they had learned from the picture, the fifth-sixth graders 90 percent, the highschool children 88 percent and the young adults 82 percent. Tested again after three months the results were practically unchanged except that, if anything, the youngest group remembered, or at any rate were able to state, more of what they had observed at the end of three months than at the end of twenty-four hours. There was no difference between school children and children in a detention home. They all remembered pretty nearly everything they had seen and they kept right on remembering it. "My private guess," savs Dr. Holaday. "is that pictures play a considerably larger part in the child's imagination than do books.

What movies do to a child's sleep was measured accurately by a device known as a hypnograph. Prof. Samuel Renshaw and Dr. Vernon L. Miller at the Ohio State Bureau of Juvenile Research employed it with 170 boys and girls ranging in age from six to eighteen years. All of the children were normal and well and without unusual I.Q.'s. The Bureau children were used for the experiment because of the regular, controlled and healthy lives they live.

The hypnograph, attached to the bedsprings, records on a ribbon every movement made by a sleeper. In making the tests, each child's normal motility (restlessness) was first recorded and charted over a number of nights. Then, on the theory that any excitement in the evening might show up on the hypnograph, the whole group was taken on an expedition of window-shopping through the brightly lighted streets for a length of time about equal to a movie program. Then they were put to bed„and the result was negative.

The next night they were marched off to the early show, stayed for the usual program of two hours (the pictures were not selected, but were the current neighborhood offering) and sent to bed at the usual time. And then the hypnograph told the story. There was an enormous individual difference, but all the children showed some effect and in some records the needle fairly jittered. A boy of eight, after seeing Movietone Follies of 1930, had double his usual restlessness; a boy of ten the same change after seeing Strictly Unconventional. Remote Control increased an eight-year-old boy's motility 13 percent, a twelve-yearold boy's 62 percent; that of a girl of twelve, 85 percent, but of three girls of eight, sixteen and eighteen only 20 percent. A girl of sixteen, after seeing Just Imagine, shot up by 90 percent, virtually doubling her usual restlessness. Billy the Kid, the story of a swashbuckling killer with plenty of gunplay, caused only one boy in fifteen to register an increase of 50 percent above usual motility, while two thirds of the girls recorded more than half again their normal wiggles and one of the girls went up by 75 percent.

The general average increase for the boys was 26 percent and for the girls 14 percent. A degree of disturbance tended to linger on for four or five nights. The most extreme effects seemed to come at about the age of puberty. Says Dr. Renshaw: "For certain highly sensitive or weak and unstable children the best hygienic policy would be to recommend very infrequent attendance and then only at carefully selected films.

What goes on during the performance was studied by another group of the Committee. Here the gauge was not motility, but motivity„the intensity of emotion. Christian S. Ruckmick, professor of psychology at the University of Iowa, and his assistant, Prof. Wendell S. Dysinger, employed the psychogalvanometer. Their subjects were chiefly children from the public schools of Iowa City from six to eighteen years of age with I.Q.'s from 90 to 110. Some adults were included for purposes of comparison. Using, Hop to It Bellhop, a humorous picture without tenseness, the experimenters found that their adolescent subjects registered twice the excitement of the adults and the youngest group, children of six to eleven, three times as much. Here, as in other experiments, there were marked individual variations. Some children of thirteen to fifteen gave a zero reading while one member of the same group registered five times the reaction of the adults. The movies used in this experiment were not thrillers but of the everyday sort.

At the same time and with the same subjects, a record was made of pulse-rates against the previously established norm of the subjects. Children with a normal beat of 75 to 80 ran up to 125 and 140 at the more exciting points in these films. At a prison scene in The Yellow Ticket, one boy of sixteen jumped from 80 to 154. His pulse beat practically at double speed. Dr. T. B. Homan of Kansas City, making a special experiment on a carefully chosen normal subject, a young woman of twenty-two, found that in ordinary films her pulse changed from 80 to 140, while a thriller like The Mysterious Dr. Fu Manchu gave readings of 150, 168, 180 and, in one particularly harrowing scene, it registered 192.

Speaking not of this individual case but of the general experiments on emotional reaction and pulse-beat, Professor Dysinger says:

They are sitting quiet; there is no chance to express the emotion in motivity; yet they are intensely stimulated. Such a situation is bad for health, represents a deplorable mental hygiene and might easily contribute to the habits which are popularly called "nervousness" in children. Where the boy or girl has a chance to work off emotions in the open, in exercise or play, it is splendid. Such excitement in a darkened theater is by no means splendid.


Kay Davis, University of Virginia, © 2001-2003