Remarks on the Cinema, ca. 1922-1923

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One of the ironies of life is the gradual discovery that our most precious hopes sometimes come to fruition not through the expenditure of moral energy, but through the discovery or application of a purely mechanical device. Thus the comfortable substitute for the long skirt so ardently advocated by Dr. Bloomer and a host of other dress reformers came to pass not as the result of their efforts, but through the widespread use of the bicycle by thousands of women who merely wished to ride comfortably and efficiently. To illustrate from a personal experience: the residents of Hull-House had tried for five years to reduce the congested population in the nineteenth ward of Chicago with very little result, although a colony of Italians was established in Alabama, another lured to a new suburb and a law secured reducing the heights of tenements. The opening of a trolley system, however, passing through the ward into the remoter west side, in six months reduced the population from 54,000 to 47,000.

I have a hazy impression that something of the same sort has happened with certain early ambitions of the ↑social↓ settlement movement in relation to the mechanical device which presents pictures in motion; in other words, that the movie is succeeding in a field where our greatest effort has produced at best only a moderate success.

In the early days of the Settlements, we used to say rather grandiloquently that as it was the object of the University to extend the boundaries of human knowledge by study and research; of the College to hand on the mass of existing knowledge to the next generation, so it was the business of the Settlements to extend the area of intellectual life, to bring into it those minds hitherto left quite outside its stimulus and benefits. We hoped to create some consciousness of historic background, of that cultured life which surrounds and completes the narrow individual existence to ↑for↓ persons who had never been within [this warm] circle. [page 2] We realized even in our solemn youth that it was no small undertaking and that in order to achieve it, even most imperfectly, we would have to devise all sorts of new methods, and to readapt most of those already used in the University and College. The American Settlements, as a rule, were surrounded by thousands of immigrants, speaking varied languages, holding unlike religions and traditions, and making the difficult adjustment not only from Europe to America, but from the country to the city. Many of them had had but little schooling, others of them were absolutely illiterate. Their children were in the public schools and the ambitious young people, some of them already on the upward march to the University itself, were comparatively easy to help. But the situation was more perplexing in regard to that great mass of adult immigrants which the army examinations have recently revealed as so surprisingly immature. In those early days, the Settlements hoped to utilize the stir and sense of adventure which the recent journey to this country must have given to the immigrants and which we felt should count for much in awaking their mental curiosity. But we found these newly arrived immigrants easily bewildered by words even in their own language and that they were ready to shy from any obvious attempt for their improvement, although they were most responsive to kindly fellowship and eager for interest in the health and progress of their children. Our early attempts to actually break through into the genuine interests of the immigrants were often discouraging although our experiences even then might have given us a clue to that ↑which↓ the movies later illustrated so clearly. For instance, I used often to call on my neighbors on Sunday afternoon because the family, if at home, was dressed in its best, the house was still fresh from its Saturday's scrubbing and both ready for visitors. At such times I almost always found the members of the family looking at the pictures in the Sunday papers and it is quite amazing how much information and humor they extracted from them, sometimes with the [page 3] help of a child who had been to the public schools and could read a little and sometimes without such help. It would sometimes occur to me that the immigrant population surrounding Hull-House, had no other universal language than that afforded by these crude illustrations, by the billboards, and various other advertisements. In fact, one of the earliest undertakings at Hull-House was exhibitions of paintings borrowed from various parts of Chicago and our first Boys Club was founded upon a drawing class. The first building given us was a small pleasure gallery presented by Mr. E. B. Butler who later himself became an artist. Did these vague impressions of mine as well as our early experiences forecast Vachel [Lindsay's] description of a moving picture audience as "an astonishing assembly of cave men crawling out of their shelters to exhibit for the first time in history a common interest on a tremendous scale in an art form." Here is where the movie's success challenges the Settlement's early method. We really ought to have known better than to place such confidence in words for we might readily have discovered that the cave man is a natural render of picture writing, especially those people who hail from the Mediterranean so near the source and the highest development of that art. I am almost ready to agree with Vachel [Lindsay] when he further says, "The invention of the photo-play is as great a step as was the beginning of picture writing in the stone age" and that "this novelty is but an expression of the old in that spiral of life which is going higher while seeming to repeat the ancient phase." He draws attention to the young people who go with the baby alternating on the knees of his father and mother, and wonders by the time the infant has grown to be four years old how much of the world has been visually reflected upon his small brain. At any rate, he and his mother have gone with the head of the family and have at least shared the tinsel glory of the region to which they have been transported together. [page 4]

