The movies and Münsterberg

by George Mitchell

from Jump Cut, no. 27, July 1982, pp. 57-60
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1982, 2005

During the first quarter of the twentieth century, official ideology about the use of leisure became reformulated. By the 1920s an influential portion of the U.S. elite had come to accept and in some cases actively promote the idea of leisure as an escape from the woes of everyday life. This notion offered a radical departure from previous thinking — that leisure culture should inculcate bourgeois virtues such as religious piety, obedience to authority and adherence to the work ethic. Prior to WWI most popular pastimes which did not serve these ends received condemnation in pulpits, newspapers, and some thousands of anti-amusements tracts, denouncing such diversions as dancing, gambling, novel reading, theatre going, drinking and, after the turn of the century, movie attendance.

One factor behind this negative assessment of escapist leisure was the idea that such escapism undermined productive relations and an atmosphere of discipline and repression, seen as necessary to keep the populace hard working and orderly. The often erotic and violent content of commercial amusements seemed a threat to social control. Nineteenth century guardians of culture felt incredibly sensitive to these potential dangers. The famous anti-vice crusader Anthony Comstock, for example, wanted to repress popular, working class "story papers,” claiming,

“The finest fruits of civilization are consumed by these vermin."

On another level, capitalists and their spokesmen saw the money spent on these amusements as causing poverty and workers' dissatisfaction with wages. Finding a negative relation between idle amusements and work, one critic noted,

“All amusements which add to rather than detract from the fatigues of necessary toil — no matter what their attraction or interest — must be in their nature contraband and a danger to a pure standard of virtue and morals.”

In the stark calculus of another guardian of culture,

“The more leisure a man whose family is living in a new tenement has, the worse off he is.”

This harsh evaluation of escapist amusement began to soften in the teens and became increasingly unpopular after WWI. While my concern here mainly focuses on how this ideological shift was tied to new forms of work and consumption, other contributing factors deserve note. One, people's attitude changed about sexual morality and the upper classes' role in morally policing public amusements. New ideas about sexuality gaining rapid acceptance around this time made the old moral critique of popular amusements seem time-worn and repressive. Generally, younger intellectuals rejected old ideas about cultural policing.

Here the actual experience with government censorship during WWI became formative. Magazines like The Nation and Independent, which before the war regarded film censorship as a potentially useful weapon against movie excess, after the war rejected this option. The middle class' experiences with Prohibition also turned it away from the idea of cultural policing. Increasingly the metropolitan-based media saw old attempts to control leisure culture as politically reactionary and bigoted. The American Mercury, for example, denounced the post-WWI movement for strong film censorship (a movement with wide support in rural and small town United States), branded it as the "Cuckoo Klux Klan of Art" and noted:

“All censors are curious birds but the motion picture censor is the choicest of them all. This bird can neither sing nor lay eggs, and probably never mates but it cackles continuously.”

Changes in the U.S. economy that blurred the distinction between productive and unproductive consumption also helped legitimize escapist amusements. The country was moving from an economy dominated by capital goods production (rails, machines, etc.) to one which depended more on producing consumer goods, such as autos, home appliances, clothes and radios. Official ideology shifted away from a savings ethic to a consumption ethic. This shift diminished the argument that escapist amusements were wasteful and unproductive. Furthermore, many of the most popular amusements — mass magazines and movies — now had links with other branches of the consumer goods sector. They could display the magical new commodities through advertisements and photographic representation.

