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Kissing Rudy Valentino: A High-School Student Describes Movie Going in the 1920s

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 motion picture autobiography, a high school “girl” talked about what the movies of the 1920s meant to her.

I am a girl—American born and of Scotch descent. My grandparents came to America from Glasgow, Scotland, and grandfather became a minister (Presbyterian). Mother was the youngest of nine children and was born in New York. Dad came from New York also; his parents were of Scotch and English stock. I was born in Detroit, July 1, 1913. I have one brother. Stating us in order of birth, we are: Mary, 16, and Edward, 12.

My religious denominations have been varied. Mom put me in the cradle-roll of a Congregational Church, but I have been a member of the Lutheran, Presbyterian, Christian Science, and Methodist Episcopal churches. All of which indicates that either I’m very broad-minded religiously or unable to make up my mind. The latter is more plausible. Was a member of a Camp Fire Girls group for several years and was greatly interested in its activities. I reached the second rank in the organization.

My mother has no occupation. One calls her a housewife, I guess, but she isn’t home enough for that. She travels in the winter and fall. Dad is a Lawyer. My real father is dead. He died when I was very young. His work was in the appraisal business. My clearest picture of him is playing his violin. He played beautifully. Mother plays the piano and when she accompanied him I used to listen for hours. I love music. . . .

I have tried to remember the first time that I went to a movie. It must have been when I was very young because I cannot recall the event. My real interest in motion pictures showed itself when I was in about fourth grade at grammar school. There was a theater on the route by which I went home from school and as the picture changed every other day I used to spend the majority of my time there. A gang of us little tots went regularly.

One day I went to see Viola Dana in “The Five Dollar Baby.” The scenes which showed her as a baby fascinated me so that I stayed to see it over four times. I forgot home, dinner, and everything. About eight o’clock mother came after me—frantically searching the theater.

Next to pictures about children, I loved serials and pie-throwing comedies, not to say cowboy ‘n’ Indian stories. These kind I liked until I was twelve or thirteen; then I lost interest in that type, and the spectacular, beautifully decorated scenes took my eye. Stories of dancers and stage life I loved. Next, mystery plays thrilled me and one never slipped by me. At fifteen I liked stories of modern youth; the gorgeous clothes and settings fascinated me.

My first favorite was Norma Talmadge. I liked her because I saw her in a picture where she wore ruffly hoop-skirts which greatly attracted me. My favorites have always been among the women; the only men stars I’ve ever been interested in are Tom Mix, Doug Fairbanks and Thomas Meighan, also Doug McLean and Bill Haines. Colleen Moore I liked for a while, but now her haircut annoys me. My present favorites are rather numerous: Joan Crawford, Billie Dove, Sue Carol, Louise Brooks, and Norma Shearer. I nearly forgot about Barbara LaMar. I really worshiped her. I can remember how I diligently tried to draw every gown she wore on the screen and how broken-hearted I was when she died. You would have thought my best friend had passed away.

Why I like my favorites? I like Joan Crawford because she is so modern, so young, and so vivacious! Billie Dove is so beautifully beautiful that she just gets under your skin. She is the most beautiful woman on the screen! Sue Carol is cute ‘n’ peppy. Louise Brooks has her assets, those being legs ‘n’ a clever hair-cut. Norma Shearer wears the kind of clothes I like and is a clever actress.

I nearly always have gone and yet go to the theater with someone. I hate to go alone as it is more enjoyable to have someone to discuss the picture with. Now I go with a bunch of girls or on a date with girls and boys or with one fellow.

The day-dreams instigated by the movies consist of clothes, ideas on furnishings, and manners. I don’t day-dream much. I am more concerned with materialistic things and realisms. Nevertheless it is hard for any girl not to imagine herself cuddled up in some voluptuous ermine wrap, etc.

The influence of movies on my play as a child—all that I remember is that we immediately enacted the parts interesting us most. And for weeks I would attempt to do what that character would have done until we saw another movie and some other hero or heroine won us over.

I’m always at the mercy of the actor at a movie. I feel nearly every emotion he portrays and forget that anything else is on earth. I was so horrified during “The Phantom of the Opera” when Lon Chaney removed his mask, revealing that hideous face, that until my last day I shall never forget it.

I am deeply impressed, however, by pathos and pitifulness, if you understand. I remember one time seeing a movie about an awful fire. I was terrified by the reality of it and for several nights I was afraid to go to sleep for fear of a fire and even placed my hat and coat near by in case it was necessary to make a hasty exit. Pictures of robbery and floods have affected my behavior the same way. Have I ever cried at pictures? Cried! I’ve practically dissolved myself many a time. How people can witness a heart-rending picture and not weep buckets of tears is more than I can understand. “The Singing Fool,” "The Iron Mask,“ "Seventh Heaven,” "Our Dancing Daughters,“ and other pictures I saw when very young which centered about the death of someone’s baby and showed how the big sister insisted on her jazz ‘n’ whoopee regardless of the baby or not - these nearly killed me. Something like that, anyway; and I hated that girl so I wanted to walk up to the screen and tear her up! As for liking to cry—why, I never thought of that. It isn’t a matter of liking or not. Sometimes it just can’t be helped. Movies do change my moods, but they never last long. I’m off on something else before I know it. If I see a dull or morose show, it sort of deadens me and the vim and vigor dies out 'til the movie is forgotten. For example, Mary Pickford’s movie—”Sparrows“—gave me the blues for a week or so, as did li’l Sonny Boy in ”The Singing Fool." The poor kid’s a joke now.

This modern knee-jiggling, hand-clapping effect used for accompanying popular music has been imitated from the movies, I think. But unless I’ve unconsciously picked up little mannerisms, I can think of no one that I’ve tried to imitate.

Goodness knows, you learn plenty about love from the movies. That’s their long run; you learn more from actual experience, though! You do see how the gold-digger systematically gets the poor fish in tow. You see how the sleek-haired, long-earringed, languid-eyed siren lands the men. You meet the flapper, the good girl, ‘n’ all the feminine types and their little tricks of the trade. We pick up their snappy comebacks which are most handy when dispensing with an unwanted suitor, a too ardent one, too backward one, etc. And believe me, they observe and remember, too.

I can remember when we all nudged one another and giggled at the last close-up in a movie. I recall when during the same sort of close-up when the boy friend squeezes your arm and looks soulfully at you. Oh, it’s lotsa fun! No, I never fell in love with my movie idol. When I don’t know a person really, when I know I’ll never have a chance with ‘em, I don’t bother pining away over them and writing them idiotic letters as some girls I’ve known do. I have imagined playing with a movie hero many times though that is while I’m watching the picture. I forget about it when I’m outside the theater. Buddy Rogers and Rudy Valentino have kissed me oodles of times, but they don’t know it. God bless ’em!

Source: Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Arno Press and the New York Times, 1970), 217–218, 220–223.

See Also:From Cowboys to Clara Bow: A College Student's Motion Picture Autobiography
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