Movies and Conduct: A Payne Fund Study

Chapter 6: Emotional Possession: Sorrow and Pathos

Herbert Blumer

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ESSENTIALLY the same psychological characteristics which have been specified in the last chapter in the discussion of fright are shown in the intense sadness or pathos induced by certain kinds of motion pictures. Under the stimulus of some particularly sorrowful picture or scene, an individual may be moved to tears. He is held in the grip of the dramatic scene, feelings of sadness and impulses to weep surge up within him, and ordinary control diminishes. In many individuals, as we shall see, strenuous efforts to subdue such feelings may come to naught in the situation.

Anyone with a merely casual acquaintance with the movies will probably recall some picture which was particularly effective in arousing intense feelings of grief and impulses to weep. "Over the Hill" and "The Singing Fool" are two outstanding examples of pictures of this kind. Of those who witnessed these pictures probably few, particularly those of tender age, did not experience some tendency to feel sad or to weep. It is not only such special pictures, however, which may induce those effects. The extent to which motion pictures induce such experiences is probably much greater than one would ordinarily think.


IN checking through the group of 458 life histories of high-school students it was found that 64 per cent spoke definitely of such experiences, 19 per cent denied such

( 95) experiences, while the remaining 17 per cent of the documents contained no information on the point. Among the 293 who described having such experiences as a result of seeing certain motion pictures, there were about twice as many girls as boys. Following are a few instances chosen at random which mirror these experiences

Female, 20, white, college junior.—The first picture that I ever cried at was " Uncle Tom's Cabin," with Marguerite Clarke playing the part of little Eva. I didn't want to cry and tried my best to fight against my emotions, but it was of no use, the tears rolled down just the same. I read the story of "Wings" and in spite of myself I cried over it. When I saw the movie I tried to tell myself that I wouldn't cry as I had already read the book and could have myself steeled against any display of sorrow. It all went well until one of the last scenes and I found myself crying. Most any picture with a touch of pathos to it has me using my handkerchief a great deal.

Female, 19, white, college sophomore. —Crying at a movie is my second nature. As soon as an event occurs which is the least bit sad my throat chokes up and very often I shed tears; I have never sobbed or made boisterous noises, thank goodness, for crying is a chief source of embarrassment with me; if I can get by with silent sorrow I feel all right. One of the saddest pictures I ever saw was Hardy's novel "Tess of D'Urbervilles" dramatized on the screen. I took that so hard and lived through Tess' part, so real that I was embarrassed to go out on the street with my eyes all red and swollen. For that reason I do not enjoy a sad picture; it usually makes me miserable. Likewise "Way Down East," "Ramona," and "The Hunchback of Notre Dame" afforded me heartaches. I do not merely cry, but it seems I actually feel the pain as acutely as the actor himself. "Sorrel and Son" affected me so strangely that I cried over it the next day. Try as I might to control my tears I cannot, and I certainly do not find pleasure in crying.

Female, 14, white, high-school sophomore.—I often cry at picture shows whenever there is a sad scene or someone in the

(97)  picture is crying. In "The Singing Fool," I cried when Sonny Boy was taken away from "The Singing Fool," when his mother took him to Paris. Also, I cried when Sonny Boy died and when the "Singing Fool" sang the last verse to that famous song in his performance after Sonny Boy had died.

Female, 16, white, high-school junior.—Cry? I should say I do. Even now. A week or two ago I saw "Coquette." I thought I'd have to sob aloud, it was so terribly sad. Too sad, in fact. When I was young, about ten, they ran that "Over the Hill" or some such name. I felt so mournful over that and sobbed so loudly that everyone turned and looked at me. I was embarrassed for being so emotional.

Male, 18, white, high-school senior. —It seems that I very seldom cry at pictures. The only picture that I cried at was a play called "Over the Hill," starring Mary Carr. This picture would make anybody cry, even if you are a brute who can't cry or an easygoing chap who cries at almost nothing.

Female, 20, white, Jewish, college sophomore.—Yes, I have cried at movies, in fact, I still do, much to my own disgust. The "weepiest" picture I saw as a child was "Over the Hill," with Mary Carr. I had two handkerchiefs drying on my lap, while I used the third. It was one of those "mother-neglected-by-children" pictures, and people were sniffling all through the theater. I just cried buckets-full. The pictures in which Pauline Frederick, Norma Talmadge, Lillian Gish played usually made me cry—incidentally, they were my favorite actresses. Of the more recent pictures I remember having cried at "The Way of All Flesh" (Emil Jannings), "Father and Son" (H. B. Warner), "Cyrano De Bergerac," and especially "Singing Fool" (Al Jolson).

