Movies and Conduct: A Payne Fund Study
Chapter 2: Impersonation — Childhood Play
THE most tangible influence of motion pictures on conduct is to be found in the field of overt or external behavior. While this form of influence is most easily discernible, it is not to be supposed that it is the most significant. We will begin our treatment with some consideration of this area of conduct, devoting ourselves to play impersonation by children and in the following chapter to imitation by adolescents.
Anyone who is familiar with the life of American children knows of the use of motion-picture themes in their play. Few kinds of conduct show a more striking influence of motion pictures. Most readers have had the familiar sight of children impersonating movie characters and carrying out movie themes in their games, as in playing "cowboys and Indians" and "cops and robbers." Domestic rôles in the case of girls are very common expressions of the play fostered by motion pictures. The most casual survey of the form and content of childhood play reveals motion pictures as a very important source. This is shown in the extent, the variety, and the vividness of such play.
We are presenting material on the use in childhood play of patterns of behavior taken from the movies without seeking particularly to ascertain the significance of this imitation. A knowledge of the function and psychological meaning of play is necessary to explain the effects of the imitation. Our purpose is merely to direct attention to the way in
( 14) which motion-picture ideas and patterns are carried out in the behavior of children at play. The realization of this matter will help one to appreciate the extent to which motion pictures may be used as a source for more serious copying—a topic which is considered more directly in the next chapter, where imitation by adolescents is discussed.
Let us begin our sketch of the rôle of motion pictures in shaping the play of children by giving a few typical accounts chosen from the vast number of instances available.
TYPICAL INSTANCES OF MOVIE PLAY
Male, 20, Jewish, white, college junior.— Quite often I would band together with other youths of my age, and we would play "Cop and Robber" or "Cowboy and Indian" trying to imitate the antics of the actors we saw in the movies. We would arm ourselves with toy pistols and clubs and chase each other over streets and yards. We would climb fences and barns, imagining them to be hills and all other objects necessary to make a realistic scene. At times we would get a little girl to play with us and we would have her be the heroine. Then someone else would rescue her, as we had seen it done in the movies.
Female, 19, white, college sophomore. — We had a small hobby horse which was used by the hero and heroine alternately. As my cousin's backyard was large and contained a large number of trees, we soon learned to climb these with agility, with only one or two casualties resulting—a cracked arm and a sprained wrist. From these trees we would lasso the villain and his band as they rode by. We wore this plot almost threadbare and then began to use Indians as the villains. They were always cruel and painted terrifically—with mud. These cruel villains usually about three—would hide behind a tree about six inches in diameter. This hid them so completely that no one could see them, especially the heroine who happened to be out walking. Then the villain would fall upon her and drag her to the Indian camp about three or four feet away. ßy that time, of course, the dashing hero would try to make the daring rescue. Sometimes he would succeed, but at other times he would be captured. He
(15) would then make the spectacular escape with the heroine in his arms and the wild Indians at his heels. This plot was used many times with but few variations. It provided such a great amount of action that it was always a favorite.
Male, 14, white, high-school sophomore.—After seeing such a bloodthirsty set of pictures (because there usually were double features on Saturday) I went outside; and if a bunch of playmates were around who had seen the pictures, we would make for an empty, vacant lot and re-act the parts. If alone, I would usually walk down the street looking at men and women with a half-open eye, thinking I was a detective or a tough cowboy. Then of a sudden I would imagine a stage holdup, and whipping my horse (which was usually my hip) I would run down the street as fast as I could go, firing imitation toy guns all the way.
As a rule, the play of girls reflects themes of beautification and domestic activity. Society pictures also yield many striking ideas and schemes for play. The dramatization of love themes likewise is frequent in play enaction among young girls.
Female, 20, white, college junior.— From these pictures I received some of my ideas of beauty. I had a great desire to have curls like Mary Pickford's and was forced to try to secure them secretly because my father forbade the curling of my hair. . . . I got some comfort out of being "Mary Pickford" in our games, and improved my appearance with the aid of shavings from new buildings near by. I was also fond of old-fashioned clothes which I had first seen in the movies. I always loved to dress up as the old-fashioned lady, and used everything available to make my skirts stick out like a hoop skirt.