The most striking evidence of this new thinking about escapist leisure presents itself in the way attitudes evolved about the movie business. Take for example the reactions of William DeMille, brother of C.B. DeMille. In 1911 William DeMille, a New York playwright from a prestigious theater family, heard that the promising young actress Mary Pickford would abandon the theater for the movies. He conveyed his dismay to the famous Broadway director David Belasco:

“I met her a few weeks ago and the poor kid is actually thinking of taking up moving pictures seriously. That appealing personality of hers would go a long way in the theater and now she's throwing her whole career in the ash-can and burying herself in a cheap form of amusement which hasn't a single point that I can see to recommend it.”(1)

Two years later DeMille was confronted with another defection to the movies. Cecil B., after involvement in two unsuccessful Broadway productions, joined with vaudeville producer Jesse Lasky and former glove salesman Samuel Goldfish in a movie venture. William reprimanded Cecil for entering a business which to William’s mind was merely a way of "teasing nickles and dimes out of the mentally immature by making photographs leap and prance in the air." He also invoked the family name: he wrote Cecil on September 4, 1913,

"Even if you do succeed in scratching out a bare living, is it worth the loss of prestige which is sure to result from selling your birthright for a mass of celluloid?"

Yet only a few years later the lure of screen dollars and fame caught up with even William DeMille. "It shocked many people," he wrote in an essay called "Great Pictures and the Men Who Made Them," "that they were not avers to accepting large incomes for work which seemed so gay and carefree."(2) In 1916, William DeMille, now in California, wrote back East to prominent critic Brander Mathews about his new perspective:

“I find that the directors' work is relatively even more important on the screen than on the stage... here is the opportunity to reach as many millions through the screen as thousands through the tage.”(3)

By the twenties DeMille stood at a sufficient distance from his earlier negative view that he could brand it as hypocritical and snobbish:

“Utter condemnation of the 'movie' has, for some years, been considered the mark of culture among those academic individuals who, by the divine right of higher education look down... upon anything so low that it has the misfortune to be popular.” (4)

DeMille now saw the medium as loaded with potential for cultural uplift:

“Its power to convey information, to reveal humanity to the human race, to make the people of the world know and even understand one another, to set ideals and ideas before the public in a way that may be comprehended by all marks the beginning of a new turn in the artistic education of mankind.”

While culture critics continued to denounce Hollywood movies in the 1920s and after, we find in the post-WWI period a growing body of opinion pronouncing movies and the movie habit perfectly in keeping with U.S. aims. Behind this acceptance lay this realization: that escapist entertainments did not undercut productive relations or foster social unrest. Indeed, movies increasingly became promoted as an important recuperative from the strains and stresses of work and modern life.

The acceptance of the Hollywood film as a fitting way to pass idle time became part of a major reshaping of ideology about work organization and leisure. These changes are inextricably linked to transformations in the work process, which had been experimented with for some years and really took hold in U.S. industry in the teens and twenties. The object of these changes was greater control of the production process, increased worker productivity and, of course, greater profits. One of the pioneers of this new methodology was Frederick W. Taylor, who in the late 19th century carried on a number of important in-factory experiments designed to perfect greater management control over the worker. The name given to this new study of techniques of worker control was Scientific Management or Taylorism. Its basic strategy was to break down old worker-controlled modes of production and to relocate control of the work process with management. This restructuring of work held the advantage of lower labor costs and a more pliant work force.(5)

Widely applying these techniques to factory and office resulted in making the worker more than ever a cog in a wheel, an appendage to the machine, and a slave of the boss. To offset worker resistence to these intensified labor practices, employers like Henry Ford were forced to offer forms of enhanced compensation such as shorter hours, higher wages and other such benefits. The tremendous increase of productivity, as Ford recognized, easily made up for the increase in compensation.

Chaplin's MODERN TIMES illustrates how Scientific Management or Taylorism controls the industrial worker through assembly line speedups, time clocks, the foreman, and constant surveillance of workers. Once these systems of control were in place the policing of leisure time activities of ordinary people, such as moviegoing, became less important. Indeed movies were praised for the role they played in helping workers recuperate from the strains of work.

To return to the leisure question and the reevaluation of escapism: these new production methods and the strains they induced created pressure for a reappraisal of the stingy leisure ethic propagated by the bourgeoisie throughout the 19th century and into the twentieth. They based their analysis of leisure on certain assumptions about the relations between leisure and productivity. They thought that escapist leisure induced a state of mind that undermined productivity or that leisure expenditures put pressure on wages, contributing to worker discontent and threatening profits. A whole set of assumptions about the negative effects of escapist leisure bolstered this criticism of popular modes of entertainments — assumptions drawn from medicine (bad for the physical health), psychology (bad for the nerves), sociology (contributed to violence), aesthetics (stunted the ability to appreciate beauty), and theology (warped the soul).

