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6. Movies

  • Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct, 1933, Ch. 10, "Schemes of Life" PDF

  • PDF
  • Monta Bell, "Movies & Talkies," The North American Review, October 1928 PDF

  • PDF
  • From Silent to Sound in twenty-two minutes

    Live-action films (scenes) WARNER BROS.
    Animated cartoons

In 2006, weekly movie attendance in the U.S. totaled about nine percent of the population. Given all the entertainment options, only one in ten people chose to see a movie in a theater. Compare that with attendance figures in the 1920s. In just eight years, from 1922 to 1930, weekly U.S. movie attendance soared from about forty percent to over ninety percent of the population.1 As movies came to center the mass-culture universe, two major questions came to the fore: one cultural, one technological. How did movies influence modern youth, whose rush to adopt the "modern" values and conduct showcased on the screen distressed many older Americans? And how would the introduction of sound affect the long-established silent genre that was reaching, in the words of one producer, "notable heights of beauty and power as pantomime only"?2 Here we consider pronouncements on these two questions from a sociologist and a Hollywood producer.

    Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct PDF file
  • Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct, 1933, excerpts. What was the influence of movies on modern youth? As movie production and attendance exploded in the 1920s—and especially after the arrival of sound films in 1927—the call to answer this question became more insistent. In a series of twelve studies conducted from 1929 to 1932, sociologists and psychologists compiled a massive amount of research on youth and movies. Perhaps the most influential study was reported in Movies and Conduct by the University of Chicago sociologist Herbert Blumer, whose team gathered data from nearly two thousand students through questionnaires, interviews, and students' "motion picture autobiographies" in which they reported their personal impressions of movies' influence. Presented here are excerpts from the culminating chapter, "Schemes of Life." Incorporating numerous excerpts from the student "autobiographies," Blumer reviewed movies' influence on youth's concepts of love and romance, wealth and glamour, physical attractiveness, ideal behavior, friendship and loyalty, worthy ambitions, racial stereotypes, the world beyond their childhood experience, and the values of "modern life." Although the studies were initiated by a group that advocated legal controls on film production (the Motion Picture Research Council), and the research questions reflect parental and societal perspectives, the research results are presented with scientific detachment. (The instructions for writing the "motion picture autobiographies" are available in Appendix A of Movies and Conduct, pp. 203-207.) What did Blumer's research reveal about the influence of movies on young people's ideas about life, how it should be lived, and what it offered them? How would his experimental design and results compare with similar inquiries about youth culture and mass entertainment today? (10 pp.)

  • Monta Bell, Movies & Talkies, PDF file
  • Monta Bell, "Movies & Talkies," The North American Review, October 1928. The Twenties did not introduce the automobile, the wireless, the airplane, or the motion picture—but they did inaugurate the Ford Model A, the home radio receiver, global flight records, and the pinnacle of Hollywood entertainment—the "talkie." As with many innovations, the "talkie" was greeted with wild enthusiasm . . . and tentative welcome . . . and outright dismissal. Was it a gimmick that spelled the ruin of the silent film, a maturing art form? Was it a spangly newcomer that would drive live theater out of business? Or did it herald a new American spectacle that would enchant the world? How would silent film producers and actors make the switch to sound? What innovations in filmmaking would evolve? In this article, published soon after the 1928 premiere of the first "all-talking" picture, Lights of New York, Hollywood producer Monta Bell summarized the industry's response with insight and humor. "Everybody predicted something," he wrote, "and nearly everybody predicted something different. Never in the history of the industry was there, or is there, such divergence of opinion, or such feverish activity." He surveyed the wide-ranging predictions of film producers and offered his own. "Silent action," he insisted, would still be "the foundation of screen entertainment. Sound is simply an accessory," providing sound effects to embellish silent action scenes. What did the silent-to-sound transition signify for Americans in the 1920s, judging from Bell's perspective? How do his predictions illustrate the inevitable limitations of envisioning the possibilities of the "new"? What other technological transitions offer comparisons with the arrival of talkies? (6 pp.)

  • From Silent to Sound in Twenty-Two Minutes. It is difficult for most of us to imagine the silent movie experience. You watch silent action on the screen. You read the intertitles (black-screen text) that deliver dialogue and further the plot. You hear live music provided by the theater pianist, organist, or orchestra, designed to enhance the film's comedy or drama. And then comes the "talking picture." Spoken words, lots of them, come from the mouths of the actors. Music and noise and ambient sound, lots of it, emanate from the screen. The four film clips and cartoons below provide a twenty-two-minute capsule of the silent-to-sound experience. What are the immediately apparent differences between silent and sound films? What do you notice on second and third viewings? How does each genre deliver plot, character, emotion, nuance, and visual impact? From this capsule, what can you infer about the response of moviegoers to the "talkies"?

