Primary Source

East Harlem Motion Picture Study [Interview]


This is an excerpt from an interview with a male teenager from East Harlem, New York City, taken in a famous Payne Fund Study, the "Motion Picture Study" (MPS). The MPS was undertaken from 1929 to 1934 by sociologists from New York University in the working-class, primarily Italian and Puerto Rican neighborhood of East Harlem. It focused on measuring the supposedly "dangerous" effects of movies on working-class immigrant youth in this neighborhood. This testimony responds to a prompt from a researcher on gangster movies, a film genre that was endlessly cited in 1920s and 1930s elite discourse as the cause of youth "delinquency" and thus in need of careful regulation and intervention by educators. Yet the MPS did not reveal any correspondence between youth's reception of the gangster film (or any other genres) and so-called “delinquent” behaviors. Instead, East Harlem teenagers documented their use of the gangster film as a significant source of role-play and the creation of a public identity, as the youth demonstrates above in his "Cagney style. " The actor James Cagney's personification of the "tough guy" in Public Enemy (William Wellman, USA, 1931) and later gangster films is universally acknowledged. Cagney was one of the most imitated stars in East Harlem, according to the MPS, suggesting the felt connection between his screen persona and male teenagers' own desire to "act tough" on city streets.

Note that the teenager here, though, makes a distinction between the movie gangster’s style and the real gangster's fate in society: "dat's de boloney dey give you in de pitchers. Dey always die or get canned. Dat ain't true." While the movie gangster's style might be worthy of imitation, his story had little purchase for this youth and others in East Harlem, where gangsters "g(o)t away, " ran well-known business establishments, and had important political connections.Extralegal activity was part of the larger social infrastructure. For this community's teenagers, if not for well-meaning middle-class reformers, it was obvious that one's fate was conditioned by the structural forces of their society, and not by the mass media. Cinema had more to do with the here and now. Its sensuous images and brilliant dialogue could be used in teen talk and role-play, rich for creating youth culture outside the world of meddling adults.

This teenager's interview tells a story about teenage reception of mass culture that departs from elite assumptions, begging the question of whether adult hand-wringing over movies and other forms of mass culture at the time was rather a worry about the immigrant teenager him or herself, whose adolescent experiences in work, play, and education misaligned with Anglo-American middle-class mores and expectations. How can current anxieties about the effects of films, television, digital media, and other technology on children and youth be seen to have historical origin? How can these origins help us to separate out our anxieties about media stereotypes and violence – inarguably things that need careful regulation and adult intervention – from other ones specific to adulthood today, rooted in our desire to keep children and youth from looking away from us, and to the world of independence and possibility on the screen?


Paul Cressey, "The Community – A Social Setting for the Motion Picture," Unpublished manuscript (1932), Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, Motion Picture Research Council, p. 132. Annotated by Lisa M. Rabin.

Primary Source Text

"Sure I like Little Caesar and Jim Cagney but dat's de boloney dey give you in de pitchers. Dey always die or get canned. Dat ain't true. Looka Joe Citro, Pedro Salami, and Tony Vendatta. Look at de ol' man."

His father was in the recent Department of Street Cleaning scandal. . . At one time he owned a cafe and ran a string of brothels. Now he has interests in an undertaking establishment, a job with the city, a political boss, and runs a joint. . . . "Dose guys in de pitchers oughta be able to get away. If my ol' man had de dough he'd run de city."

He prefers pictures "dat show lotta action wid gangsters, bootleggers, and high-jackers. I ain't going get in Dutch wid de law 'cause I'm gonna get protection before I do anything. An' I ain't havin' no broads aroun' while dere's work to do. You can’t trust em' and dey get you in trouble. If it wasn’t for a broad dey never would get Little Caesar."

He dresses Cagney style. Soft green hat, tight fitting suit, puff shoulder coat, leather heeled shoes.

How to Cite This Source

"East Harlem Motion Picture Study [Interview]," in Children and Youth in History, Item #482, (accessed August 10, 2021).