New developments in production and consumption invalidated this analysis. Work discipline now became less a matter of workers' attitudes than of managerial control which was increasingly built into the production process through assembly lines and step-by-step scrutiny by management representatives on the shop floor. The resulting nerve-racking, intensified, dictated labor led to management's reevaluation of escapism. Regular and limited bouts of escape from the real world came to be appreciated for the part they played in worker recuperation.

Thus, one of the first prestigious academics in the U.S. to step forward in defense of Hollywood movies and escapist entertainment in general was Hugo Münsterberg, a Harvard psychologist specializing in the practical application of psychological techniques to industry. Münsterberg in particular took up the problem of selecting the right worker for the right job, developing methods for habituating' the worker to new Taylorist techniques of production. In his Psychology and Industrial Efficiency (1913), he set down three main tasks for the industrial psychologist:

“We ask how we can find the men whose mental qualities make them best fitted for the work which they have to do; secondly, under what psychological conditions we can secure the greatest and most satisfactory output of work from every man; and finally, how we can produce most completely the influence on human minds which are desired in the interests of business.”(6)

Münsterberg's efforts won him widespread recognition among the political, corporate and academic elite. According to his daughter, he counted among his admirers and friends such notables as Theodore Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson, William James and Andrew Carnegie.

This prestigious academic turned his interest to the popular film in 1915, when the medium was still déclassé. He spent considerable time gazing at the silent screen, visiting film companies, even becoming a contributing editor to the new Paramount Company's publication, Paramount Pictographs. In 1916 he published one of the first lengthy academic defenses of film, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study. A careful reading of The Photoplay, however, reveals nothing inconsistent or aberrant in Münsterberg's pathbreaking defense of popular film. Indeed, his film aesthetic remains consistent with his earlier work in industrial psychology, particularly that part of it which sought to find ways in which psychology could "secure the greatest and most satisfactory output of work from every man," and create a climate where the workers identified their interests with that of business.

Before examining Münsterberg's defense of film, a reminder is necessary about the climate of opinion surrounding the movie business at the time that he connected with it. Just before the war, as new film corporations were consolidating to produce, distribute and exhibit expensive features, efforts were underway to establish federal legislation to regulate the content of the new medium. The main proponents of the restrictive legislation were churchmen, social workers, journalists, educators, and politicians. They wanted new entertainment to reflect traditional cultural values. They criticized film as undermining reality orientation and the kind of self-repression advocated by traditional morality and aesthetics. The movie business needed to revise these ideas about leisure.

In The Photoplay: A Psychological Study, Münsterberg sets out to counter the moral condemnation of moviegoing, especially the idea that cinematic escapism violated the work ethic, and by extension, national goals, by being so easy to consume. He introduced an aesthetic in opposition to that which most bourgeois critics of the time promoted.

Münsterberg hints that indeed he tied his reevaluation of film to new social and economic imperatives. He wrote,

"We want to study the right of the photoplay, hitherto ignored by esthetics, to be classified as an art in itself under entirely new mental life conditions." (7)

The middle class attack on film held that active and passive mental states formed discrete parts of the human mind, and art must nourish and hone the active ones. As a psychologist, Münsterberg countered that modern research found these two states closely linked, and that human health depends on the proper functioning of both. Münsterberg began,

“In our daily activity, voluntary and involuntary attention are always intertwined. Our life is a great compromise between that which our voluntary attentions aim at and that which the aims of the surrounding world force on our involuntary attentions.” (p. 32)

On the whole, the defense that Münsterberg works out for film, indeed the claim that film is superior to theater, rests on his exposition of the medium's unique capacity to bypass voluntary effort — such as thinking, remembering, and physical effort such as eye movement. Film communicates directly with involuntary mental functions. Münsterberg praises such cinematic elements as the close up, flashback, and parallel cutting because they form closer approximations to inner mental processes than the theater can achieve. In a superior way, the film medium more closely resembles the functioning of the human brain. Take Münsterberg's treatment of the flashback. He finds film flashbacks superior to those in theatrical performances, where

“in every important scene we must remember those situations of the preceding act which can throw light on the new developments.”

