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From Cowboys to Clara Bow: A College Student’s Motion Picture Autobiography

by Herbert Blumer

Fears about the impact of movies on youth led to the Payne Fund research project, which brought together nineteen social scientists and resulted in eleven published reports. One of the most fascinating of the studies was carried out by Herbert Blumer, a young sociologist who would later go on to a distinguished career in the field. For a volume that he called Movies and Conduct (1933), Blumer asked more than fifteen hundred college and high school students to write “autobiographies”of their experiences going to the movies. In this autobiography, a twenty-year-old college “boy” from an immigrant Jewish family described his changing tastes in movies.


I. My Family and My Surroundings.

Up to ten years of age I was the only child of poor, young, literate (i.e., they could read, write, and speak Russian, Hebrew, and Yiddish), Russian immigrants. When I was only fifteen months old, the small family moved from the Halsted Street Ghetto district where I was born to the northwest part of the city at L and D Streets. Here my father bought a small two-story building in which he used the first floor as a retail store and the second as the living quarters of the family. It was in this neighborhood and even in this same building that I stayed up to my graduation from high school when sixteen years old. This period of my life which I spent on L Street and which immediately preceded my university days is the period I shall discuss in its relation to the motion pictures. . . .

With high-school days a new world opened up before me and my mind was turned in an entirely different direction. After classes were over in high school I could not go immediately to my yard and start playing my old games, for now I had home work to attend to. Besides this, there were many activities in school to which I belonged—societies, clubs, athletics, and orchestra—all of which absorbed my attention and energies. After attending various meetings I would not get home until five or five-thirty o’clock, and then after dinner I had my homework to do; and after this I had to practice my flute. Consequently, I was compelled to give up my backyard playing. One would think that this sacrifice of a daily habit would have hurt me keenly, but this was not so. I had such a good time in school with my meetings and athletics, and I was so busy when home with my home-work, flute, and an occasional movie, that I didn’t even think of the matter. However, I would still indulge in my old pastime on an isolated Saturday or Sunday afternoon, but these moments grew rarer and rarer as I grew older.

In the meantime, there was a corresponding change in my taste for movies. It must be remembered that I had had little, practically no, social contact with either boys or girls. Now, with so many student activities, I was necessarily thrown into their company and I learned many things from them which were entirely new to me. The boys spoke of sexual matters, and the girls spoke of love. I began to appreciate pretty girls and to be a critical admirer of their figures. An entirely new class of movies began to appeal to me. I turned away from the childish cowboy movies (“only kids go to see those,” I was told) and began to see Clara Bow, John Gilbert, Rudolph Valentino, etc. I was in an adolescent stage.

I was in a position now where I had plenty of time to think and to dream about various matters, but I had no time to put these thoughts and dreams into dramatic action. My reveries consisted in thinking of all sorts of situations in which this or that pretty girl that I knew was the heroine while I was the hero who saved her from the villains. Strangely enough, I never thought of these situations in relation to a movie heroine but always in relation to a girl of my acquaintance. I tried to conduct my first love affair on a romantic, movie-like basis. I thought of witty, gallant things to say. I conceived of my girl in all kinds of terrible positions, about to be tortured or deprived of her virginity (it is impossible to believe or conceive the many, many situations I concocted with regard to her virginity), or some such thing, and I, the hero, would always be on time to save her. Such were the subjects of almost all of my reveries during my high-school career. There seems to be a certain sameness to them now, but as I look back, I see that my mind, aided by plots and stories from movies I had recently seen, was continually busy with various compromising situations in which I hoped to find my girl placed while I was conveniently at hand.

Source: From: Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1970): 223–224, 230–231.

See Also:Kissing Rudy Valentino: A High-School Student Describes Movie Going in the 1920s
Movie Dreams and Movie Injustices: A Black High-School Student Tells What 1920s Movies Meant to Him
Frustration versus Fantasy: How the Movies Made Some People Restless