Ways People From the 1910s Thought Movies Were Ruining Civilization

by Anne Green, Mental Floss

In the 1910s, the movies were just starting to come into their own as a popular art form. Feature-length films were on the rise, a handful of actors and directors were gaining respect from critics, and the medium was moving from a cheap novelty to widespread popular entertainment. But while the nascent Hollywood film community was celebrating, not everyone was so happy about the ascendance of the moving pictures.

Journalists and concerned citizens began penning articles and editorials warning against the multifarious dangers of cinema. Their concerns ranged from the health effects of film to more general fears about morality. And while some people were simply skeptical of the artistic value of the new medium, others made it seem like the movies were on the verge of destroying civilization. Here are a few reasons to stay far, far away from your local movie theater, according a range of concerned citizens between 1910 and 1919.

1. MOVIES MADE KIDS DUMBER.

Nowadays, parents worry about their kids rotting their minds with too much television or too many video games. But in the 1910s, parents worried that the movies were dumbing down their kids: “It is not only the artistic side of the cinema to which objections may be raised,” wrote one concerned citizen to The New Age in 1917 [PDF]. “It is rather, the educational side, for it is a well-known fact that children frequent the picture-palace—as it is often called—to a very large extent.” He continued:

Now, students of child-life know that the mere passing of knowledge without assimilating it is not merely useless but distinctly harmful to a child. The process of thought must proceed on natural and not artificial lines. It is true moving pictures arrest the attention, but thought is difficult or impossible. By one sense alone—that of sight—the mind is for the time being employed, and the rapidity of motion pictures produces a confusion of ideas. As every teacher is aware, education can only be received in a limited quantity at a time, and by associating an object with something that is known. The mere gazing at an infinite number of pictures in rapid succession must produce perplexity. There cannot be any real assimilation of the food thus provided. The brain becomes [exhausted], and unable to receive influences of a really educational nature, and, in fact, becomes demoralized.

2. ACTORS WERE DEGENERATES WITH DIRTY MOUTHS.

The fact that movies were silent apparently didn’t stop actors from using dirty language. In a 1910 article, The Oregonian reported that “deaf mutes” had caught actors in several movies using “unprintable language.” The article quoted one scandalized audience member who exclaimed, “I am ashamed to repeat what that actor has just said … If the police could have heard the last remark of that man on the screen, they would arrest the manager of the show.”

3. CINEMA AND ART WERE ANTITHETICAL …

One of the most common critiques of movies was that, as art, they just weren’t any good. Many journalists looked down their noses at film, dismissing it as a fad and a cheap novelty. But a few theater critics took a more extreme stance, arguing that film was a threat to art itself. “In the sacred name of truth, let us abolish this new cliché: to speak of ‘the art of the movie’ is to employ a vast farce of a phrase that is a contradiction in terms,” wrote one journalist in a 1916 Harper’s Weekly article called “Movies Destroy Art.” He continued:

Art is the effort on the part of a human being to express life as he sees it by brush, pen, chisel, song, or stave. Art is far from the movies—not merely in absence, but in positive antithesis—because the chief effort of the movie seems to be to present something that shall express life, not as the manufacturer sees it, but as he imagines somebody else wants to see it. This is not art but artifice.

4. … AND MOVIES LACKED MORAL AMBIGUITY.

At a time when many were calling for increased censorship of immoral content, a few journalists actually argued that movies were overly moral. “The movies have instituted a self-censorship,” wrote Floyd Dell in 1915:

In this respect they are unlike all the other arts, which have wantonly desired freedom, and chafed under restraint. The movies on the contrary, pay the expenses of a National Board of Censorship, to which they invite moral experts to belong, and to which they submit their productions. Anything improper is cut out of the reel. If a kiss is too realistic, several feet are cut right out of the middle of it.

As a result, writes Dell, the movies are “sterilized, emasculated, completely innocuous.”