Film's ability to cut rapidly back and forth in time makes it more effortless, more like the natural functioning of the inner mind. The movie close up is similarly superior. It draws the spectator's attention more effortlessly and automatically than the theater can. For example, says Münsterberg, imagine the effect of a gun in the intruder's hand. To appreciate it within the larger frame of the proscenium stage taxes a number of faculties. The motion picture automatically establishes such effects for the viewer:

“The close-up has objectified in our world of perception, our mental act of attention and by it has furnished art with a means which far transcends the power of any theater stage... In both cases, the act which in the ordinary theater would go on in our mind alone is here in the photoplay projected into the pictures themselves. It is as if reality has lost its own emphasis and become shaped by the demands of our soul." (p. 38)

Münsterberg, uncomfortable with the passivity of his presumed film spectator, finds movie images perfectly in accord with the inner mechanics of the human brain, as if some kind of link existed between the audience's mode of seeing and the choices made by the filmmaker.

Münsterberg roots his defense of film in the same reactionary view of human nature evident in his industrial psychology. This becomes clear in how he analyzes escapism's benefits. Münsterberg tells how to gauge aesthetic quality by the degree to which it removes the participant from the real world. He observes:

“The highest art may be the furthest removed from reality. An object becomes beautiful when it is delivered from these ties (with the real world) and in order to secure this result we must take it away from the background of reality and reproduce it in such a form that it is unmistakably different from the real things which are enchained by the causes and effects of nature.” (p. 65)

As he discusses the social uses of cinema in "The Function of the Photoplay," Münsterberg reveals the ideological basis of his aesthetic. He supports film because of its ability to remove the viewer from the real world, its capacity to provide a vital interval of relaxation. This escape has great social utility, according to Münsterberg, since it helps compensate for life's inherent shortcomings. He argues that we find our highest moments not in life but in art:

“Life is a continuous striving... nothing is an end in itself and therefore nothing is a source of complete rest. Everything is a stimulus to new wishes, a source of new uneasiness which longs for new satisfaction in the next and again the next thing.”

Movies provide a superior, not an inferior, art form in that they facilitate, better than more established arts, an escape from reality through their interplay with less-than-conscious mind states. Thus he finds moral or political suasion inappropriate for art.

“As long as we have the desire to change anything, the work is not complete in itself. The relation of the work to us as persons must not enter into our awareness of it at all. As soon as it does, the complete restfulness [my emphasis] of the aesthetic enjoyment is lost.” (p. 95)

Why is this desirable? The experience of the film helps reinvigorate the spectator, it helps him to recuperate from draining, unsatisfying life, and to be better prepared to reenter the fray. The ultimate function of the photoplay is that it

“heightens the feelings of vitality in the spectator: He [sic] feels as if he were passing through life with a sharper accent which stirs his personal energies … The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time and causality.”

While Münsterberg gives The Photoplay the appearance of a scientific, objective aesthetic treatise, another contribution to the art-for-art's sake controversy, he clearly does much more, as we can see from his direct relation with the film business. At this time movie producers were discovering the incompatibility between profits and traditional cultural and political goals, which various groups were trying to impose on film. Münsterberg's name lent respectability to the industry. (His book, according to the film historian Terry Ramsaye, "was of decided service in its period by way of indicating to the intelligentsia that the lowly motion picture was worthy of attention.”) Beyond that, he gave the industry a theoretical foundation for the aggressive promotion of the film as an escapist entertainment. While one wouldn't want to claim too much for one academic's influence on corporate thinking, the defense put forward by the industry in subsequent years followed his approach. In response to the question, "Have the Movie Ideals?", for example, in 1918 a movie executive candidly admitted in The Forum, a high-brow magazine:

“A great deal of money has been lost by men who have a fancy to demonstrate the public love of ideals. I am convinced that... the preacher, the critic, and the reformer can never receive the rewards of their labor. It has been necessary to refer to the amusement business as a whole to define the particular ideals that are possible in the motion picture business.”