In our wildest moments we of the early settlements never dreamed that we should reach the numbers achieved by the cinema in this breaking through of the hard crust of ignorance, so to speak. A ↑national↓ attendance of twenty million a week at the moving picture show is the estimate given by experts which means that a number equal to the entire population of the United States attend each month although of course one person may be counted many times. In Chicago we are told that out of a weekly attendance of approximately three million, one million are children. These enormous numbers are necessary to the very existence of the elaborated film. It has been said that the cost of a film like that of a popular magazine is so exorbitant as to require instant and widespread popularity; the man who makes the picture cannot afford to pay the price of frustrating expectation, of disappointing the popular demand, and so he never runs the risk of radical change. He stays close to the old themes of love and jealousy, of the foiled villain and the triumphant hero, the inevitable chase and pie-throwing. One may well ask whether this is worth doing, even for people who find life insufferably dull. The settlement concedes that if success can only be secured by the use of such material that we would not compete if we could. We had already discovered during political campaigns that when the vote can only be secured by tricks and bribery to lose the campaign by abstention from them is a more valuable contribution to the political life of the neighborhood than success could be. Nevertheless, we should be proud to place to our credit certain achievements of the present cinema in fulfilling a genuine human need; that of story telling, for instance, to the aged. I have been much impressed with the number of old people who attend the moving picture [theaters]. In the first place, the [theater] is near home so they do not need to walk more than a block or two. The appeal is striking enough to break though that vagueness and mistiness which so easily surrounds the faculties of the old and outworn. [page 5]

They sit quietly and do not need to exercise much attention; it makes no difference if they are deaf and if they do not snore, no one discovers how much they sleep in the friendly darkness which engulfs alike young and old, shabby and "stylish." If reading has never been easy, it becomes increasingly laborious as people grow older. It not only strains the eyes but the mental concentration, the capacity to visualize what it is all about, comes with increasing slowness and difficulty. The possibility of identifying themselves even for a passing moment, with the swaggering hero or the beloved heroine, must pull old people out of that "huge shipwreck of their own esteem," the inchoate debris of squalid memory in which they habitually live. Perhaps in addition to all this they understand (or does the film producer understand them) the constant use of memory as an integral part of life, apparitions and recollection appear in the middle of many scenes, the fadeaway, producing memories of childhood and of early love, is constantly at work. I know an old Scotch woman who goes to a movie shows every night in a week. It is next door but one to the store over which she lives with her son. Because of her regular attendance, one seat is always reserved for her, and she is given a special price of fifteen cents for all tickets even including the highest priced programs. She used to keep one evening a week for prayer meeting in a neighboring mission church, but she has given that up because it is too far to walk. Another old woman who is paralyzed and her numerous grandchildren take turns in pushing her rolling chair into the [theater] and paying for her ticket so that she manages to go pretty nearly every day. It is the only pleasure she has and her only topic of conversation. Curiously enough she likes best scenes of adventure and wild places "where man has never trod" to use her own phrase. Another old woman is allowed to go only once a week, on Sunday afternoon, when her son takes care of her grandchildren whom she tends during all the week. She lives the harried life of the aged who can no longer cope with the energy of the young and who therefore [page 6] spend their days in the midst of wanton noise and defiance. But in some mysterious way, it is all made right for her on Sunday, and she bargains tenaciously for the price of her weekly ticket, even ↑when↓ on rare occasions it costs as much as fifty cents. Nothing else but its withholding induces her to threaten her son, whose wife has deserted him, with the dire announcement: "I too will leave you. I'll go to live with Mamie." A dull woman of 77 goes to every movie she hears of which promises "a good love story with a happy end." Such an ending is certainly in sharp contrast to her own story over so many years ago. Perhaps some obscure law of compensation is at work or that old trick of nature which "makes grass grow over almost any kind of a grave;" at any rate the experience brings healing as well as entertainment to her poor Moron mind grown duller in her old age.

While conceding great success in this field, the settlement must condemn the effect of the constant attendance of the movies on the part of the young and the great indictment against the cinema is its unfortunate influence upon them. There is not only passivity with the habit of getting their pleasures without making the slightest effort, (as bad for the young as it may be good for the aged) the sensational material and fake excitement but perhaps worse than all, the falsity of so much of what they see, the stress placed upon the overwhelming advantages of wealth and the ignoring of life's finer values.