Female, 16, white, high-school junior.—As a result of some of these "society" pictures I frequently saw myself the adored and spoiled darling of rich parents, popular in society and of course having heaps of beaux. I would come home from one of these pictures and drape myself in a curtain for a train and put duster feathers in my hair. When I attempted to force my brothers to play my admiring men friends, they would laugh me to shame and I would go off to mother and cry.
Female, 20, white, college junior.—My friends and I used to get together and dramatize a movie we had seen recently. This was one of our favorite pastimes. How serious and sincere we were! I remember after we saw Rudolph Valentino in "The Sheik" we returned home, tied kimonas around our heads to give the effect of Arabian costumes and went through the entire play.
Female, 20, white, college sophomore.—That night I slept with my sister and at her request I related the story of the picture. In order to make the story an effective one, we acted out the scenes, I taking the part of the hero and my sister the heroine. I was indeed an ardent Romeo caressing and kissing my Juliet as often or perhaps oftener than the movie required.
Female, 19, white, college sophomore.—The first picture which stands out in my memory is "The Sheik" featuring Rudolph Valentino. I was at the impressionable and romantic age of 12 or 13 when I saw it, and I recall coming home that night and dreaming the entire picture over again; myself as the heroine being carried over the burning sands by an equally burning lover. I could feel myself being kissed in the way the Sheik had kissed the girl. I wanted to see it again, but that was forbidden; so as the next best thing my friend and I enacted the especially romantic scenes out under her mother's rugs, which made excellent tents even though they were hung over the line for cleaning purposes. She was Rudolph and I the beautiful captive, and we followed as well as we could remember the actions of the actors.
These instances probably will merely confirm observations made by many of the readers. They are not given as discoveries nor are they unique. Indeed, it is because they are instances of a common nature that they are of value for this discussion. They give us some understanding of how schemes of behavior portrayed in motion pictures may be taken and embodied in play. They suggest how the plot of a picture, as well as certain of its scenes, may catch the attention of the child, excite his impulses, stir him into action—even though it is mere fanciful play—and provide
(17) him with patterns of behavior which may serve as an outlet to his awakened wishes. Whether it be in the form of combat, or of the excited chase, or of parading in costume, or in the practicing of courtship or love, the play incited by motion pictures shows how a movie theme may command the conduct of the child. For the time being the child assumes a new rôle. All phases of his make-up-thoughts, intentions, interests, vocalizations and gestures reflect the rôle which he is acting. Construed in this way the spread of the effect of the movie characterization seems extensive. Acting on the imagination, the desires, and the movements of the child, it would seem likely to leave some tracesbut there is little to say on this point, as we shall see later. Here consideration is confined to the mere fact of imitation.
The inclusion of themes of costuming and love in the play of young girls and the use of notions of the "cowboyIndian" type in the case of young boys are frequent. They are the most common of the patterns of motion-picture behavior to be incorporated into the play of children. However, there is a wide variety to the motion-picture themes which may enter into their play. The boy may play policeman, gangster, soldier, pirate, swordsman, aviator, "funny person," "bad guy," lawyer, rum-runner, college athlete, gorilla, hypnotist, and so forth; the girl may impersonate society lady, ardent lover, old lady, poor rich girl, orphan, mother, adventuress, cowgirl, dancer, radio singer, and other rôles given in the movies. There is a wide spread to the play experience arising from the witnessing of motion pictures.
VARIETY IN THEME
LET us give a series of instances to illustrate this point and to suggest, by the use of concrete experience, how motion pictures affect play impersonation. The first of the
(18) instances is a description given by a playground worker, showing a form of play which arose in response to a number of motion pictures which portrayed "rum-running."
The modern version of "Cops and Robbers" as manifested by the children of the present age is played in the following manner. The sandpile of the school yard serves as the ocean from which the whiskey is taken off boats (locked there. Little boxes of sand represent the cases of liquor. Supposedly at night trucks drive up to the water front and load up and try to sneak past a police barricade. The driver, that is, the boy who sits and steers the coaster wagon, is considered the lieutenant in charge of the truck. Two other boys push the wagon and are on the lookout for men or guards.
The cops on the other hand are divided into squads (depending on the number of wagons available) ; the driver here also is a leader; he is called the squad chief; the two boys pushing this chief are known as detectives. The rest of the boys available for the game are the motorcycle cops; some ride their "bikes" while others merely run.