Münsterberg's pathbreaking The Photoplay contributed to a new blueprint for leisure control, a complement to his work in industrial psychology on worker control. It lauded the ability of the film to uproot the viewer from the real world and transport her or him into a dream world where objective factors did not intrude. The splendid thing about the movies, “this fountain-like spray of pictures,” was not that they heightened the viewer’s consciousness of the world but, on the contrary, that they helped “overcome the causal world.” Münsterberg predicted that the movies "more than any other art” were "destined to overcome outer nature by the free and joyful play of the mind.” (p. 69) At a time when established schools of cultural criticism, still operating under the idea that separation from reality cut into social and productive relations, expressed shock at the opium-like stupor induced by movies, Münsterberg, in a better position to know about new work imperatives, instructed them in the stupor's beneficiality.

In June 1919, in an article called "The Breadline and the Movies,” in The Dial, the radical sociologist Thorstein Veblen published a slashing attack on the movie business, an attack which can be seen as a rejoinder to the Münsterberg position on movies' social role. Veblen said that the movie industry had become an instrument of bourgeois social control similar to Imperial Rome's "bread and circuses." Veblen wrote that in modern times,

“the mechanical appliances for preserving law and order have been greatly perfected, and by suitable fiscal methods the underlying population which is to be 'kept in hand' can be induced to pay for these mechanical appliances by which they are to be kept in hand.”

While the bread and circuses once cut into the profits of the

“vested interests, … the movies of the twentieth century are business propositions of their own right, a source of 'earnings' and a vested interest. And in the ordinary times of peace or war the movies supply what appears to be required in the way of politically statutory dissipation. Yet in time of stress, as is now evident [1919 was a year of considerable domestic turmoil] something more enticing may be required to distract popular attention securely and keep the underlying population from taking stock of the statesman's promises and performances. At a critical juncture, when large chances of profit and less for the vested interests are in the balance, it may be well to take thought and add something to the workday routine of the movies, even at some expense.”

Veblen probably had in mind the gaudy, exotic spectacles coming from directors like DeMille. At any rate, in the twenties, defenders of the Hollywood style, moving beyond Münsterberg's cautious academic defense of the escapist film, would approve the film industry on the very grounds on which Veblen condemned it. They saw it as necessary and proper that movies help obfuscate painful disparities in the class system, assist in disciplining consumers in ways pleasing to commodity producers and retailers, and alleviate mental and psychological disorders arising from modern industrial life.

In the post-WWI years a growing circle of "opinion makers," journalists, businessmen, film industry publicists, politicians and academics, assumed this view of the Hollywood film: Movies offered an antidote to the damaging effects of work and modern industrial life. One such defense, published by a Dr. George Humphrey (identified as a "university psychologist") in the May 24, 1924, issue of Harper's Weekly, argued that movies soothed the raw nerves of the modern businessman and factory worker. In answer to the question, "Is escape good or harmful?" he responded:

“As an escape from the straight-jacket of logic, of business, or workaday habit, the motion picture is probably of great help to the average man, provided that he does not abuse it … for this reason many doctors prescribe a hobby, and the movies are the greatest and most democratic hobby in the world.”

The idea that escapist entertainment and getting-away-from-it-all became natural and inevitable under modern capitalism went hand-in-hand with the observations about the immutability of economic and social conditions. Escapism, as Humphrey phrased it, allowed a

“parole from the wall of inhibitions, the prison of everyday life … nothing else that does the same thing is so cheap, so easily accessible, and productive of so little real harm.”

Since presumably workers had no other alternatives, to critique escapist leisure in the old way now seemed perverse. The movie business pushed this line hard in the twenties. A typical trade journal article, "Robbing the Poor of Happiness," figured that

"91% of all so-called reform legislation in this country is devised for the express purpose of taking joy and happiness out of the poor man's life."

