1920s Teens And Their Favorite “Pictures”

“Kids these days!” you lament. “All they ever want to do is sit around and watch T.V. On their phones. With the T.V. on in the background. In my day I had to walk barefoot thirty miles just to look at a picture of a T.V.! And phones? Our town had only one gasoline-powered phone and if you wanted to use at 6 p.m. you had to get in line at 6 a.m. And you prayed the phone would work, because sometimes it ran out of gasoline.”

Okay, maybe you have a point as far as cell phones go. Teens and twenty-somethings could probably stand to put their phones down for awhile…just a little while…try 15 minutes…take some deep breaths first…I believe in you…no?  Try again in an hour?

I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I take it all back!! Sheesh…

But contrary to what you might think, we millennials aren’t the first to be hypnotized by new technology and the latest entertainment. Oh no, not by a long shot.

In the early part of the 20th century children were fascinated by the marvelous “moving pictures.” In the 1910s around 30% of the seats in any given neighborhood theater were claimed by children. (Imagine how many adults must have lamented about their kids’ addiction to the “picture plays”–if they weren’t hooked themselves, of course!)

Kids thinking about seeing the latest Christie Comedies, circa 1922.

By the 1920s over half the audience was made up of young people from age 10 to 23–“the backbone of today’s business” as a writer for Everybody’s Magazine declared.

Teen movie goers phantom of the opera

The kid on the left clearly has the weight of the economy on his shoulders.

These young picture-goers attended the theaters at least once or twice a week, and it didn’t take long for those in the filmmaking business to start taking a closer look at this demographic.

In May of 1922 a poll was conducted by the National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, the Associated First National Exhibitors, and the Russell Sage Foundation. These stuffy-sounding organizations asked 37,000 high school students in 76 U.S. cities to tell them what their favorite films were and what genres they liked best. The results were reported the following year–as a May 1923 Exhibitor’s Trade Review earnestly noted, “The questionnaire is so comprehensive that that it has taken a full year to tabulate and analyze the results.”

From Motion Picture News, May 19 '23.

From Motion Picture News, May 19 ’23.

Happily, it has taken me much less time to sort out the data with some handy pie charts for you all (because pie charts are fun)!

So what films were students’ favorites back then? For boys, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (1921) was the winner with The Birth of a Nation (1915) and The Three Musketeers (1922) not too far behind.

1923 Poll Boys favorite film

Notice the unfamiliar films claiming spots on the list–they now languish in archives.

The majority of girls liked Way Down East (1920) although Four Horsemen was a close second. And yes, there’s The Sheik in a very strong third place!
1923 Poll Girls favorite film

As far as what kinds of films they liked best, boys definitely dug westerns. Not too surprisingly, they also loved comedies–and, surprisingly, detective stories (not a silent film genre that tends to get talked about much today!).

1923 Poll Boys kinds of filmsGirls, on the other hand, couldn’t get enough of a good love story. They also enjoyed comedies, as well as getting glimpses of “society life.”

1923 Poll Girls kinds of filmsWhen asked what sort of stories they liked the least, boys apparently didn’t care for slapstick (or vulgar comedy), and were also quick to criticize a film they felt wasn’t “true to life.” (And don’t get them started on “mushy” films.)

1923 Poll Boys least favorite

Girls were also annoyed by slapstick and other such vulgarities.  “Both sexes protested most vigorously against slapstick comedy. ‘I do not like comedies in which the principal characters spend a great deal of time bombarding each other with cakes and pies,’ is the kind of remark that appeared over and over again,” reported the Motion Pictures News.  Girls also had a distinct dislike for murder “and shooting” (compared to a meager 8% of boys!).

1923 Poll Girls least favorite

This certainly gives a strong indication as to why many top comedians at the time (Chaplin, Arbuckle, Lloyd, Keaton) had perceptively made the transition to “respectable” feature-length comedies by the early Twenties. (Although Arbuckle, unfortunately, was unable to release many of his features due to his 1921 scandal.)

As far as favorite screen stars, there was a mutual admiration for Mary Pickford and Norma and Constance Talmadge. Douglas Fairbanks, Rudolph Valentino and Wallace Reid were the top actors, although boys liked Doug the best, and the girls of course preferred Rudy (Richard Barthelmess was third for them, I was happy to see).

1923 Student favorites

Norma, Connie, and Dick (from Exhibitor’s Trade Review).

The man who made this poll public, Clarence Arthur Perry, chairman of the National Committee for Better Films of New York City, stated in Motion Picture News:

The uniformity with which the various classes of pictures were liked or disliked on the part of the boys and girls in the eastern, central and western states was remarkable. These facts all suggest to me the possibility that the vote of an average audience in New York City–if it could be taken in the right way–would give an index to the comparative popularity of a picture which would be found to hold for other parts of the United States as well.  This would not, of course, hold for the few pictures which have a different appeal for the various sections of the country.