    Live-action films (scenes): WARNER BROS.

    -Silent: La Bohème, 1926 (click Trailers and Videos: 2:56). In the opening scene of this classic love story set in Paris in the 1830s, we meet the aspiring playwright Rodolphe when the heartless landlord arrives to demand the monthly rent. How do the actors quickly define their characters without sound? How is the ringing bell emphasized without sound? How do the intertitles add humor to the confrontation with the landlord? How did producer King Vidor evoke "sound" in the first moments of the film before any character speaks? Compare the scene with Vidor's opening scenes in Wild Oranges (1926) and The Crowd (1928). How would these scenes have differed in a sound film?

    -Sound: Show Girl in Hollywood, 1930 (click Trailers and Videos: 3:00). Dining in a New York cabaret with a failed Broadway producer, singer Dixie takes an opportunity to audition for a Hollywood film producer. How does the scene incorporate silent film technique with innovations offered by sound? What would Monta Bell have thought of the "continuous dialogue" in the scene? of the camera angles, actors' voices, and filming of Dixie's song performance? How would this scene have differed in a silent film?

    Animated cartoons:

    -Silent: Felix in Hollywood, 1923 (7:58). Felix the Cat auditions for a job as a Hollywood actor, but "ruins his chances" when Charlie Chaplin catches him doing his Chaplin impersonation. By inadvertently saving the day in a western scene being filmed, he is offered a longterm contract. How is the plot conveyed without spoken dialogue? How is "sound" conveyed without sound? How does this silent cartoon resemble the silent film La Bohème? INTERNET MOVING IMAGE ARCHIVE

    -Sound: Steamboat Willie, 1928 (7:23). This is the world-famous "first" sound animated cartoon, in which Disney Studios introduced Mickey Mouse as a steamboat pilot, entertaining himself, Minnie, and the audience by producing music with anything at hand, from kitchen pots-and-pans to the barnyard animals on board. There is no plot and no dialogue, fitting Monta Bell's prediction that dialogue would be secondary to sound effects in the "talkies." In what other ways does Steamboat Willie differ from Felix in Hollywood? (Remember that the online Felix cartoon has sound added to simulate theater music.) How does Steamboat Willie resemble the sound film Show Girl in Hollywood more than it resembles the silent Felix cartoon? DISNEY ANIMATION/YOUTUBE

See also Modern City in Film, Felix the Cat animated cartoons, and Detroit News newsreels. For other films included in BECOMING MODERN, see the All-Texts List by Genre.

Discussion Questions

Blumer, Movies and Conduct___
  1. Beginning with one of these comments from Movies and Conduct, summarize Blumer's evidence about movies' influence on young people, especially their concepts of life, how it should be lived, and what it offered them.