It seems to me that the most coveted rôle is that of a gang chief, but to a great extent the boys also prefer a job of driving on either side, and so there is an arrangement by which at each trip a different boy is a driver. In general, the boys prefer to be on the cop side for the tendency to be the aggressor is very strong. The cops are supposed to come out ahead with the thieves caught and many more of the gangsters killed than there are cops killed.
Female, 20, white, college junior.—" The Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court" I marked down as one of the most humorous of my childhood. The anachronisms were so vivid that I grasped them easily and thoroughly enjoyed it. Result: For weeks afterwards I and my playmates were royal knights and ladies and bowed and battled to our hearts' content.
Female, 19, white, college junior.—The feature pictures that I remember were long-drawn-out affairs. Only a few of them
(19) remain with me because of the way we played the parts later. "The Poison Letter" with Ethel Clayton, "The Woman's Secret" with Theda Bara, and Francis X. Bushman's "Relations" come to my mind as examples of the early movies. The day after I saw "The Poison Letter" I wrote weird notes to my friends using smears of catsup instead of blood as the heroine was supposed to have used. As I wrote these I sat with a shawl over my head just as Miss Clayton had in the movie.
Male, 21, white, college senior.—I can recall only one instance in which a movie influenced my actions greatly. This was just after I had seen the above-mentioned "Iron Man." The robot in this picture stalked about, swinging its arms alternately, and anyone upon whose head its steel fist descended was removed from action for quite a while. Seeing this caused me to walk about in a jerky imitation of the mechanical man. Any small child whom I encountered received a tap on the head. For some days the neighborhood children shunned me, and until I became tired of my assumed character I was not very popular!
Male, 17, white, high-school senior.—Later I imitated Norma Talmadge. She acted in a play as a thief, and threw daggers. After the show we went home and got some of our mothers' kitchen knives and filed them as daggers. We became quite skilled at the throwing and sticking of knives.
The final account is from a boys' worker who has had an opportunity to observe closely a group of boys in their play.
Another game is Spanish whip fighting. They saw Douglas Fairbanks in some picture where he fought a Spanish crook with a long whip. The boys use whips made out of rope fastened to short sticks for handles. This game and another about which I will write were played last summer. The boys armed themselves with wash-boiler tops for shields, and sticks for spears and played natives of Africa. This game was played in a prairie near by, which is full of high weeds and thus provided excellent African jungles. The boys got their idea for this game from an African serial which ran at the theater during the summer.
It is not necessary to add any other instances to show the wide variety in play patterned after motion pictures. It is sufficient to say that the influence of motion pictures upon the play of children is widespread.
EXTENT OF INFLUENCE ON PLAY
I T is difficult to determine exactly the extent of this influence. Some estimates, however, may be given. Of 200 small boys under twelve years of age who were asked if they played at things seen in the movies, 75 per cent answered in the affirmative. Of 70 ranging in age from 12 to 14 years, 60 per cent indicated that they played at what was seen in the movies. Among a group of boys between 14 and 16 years, 25 per cent admitted still engaging in play reflecting the influence of motion pictures. All these three groups consisted of boys living in one of the slum areas in Chicago.
Of 458 high-school students who wrote motion picture autobiographies, 61 per cent made definite mention of occasions when their childhood play was patterned after motion picture themes; 10 per cent declared that there was no such influence in their own experience; while 29 per cent made no reference either way. In a questionnaire submitted to 1200 grade school children in the sixth and seventh grades, over 50 per cent reported playing at movie themes either a great deal or occasionally. Whatever is the actual extent, one cannot ignore the fact that the play of children is affected considerably by motion pictures.
COMMON THEMES IN PLAY
IN the course of this study an effort was made to determine whether the kind of themes which children choose from motion pictures for their play are likely to vary in
( 21) accordance with the social and economic background of the children. For instance, do boys living in city areas known for their high delinquency rates select more violent themes for play gangster themes, robber themes, and rum-running themes? The evidence we have been able to secure shows an essential uniformity in the kinds of movie-inspired play among children regardless of their social status. The taking of the rôle of the gangster or the policeman or the cowboy or the robber seems to be just as frequent among children in areas of little or no delinquency as among the children living in the areas of high rates of delinquency. Essentially the same kind of uniformity is manifested in the play of girls of different areas. The difference in the themes of movie play between the sexes is much greater than between areas.
