What Can the Movies Teach?

NICHOLAS NORTH January 15 1922

What Can the Movies Teach?

NICHOLAS NORTH January 15 1922

What Can the Movies Teach?


IN SEARCH for first-hand impressions as to the effects of the movie on juvenile thought and emotion, I dropped in during a Saturday afternoon at one of those special children’s programs the picture theatres advertise. I was one of the very few adults present and, like the bear of the nonsense rhyme that went over the mountain, I was there to see what I could see.

Unfortunately, it was a wretched program.

There were two films shown besides the feature, a picture in which a mischievous little o-phan girl, adopted by a rich widower, put over a number of amusing pranks on her elders. The other items consisted of a half-baked problem story and an “awful” serial. Outside of the needless ridicule to which it subjected a Christian preacher, there was little that could be classed as objectionable about the child picture: but the same could not be said of the jazzy problem film, which was monopolized by a coterie of painted women with forty-five per cent, of their clothing missing and too much belladonna in their eyes. It wasmostly a saturnalia of cheap “vamping,” cigarette-puffing and spasms of parlor gambling. When not engaged in displaying their accomplishments along those lines, the ladies on the screen occupied many feet of expensive celluloid registering “glycerine” tears and other obviously insincere emotional effects.

The “awful” serial was one of the usual cowboy-bandit-rope-cliff-and-pistol variety that invariably makes a grown-up of intelligence wonder why he squandered the price of admission to be thus bored.

I peered around me. Except during occasional outbursts of applause, in which I noticed a number of well-trained juvenile clacquers led, the children—boys and girls ranging from two to fourteen years of age—were sitting wideeyed, heads craned; forward, eagerly ^drinking in that rubbish being enacted by the shadows up front.

What were the emotions and thoughts stirred in those plastic little hearts and minds?

Somewhere scattered over the city a half a hundred mothers would not have been quite so much at ease if they could have watched the emotions being legistered on the little faces. What are the censors doing that such pictures are shown before young children? It struck me that the otherwise busy moral reformer could here find a big Augean stable ripe for the cleaning.

The Wrong Kind of Educational Film

THAT was an exhibition of one sort of “educational” film. The wrong sort to be sure; but, unfortunately, the very sort by which moving pictures are being generally judged at the present time. Subsequent inquiry brought out the information that the reason such films were shown at children’s performances was that travel, scenic and juvenile story features were not available in sufficient quantities to meet the demand. The result was that cheap and semi-risqué melodrama dished up in the evenings “for the tired business man” and his il was being inflicted on these eager, impressionable little folk—the future citizenry of Canada.

That was news. It started a new train of thought and an investigation into the whys and wherefores of the lack of first-class informative and educational films for children as well as grownps.

It happened that at this time I had been making inquiries of leading educationists as to what was being done in the way of utilizing the motion picture for educational purposes in the schools. I found the idea had many stern opponents in high places. The introduction of the subject in many cases brought a cold, guarded look into the faces of the people interviewed.

One senior principal in a large Canadian centre paused in the rush of a day’s work to tell me emphatically: “We have no time for movies in our schools. I cannot see how they could be an educational help.”

“You have tried them out?”

“No—nor are we likely to. Of course that is a local opinion from a high school standpoint.”

“But you must have some definite reason for that opinion,” I insisted. “Is it that the films can’t teach?”

“They teach the eye but not the mind; and it is the mind of the pupil we seek to reach. To put it that way,” continued the pedagogue, “the presentation of the moving picture leaves nothing behind it in the way of educational value. It does not induce the mind concentration necessary for the implanting of permanent knowledge on a given subject.”

Very definite and emphatic that opinion was, and it came from a man who should be in a position to know what he was talking about.

On the other hand, Thomas A. Edison, the American inventor, was recently quoted as saying: “I’ve never seen a boy who likes to go to school, and he never will until they change their method of teaching. They teach by word instead of by eye............Some time ago I lectured to child-

ren with the aid of moving pictures and they understood the principle of chemistry I was illustrating, and would

have stayed half the night if I had let them......You

could teach children anything by means of moving pic-

Yet from the angle at which they saw the subject— or rather, from the angle at which they gained their ex-

No Educational Films in Canada

Many Difficulties in Way

perience with the so-called “educational” film—both the Canadian school principal and the American inventor were sincere in their declarations. Furthermore, paradoxical though it may seem, both were right in their views. Each had seen previous proof of the assertions he had made. The difference lay in the pictures used.

I SOUGHT out leading film producers in this country and some of the agents for outside producers. “Canadian educationists say your films do not instruct the young and are therefore worthless in the schools,” I told them. “In fact, one leading teacher delares that his experience with moving pictures has been that they left no mental impression behind them. How do you account for that?”

For most of those interviewed it proved a poser. Some were inclined to think the teacher in question was a prejudiced old fogey and a back-number; others insisted he could not have given the pictures a fair trial and a few thought the statement so ridiculous it wasn’t worth replying to. Still others fell back on items in the daily press which quoted prominent men as upholding the picture. Finally I ran down a picture man who might have proved a dazzling find for old Diogenes. He’s the square-jawed, argus-eyed manager of one of the pioneer plants dealing in motion picture supplies in Canada.

