“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?
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!)
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.
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.”
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.
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!).
When 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.)
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!).
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).
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.
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.