The industry found support for this view not only among psychologists, but from the psychoanalytic community as well. The consumer goods sector in the twenties frequently exploited Freudianism, or a mangled version of it, to support cutting loose and spending. Indeed, in the twenties the motion picture producers got one of Freud's followers, Dr. A.A. Brill, to testify against tough federal censorship legislation. Brill told a Congressional hearing that people demanding restriction and control of amusements showed "certain pathological traits to the extent of bordering on real paranoia" as they demonstrate "an apparent great moral fervor and are always discovering things, especially in the field of sex and crime, which they claim will ruin society.”(8)

Let us return to the pro-Hollywood argument that films helped offset and regulate ailments generated by social and economic conditions. Fatalism always lies close to the surface of this approach. Iris Barry, in her 1926 encomium on the Hollywood film, Let's Go to the Movies, wrote without embarrassment:

"We come out of the pictures soothed and drugged like sleepwalkers … having half-forgotten our own existence, hardly knowing our own names."

Barry sanctioned this narcoticized state because

"life has become so circumscribed … the easiest way to get out of oneself is vicariously, by seeing others having emotions and so getting them second-hand."(9)

Taking a more cynical line, another author observed that

"one could not imagine a more effective, a more economical and a surer way to instructing the masses and filling their humdrum, hopeless and pitiless existence with joy, than the motion pictures." (10)

In the twenties, the official social philosophy disseminated by Hollywood in its advertising and corporate propaganda (and implied in its films) also emphasized that life was ephemeral and rotten. The only hope of release came from surrendering oneself to the cool dark of the movie house with its transporting luminescences. This blatantly reactionary outlook even became physically imprinted on the theaters. Engraved in stone on the walls of a Brooklyn movie palace, for example, were the phrases (in Latin): Life is Short, Times Flies, Seize the Day (meaning go to a movie). A typical Saturday Evening Post movie ad offered the following prescription for life's ills:

“Go to a motion picture … and let yourself go … before you know it you are living the story — laughing, loving, hating, struggling, winning! All the adventures, all the romance, all the excitement you lack in your daily life are in — Pictures. They take you completely out of yourself into a wonderful new world … Out of the cage of everyday existence! If only for an afternoon or an evening — escape it.”(11)

To document the social utility of the film, its antidote to alienation, the movie industry sponsored a contest in the twenties in which the filmgoer would write on the topic, "What the Motion Picture Means to Me." The winning entries selected by the industry show how the movie business wanted to promote film's merits for "cooling-out" discontent, in this case by supplying ersatz access to wealth and adventure. The second place winner in this contest, a Mrs. Lawrence Wood of Texas, wrote:

“The movies are practically my only recreation and are no small factor in securing the happiness which is necessary to my well being … an evening at a good motion picture theater seems to make up somewhat the deficit caused by lack of wealth … the romantic situation, the glamour seems to help me hold the tenderness and love for my husband that are usually lost when a man and a woman think only of getting ahead and making money.(12)

Another contest winner, Mr. C. Westerman of Breckenridge, Colorado, confessed that before he discovered the movies,

"I had only my books, and it was lonely always reading, never going about with other folks. Now, however, my world has changed."

A number of academic analyses of film's impact, undertaken in the twenties and thirties, supported the idea that movies could relieve work- and economy-related disorders. In several articles published in a review of the motion picture's impact on society in a 1926 edition of The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, film was seen as a form of public service. One author, the publisher of the Nebraska Farmer, wrote of movies' benefits:

“Greatest of all … is the fact that the moving picture brings recreation from the humdrum life of the farm. Tired men and tired women may slip into the moving picture theater and find relief from the worries and trials of everyday life. The house is darkened, and instantly the spectators are transferred to a land of romance. It is a fact that people live the pictures they see.”