Conscious of these grave shortcomings, various settlements have tried many experiments in exhibiting "educational films," in advocating censorship, in instituting "talks to parents about the movies," in cooperating with better film projects and with Visual Education Societies. The most persistent effort made by any of us was undertaken by the Henry Street Settlement ↑of↓ New York in connection with the Neighborhood Play House. With great difficulty at the end of the two years they had built up a following of fourteen hundred people who [preferred] what the Playhouse offered them in [page 7] films to anything which they might obtain elsewhere. They were obliged, however, to proceed very cautiously with the so-called educational film concerning which the manager relates the following incident: "One day we were showing a picture of dogs teaching puppies how to fight and then on the real came cats showing kittens how to catch mice. When that part of the picture was reached a burly man in the sixth row rose and said fervently 'Oh h---' and started up the aisle. He was followed by one of us asking him if he didn't want his money back. 'No,' he said looking pityingly at us, 'No, let it go at that.'" Miss Arthur adds "I am afraid that even if these programs could have been continued at the standard of the best of them, they would never have been popular, because they lacked vitality. But one cannot keep up these programs indefinitely when a daily change is required."

My own experience has been that if educational films are shown in connection with an educational evening which promised to be without them, they are then very popular, but if they are [shown] in lieu of, or as part of an entertainment, the audience will not brook them. Of course, young people get education for themselves out of the movies, especially that part which helps them in their own absorbing business, the securing of a mate. A young girl who was asked why she like to go to the movies, frankly replied, "Because I learn how to make love." Last year a Settlement resident spoke to one of her club members who was going to dances at the Hippodrome in regard to the dangers encountered there. "Oh, Miss M--," the girl replied, "You don’t have to tell [me]. I have learned from the movies how to have to behave." This naturally made Miss M. more nervous than before but on talking it over, she found that the girl had evolved a certain code of her own, from observing as she said, the temptations, without which she might have been a long time arriving at certain information. The Social Hygiene people and others, of course, have used the movie in the hope of helping girls in this way, but it is all as yet, tentative, and it is difficult to generalize about it. The whole portrayal has to be made very lurid in order to get the story across and even in the [page 8] midst of the best film I have seen a group of "flappers" leave en masse saying, "Cut out this [stuff]; not for me; let's go somewhere where there's a picture." And yet city mothers, especially those who are distrustful of their own ability to influence their daughters, constantly utilize the commercial films to drive home lessons of a city's temptations ↑dangers↓. A simple Italian woman in our neighborhood always takes her family when the film [promises] to teach such a lesson. "I put Francesca on one side of me and [Angelina] on the other and then at the right place I punch with my elbows and say 'Look at that; did you get it?'" Another neighbor of sturdy American background who never [ceases] to regret the fact that poverty and her husband's business keep her family in what she considers an undesirable part of the city is always taking her children to the movies in order to show them "a better kind of life." She is happiest when the film portrays an interior or a landscape which reminds her of Southern Michigan and enables her to say "That's the kind of a place I was raised in." In the interminable [conversations] about movies which one occasionally overhears between young people, interspersed with the assertion that "Doug is a darling" and that "Mary Pickford grows cuter every minute" one does hear discussions stating approval and disapproval concerning moral situations presented in the movies. It affords a starting point as ↑do↓ books and lectures do to more fortunate ↑college↓ young people for that unending [conversation] beginning with "What I would do." Children who have the movie habit seem to indulge in this sort of [conversation] very little and they also grow very exigent in their demands. One veteran manager of a moving picture [theater] says that 95% of the children who are his patrons, like western frontier stuff. Some times they come to the box office and ask. "Any shooting today?" "Any killing going on?" If the reply is a negative one, they will turn away and refuse to spend their money. Various efforts to substitute reforms are only moderately successful. An enterprising school superintendent in a nearby city secured the serial film of Robinson [page 9] Crusoe to be exhibited to children at reduced prices on Saturday afternoons. As the book had been a "required reading" in the schools, he anticipated that the auditorium seating twelve [illegible] hundred would be full. But the film did not pay expenses and the attendance averaged one hundred and twenty-five although those who did go were pleased and given to applause. Was there a lack of enthusiasm, partly due to the fact that they had "had that" and had finished with it as the reverse is certainly true; no child wants to read "David Copperfield" or "Treasure Island" because he has seen the story in the film and he bluntly tells the "settlement lady" who has thus been trying to lure him in literature, that "he knows it already." He is frankly out for either ↑for↓ seeing it again or for seeing something new but not for reading about it.