Female, 19, white, college sophomore.—Have I ever cried at motion pictures? And how! Most sad pictures can get a few tears at least out of my eyes. Just the other day I saw Mary Pickford in "Coquette." Anyone who enjoys crying at pictures should see that picture. Another picture at which I "swam out" was Al Jolson's "Singing Fool." Likewise, the "Big Parade" at which I cried more the second time I saw it than the first. Pictures of soldiers marching usually bring tears to my eyes.

(98)  But, nevertheless, I really don't like to cry at movies. I'd rather sit and watch a sad picture and not cry, but I just can't help it. I guess I'm too tenderhearted.

Attention should be called to the many pictures, often of a melodramatic nature, that induce tears by merely portraying touching or sentimental themes. There is, of course, a wide range of susceptibility to this kind of experience. Certain individuals are easily led to weeping by scenes which would have little effect on others. An instance of one who has such a ready disposition to cry follows:

Female, 14, white, high-school sophomore. —I hardly ever go to a show without crying in some part of it. A short time ago I saw "Mother Machree" and I cried most all the way through the picture when other people had no idea of crying. To me it was sad and I couldn't restrain my tears. I don't like to cry because when you do and other people are not crying you appear conspicuous and this is not a pleasant feeling. The picture is good, even though one may cry while seeing it. For example, the picture called "Mother Machree" is very sad, but I consider it a very good picture in spite of that fact.

In the case of other individuals some particular kind of scene or picture which is intimately linked to their personal career is required to induce this emotional expression. This is illustrated in the following case of a girl whose parents became separated through divorce:

Female, 20, white, Jewish-Gentile, college sophomore.—I have already said in the course of this autobiography that early in my youth my family was broken up. My father and mother separated and finally became divorced; and my sister and I were given into the care of my mother by the court ruling. It is this factor in my life which figures in my emotional reactions. It is almost impossible for me to feel no desire to cry, when I see a movie in which the break-up of a home is featured or where the results of such a break are the subject of the play. It is just this which makes me like Emil Jannings' pictures, and which makes me

(99)  cry at them, as I do not at others' pictures; for such is his ability to portray family scenes that they "hit home." And, too, it is my overwhelming love for my sister which was a factor in my crying over "Beau Geste." I would point out here that the only time I am really moved to cry in seeing a movie, is when it harks back to some personal feeling or experience of these two aspects of my life; my love for my sister, and the divorce which has severed my family and which has had results too many and too hard.


As in the experience of fright, the individual who has his sympathy and sorrow aroused may experience great difficulty in controlling himself. Many, particularly girls, admit that their efforts to check their tears either prove futile or cause them to cry all the more. Others try to inhibit their feelings by telling themselves, "Oh, this is just a picture." These very efforts at inhibition bespeak further the impressive hold which such scenes and pictures acquire over the emotional state of the individual.

Difficulty in controlling the crying induced by motion pictures is spoken of by 39 per cent of the 458 writers of the high-school documents being used as a sample for tabulation purposes. Twenty-two per cent of the writers deny having any difficulty in controlling this feeling, whereas nothing is said on this point in 39 per cent of the documents. Here again one discovers an interesting sex difference. Fifty per cent of the girls who have written documents admit this difficulty of controlling their crying, whereas this admission is made by only 26 per cent of the boys. Again, only 12 per cent of the girls declare that they have no difficulty in checking this emotion, whereas 34 per cent of the boys declare that they are able to control their feeling. There is no information on this point of control in 38 per cent of the girls and in 40 per cent of the boys.

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Following are a few accounts chosen at random indicating this inability to control oneself when experiencing sadness or in a state of tears:

Female, 14, white, high-school sophomore.—The picture "Wings" made me cry because there was much suffering. I love to cry. I always think it is a good picture if it can make me cry. I have found it hard to control my emotions and never think it as just a picture. Sometimes I try to check my emotions and moods, but to no advantage.