Elsewhere a social worker, urging that Hollywood films be shown by social agencies, wrote:

“You know why most people go to the motion pictures is to escape the truth. The desire to escape facts is the big thing … the reason why they need the highly spiced stuff is that they are trying to forget something so deeply grinding in the factory, so discouraging in the home. Show me a film that appeals to the big audience and I will show you the rough stuff. By that I mean the cheap stuff.”

And Samuel Gompers, the conservative labor leader, asserted in 1919 (again, a year when disenchantment with wages and working conditions was leading to widespread labor violence and striking) that his union, the American Federation of Labor,

"recognized that the motion picture presents an opportunity for the worker in the small mining town and other industrial communities to get out of his environment and to enjoy a wider field of vision, at least by proxy."

Many members of the political and economic elite decided to support, rather than interfere with Hollywood practices, because of film's role in transforming, to use Harry Braverman's words, "all of society into a gigantic marketplace." Promoting consumption became a conscious strategy within the movie business, indeed a necessary and logical part of its development. The record shows that important centers of economic and political power widely appreciated this function.

Film's role in training and directing consumers was also hailed in a number of the 1926 Annals articles which sought to show that the movie business provided a major stimulus to trade. One author wrote:

“The motion pictures are bettering living conditions everywhere, especially in the small towns and on the farms. No longer does the girl in the rural community guess as to what styles are going to be in three months. She knows because she sees them on the screen. She realizes that the designers of gowns in motion pictures are among the greatest in the world, that their information from fashion centers is correct and always ahead of the time.”

Another author felt that movies were

“proving a considerable force in helping to arouse on the part of 60 the buying public a desire for the many types of products most commonly shown on the screen. An obvious example of this is the 'fashion show, a long and elaborate sequence showing the latest styles on living models, but forming an integral part of the picture … furniture of all kinds, automobiles, and a variety of other products, are particularly aided through their use in motion picture scenes.”

The Motion Picture, a “study” produced by the film industry, quoted Julia Adams as she wrote in The Gift and Art Shop:

“Some day one is going to make a real study of the influence of the screen drama on the clothing and customs of the nation and people. You go to the movies to be amused, of course, but consciously or unconsciously we are always swayed in our choice of what we wear and how we wear it by what we see worn by our favorite star.”

The sociologist Herbert Blumer did undertake such a study in the early thirties. Published as Movies and Conduct, it was one of a series of books on the effects of the film sponsored by The Payne Fund for the Motion Picture Research Council. The Payne Fund studies were not pro-Hollywood, but Blumer's book provides similar evidence of the movies' role in promoting consumption. One college girl wrote:

“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.”

And a high school boy of 17:

“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.”

The medium's unique ability to situate the observer in breathtaking proximity to the commodity was also one of the features applauded by Iris Barry. "Chairs, tables, collar studs, kitchen ware and flowers," she noted, "take on a function which they have lost, save for the young children."

Most observers continued to assert that the commodity-laden plots and materialistic values of films simply expressed the audience's values. They passed over the coercive aspects of films, their ideological nature. Like Münsterberg and trade propaganda, they assumed that the movie view of society stayed mystically attuned to the wants and desires of the audience. As Iris Barry wrote,

“What it is that affects us most in American films is their acceptance of a mechanical civilization, their pride and delight in motor cars, typewriters, lifts, skyscrapers, traffic, and above all, speed.”

Margaret Thorpe, in her late 30s book, America at the Movies, published by Yale University Press, observed:

“Everybody was interested in ways of spending money. The new rich, whether they counted their income in hundreds, or in thousands, wanted to know all about high-powered cars, airplanes, ocean liners, yachts, perfect servants; and DeMille told them. His were really the first educational films.”

While of the opinion that these values "are not altogether rational," Thorpe concludes,

"The movies did not impose it on her [the housewife]: they have merely expertly materialized the Platonic shadows of her desires.”

