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  The Moving Picture: A Primary School for Criminals

Excerpt from William A. McKeever, “The Moving Picture: A Primary School for Criminals,” Good Housekeeping , (August 10, 1910) 184-86.

William A. McKeever was a Professor of Philosophy in the Kansas State Agricultural College when he wrote this piece. He criticizes motion pictures as worse for children than dime novels because movies show children violence acts on the large screen.

What is to be done with the moving-picture shows? All over this beautiful land of ours, in the cities, towns, and villages, we find these “nickelodeons,” “lyrics,” and “electrics” at work six or seven nights in the week, grinding out their reels of excitement and enchantment before the eyes of the motley throng of men and women, boys and girls.

It is a great popular craze—popular partly because it is cheap, but chiefly because of the fact of its realistic nature. For some generations in this country we were called upon to do battle with the “yellow back”—the dime novel—which fight has been practically won by us. The cheap, trashy story has at last been driven into the more remote and less enlightened corners of the flimsy periodicals. But precisely of the same character as the cheap story, the ten times more poisonous and hurtful to character in its results, is the moving-picture show when in the hands of a man whose first concern is to draw a crowd and make it pay.

These moving pictures are more degrading than the dime novel, because they represent real flesh-and-blood forms, and impart their lessons directly through the senses. The dime novel cannot lead the boy farther than his limited imagination will allow him to go, but the moving pictures forces upon his view scenes that are new. That is, they give him first-hand experience.

The Work of the Schools Undone

If the reader will make a round of visits to a large number of these shows, he will agree with me as to their objectionable character. He will find depicted again and again, in living form all sorts of acts of a criminal and depraving nature. And around it all is thrown a sentiment such as to give the mind of plastic youth a tendency to regard the coarser forms of conduct as a common thing in our daily walks of life. There he learns precisely how robberies, holdup and murders are committed; how officers of the law, such as policemen, are false to their oath of office and to the demands of plain, everyday duty; how divorces are originated and how the various members of the family violate the most sacred laws that bind together the home circle and give it its charm and perpetuity.

If the citizens of any community should assemble with the purpose of laying plans and devising means whereby to teach immorality, obscenity and crime, I can think of no better way definitely and certainly to bring about such results than the use of the moving-picture show as it is now conducted. It is a serious matter, this picture business. We tax ourselves heavily for educational purposes, and employ teachers in the schools to inculcate, among other things, certain higher moral principles. In fact, we agree that the end of all teaching in the schools is moral character, and then we permit and license these cheap and vitiating shows to run, and we permit our children to attend, and not only unlearn all the moral lessons of the schools, but learn directly many of the immoral lessons that were once confined to the worst centers of our largest cities. In fact, the motto of these moving-pictures organizations might be this: “A red-light district in easy reach of every home. See the murders and the debauchery while you wait. It is only a nickel.”

Quick Reference: Clash of Cultures in the 1910s-1920s