Male, 19, white, Jewish, college sophomore.—At this period of my life I found some unexplainable comfort and enjoyment in crying and suffering over the sad part of a picture. I remember how I wished to offer the poor old lady my help as she was left alone by her children in the movie, "Over the Hill." After seeing a show of this nature I felt rather downcast because I considered myself a man capable of controlling my emotions and this sort of picture made me feel so weak and small.

Female, 16, white, high-school junior. —Yes, I find it hard to control my feelings. For example, I couldn't have stopped my tears during the "Singing Fool" if I had wanted to, which I suppose I didn't. One can't enjoy a movie if one hasn't any feelings or heart.

Female, 14, white, high-school sophomore.—I don't find it so hard to control my emotions aroused by moving pictures, but if I once start crying it's hard for me to stop. Yes, I explain away the situation by saying, "Oh, well, it's only a picture," and I tell myself not to be such a baby.

Female, 18, Negro, high-school senior.— The Noose" was the saddest picture I ever witnessed. I tried not to cry, but the tears rolled down my cheeks and I sobbed in my handkerchief audibly, for my companion chided me for being such a soft heart. I always considered people who cried at movies "great weaklings" and I was thoroughly disgusted with myself.

Female, 14, white, high-school sophomore.—Sometimes, no matter how hard I try, I cannot control my emotions. Sometimes when a picture is not even considered sad, I cannot keep from crying. I think it is embarrassing to cry at picture shows,

(101)     but I can't help it. Before and after I see a picture I say "Well, there is nothing to it; it is only a picture." But during the performance I can think of nothing but the picture and all my good resolutions go to waste.

Female, 20, Gentile-Jewish, college sophomore.—Ordinarily, when I do attend a movie, I go with a young man; and it would be the last thing which I would do to let him know that I am crying. My one thought when I feel like crying at some movie which I am attending with one of the male sex, is that I must by no means ever display a semblance of tears! I have made myself miserable at times by adhering to this thought; it is not easy to keep from crying when one sees before him the same type of experience which he has been through and knows to be damnable. But each time I have fought within myself to keep the tears back; and I do not remember any time when I have ever showed that I was crying.

Ordinarily this loss of control over one's feelings is shortlived. The individual may stop his weeping with the passage of the scene or after leaving the theater. Sometimes the feeling of sadness may persist for a few hours or perhaps even for a few days. Ordinarily its effect is quite transient.


IT is of importance to observe that while under the influence of these feelings the individual may make resolutions "to be good." This is a very interesting experience—somewhat similar in nature to the "crisis" experience in religious conversion. With his awakened feelings of sorrow and grief the individual may become quite self-conscious and raise questions about himself, his relation to others, and his career. He may experience self-pity or self-blame, feelings of guilt, chagrin, remorse, and regret. And in this mixed mood of compassion and repentance he may vow to be good, resolve to help others or decide on a new form of life.


Ordinarily these resolutions disappear with the mood, or as one's memory of the given motion picture grows dim. A typical instance of this experience is contained in the following account written by a university girl:

Female, 19, white, college sophomore.—I must have been about thirteen when I saw "The Old Nest." I wept copiously and resolved never to leave my family to such a sad old age. Of course, the resolution took wings at the first opportunity to go somewhere.

However, as in the case of certain of the experiences of fright spoken of before, an individual may show a permanent effect resulting from a particularly sad picture. In his state of heightened emotion some definite reorganization of his thoughts and feelings may occur and be perpetuated in the form of an enduring sentiment or intention. Discussion of this kind of experience will be made later; here, however, is an instance which illuminates the point

Female, 19, Hungarian parents, college sophomore.—As soon as I heard mentioned the fact that this autobiography was to be written, I thought of the one picture which really made a lasting impression on me. This, of course, was "Over the Hill" with Mary Carr. I saw it with my mother, and during the picture I cried profusely and promised mother that Mrs. Carr's fate would never be her own as long as I was alive to do my share. I don't believe the effects of that picture will ever wear off.

This point of discussion may be concluded by calling attention again to the peculiar and interesting emotional condition which may be induced by motion pictures—a state in which impulses surge forward and the ordinary run of thought and feeling is disturbed. The individual usually will either do what his impulses prompt him to or will experience strong pressure in this direction. Even though the state be, usually, transient, it is a distinct example of emotional possession and of an accompanying loss of ordinary self-control.


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