A Social Study of the Motion Picture

Film studies at The University of Iowa appear to have started in 1916 when the Department of Political Economy and Sociology accepted Ray LeRoy Short’s master’s thesis: A Social Study of the Motion Picture. (Thesis T1916.S559).

Short reviewed the history and development of the motion picture and its present scope and importance as economic and social factors; devoted a chapter to the National Board of Review and other attempts to influence or censor the contents of films; and then summarized the history of motion pictures in Iowa City and presented the results of his survey of school children in several grades of Iowa City schools.

The first Iowa City motion picture theater, he writes, opened in 1906, and “for a time the public regarded the ‘movie’ exhibition in rather a dubious light, questioning if they were fit for children to see or proper for women to attend. During the first year of its existence, the success of this new business, from a financial standpoint, seemed doubtful.” A second theater opened in 1907 — with “the successful showing of the Passion Play to a large and enthusiastic audience, a rapid development in this new venture was inaugurated” — and a third in 1908. There were five theaters by 1913. They, and the opera house, “regularly exhibit[ed] motion pictures” in 1916.

Seating capacity by 1916 was “about 3,200, and the reasonably safe and sanitary conditions required by law, prevail.” In 1906, weekly attendance had been about 500; by 1909 this had increased to 2,000; and “at the present time, a most conservative estimate places the weekly attendance at approximately 20,000 persons, who pay a total admission of more than $1800. This means that there are more than 1,000,0000 paid admissions to local motion picture exhibitions every year, and the people of Iowa City and the surrounding community pay in the neighborhood of $100,000 annually for this popular form of entertainment.” In 1916, Iowa City’s population was about 12,000. The University that year enrolled 2088 men and 1435 women, a total of 3523 students.

Short’s questionnaires were completed by 408 girls and 452 boys, a total of 860. 257 of the girls and 286 of the boys reported attending one or more pictures during the week of the survey, for a total of 1272 admissions, 868 of them after 7 p.m. The average number of attendances was 2.4 per child. Only about one child in five was “properly accompanied” by a person over eighteen years of age.

Short outlines recommendations for a “city plan,” not to censor undesirable films but to promote quality films. “The first important step in meeting the situation, is to crystallize public sentiment as to the social significance of the motion picture in the life of the community. The fact that many young girls in Iowa City, between the ages of ten and fifteen years, frequent the local news-stands for the express purpose of devouring the contents of motion picture periodicals, should throw some light upon their present ideals and aspirations. The fact that school children are better acquainted with modern motion picture actors and actresses than with the authors of their text-books, should be a matter of concern to their parents.”

Short concludes with remarks on the social significance of the motion picture: “Present indicators permit of but one conclusion, namely, that one of the most vital and potent social factors of tomorrow will be, as it is today, the motion picture.”