Particularly common to all groups of children regardless of social status is the fascination of combat and mystery themes. Indeed, most of the patterns of play taken from the movies, even though they vary a great deal in content, reflect these two interests, as the following accounts illustrate:
Male, 20, white, college sophomore.— We had all seen in the movie "War Peril," as I believe it was called, sharpshooters, hand-grenade throwers, tanks, etc. Since our equipment was limited to boxes for the sharpshooters' armor and pans for helmets, we didn't worry about the aviation corps or the heavy artillery. Our rifles were air rifles, which were cocked and shot without any lead bullets in them. Our bell-pistols were much more convenient for our type of warfare; and besides shooting at one another we threw rocks back and forth as hand grenades. This battle-royal kept up all afternoon till we were called in for dinner, neither side having been victorious. This opportunity of having trench warfare was so rare that we had persuaded our mothers that we didn't have to quit at 4:00 P.M.. as usual, to get cleaned up. Well, the sewer was repaired the next morning and the "trenches" filled up so our war was over.
Male, 19, Jewish, white, college sophomore.—In my childhood it was common for one to imitate consciously heroes of the screen. For instance, I would climb the lone tree that was in the yard of the Catholic school near us and hang by one hand or hammer my chest shouting "Tarzan" and the like. Jumping over fences on a run as did the heroes of the screen was usual in my young life. Fighting with one another, and after conquering him, placing one foot on his chest and raising our arms to the sky as Tarzan (lid was also common.
A boy of 9 years.—One time after a show I was with my brother. I was chasing him and I was supposed to be the hero. He was a crook. I hid in some bushes and when he came along, I jumped out on him and pushed him in the hiding. Then I got on top of him and played like I shot him. I had fun after that. Every time my brother and I played like we were in a show and we were the people in the picture.
A boy of 10 years. —When I come home my brothers and I play cowboys like in the show. I sock my brother and his gang, and they chase me. I get a bunch of boys, and my brother gets his gang. We let them chase us. When they are tired we jump on them. Then we tie them up. After the game we run away and hide. My brother and his gang sit in the shed tied up. After we eat we let them go.
A boy of 12 years.—"The Four Musketeers" was going to play up at the Tiff an, and three other boys and I planned to go together. After the show we went home planning where we would make our swords and who would he the leader like Douglas Fairbanks was. We made swords for some other boys who were in our cub patrol. We held our meeting in a tent in our leader's yard. After an hour meeting we started to have sword fights to see who the leader would be. You would have to he able to fight every one there. One boy won over all of us, so we had to keep fighting until the four Musketeers were picked out. The rest was just part of the gang. We played for about a month and did not stop.
A boy of 12 years. —After seeing "Cimarron," which means wild and unruly, I was inspired by how fast he (Richard Dix)
(23) could draw a gun, which was true of frontier men in boom towns, where a man's business was his own. Most real "tough" characters would "burn" a man down at the first trace of an insult of any kind. One day after seeing this picture I was on my porch with a gun belt and holster around my waist and a toy cap revolver in the holster. The boy next door to me had a rifle which made a clicking sound. We agreed upon a gun-drawing match and he held the rifle in the crook of his arm, with the action lever back so it would make a sound; and I stood on my porch with the gun in the holster, with my hammer back, and my hand hovering near the gun butt. We went for our guns, and I beat him. We did this many times, and I won most of the matches. I also had a sombrero (my father's former hat).
A boy of 11 years. —The picture I saw was "The Dawn Patrol." After I came home, we played it. I pretended I was Richard Barthelmess. I pretended I was bombing the German ammunition dumps. Then I went over the airports and bombed the planes and killed the men. Then three German planes came after me. Von Richter, the best German aviator, came up too, and I shot him down and shot his pal also. But the other aviator came from the back and shot me.A few instances are given showing the presence of mystery themes; the first is by a ten-year-old boy, and the other two by eight- and ten-year-old girls, respectively:
What I played after I came home from the movies is one play "Dracula." I pretended I was the vampire. I played especially good when I had to suck the blood out of the warden's daughter. The maniac who could change himself into a bug and crawl out of the prison bars called me his master. I also played well the part where I use my power, but fail to suck the doctor's blood. I loved to play the part where I disappear. I didn't like to have a big nail driven into my heart and make me lifeless, but it had to be done. I am still alive-thanks to God.
