It is perhaps the main characteristic, the ruling principle of this judgment-seat to regard nothing human as alien to it. In the unbounded range of its interests, its amenities, all that concerns mankind is included, but from time to time it is able to afford its votaries a refreshing and invigorating surprise by something especially recondite in its inquiries.
With the Easy Chair there is no high, no low; or if not quite that, there is nothing too high or too low. It is not long, as years count in the age of nations, since it looked carefully into the nature of something so far beneath the regard of most philosophers as vaudeville, and found much to praise in that variegated form of dramatic performance. Now it is moved by the course of events to invite its familiar circle of two or three million associate casuists to the consideration of that younger sister of vaudeville, the cinematographic show, its essence, its potentiality for good and evil, and its actual influence on the manners and morals of the community as one of the most novel of the social forces. We are the more eager to enter upon the question because it seems to us that the feeling against this sort of show, though most respectable in its origin, has been too exaggerated in its expression. What to our experience (founded on a tolerant taste in such matters which we could not commend too highly to other observers) has appeared far more innocently tedious as well as innocently entertaining than the ordinary musical comedy or the problem play of commerce has been found by some experts in ethics deleterious in high degree. The pictures thrown upon the luminous curtain of the stage have been declared extremely corrupting to the idle young people lurking in the darkness before it. The darkness itself has been held a condition of inexpressible depravity and a means of allurement to evil by birds of prey hovering in the standing-room and the foyers of the theaters.
Just how these predacious fowl operate, the censors of the moving-picture show have not felt it necessary to say; the lurid imagination of the public has been invoked without the specifications, and the moving-picture show has dropped to zero in the esteem of most self-respecting persons. It is possibly the showmen themselves who have therefore seen that something must be done, and who have sought for government approval of their films, quite unaware that this was a renunciation of individuality verging hard upon socialism. At any rate, the pictures shown are now proclaimed as bearing the warrant of censorship; and still another and more surprising step has been taken toward safe-guarding the public morals. The pictures are sometimes shown in a theater lighted as broad as day, where not the silliest young girl or the wickedest young fellow can plot fully unseen, or even the most doting and purblind grandams and grandsires, who seem always to form a large part of the audience.
This ought, one would think, to be enough. But apparently it is not, if we may take in proof the case of a Massachusetts village where the moving-picture show prevails. The moving-picture show prevails everywhere, in Europe as well as America, and doubtless Asia, Africa, South America, and Oceanica. It has become the most universally accepted of modern amusements; the circus compared with it is partial and provincial. But in this particular New England village it is of an evolution which peculiarly threatens the spiritual peace and the intellectual growth of the place unless its forces can be turned to the promise of ultimate good. It began there in a simple town hall which three hundred people of every age and sex filled afternoon and evening at ten cents each, and so prospered the proprietor that now, after two years, he has built a much roomier theater, which the villagers continue to throng. He gives them, it seems, a very acceptable amusement, and they in turn give him some fifteen thousand dollars a year, or about twice the sum they pay in school taxes.
One would say this was very well, supposing the money of the villagers and their neighbors was not tainted money, and if they liked to spend it in that way. But it has been discovered in Massachusetts, if not in Europe, Asia, Africa, Oceanica, and the rest of North and South America, that the moving-picture habit tends in both old and young to lethargy of mind and inertness of body, and that especially the school-children, when they have become accustomed to looking at the scenes and incidents thrown upon the white curtain, acquire a fixed indifference to the claims of orthography, mathematics, history, and geography. This is said to be undeniably the case, and we could readily imagine it, just as we could imagine that a very fatuous type of fiction such as most of our people read might disgust them with every sort of edifying literature.
The question in Massachusetts, as elsewhere, is what shall be done about it. The moving-picture show, like some other things, “has come to stay”; it cannot be mocked or scolded away, but, as it has already shown itself capable of uplift, we may fitly ask ourselves not only what it esthetically is, but what it ethically may be.
Oh, to what uses shall we put
The wild-weed flower that simply blows
And is there any moral shut
Within the bosom of the rose?
