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Movie Dreams and Movie Injustices: A Black High-School Student Tells What 1920s Movies Meant to Him

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. This seventeen-year-old African American used his motion picture autobiography to describe how films not only led to dreams of fast cars but also made him "feel the injustice done the Negro race."

I first became interested in the movies when I had started to kindergarten. I had gone to the theater before but I had not paid much attention to them while sitting on my mother’s lap or down in what seemed to me a very low seat. In school I heard the other children talking about cowboys and detectives and policemen that they had seen on the screen. When I again went I saw an exciting serial and William S. Hart which made me clamor to come back on the same day weekly. I kept up with that serial and several others when that one had ended. I did not lose interest in these pictures until a few years ago when I took to a higher type and more refined picture. I learned through education to distinguish between a good picture educationally and a bad or poor picture. This led me to those dramas mostly, although I occasionally go to see a serial or a Western story.

The earliest movie stars that I can remember were Wm. S. Hart and Tom Mix who played entirely in Western stories. I liked to see them shoot the villain and save the girl and “live happily ever after.” It caused me to shout as loudly, or louder, than the rest. Following them came Douglas Fairbanks, who seemed so carefree and light that he won nearly everyone with his personality. He would jump, use a lasso, thrust a sword, and fight in a way to satisfy any child’s desire for action. Now I have no special star but I think Emil Jannings is a great actor because he seems to put his heart and soul into his work.

As a boy, I went with nearly every one to the theater; my mother, father, sister or brother, relatives, and friends. Usually I went in the afternoon or evening, anywhere from one to five times a week. Now I still go with my relatives occasionally but mostly with friends or alone.

I cannot recall anything that I have done that I had seen in the movies except try to make love. It happened that when I was small there were no boys in my neighborhood and I had to go several blocks before I could play with some my size or age. But there were a few girls in my neighborhood my size. Seeing Douglas Fairbanks woo his maiden I decided to try some of “Doug’s stuff” on one of the girl friends. I know I was awkward and it proved more or less a flop.

Several times on seeing big, beautiful cars which looked to be bubbling over with power and speed, I dreamed of having a car more powerful and speedier than all the rest. I saw this car driven by myself up to the girl friend’s door and taking her for a ride. (I was then eight years old and in my dreams I was no older.) Then too, I saw Adolphe Menjou, the best dressed man in the world, try in various ways to kill me because I had won his title. Perhaps the picture that left the most depressing picture on my mind was one in which a murdered man was thrown over a high cliff from a mountain top. I could see that dead body falling, falling to the rocky depths far below and squash into almost nothing. Some nights I dreamed of falling and other nights I had nightmares from dreaming of the same thing, awoke in a cold sweat, and was not able to go to sleep again till dawn. Whenever I saw anyone looking down from some rather high place or some workman in the precarious position, I had a sickly feeling in the pit of my stomach and averted my eyes.

The most heartbreaking picture that I ever saw and which caused me to shed uncontrollable tears was “Over the Hill,” starring Mary Carr. She was ill treated by all her children except one and had to go to the poorhouse and scrub daily. This picture caused me to see my mother in a new light and make a vow that I would always protect and provide for her as long as I or she lives. This mood lasted until the comedy, when I soon forgot it, but I have always kept my vow.

I have not adopted any mannerisms from the movies but I have tried to act like the actors of a picture for a short time after seeing the picture. Such actions were trying to act like a screen drunkard, a hero cowboy who shot and killed the villain and rode triumphantly away with the fair one. I used to go to “wild western” pictures and observe the Indians grab their hearts, or put their hands over their hearts, turn all away around and fall dead after they had been shot while resisting the unlawful Americans. When my chums played cowboy or cops and robbers, I tried to imitate these Indians in falling. Of course, many besides myself, I suppose, have tried to imitate Charles Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks but I became so proficient in imitating Charles Chaplin that I became to be known as Charles in the neighborhood in which I formerly lived which made me dream of the time when I, Charles Chaplin, would be the star of the silver screen. Douglas Fairbanks gave me an inspiration to jump, fight, use long whips, ride, use rapiers and to be as happy and as full of life as he seemed to be.

While imitating these stars I became interested in love pictures and went to see them as often as I could. This liking developed after seeing such stars as Wallace Reid, Norma Talmadge, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri. These actors stirred within me a desire to do an ardent love scene with a girl. The first girl that I tried this on said that I was crazy. The second girl wasn’t interested. But the third girl actually thought that I really meant what I was saying about her eyes and lips and she permitted me to try out everything that I had planned and this occasion proved successful in more ways than one.

Occasionally I used to think constantly of such actors as Wallace Reid, Rudolph Valentino, or Pola Negri; especially the latter whose bewitching eyes instilled within me many ungodly thoughts that never were voiced.

I cannot say that I received any temptations from the movies but I did get one real ambition. That being, to fly and be an aviator. This desire originated from such pictures as “Wings,” "The Flying Fleet,“ and ”Lilac Time,“ all of which featured airplanes. Now I visit all the aviation exhibits and ”talks" possible. The most interesting show I have yet seen is the one that was at the Chicago Coliseum. I visit the municipal airport often and just the sound of an airplane’s motor is enough to start one thinking of that time when I am going to have a powerful plane of my own and see all the world by means of it.

Another ambition that I had was to be a “Jackie Coogan” at the age of eight. I thought I would be more of a star than Jackie himself. I dreamed of the time when I would be a great star and have a great deal of money because of it. Then I could buy a tiny automobile, just my size, that would run as fast as any big car. I would also have some ponies, a beautiful home for my mother and myself and be a veritable“lady’s man.” (All this time I was eight years old.)

Sometimes from seeing such pictures as “The Birth of a Nation” I would not but feel the injustice done the Negro race by other races. Most of the bad traits of unintelligent Negroes are used in many pictures and a lovable or educated character is rarely pictured.

At other times, “West Point,” a picture of college life and a military training school, stirs within me a desire to go to college or some military or naval school away from home and serve my country as best I can.

In crime pictures, as in real life, the criminal not only becomes the hero on the screen but outside the theater as well. At other times the criminal’s life is such that the audience simply abhors being such a character. If there were more of the latter type of picture I am of the opinion that there would be far less crime.

Source: From: Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1970): 255–257.

See Also:Kissing Rudy Valentino: A High-School Student Describes Movie Going in the 1920s
From Cowboys to Clara Bow: A College Student's Motion Picture Autobiography
Frustration versus Fantasy: How the Movies Made Some People Restless