I like to be a Phantom and catch my sister. Then my sister screams. Then I put her in the fire and I play that she burns up and she doesn't come back alive any more. Then my sister is
(24) the Phantom, and she starts to put me in the fire, and she couldn't get me in, so another Phantom came in, and he got me in the fire and I was gone, and that was the end of me.
After I saw the "Gorilla" we went to Marjorie's playhouse. We played the show of the "Gorilla." Marjorie played the part of the gorilla, and the other girls played parts of the other people in the show. After a while we all get seared and hid our faces under things in the playhouse. I went home and couldn't think of anything except the Gorilla.
The predilection of children for the theme of combat and to a lesser extent for the theme of mystery is a problem not devoid of psychological significance. It may be the expression of certain nascent impulses, or it may reflect instead the dominant kind of themes ordinarily presented in motion pictures.
INTERPRETATION OF PLAY
OF greater and central importance is the effect on the child of impersonating a movie rôle or theme. To show that motion pictures influence the play of children is quite easy; to explain the significance of this play is very difficult. What is the residuary effect of such impersonation on attitude, interest, and thought? To make such an inquiry is to raise the larger problem as to the significance of play for the subsequent conduct and personalities of children. It is proper to essay a few remarks about this problem.
We may begin by calling attention to the absence in scientific thought of any adequate psychology of childhood play, particularly of that kind that takes the form of impersonation. The most familiar theory, and the only one to which we shall devote our remarks, is that of the German psychologist, Groos, who finding that play was common to many forms of animals was led to declare it to be essentially a preparation for the serious forms of
( 25) adult behavior. Thus the play of the young kitten with the woolen ball is preparing its capacities and skill for pouncing on mice and other sources of food.
The effort to interpret the play under discussion by the theory of Groos does not yield much understanding or illumination. If we arc to construe play, as would this theory, as a form of preparation for subsequent behavior, as a sort of incipient adult activity, then it would seem that much of motion-picture impersonation would be useless. It is true that in certain instances the rôles carried out in play may have a training value, as in the case of the young girl rehearsing love scenes, or practicing home life, or as in the experience of one boy who became successful in drama as a consequence, he believes, of his intensive movie play as a child. Yet in the main the movie rôles taken by children are too confusing. Many of them are contradictory, such as between the "good guy" and the "bad guy," the detective and the gangster; many are of a weird and bizarre character, such as in the imitation of Dracula mentioned above; and many represent characters outside the range of modern experience, as in the case of medieval knights or primitive warriors. It is probably true in one sense that the taking of such rôles may develop a facility for the behavior which they represent. However, it is apparent that most of the rôles never have an opportunity to materialize in adult behavior.
Two phases of the effect of motion pictures in relation to the impersonation of rôles seem to stand out clearly in our materials: the earnestness of the child in play, and yet the ease with which he may detach himself from a rôle. The seriousness with which children engage in such play is apparent, yet very puzzling. As a rule, they show a keen
(26) preoccupation with the rôle taken, marvelous attention to detail, ingenious accommodation of material to suit the plot, and above all a condition of heightened excitement. The living of the rôle seems quite genuine. Indeed, there are many instances in which the individual in the excitement of play loses control of himself and pays little attention to the consequences of his action. Behavior becomes impulsive and unreflective and on occasion distinctly harmful. This immersion in a rôle to the exclusion of ordinary thought of consequences can be illustrated in the following instances:
Male, 20, white, college sophomore.—One serial that I remember particularly was "The House of Hate," in which Pearl White was the heroine. This was one of the most exciting pictures that I ever remember seeing. It was a story about the antics of an insane man called the "Hooded Terror" who went about with a hood over his head, murdering people. After seeing one of these episodes we boys would come home and try to enact some of the parts. It was while we were playing like this one day that I nearly lost the sight of one eye. One of the other boys took the rôle of the "Terror" (who in the last episode that we had seen had gone around killing people by blowing poison darts through a pea shooter), and made some darts with needles, and proceeded to blow them at the rest of us; one of them hit me just to the right of my right eye, nearly making me lose the sight of it.
