THAT the character and code of ethics of our neighbors to the south of us are likely to become those of the world in general owing to the influence of the moving picture play upon national life is the contention of Mr. Weigall in this article in the Nineteenth Century.
“It is to be remembered,” he says, “that a popular photo-play is seen by scores of millions of persons throughout the globe: there has never before been such a means of publicity. The newspaper with the largest circulation on earth is a mere mouse in the presence of this mammoth, and the ‘best seller’ in the book-world is, by comparison, something still smaller.
“Now, as things stand at present, the great majority of photoplays are produced at a single centre, and represent the point of view of a single community. The
numberless multitudes of the patrons of the kinema, therefore, come under one predominating influence; and whether that influence be for good or for bad, it will undoubtedly stamp itself in greater or lesser degree upon the world. The code of ethics prevailing amongst those who supply the great bulk of these films will presently influence the code of those who, week by week, drink the stories in all over the earth; and we, the unconscious public, will reap the harvest sown by this seed.
“It w'ill be necessary to open the argument by a digression, in order to establish an important point, namely that the national character and code of ethics of any one race is always liable to change.
“Let us consider, then, the best features of the present code of ethics particularly prevailing in this country, and. knowing them to be liable to alteration, let us ask ourselves whether they be worth preserving.
“Perhaps the highest quality which we now' possess is our peculiar point of view in regard to fair play. We are, at present, what we call a ‘sporting’ people in the slang sense of the word: that is to say, we play a game for the game’s sake, regarding it as a trial of strength and skill and endurance, not a contest in cunning and trickery. We are ready always to applaud our opponents, and it is the custom to give a cheer for the other side. Sir Thomas Lipton’s phrase, ‘May the best boat win,’ is banal to our ears because it expresses a sentiment which, to us, goes without saying. We hate trickery and scorn to take a mean advantage; we would rather lose a race than hustle or ‘rattle’ an opponent.
“Another quality which we possess, and by which we are distinguished from most other nations, is our unforced love of law and order. We do not accept laws and regulations as a sort of necessary tyranny:
we are law-abiding without the policeman’s truncheon. Where else but in England will you find the traffic so easily controlled? Where but in our own country can a traveller by train put his baggage in the van and claim it, simply upon his word, at his destination, without any fear of loss and without any system of registration? In what other land are the police regarded as the helpers of the public, and not as despots?
“In regard to honesty, we have a very particular theory which is so deep-rooted in us that we do not always realise how different it is from that prevailing in many other countries. Honesty is regarded in England as inherent; it is taken for granted; it is not a thing which has to be encouraged by fulsome praise or high reward; it goes without saying. By English law a man has to be proved guilty of a crime, not innocent: his innocence is accepted unless the court can show beyond reasonable doubt that the contrary is the case.
“Another of our peculiar national virtues is our comparative freedom from heroics. We like to make fun of the undoubted bravery of the race, and every hero who is worth his salt will tell you that he was ‘in the devil of a funk’ at the time of his gallantry. We do not like showing off; we detest boasting; and we generally prefer to confine the theatrical to the playhouse.
“We need not, however, for the purpose of this argument, discuss at any further length the characteristics of the present phase of our national life. These four virtues—those of fair play, orderliness, honesty, and modesty—will suffice as examples of the British ethical standard; and it will readily be admitted that they deserve to be maintained.
“But what is happening in regard to the kinema? The photoplays which are being presented to British audiences are, for the most part, written and produced in Western America by a comparatively small group of persons amongst whom there are many fine men, but also many who are in no way exponents of the above-mentioned virtues. In regard to fair play several of the smaller producers hold the views of the less reputable elements in the sporting circles of the States: that is to say, they maintain that the player or competitor may attempt to win by any form of trickery: a runner may hustle another runner, the onlookers may ‘rattle’ a player by a sudden shout, and so forth. And in regard to fair play in .everyday life, there are those who hold that a piece of cunning or a trick is to be applauded as a mark of intelligence. As to law and order, some of them have the standards made notorious in the past by the American police force. They frequently submit crime to us, not as a horror and a taint, but as an exigency or a mere scrape; and they negate the idea of the police being the servants of the public. As to honesty, they hold that no man is above suspicion, and that a thief may be received back into society as soon as he shall express regret at his misdemeanour, while, if in a mildly exacting situation he follow the path of rectitude, he shall be entitled to the loudest applause and be regarded as an outstanding figure. And in regard to modesty or the suppression of the more blatant forms of heroics, they very frequently offend against the laws of good taste.
“Let it be understood at once, there is no very definite indictment of these American photo-plays to be made. Very many
of them are elevating and touching, and make a strong appeal to the good that is in us. Nevertheless there is in certain of them an insidious and quite unintentional suggestion of a code of lower standing than our own. Their atmosphere is vaguely corrupt; their standpoint is not quite that of an Englishman nor yet of a true American.