But we need not decide at once that the moving-picture show is either a wild-weed flower or a rose, and poetically despair of its capacity to do nothing more than impart a “giddy pleasure of the eye.” If the authorities wish to share in delighting as well as instructing youth, why should not they make this enemy their ally?
The moving-picture show is in a mechanical way not only the latest of “the fairy dreams of science,” but it is the most novel of all the forms of dramatic entertainment. Yet if pantomime is one of the oldest forms of drama, the moving-picture show is of an almost Saturnian antiquity, for pantomime is what the moving picture is, whether representing a veritable incident or a fanciful invention. As even the frequenter of it may not realize, its scenes have been photographically studied from the action of performers more rather than less skilled than the average, who have given the camera a dress-rehearsal of the story thrown upon the white curtain for his pleasure or improvement. The stage direction flashed on the same space between the acts or scenes offers the spectator the needed clue, and in the vivid action of the dumb-show he scarcely misses the text which would be spoken in the theater. In fact, as most plays in most theaters are done, he is the gainer by the silent demonstration, which in the dress-rehearsal may well have included spoken dialogue. Of course, the stuff itself is crude enough, oftenest; yet sometimes it is not crude, and the pantomime has its fine moments, when one quite loses one’s self in the artistic pleasure of the drama. Where a veritable incident is portrayed, one has the delight of perceiving how dramatic life is, and how full of tragedy and comedy.
It is a convention of the moving picture that life is mostly full of farce, but that is an error which it shares with the whole modern stage, and it is probable that when the moving-picture show is asked to be serious, as we propose it shall be, it will purge itself of this error. Meanwhile our proposition is that the school committee of that dismayed Massachusetts town, who find their pupils and their pupils’ money going to the moving-picture theater, shall make friends with its manager. They will possibly not find him a mammon of unrighteousness, but a fellow-man willing to cooperate with them to a good end if they can show him that it will pay. To this end they can contribute by actually paying him out of the school fund on condition that he will make his theater a part of the school system during certain hours of the day.
The educators now find that the children would rather give ten cents of their parents’ money to go and look idly on at a succession of fictitious and largely impossible events as portrayed on the white curtain of the theater than come to school for nothing, or for nothing more than their fathers and mothers must now pay in taxes, and pass the day in studying and reciting from text-books which do not offer the allure of the picture show. But there is no reason why their studies, many of them, should not offer that allure. It is difficult, of course, and very likely it is impossible, say, for English spelling to be made pictorially charming, but it might very easily be made amusing by throwing on the white curtain an illustrated series of the more preposterous instances in which our orthography insults the reason and sins against common sense. Arithmetic would not lend itself much more readily to the processes of the moving pictures, and yet the mathematical ambition of the children might be stimulated by the vision, say, of a lightning-calculator working his miracles at a quivering blackboard. Every other branch of learning might be turned from the dry stock which now revolts the youthful mind, though it no longer threatens the youthful body so much as formerly, and set it before the charmed sense in all the bloom and sweetness of a living plant. We do not know just what sciences are studied in our public schools, but we will suppose geology may be one of them, and we believe that nothing more attractive to the young is now set forth on the theater curtain than some scene of Eocene life would be. No imaginative boy could fail of high joy in the presentation of
dragons of the prime
That tear each other in the slime,
or even a peaceful moment when the ichthyosaurus and the plesiosaur amphibiously sported together on the shores of time and the pterodactyl floated in the warm air above them. A flower-loving little maid might usefully lose herself in the vision of a forest of tree-ferns, and in thinking of the specimens she could gather for her herbarium from them she might feel through the association of geology with botany the unity of all science.
We are trying, perhaps too playfully, to commend to the reader the possibility which we have seriously in mind. We would really like to convince our educators of the immense helpfulness which they might find in the managers of the moving-picture shows if it came to their joint instruction in geography, history, and the various branches of biology. Fancy the appeal which ethnology alone, presented in pictured studies of the different races and civilizations, would have! Realize the immense advantage of presenting human events in pictures which the most careless eye could not refuse to seize, over the actual method of teaching history by names and dates meaningless to most of the young minds which now reject them! Consider the charm which visual knowledge of the discoverers and explorers, conquerors, heroes of all sorts, reformers of every type, martyrs, inventors, authors—even authors—would have if the student could know them in their persons as well as their experiences and performances!