Male, 20, white, college junior.—Two peculiar events are still impressed upon my mind as directly resulting from the influence of the movies. Once we tied one of our members to an oak tree, and notwithstanding his frantic cries, proceeded with a boisterous war-dance about the victim. The struggling boy was almost strangled by the numerous coils of rope about his neck before his frenzied mother appeared to secure his release. At another time, I was compelled to walk home through the deep snow in my stocking feet because my playmates had chosen to forcibly remove my shoes and conceal them, in imitation of a humorous scene which they had witnessed at the theater on the same day.
Female, 15, white, high-school sophomore.—We used to act out the different movies we saw. I remember once we saw one that had robbers and policemen in it, and ever so long after that we played robbers. I always used to be the policeman; I guess the reason for that was because I was the tallest. One time we pretended we had a boy up to be shot. The boy that was to shoot had the gun, filled with peas, and he was supposed to direct them toward the boy's feet. The boy was nervous and instead of shooting at his feet shot at his head. The pea hit the boy's eye. The boy ran screaming home. He could not see out of the eye for several weeks after, and all of us that had been playing were sure scared that he would never be able to see again.
Male, 18, negro, high-school senior. —As a child I usually went to the show with my brother every Saturday afternoon, but now I usually go with my girl friend or chum. Once I went to see a cowboy picture and after returning home the little boy next door and I were playing with broomsticks calling them horses. I had a blank pistol, so I wanted to play Tom Mix. As the boy would run around me, I would run after him, so finally I decided I was close enough to shoot. The powder went in his skin; he hollered. Of course my mother heard it, and I was soundly spanked. This stopped me from going to wild west pictures for some time.
Such instances show the familiar trait of genuine seriousness in playing out motion-picture rôles and themes. Still this observation is to be set over against another; namely, the ease with which the rôle can be cast off. There need be no consistency in the rôles taken by children in play. At one moment the boy may be acting as a policeman, a few minutes later as a robber, and still later as a cowboy; and he may end up as an aviator. The ease with which children step from one rôle to another rôle is as interesting as it is apparent. It gives one the impression that, although the rôle taken is considered seriously, it seems to be worn lightly, like a cloak.
One may surmise from the genuine way in which the
( 28) child carries out the rôle in play that he acquires some feeling of its nature. The rôle becomes in some sense a part of intimate experience. The mode of life or the type of character which it represents becomes more familiar to him than it would to a disinterested observer, just because for the time being the rôle does gain possession of him. It is probably in giving to an individual a certain appreciation of familiarity with the character or rôle impersonated that impersonation is mainly important. The individual develops certain feelings which make the rôle understandable to him and forms images which cause him to interpret the rôle, or behavior similar to it, in certain fixed ways. In providing content for children's play, motion pictures may be regarded, then, as familiarizing the child with certain kinds of life, and in providing him with certain stereotyped conceptions of them.
PROBLEM OF PLAY
THERE remains the important problem as to the effect of childhood play on specific conduct. Thus, while it is clear that motion pictures exercise a significant influence on the pattern and content of play and in doing so, familiarize the child with certain forms of conduct, just what this signifies in the way of subsequent behavior cannot be declared at present. Does the taking of a rôle shape aspiration? Does it leave a deposit in the form of an attitude, disposition, or habit? Does it give a sanction to conduct which is at odds with customary standards? Does it alienate the child from the cultural milieu in which he lives? Does it stimulate unrest or make the child aware of the limited possibilities in his actual world? Does it make him look more sympathetically at tabooed characters and activities, and by assuming their rôles, to share their senti-
(29) -ments?  One would surmise that it would have some effects of these sorts, yet from the accounts of hundreds of high-school and university students who have passed through the stage of childhood play and who look back retrospectively, one can detect little in the nature of a deposit or carry-over of influence. The subjects recall their childhood play with warmth and pleasure, but express the belief that the play has been of little consequence on their subsequent attitudes and conduct, as far as they can judge. We have to conclude, then, with a problem. That motion pictures have a profound influence on children's play is incontestable. The significance of this influence, however, is uncertain. It depends on more knowledge than we now have of the effects of impersonation on attitude and character.