“A criminal who, to our way of thinking, has committed some peculiarly mean act which ought for ever to brand him, is at length shown in some heroic light by reason of which we are made to feel that in the first instance he had merely fallen foul of a tyrannical set of cutthroats known as the police. A young man forges the name of his friend upon a document, but in the sequel we find that he did it solely to save his sister’s honor; and thus we are left wondering whether, after all, there are not circumstances in which a dirty trick is justifiable.
“In many of these plays business men are shown to be appallingly unscrupulous, and a favorite character is that of the stern, silent financier who sets himself to the ruthless task of destroying his rivals. Our sympathies are enlisted in behalf of such a man by the fact that he is the devoted father, let us say, of the heroine, and is but striving to amass a fortune for her benefit. In these plays the police are usually shown as infernal bullies, and the detective-superintendent is a man with a bull neck and a palaeolithic jaw, who thrusts his face into that of his victim, and attempts to intimidate him by the-method known as the Third Degree; so that our sympathies are always hotly on the side of the law-breaker.
“There is nothing very tangible in all
this to which one may take exception; but the impression left upon the mind is that in some undefined and elusive manner the ethics of these otherwise fine productions do not always conform to the best standards. In play after play one may find these traits, and their influence upon the regular frequenter of the Picture Palace must in time be felt. To the remotest towns of England, as to those of America and other countries, these films penetrate, carrying with them this mild but ultimately dangerous poison; and gradually the world, from end to end, is being trained to see life as it is seen by a certain group of kinema producers and writers congregated in a corner of the United States. The world is being Americanized by the photo-play; but the trouble is that this Americanisation does not represent the best element of that nation, or even the most popular ; it represents in the main the limited outlook of a body of men, some of them very second-rate, whose wealth depends on their ability, by means fair or foul, to play upon the emotions and to excite the interest of the average man and woman by giving them what they call ‘heart-throbs’ and ‘sob-stuff’ and ‘humappassion,’ and situations with a ‘kick’ or a ‘punch’ in them.
“It may be asked how it has come about that America has almost a monopoly of the business ofphoto-play production The answer is twofold. Firstly, the Unitec States has a population of over a hundrec millions, and there is therefore so huge s market for a film within the nation’s owr borders that the profits to be obtained arc immense, and thus more money can be spent on the production than is the cas; elsewhere. And secondly the climate o California permits photographs to be made all the year round, whereas in northern Europe there is a long off-season, and even in the south of France and Italy there are atmospheric difficulties in winter. America has at hand the market, the money, the facilities, and the climate; and during the war the trade forged ahead in that country, developing its organization to a very high state of efficiency. British kinema companies are now fairly numerous, but, though they are generally excellent financial investments, they are handicapped in many directions. It is difficult for one of our photo-plays to push its way into the congested American market, and therefore the profits from that side of the Atlantic are speculative. We are notoriously behind-hand in theatrical arts in this country; and, moreover, when a genius appears in the kinema studio he is quickly carried off to California by the offer of a far larger salary than that which our own smaller market makes it possible for him to be offered over here. Our variable atmospheric conditions necessitate very expert and highly paid photographic operators; and as salaries have to be paid all round, whether the day be suitable for photography or not, the expenses incurred in bad weather are large. Moreover much work has always to be done by artificial light; but in England the companies cannot usually afford the splendid electric installations which are to be found in American studios.
“But what can be done over here to better this state of affairs? In the first place a far stricter and more subtly discriminating censorship of films is needed. The censor must not be satisfied to look out for indecency and let the rest go hang. The staff should consist of men who are competent to express an opinion on what constitutes the best in the national character; and whenever films appear to them to advance another and a lower codq of ethics in such a way that it might be expected to take hold of the imagination, the
veto should be used with vigor. In every case the censor should state to the kinema company the reason for the rejection— ‘The hero, under stress of poverty, enlists his mother-in-law’s financial support by reminding her that he could reveal rather awkward secrets,’ ‘The heroine’s father promotes fraudulent companies, and his actions appear to be accepted without repulsion,’ ‘The ideal of a gentleman so alluringly displayed in this picture is not that of the average Anglo-Saxon,’ ‘The business integrity of the leading character appears to be regarded as a rare phenomenon,’ and so forth. Such a censorship, of course, would have to be handled with the utmost tact, and with a freedom from oldmaidish captiousness; but there can be little doubt that some such proposition is practical.
“The importance of moving pictures as a means of familiarising the people of one nation with those of another is inestimable. We of this age do not realise the power of the instrument which modern invention has placed in our hands; and at the present time we are permitting a single small and sometimes irresponsible section of the human community to dominate the output, and impose its peculiar ideas upon the world. We of this country in particular are allowing the instrument to be turned against ourselves, for an Englishman is the recognized buffoon of the American photoplay. The ignorance of the kinemaproducers in California as to our customs is amazing, and it is not likely that they will go to the trouble of employing British advisers to ‘put them wise,’ as they term it, in regard to the ordinary habits and manners of the Englishman. There ought .to be a much wider distribution of good British films in the States, for by this means the misunderstandings between these two English-speaking nations would be very greatly lessened. Properly handled, the kinema could be made to endear the two races to one another by the bonds of mutual admiration and fellow-feeling.”
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.