    Blumer: "Some young men and women . . . regard the life of modern youth as it is shown in motion pictures not only as an 'ideal' type of life but as the proper type of life."
    Blumer: "[I]t is fitting to observe that motion pictures often present the extremes as if they were the norm. Further, it is an attractive norm."
    Student: "I think that the movies have played a large part in influencing the actions of what is called the fast modern of today."
    Student: "If we didn't see such examples in the movies, where would we get the idea of being 'hot'? We wouldn't."
    Student: "No wonder girls of older days, before the movies, were so modest and bashful."
    Student: "The movies gave me a lot of foolish ideas which my imagination accepted as fact."
  2. What did Blumer imply was the greatest risk for young people in generating "schemes of life" from the movies?
  3. Identify statements from the student "motion picture autobiographies" that illustrate Blumer's evidence that:
  4. How did students report their response to stereotyped movie characters including the villain, war enemy, society lady, modern woman, "Chinaman," "Negro," and "grownup"?
  5. How did students respond to the depiction of love, passion, physical attraction, and college-student relationships in the movies?
  6. How did some movies succeed, according to Blumer, in "supporting schemes of [good] moral conduct"?
  7. According to Blumer, what groups of young people were most likely to be influenced by the "schemes of conduct" presented in the movies? Why?
  8. Evaluate Blumer's evidence that movies' influences were more apparent in adolescent girls than in boys.
  9. To what extent does the research in Movies and Conduct reflect the debate over mass entertainment and youth today?
  10. Write your own "motion picture autobiography." Compare it with those written for Blumer's study. (Blumer's instructions for writing the "autobiographies" are available in Appendix A of Movies and Conduct, pp. 203-207.)
Monta Bell, "Movies & Talkies"___
  1. Why did the film industry go "head over heels" into sound films, according to Monta Bell? What did he and other film producers predict for the future of talkies?
  2. Summarize Bell's overview of the "ferment of uncertainty" about the impact of sound films. Why did he predict a "hurlyburly of inartistic experiment with noise and speech"?
  3. According to Bell, what were the likely effects of sound films on movie attendance, film production and quality, live theater, and the careers of silent film actors? (Consider the films that have explored the silent-to-sound transition, especially Singin' in the Rain, 1952, and The Artist, 2011.)
  4. What uses of sound did Bell expect to predominate in sound films? Why? Why might he have missed the primacy of sound dialogue?
  5. Did Bell, as a film producer, seem enthusiastic about producing sound films himself? How might he have judged the introduction of color film that arrived soon after sound?
  6. To what extent were Bell's predictions about sound films, including those below, realized in the following decades?
  7. What aspects of the silent-to-sound transition are illustrated in the twenty-two-minute capsule of film scenes and animated cartoons? From the online film resources (see Supplemental Sites), create your own silent-to-sound capsule, or black/white-to-color capsule.
  8. From your reading in this Theme, MACHINE, rank these developments of the 1920s for their (1) significance as advances in science and technology, and (2) their longterm impact on man, society, and culture. Add other 1920s innovations to your list. Explain your ranking.

Framing Questions

  • How did "machine age" innovations change American life in the Twenties?
  • How did fans and critics of the changes, including artists, express their views?
  • What longterm effects on American society did they predict from the innovations? To what extent were they accurate?
  • How does their commentary resemble 21st-century discussion about technological innovation and social change, e.g., the Internet, social networking, robotics, nanotechnology, informatics, and more?


Blumer, Movies and Conduct, 1933, excerpts
Bell, "Movies & Talkies," 1928
Silent/sound films and cartoons
10 pp.
  6 pp.
     View online.
16 pp.

Supplemental Sites

Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct, 1933, full text (Internet Archive)

Selections from Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct, 1933; in History Matters (George Mason University and the City University of New York).
Steamboat Willie, overview (The Museum of Modern Art, New York)

Steamboat Willie, overview (The Encyclopedia of Disney Animated Shorts; personal site of Patrick Malone)

The Test Screening of Steamboat Willie, in Leonard Maltin, Of Mice and Magic: A History of American Animated Cartoons, 1980/87, (, personal site of Sven Carlsson)

Turner Classic Movies: Media Room (search by title)

Warner Bros Shop(search by year of production; click "Trailers & Videos")

Internet Archive: Moving Images (includes 537 silent films)

Motion Picture collections in American Memory (Library of Congress)

UCLA Film & Television Archive: Online Exhibitions

National Film Preservation Foundation: Treasures from the Film Archives(clips; proceed through "More Treasures")

1 "Weekly Theater Admissions and U.S. Population by Year," figure 2.2 in William Jennings Byrd, "The Economics of Film Distribution," Ph.D. dissertation, Auburn University, 2010, p. 38; citing in C. Steinberg, Film Facts (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 1980), citing as data source: U.S. Census Bureau, International Motion Picture Almanac, 1947, 2008.
2 Monta Bell, "Movies & Talkies," The North American Review, October 1928, p. 429.

– Film poster, Lights of New York, 1928, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. Permission request in process. Digital image courtesy of Internet Movie Posters Awards.
– Film poster, The Broadway Melody, 1929, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios. Permission request in process. Digital image courtesy of Internet Movie Posters Awards.
– Still from La Bohème, silent film directed by King Vidor, 1926, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. Permission request in process.
– Still from Show Girl in Hollywood, sound film directed by Mervyn Leroy, 1930, Warner Bros. Entertainment, Inc. Permission request in process.
– Still from Felix in Hollywood, silent animated cartoon by Pat Sullivan, 1923. In the public domain. Digital image courtesy of Internet Moving Image Archive.
– Still from Steamboat Willie, sound animated cartoon by the Walt Disney Animation Studios, 1929. Permission request in process (capture from Disney Animation/YouTube).
– "Motion Pictures and Youth," front book cover, Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933). Permission request in process. Digital image courtesy of Internet Archive.

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