One of the early ambitions of the settlement was to secure a larger measure of [like-mindedness] in the community and we eagerly sought new methods, confident that "the things which make men alike are finer and better than the things which make men different."

The success of the cinema in the effort to secure like-mindedness can only be compared with the daily newspaper and it is possible that the cinema may become the instrument for solving one of the most vexed situations in modern life. We are told by Mr. [Lippmann] that to secure the material for a common consciousness is the great problem of democracy. Certainly one of the simplest and most direct methods of carrying the same idea to a large number of people at the same time is the cinema. If idea be too grand of a word, let us say the same emotion and consciousness of similar experiences. The war has taught us that propaganda has become a self-conscious art, and that almost anything can be put over if there is enough ability and money behind it. Perhaps it is just as well for the moment that this great instrument of propaganda has been so varied and complex in its appeal as to simulate life itself and on the whole ↑that↓ it has been confined to the simple human story ↑[although] unfortunately a vulgar versionsof it.↓ [page 10]

All over the country night after night there is presented first the News Weekly; second, the educational film, or "Scenic;" third, a two-reel comedy; and forth and last, the five-reel picture. The News Weekly reports the latest scandals but also something of national and international affairs; the educational film is popular to the verge of pure entertainment but the "native" dives for pearls and gathers [tea in] the midst of the most enchanting landscape; the comedy is coarse and obvious but sometimes very funny; the five-reel story which in one way or another approximates the old French definition of a plot, -- get a man up a tree, throw stones at him, get him down -- after all produces a sigh of relief from thousands of simple breasts as the hero's feet touch the earth. ↑The [drabbest] member of the audience has been taken out of himself.↓

In common with the stage and the novel, types of life acquired from the moving picture in time of course tend to be imposed upon reality. Are we steadily building up an imagery which will in a crisis dominate the minds of millions of us as the wide reading of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," in a previous crisis, exerted a tremendous influence? Certainly the moving-picture film reaches both those who live in the crowded tenement and penetrates to the frontiers and backwoods of the nation. "Isolated prospectors ride twenty miles to see the same film that is displayed in Broadway" is one of their boasts, as it well may be. It is a great achievement. Perhaps we have not yet learned to use the like-mindedness which even the present stage of the cinema development affords us, although we certainty find that we can talk over many things with the young on the assumption that all of them in a given group have seen "Intolerance," for instance, or "The Birth of a Nation." I have discussed with a club of immigrant women the sad story of Enoch Arden, accurately knowing the mental pictures in each mind. The film had had a great run in the neighborhood and had very much impressed the newly arrived Mexican women. It was a matter of much moment to them, this question of deserting husbands and the responsibility of one man for another man's children and similar problems which the situation suggested. I believe Tennyson himself would not have objected to the [page 11] challenge of his denouement if he had heard a sad-faced woman say, "Of course, the man meant to be kind to the woman but how about his leaving his children to a stepfather?" I even ventured to read the story to the ↑Mexican women↓ before the afternoon was [over] but plain English is bewildering enough and the "poetry [is] pretty hard to understand." Some such experience as that makes one comprehend the overdone attempt on the part of the producer to "keep the film to the intelligence of a South Sea islander," as one producer confesses that he tried to do or to "the intelligence of my daughters, aged twelve and fourteen" as another more ambitious producer admitted. It at least keeps to the wide bases which must underline the truly popular appeal and with all its crudity and vulgarity the cinema yet follows the well defined lines of human kindness. We are told that certain broad types of story are labeled "Not wanted" by all producing companies. The instructor of Photoplay at Columbia University tells the would-be writer of scenarios to avoid the following list: stories dealing with the under-world, those in which evil triumphs over good, stories reflecting on race, class or creed, those which make sport of affliction and deformity. Such directions doubtless indicate timidity on the part of film producers especially as difficulties between capital and labor are included, but it also indicates understanding of the fact ↑that↓ in a certain fundamental sense, that all of us are kinder than any one of us, or at least kinder than we ordinarily allow ourselves to be. It is on this universal side showing our gregarious experiences that the cinema is most effective. As Bernard Shaw has pointed out, the motion is as feeble in showing private passion, as it is powerful in conveying the passions of masses of men. He insists that as private passion is for the regular [theater], so crowd passion is for the photo-play, but all this makes it easier for the types of city dweller described as cave men. He has lived in crowds, from the time he poured down the gangway of the steerage with thousands of his fellow-countrymen into the seething streets of the east side of New York. [page 12] He works in a crowded factory, he sleeps in a crowded tenement. His child is accustomed to march in and out of the schoolhouse with two thousand other children and to play in a municipal playground with almost as many. The whole situation therefore appeals more nearly to his experience than it would to people who have lived a more highly individualized life. Perhaps it was in line with this generalization that one of the most popular films in our neighborhood although it has long since belonged to the films of the past was "Man's Genesis" in which the hero "Weakhands" gradually triumphs over all beasts of the field and fowls of the air, asserting the dignity of man. It appealed to people to whom no lecture boiled down from Wells' "Outline of History" or [Thomson's] "Outline of Science" could possibly have reached even though translated into the immigrant's native language and "illustrated by stereopticon slides." The cave man, (to continue Vachel [Lindsay's] phrase which is not altogether happy and certainly inaccurate), is accustomed to human beings only as they reveal themselves in action. He does not demand a portrayal of the psychological processes which cannot be translated into films and does not miss them out of the evening's entertainment as the novel reader and the lover of legitimate drama does. It could be interesting to know how much more absolutely the root of the matter reached his mind through Weakhands than the lectures would have done even if he could have been induced to attend them!

