Public Educators and Hollywood, 1900-1922

By Gallagher, Robin | High School Journal, February 1999 | Go to article overview

Public Educators and Hollywood, 1900-1922

Gallagher, Robin, High School Journal


... Who is she anyway, this amazing, fascinating, bewildering, spectacular creature; at her best so beautiful, at times so commonplace and coarse and tawdry and painted; so meekly innocent, a veritable saint ... licensed to preach seven nights a week, yet suspiciously familiar with all the deadly sins abhorrent to sainthood; so lacking in reticence, yet withal too timid to her veil in sunlight; a veritable Circe in whose herd may be seen priest and scholar and grimy-faced street urchin, yet, miracle of miracles, dumb--absolutely dumb save for a click in her throat? Whoever she be, one thing is certain: she's into the house bag and baggage, and settled, not in the third floor back, but in the very best room --come to stay. Not even by fasting and prayer goeth she forth...(1)

For this high school English teacher, the unscrupled, whorish female was Hollywood's moving picture show. The picture show, he railed, threatened to "disease" the minds of his young students with its flickering "kaleidoscopic jumble of unrelated information."(2) Indeed,the strumpet endangered the very future of education, for how could a teacher possibly present a history, or English, or science lesson that would engage a child's attention so completely as did the moving picture? How could a teacher compete with:

   ... a runaway express train; a house-fly on the face of a sick baby; a
   safe- breaker making his get-away; a jolly business man drinking thirty-two
   cocktails in comic succession; a missionary performing the last sad rites;
   a brave Indian, the limp heroine in his arms, baffling the villain pursuer
   by leaping into the ocean from a cliff as high as the steeple of the Park
   Street church; a waiter tumbling downstairs and smashing his tray of cheap
   crockery; a chambermaid smoking one of her master's Havanas (awfully
   funny); a sleeping hobo tied to the rear axle of a touring car and dragged
   through the street; ... a screaming farce in which two quarreling servants
   trip and fall into a bed of fresh mortar; a long moral story picturing the
   miseries of the drink habit, with fascinating views of a fashionable
   gambling hell, the boudoir of a painted lady, a tenderloin barroom, [and] a
   squalid room where a murder takes place ...[?](3)

Indeed, for educators the advent of the motion picture threatened more than just an English lesson; the picture show, with its unregulated portrayal of American life, imperiled public education's turn-of-the-century mission--the creation of good citizens, whose highly-defined moral behavior would prove that America's experiment with democracy would survive.

As discussed below, educational philosophy in the late 1800s embodied scant regard for the expressive rights of children or adults. For, at the turn of the century, the perils of urbanization, industrialization, and immigration so frightened Americans that the great republican experiment seemed doomed to die in anarchy. It was then that Americans turned to their schools; the public school, it was reasoned, would inculcate by rote repetition the values of democracy, of good moral citizenry, such that each child would be "joyous[ly] obedien[t] to the laws of life and the state in general."(4) Of course, such a method of instruction excluded the freedom for a child, a future citizen, to exercise any of the democratic principles of free inquiry or judgment. Clearly, when society's very survival depended upon a tightly controlled educational environment, the motion picture emerged as subject matter over which educators had to gain control.

A Preliminary Investigation of Educators as Censors of the Motion Picture Industry

Ever since Thomas Edison's Kinetoscope peep-show machine debuted on April 14, 1894, in New York,(5) civic-minded moralists have tried to censor the "pictures that lived and moved."(6) While a substantial body of research has shown that the Catholic Church played a leading part in censoring the motion picture industry,(7) a smaller body of research shows that during the 1920s and 1930s public educators also played a significant role in film censorship.

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