“The teacher was dead right,” he surprised me by saying. “He was dead right. The so-called ‘educational pictures’ do not teach nor leave an impression on the child’s mind such as they should to be of any value in our schools.” That seemed an extraordinary statement to come from the manager of a concern dealing exclusively in supplies for school and church motion picture work, but I merely asked him: “Why is that so?”

“Because,” he answered, “there really never have been any educational films introduced for use in Canadian schools. The Canadian educational film has yet to make its début.”

This man had definite, clean-cut ideas on the subject. Right on the spot I learned that the bona-fide educational film, built specially for the education of the young, is now considered a thing apart—a picture entirely different in its construction and treatment to anything else in motion picturedom.

Most of the pictures that had been sent to the schools in the past, this man said, should never have been released for educational purposes.

“The sending of many of those so-called educational pictures to the schools,” insisted my informant, “was about as ridiculous as it would be for the department of Education to send out a series of Mother Goose rhymes and story-books to replace the school readers or a raft of puzzle-pictures to take the place of grammars and arithmetics. The pictures amused and entertained, but they did not do the thing for which children are sent to school —and that is teach.

“The educational film,” he went on, “will be a class of picture all by itself, built for the single purpose of teaching some practical lesson in the curriculum devised by our educational authorities, and it will leave an indelible impression from that lesson on the child's mind through the medium of his or her sense of vision. This work can be done by the educational film and practical proofs that it can have been demonstrated in other countries.”

THERE were many difficulties to be overcome before the educational film could become a universal reality in Canada, he said. One of these was the present smallness of the market. Comparatively few schools are equipped with apparatus for the projection of films and the cost of producing real educational films is necessarily very high, necessitating a wide distribution to make it pay its way. The lesson the school film must teach would have to be devised by skilled educationists and leading scientists to make sure of its accuracy and reliability, and their plans would have to be carried out faithfully by experts in the making of motion pictures. Geography, literature, physiology, botany—almost any of the regular courses of our schools and colleges could be effectively supplemented with motion pictures. .

“Let us say,” said the picture man, “that a public school class in Alberta is engaged in a study of geography, and the province of New Brunswick happens to be the

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subject. Likely the teacher will have had the pupils memorize the names of the capital, the principal cities and towns, the climate, principal products, industries arid so forth. Suppose that following this oral lesson the children are taken to the projection room of the school and a reel of pictures is thrown on the screen to illustrate definitely the main points that have been taught out of the text-books. The child sees an aerial view of the coastline, animated scenes along the harbors and fishing wharves; lumber camps in operation, lobster fishing, potato-growing, stock-raising, farming, shipping and so forth. You can see how the appeal is immediately made to the imagination through the eye. In fancy, the child has been transported to the part of the Dominion which be or she has been studying.”

When Youngsters Really Profit

ONE MUST agree with the picture man that to say that a scientific use of properly-applied pictures would not be a powerful aid to juvenile education is dangerous snap-judgment which time would be likely to prove mischievously erroneous.

But, as a matter of fact, there.are no such text-book motion pictures in general use in Canadian schools and they are not yet obtainable, though the agricultural and publicity departments of the Dominion and various provinces have for some time found abundant use for films that demonstrate particular features in agriculture and kindred subjects. _ _

Educational pictures, all authorities agree, must be three things in particular. They must stick to text; they must be clear and steady and they must above all things be sincere. No one will detect faking and insincerity quicker than a juvenile observer.

On being told a “close-up” of an actress depicted emotion, a little girl at the picture show exclaimed: “Does that mean that somebody keeps sticking pins in the poor lady to make her ‘emotion’? ”

While studying the child and the motion picture I have witnessed private showings of parts of some dozen or more moving pictures laying claim_ to be respectively educational, scientific, scenic,

informative and so forth. As each wa shown I tried to place myself in the receptive mood of a child to note what impressions I afterward retained. Only three of the pictures struck me as being useful from an educational standpoint. Two of those three were on the same subjects, the Mysteries of the Universe— though that is not the exact title under which either is run. The pictures were taken from scientific illustrations with an animated tiny universe—Earth, Sun, Moon, Stars, Comets and Meteors moving in their order through space—of the seasons of the year, division of night'and day and the cause thereof. The models of celestial systems used for the taking of these pictures must have been quite as interesting as the pictures themselves.

A Picture that Stuck

T'HE great educational value of both those pictures, which, by the way, have been produced by competing companies, is the pedagogic manner in which they reiterate great facts—never leavingan opportunity unapplied to repeat and repeat again the fundamentals of the lesson. One could not leave a showing of this picture without remembering that the earth traveled the complete round of its orbit with its magnetic pole pointing to the north star, that the seasons resulted from the varying duration of daily sunlight and that the duration of sunlight each season was the direct result of the varying angles at which the earth was tilted toward the sun. There are seven or eight scientific subjects dealt with in the series.