The Christian Herald has made a great effort to secure the widespread use of the moving picture in the churches, pointing out that when movable type made the printing press possible, it was seized upon at once by the existing religious organizations, that the Bible was the first book printed and that for decades religious books were the only output of the new invention. The reformers took over printing as a vehicle for religious instruction as the church had previously utilized Byzantine mosaic and Italian painting. Were the good of the 13th century more alert to a new invention [page 13] than the educational forces of the twentieth century? Perhaps the clericals merely claimed printing as the natural child of the manuscript quite as the vaudeville show first took over the moving picture as a stunt. Do both printing and movies show traces of their early adoption? As undue authority to this day still clings to the printed page so that "to see it in the paper" carries conviction to simple people who read mostly the Bible and the newspapers, ↑so perhaps because↓ [illegible] the moving picture show ↑has↓ inevitably become associated with base and vulgar sentiments, which ↑the admirer↓ persistently clings and alienate many good people.

A brief review of its amazing history may be illuminating for it is almost exactly twenty one years ago since the first cinema was shown in New York City. In twenty one years, the production, distribution and exhibition of moving pictures has become the third largest industry in the United States. The infant cinema was born of honest mechanics, ↑&↓ started life quite free from any moral taint but it was almost immediately adopted by vulgar people who used it to show ↑exhibit↓ questionable subjects in penny arcades and as a performing stunt in vaudeville shows often between vulgar ↑obscene↓ songs and ribald dancing dances. The industry to this day shows many traces of its unhappy childhood but perhaps ever more of its later rapid rise into prosperity. It is as if a young man drunk with power and too early ↑possessed of easily↓ acquired wealth was bent on a vulgar display of his prosperity and unconsciously exhibited a total disregard of all the finer tests of living.

This heady young industry has, however, lately had a sobering experience. The average ↑attendance↓ throughout the United States ↑has dropped↓ five million less attendees ↑a week↓ [illegible] and tax figures show that the public paid about one hundred million dollars less last year for movies than the year before. The whole moving picture industry, producers, distributors and exhibitors alike are frightened and are somewhat meekly taking the drubbing which is being administered to them by reformers who state that they are not appealing for ↑insisting upon↓ aesthetic standards [or] pedagogic values but must insist upon ↑do demand radical↓ changes because [page 14] the vast majority of films now being shown are degrading American standards. because of ↑The reformers object to↓ the bad taste ↑of the films, to the↓ incorrect representation of life and ↑to the↓ twisted views of character. The movies ↑producers↓ retort that they are reforming as fast as they possibly can and point to the fact that they have secured the services of the former federal secretary, Will. H. Hays, to straighten out their business affairs; that Gilbert Parker and many other highbrows have been summoned to Hollywood to write scenarios; that they are honestly trying to set their house in order; and that any way no one knows why there has been this falling off in attendance!

Perhaps we can take advantage of this moment in the life of the ↑an↓ industry when it has attaining its majority. The twenty-first birthday sometimes gives rise to solemn reflections based upon the determination to sow no more wild oats and to live the life of a responsible citizen.

Jane Addams [signed]