We would not trifle with the case as the authorities of that Massachusetts town conceive it. They have reason to be anxious, if the moving pictures beguile once studious youth from the desire of learning; and wherever the moving-picture show prevails the custodians of childhood have the same reason to be anxious. But we would by no means have them vex the managers of such shows by vain opposition. Failing their co-operation, we would have the authorities take counsel with themselves whether moving pictures may not be introduced into the school curriculum. We are too little acquainted with the machinery and its working to suggest what steps should be taken to this end, but doubtless there are those who know. What we confidently look to is the excellent result. The children will no longer waste their money on the private picture show when they can have the public one for nothing, and the school will not be so hateful when learning is to be acquired with no more labor than lolling in the seats of the cinematographic theater now costs them. The lessons will be largely object-lessons. The wretched little boy or hapless little girl will not be obliged to try and guess what the different races of men are like; he or she will be shown the fact in photographs snapshotted from the originals in the streets of their cities or the depths of their jungles. At the mention of Columbus, the great admiral’s best portrait will be reproduced on the white curtain, and Napoleon, Washington, Lincoln, and George the Third will be likewise visualized as they looked in life. The children can be shown a volcano in full blast, and its liquid rival, the waterspout, moving rapidly over the sea in pursuit of the nearest liner. A group of icebergs and a chain of mountains can be contrasted with equal advantage. An earthquake will not perhaps exceed the powers of the all-comprehending camera, and a modern battle with smokeless powder may be taught to rage before their eyes, with every detail of heads and legs blown off that they may realize how glorious war is at close range; towns burning in the background and women and children flying for their lives will fill the perspective. A sea-flight, with armored battle-ships sinking one another, could be as easily rendered if the films were recovered from the body of some witness representing an enterprising metropolitan journal in the engagement.
No economic or social fact need transcend the scope of the public-school picture show. The operations of some giant industry, such as coal-mining or iron-smelting, or some vast cotton-mill, with children younger than themselves tending the machinery, and the directors in their oriental-rugged and mahogany arm-chaired parlors, could be illustrated for the entertainment and instruction of the school boys and girls. Strikers and strike-breakers in a street fight, or the spectacle of policemen clubbing mothers from a train in which they are trying to send their little ones out of town beyond the struggling and starving, would impart an idea of our civilization which no amount of study could without it.
Of course, the more pleasing branches of study can be taught as easily as those we have glanced at. Agriculture, for instance, which is becoming more and more a science with every year; forestry, which vitally concerns our deforested continent; dynamitic culture, by which the fertility of the earth, sick of having its mere surface scratched, is restored a hundredfold; fruit-growing, cattle-grazing, can all be taught best with the help of illustrations. It is only a summer or two ago since the Central Park authorities thought it advisable to show the poor, ignorant East Side children where milk came from, and by having a cow milked in their presence convince all that would come to see the process. But the ignorance of such a simple primary fact could be universally dispersed by a moving picture far less cumbrously and at incalculably less cost to the community.
We have said enough, we hope, to persuade the public-school committees everywhere to try first what may be done with the moving-picture managers. They may be assured that in any conflict with these managers they will be beaten; for the managers will have all the children on their side; clandestinely, we fear, they will have the parents, too. But by inviting the managers to co-operate with them, they will have a fair chance of winning them over and at the same time sugar-coating the pill of learning so that the youth of this fair land of ours will eagerly swallow it. But if the managers hold out against the committees, and selfishly refuse to help them in their present strait, then we hope the committees will set up moving-picture shows of their own and make them an integral part of the public-school system. This, however, should be their final resort. It would savor of socialism, and socialism is the last thing we would advise, though as our whole public-school system is a phase of socialism, it might not be immediately anarchistic to try it.
Originally published in Harper’s Magazine, September 1912.