The one outstanding feature of these scientific pictures, which must have been the result of patient, painstaking work, was that no one subject as produced seeks to teach a multitude of things. They confine themselves to the principal items taught in the ordinary school text-books and hammer them home with a persistency that the sternest and most exacting teacher could not help but appreciate.

The third picture to which I have referred as useful from an educational standpoint is a scenic subject showing activities on the great lakes from the harbors of Fort William and Port Arthur at the head of Canadian navigation down through

the lower lake foutes, the canals and the St. Lawrence river out over the ocean trade routes to the markets of the world.

As an informative film showing how Canada transports her grain from the prairie west to the seaboard, this picture is one of interest to every Canadian and every other world-citizen who takes an interest in the big things Canada is doing. But on the basis of previous definitions, it could scarcely be classed as strictly educational, or as a teaching film. It taught certain great truths about Canada, but there was no central theme—no one lesson that would stand out in the child’s mind after the picture was other-wise forgotten. Thereason for this was that the picture sought to tell too many things in a given length of time. The child’s mind, 1 would imagine, would become surfeited with novelty and he would be sure to start to lose particular interest before the picture was finished. As a film to be shown in school after regular school hours, at juvenile concerts and entertainments, its excellence from a patriotic and informative standpoint is beyond question.

Women’s organizations, national and local, throughout the country, appear to be taking a deep interest in the motion picture, and leaders in women’s organizations whom I interviewed appeared to be much better posted with regard to developments in motion pictures than most public men. The National Council of Women has in particular interested itself in getting special films for the children, the Saturday juvenile programs being largely a result of their efforts. One thing, however, that all the women’s organizations will insist on is that all films of an educational nature be free of foreign jingoisms.

What Mr. Peck is Doing

'THE Dominion and Provincial governments have not been slow to make efficient use of the motion picture to record historic events and as an aid in the teaching of agricultural work. Both the federal and provincial departments have gone in for the latter, and it is worthy of mention that many of the scenic films now being enjoyed throughout the country, notably the Great Lakes picture, were made under the supervision of-the Ontario Motion Picture Board, of which O. Elliott is chief. Mr. Elliott has been painstakingly building up a system for the production of high-class informative

Europeans are at this very moment being shown animated scenes in Canada’s cities, farming country, forests and mines through the medium of the “Seeing Canada” series of films, produced in their entirety in Ottawa, under the supervision of R. S. Peck, director of the Exhibits and Publicity Bureau of the Department of Trade and Commerce. This is only one of a number of similar publicity pictures being used for national purposes that might come under the head of educational informative films.

Gilbert Parker’s View

OPINIONS that I have gathered here and there in high places as to the destiny of the motion picture would fill a very large book. Authors of books, for instance, whom one would expect to have a fairly uniform notion of the worth of the motion picture, express varied views. On some points they furiously disagree. One such authority remarked in connection with Children’s Book Week: “I don’t think there is any doubt about it that the effect of the picture shows increases rather than lessens the interest in books. A child sees a picture taken from a gripping book and he wants to read the book.” On the other hand, take note of this offhand opinion of a writer of children’s stories: “Once he (the child) develops the movie type of mind, he will be lost to

good books forever......The movie story

is chloroform for the boy. It lulls instead of stimulating. It says to him in effect: ‘Don’t think; it isn’t necessary. The pictures tell the whole story; why exert yourself to be amused.’ ”

Sir Gilbert Parker, foremost among Canadian-born novelists, many of whose stirring stories have been picturized in Great Britain and the United States, believes that it is insincerity that has been bringing the film into disrepute—an insincerity that, strangely enough, the public has all along been applauding, for Sir Gilbert says: “If it is said that the public

likes to see things they recognize as familiar on the screen stage, my reply is that some of the most successful productions of the most popular film producers are what are called ‘hokum’—the things that no one recognizes.”

Educational Possibilities

TF, IN conclusion I may offer, in summing up, a modest opinion, it is precisely because the moving picture can never become a great protagonist or inspired interpreter of dramatic art that it has all the elements that could make it a wonderful accurate and efficient teacher. The camera can only tell us cold fact. What else may be lent to the action of the shadows it produces on the screen can only be lent by mechanical trickery, obvious always no matter how sympathetic and receptive the beholder. In other

words, the camera cannot be made a plausible fictionist. That is why when the moving picture attempts to portray anything but fact, it leaves an irritating impression of insincerity; it has been forced into doing something it is not in its natural province to perform with verisimilitude.

Odd as it may at first glance seem, those are the very reasons why the film should prove of true service in an educational rôle. Because it will not flexibly lend itself to the interpretation of what comes from the realms of art imaginative, it has, unalloyed, the virtuous elements that make of it a stern, unbending recorder of fact, unequalled as a historian and inimitable as a teacher.

Because it can with plain, unsympathetic efficiency retrace and renew reality in action, the motion picture must more and more come into its true field as a historian and teacher.