This poll must have been useful to theater owners, filmmakers, and other people in showbiz at the time–and perhaps interesting to the general public as well (who always worried about the moral state of America’s youth).

It’s still useful today since it provides an intriguing glimpse into the minds of young people back then–who were just as into the latest movies and hot trends as we are now.  It’s details like this that can help breath some life into our understanding of a bygone era.

Sources:

Koszarski, Richard.  An Evening’s Entertainment: The Age of the Silent Feature Picture, 1915-1928. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1990.

“High Schools Vote on Picture Preferences.” Motion Picture News, May 19, 1923.

“Survey of 37,000 High School Pupils Shows Preference for Frontier Plays.” Exhibitors Trade Review, May 26 1923.

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13 thoughts on “1920s Teens And Their Favorite “Pictures”

  1. The theaters were owned by the studios back then, so if they were using this poll to make any decisions, the movie didn’t get made in the first place if they weren’t going to show it. This is absolutely fascinating. I wonder, however, like the previous commenter at the veracity of the responses.

    • For me, judging by box office records, letters and polls in old magazines, and whatnot, the results don’t seem too far off the mark–although I’m a little surprised by the relative apathy toward “brutality” (unless the term wasn’t defined much in the poll). I do wonder if students gave their own responses to the question “What’s the best picture you’ve ever seen?” or if they were specifically given those 12 film options. It’s always possible that teen opinions might’ve been influenced by what they read in movie magazines too (critics were vocal about their dislike of pie-throwing back then!).

  2. Great article. Yes, I would have assumed slapstick would still be valued in the early 20’s. But it does explain why films continued to transition into more “sophisticated” storytelling.

    • Yes, there’s definitely a difference between run-of-the-mill short comedies and the kind of sophistication that Keaton and Chaplin were achieving by that point. (Our Hospitality, for instance!) They were savvy people.

  3. I’ve been dying to read something like this. This is endlessly fascinating.

    I have a family story I’d love to share….I got goosebumps seeing that amazing photograph of the boys looking at the “Phantom of the Opera” posters. My Grandpa, born 1917, told me a story, many times, of seeing that film with HIS father.

    My Great-Grandfather was exactly what the books tell us a film enthusiast was…..he was an immigrant from Italy, and came over here circa 1899-1901. He built a life for himself and his wife, and his son. My entire family (on both sides) are all movie buffs, and it seems like it was that way in the 20s as well.

    So my Grandfather remembers being in the theatre with his father…..who was a strong, sturdy, but quiet man……and they’re watching the movie….and all of a sudden…the mask comes off…..and my Grandfather’s Father starts doing a sort of “male shriek”….a shriek, but in a low register! “AAHH! AHHH! AHHH! AHHH! AHHH! AHHH!” (at this point in the story, my Grandfather would imitate my terrified ancestor, breaking up into hysterics at the memory). He had NEVER seen his father act like that, nor would he ever again! He was almost more frightened at his father’s reaction, than his own!!!

    I so wish I had asked him more about the silents. He had a book about the silents, this old coffee table book – basically 2-page actor/actress biographies (and some directors) with stills on each page…..I read that over and over when I was a kid, even though I didn’t see my first silent film until years later…and i didn’t REALLY get into silent films until more recent times. It kills me, because I interviewed him at length on tape about World War II and the Great Depression……I’d do ANYTHING to talk to him about what he remembers about the silent era. Often I see a movie and wonder, did Grandpa see this one? Did he like this one?

    • Fantastic story about your grandfather and great-grandfather, I was completely hooked! Loved it! How extraordinary is it that movies could affect people like that back in the day? We’ve become so much more jaded now, thanks to CGI (which I don’t hate, but it’s getting very overused nowadays and we seem to be losing our senses of wonder at the movie theater).

      You know, of all the movies that “old-timers” talked about, The Phantom of the Opera does seem to come up all the time! And they always remembered how they reacted to seeing the Phantom’s face for the first time, usually as children. What an important film it was.

      I’m glad you heard at least a little bit about your grandfather’s experiences at the movies. My great-grandmother (or is it great-great-grandmother?) played the piano for silent films in a theater in South Dakota. She was long gone before I was born, but hopefully someday I’ll find out a bit more about her!

      • Oh my GOSH!!!! Your great (or great great!) grandmother played the piano for silent films!! She truly was great-great!!!!!! Gosh, it must be so difficult to do, but I so hope you are able to glean some kind of information one day, It must torture you that you can’t talk to her!!!! It’s torturing me!!!!

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