While some critics worried about the backlash of unfulfilled expectations encouraged by the movies (one sociologist predicted that problems would arise "when the mechanic learns and tries to use the banker's measure; when the neutral sales girl apes her more favored sister of the screen, … when the tired housewife in her hot smelly kitchen envies the indolent, much-servented society matron, etc."), many observers argued the opposite: pseudo-consumption, the poor's vicarious identification with the lifestyle of the wealthy, their regular visual devouring of unattainable experiences, could lessen individual dissatisfaction — and by implication possible social disorder. Cinema's escapism had an internal ideological content: it was not idle or inert escapism but escapism promoting consumption as escapism in general. Pseudo-consumption seemed an answer to poverty and economic immobility. The movies consciously promoted this in their advertisements, as we have seen. Many critics agreed. In praising the lush DeMille high life features, Iris Barry wrote:

"The films flatter these dreams [of wealth, etc.] and make the poor inhabit marble halls for a few hours."

Thorpe concurred on pseudo-consumption's social benefits:

“The adult female goes to the movies as she reads luxury advertising so that she may be familiar with the ultimate in Fisher bodies and sable coats … the movies are far more satisfying than the advertisement. They give her an illusion, as she identifies herself with the heroine of the afternoon, that she is enjoying elegances she may never experience in the flesh.”

In response to those who argued that the movies warped the nation's values, the movie business invariably resorted to its democracy-of-the-box-office argument. As one movie publicist wrote, answering criticism about "gross exaggerations" and lack of realism in movies,

“The inveterate movie fan had progressed far in the opposite direction. He expects these exaggerations, is not disturbed by their disproportion, and in fact demands them, if we are to believe the makers of the motion pictures.”

The U.S. political and economic elite increasingly appreciated film's role in helping shape values and manners useful to capitalism and expressed this approval by rejecting proposals to control the industry through federal censorship or stringent anti-trust enforcement. As we have seen, Hollywood made its first links with the executive branch of government during Wilson's Presidency. Managed by Will Hays, these links expanded and became vital to the producers in the twenties. Hollywood also vigorously lobbied state and national legislators, and sought the support of important figures from industry and finance as well. It added to its payroll major literary figures and helped feed an army of publicists and promoters. Even Henry Ford felt compelled to admit that the movies, in conjunction with his automobile and good roads, had helped revive life in rural United States. Calvin Coolige more explicitly acknowledged their broad economic importance. According to The New York Times of April 21, 1926,

“President Coolige is disposed to leave the censorship of films to States rather than favor the proposed Federal Censorship... In his opinion, the American films have been of great advantage in bringing our life and customs before the world. The President also thinks they have aided in our trade relations and produced a better understanding among nations.”


1. Citations from William DeMille's correspondence come from letters found in Columbia University's Manuscript Collection.

2. William DeMille, "Great Pictures and the Men Who Made Them," typescript, CUMC.

3. William DeMille to Brander Mathews, March 20, 1916, CUMC. Mathews expressed his reservations the following year in an article, "Are the Movie a Menace to Drama," published in the North American Review. See Henry May, The End of American Innocence (Chicago, 1964), 334-336.

4. William DeMille, "Bigoted but Better Pictures," Scribner's, September 1924.

5. For more on the effect of Scientific Management on work, see Harry Braverman, Labor and Monopoly Capital (New York: Monthly Review Press, 1974).

6. Quoted in Braverman, 143.

7. Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (New York: D. Appleton & Co., 1916); reprint (New York: Dover Press, 1970), p. 17.

8. Quoted in "The Wowsers Tackle the Movies," The American Mercury, November 28, 1925. See also Stewart Ewin, Captains of Consciousness (New York: McGraw Hill, 1976), p. 83 and following.

9. Iris Barry, Let's Go to the Movies (London: Payson and Clark, 1926), 66.

10. Herbert Sherwood, "Democracy and the Movies," The Bookman, May 1918.

11. Helen and Robert Lynd, Middletown (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1956), 265.

12. "What the Motion Picture Means to Me," pamphlet (New York, 1926), possibly published by the movie industry's National Board of Review. Found in the files of the National Board of Review, Film Book Collection, Lincoln Center Library of the Performing Arts, New York.

The author thanks Jerry Tennenbaum and Andy Lawless for their critical comments on this article.