5. FILM STOCK WAS DANGEROUS …

Movie theater fires were a real danger in the 1910s. The nitrate film which movies were projected from was extremely flammable, and anything from the heat of the projector lamp to a careless projectionist’s cigarette ash could send a theater up in flames. Theater fires were a problem that predated the moving pictures, but according to journalists, the combination of flammable film and cramped screening spaces without adequate fire exits created an increased threat. In some cases, the claustrophobic theater and fear of fire were enough to cause life-threatening panic (film historian Gary Rhodes dedicates an entire chapter to movie theater fires in his book The Perils of Moviegoing in America, 1896-1950). In 1911, The New York Times reported that 26 people were killed when calls of “Fire” broke out in a Pennsylvania theater, writing, “Yet this panic would not have resulted so seriously if the picture show had not been exhibited on the second floor of a building, with a crooked hallway, an ill-lighted stairway, and insufficient exits. … [The theater] was always prepared for a great slaughter. The scenery was set for the tragedy.”

6. … AND SQUINTING AT THE SCREEN COULD DAMAGE YOUR EYES. 

It turns out all of our fears about smartphones and tablets ruining our vision got their start a long, long time ago. In 1912, a doctor named George Gould published an article in the Journal of the American Medical Association titled “Acute Reflex Disorders Caused By The Cinematograph,” in which he wrote, “That the moving-picture shows cause in many spectators, functional diseases similar to those of eye-strain and ocular labor must have been noticed by every general practitioner and oculist of the cities, and yet, so far as I know, none has publicly directed attention to this important fact.” Gould continued:

I have had so many patients who have been made sick at these places of amusement that I now ask routine questions to elicit this etiologic factor. … If it is true that about five million spectators are in daily attendance at the picture-show theaters, the consequent eye-strain injuries and sufferings must be enormous, however conservatively estimated, and there is little likelihood of their exaggeration by hygienists and physicians.

7. DARK THEATERS ENCOURAGED ILLICIT ACTIVITY …

Some worried about what could happen in a dark theater once the lights went down. Among them was Mayor Gaynor of New York City, who in 1910 gave the commissioner of licenses, Francis Oliver Jr,, authorization to force movie theaters to turn on their lights. The order sent out to the theaters read:

Many of the moving picture shows in this city are given in rooms which are totally dark, or almost dark, while the pictures are being displayed. Tests have proven that it is possible to display pictures in well-lighted rooms. If moving picture shows are given in darkened rooms it is possible for many actions to take place without the knowledge of the owners or managers, which would not be tolerated if the owners or managers were aware of them.

8. … AND TURNED KIDS INTO CRIMINALS.

In a 1910 Good Housekeeping article called “The Moving Picture: A Primary School For Criminals,” William McKeever wrote:

If the citizens of any community should assemble with the purpose of laying plans and devising means whereby to teach immorality, obscenity and crime, I can think of no better way definitely and certainly to bring about such results than the use of the moving-picture show as it is now conducted. It is a serious matter, this picture business. We tax ourselves heavily for educational purposes, and employ teachers in the schools to inculcate, among other things, certain higher moral principles. In fact, we agree that the end of all teaching in the schools is moral character, and then we permit and license these cheap and vitiating shows to run, and we permit our children to attend, and not only unlearn all the moral lessons of the schools, but learn directly many of the immoral lessons that were once confined to the worst centers of our largest cities. In fact, the motto of these moving-pictures organizations might be this: “A red-light district in easy reach of every home. See the murders and the debauchery while you wait. It is only a nickel.”

9. FILM WAS A “MICROCOSM OF EVIL.”

While most criticisms of movies in the 1910s centered around a single topic, others were more general. One contributor to The New Age [PDF] summed up some of the anti-film sentiments of the 1910s when he concluded a diatribe against the movies (which was signed “An Actor”) by claiming, “The cinema to-day is the microcosm of every evil with which our society is threatened. It will rob us not only of our souls, but also of our daily bread.”