No one who worked on Ace in the Hole could possibly have anticipated what it would unleash fourteen years later because Woody Woodpecker is not even inclined to confront people in this one. He’s more of a slacker and a daydreamer, somehow able to manifest his dream-of-flying by hitching a ride on to the fast-moving shadow of an airplane. He rides along the ground and over a hangar. When he accidentally runs into a sergeant, Woody is harshly scolded.
“So, still playing pilot, huh?” says the sergeant and then Woody is made to return to his duty of—you’re reading this correctly—trimming horses with electric clippers. It seems peculiar that an Air Force base is maintaining horses right next to a runway, but I digress. As I mentioned in my last post, this cartoon became the subject of a famous study on the effects of media violence on children. It would be the first of many, launching a powerful movement.Ace in the Hole (1942) is a wartime Lantz cartoon directed by Alex Lovy. As the stimulus from which the children’s behavior was subsequently tested, it is regarded as the Experiment (“the E film”) and the musical Iwerks’ Comicolor cartoon The Little Red Hen is the Control (“the C film”). The study, completed in early 1955 by Alberta Siegel, was published the next year with the title “Film-Mediated Fantasy Aggression and Strength of Aggressive Drive.”
In it, Siegel says that Ace in the Hole was chosen for its “direct, unabashed, and easily comprehensible portrayal of extreme interpersonal aggression. This colored animated film depicts the conflicts which occur between Woody Woodpecker, a well-known picaresque character, and a large Air Force sergeant. Raw aggression and unrelenting hostility dominate almost every scene of this, the E film.”By the mid-1950s, there had already been many animated examples of much more cruel or unrelenting violence, but the momentum against cartoon violence nonetheless stems from the results of showing kids this one. So let’s take a closer look. Twelve boys and twelve girls, all of them roughly 4 years of age, were chosen from a nursery school in State College, Pennsylvania. Alberta Siegel was completing her Stanford doctoral research at Penn State because she had recently married and moved there on account of her husband’s job. She arranged to have her research conducted in the university’s psychology clinic within a room that she set with toys and a film projector.
The children participated by leaving their nursery school and walking to this made-up playroom. It was a cold Pennsylvania winter and Siegel first had to take off the boots, jackets, and mittens of her little subjects. Each kid would be paired with just one child of the same sex, both of them brought here with the incentive that they would get to watch a cartoon. Despite the cold and the snow, that was enough to make the kids want to come here. So far, so good.
The projector was set up in advance with an animated film threaded on to the reels, either Ace in the Hole or The Little Red Hen. Once the children were seated, she turned on the cartoon and then observed them for visible signs of anxiety during the viewing, placing checkmarks among a list of 29 behavioral indicators including “grips chair, winces, swallows, wets lips, sucks thumb, breathes rapidly, etc.” When the cartoon was done, she turned it off and mentioned that she had “to do some work in another room for awhile.”
At that point the two kids were left for a 14-minute period of free-play. Despite thinking they were alone, they were actually now being watched from a sound-proof room with one-way glass. Yes, this was really a pysch clinic. To provide some objectivity at this phase, Siegel recruited a graduate student named Ellen Tessman who would never be made aware which cartoon had just been shown. The two of these women gathered behind the glass at this point to observe.
The toys that were left out for the kids to play were the same for each session. Specifically they were “two rubber daggers, two soft lumps of clay, two toy telephones, four soft rubber sponges, a plastic tea set and miniature flatware, seven small toy vehicles, a doll bed containing a doll and bedding, eight inflated balloons, and a large inflated plastic punching toy.”
One of these selections is eyebrow-raising, no? Those “two rubber daggers” might just impel a kid toward mischief. When I was a boy, the mere presence of toy daggers and a punching bag would do more to juice me up and make me play rough than any cartoon I’d just watched. Then again this was done at a time when toy weapons were a staple item of American childhoods. Yet let’s not forget that this was the research that birthed an entire movement against cartoon violence. Shouldn’t it have held to a higher standard than offering its subjects daggers?
The defense against this argument was that Siegel had each pair of kids go through the test twice. In essence, each pair was their own Experiment and Control. One time they would watch Ace in the Hole and the other time it would be The Little Red Hen. Their behavior, even tempted with knives, would thereby be measurable and different if it was altered by viewing on-screen aggression vs. gentleness.
She also measured their interest in the films. However, it is not clear if the subjects were asked which one they liked or if it was inferred through observation. I assume it’s the latter. The published research says that “each film was rated,” which in every other instance in this study is gathered by viewing and judging behaviors. Ace in the Hole got a score of 3.5 and The Little Red Hen got a 3.25, which was concluded to be insignificant, but the kids appeared to prefer Woody.
The squawking hen’s song and the musicality of the Comicolor cartoon offer a simple repetitive charm that I imagine kids would like. It’s a parable about the rewards of work. The hen plants wheat in a field, never getting any help from three lazybones to whom she appeals, and then at the end of the film she alone enjoys her fresh-baked bread.
Ace in the Hole is one of Alex Lovy’s solid entries into the Woody series, but it really does take some time for the aggression to build. There is even a long sequence of Woody fumbling and dropping a flare into his zipped-up flight suit. This is comic relief, not reciprocal violence. After it’s established that the Air Force sergeant is domineering, Woody’s caper in finally flying off with a plane seems vindicating because we can sympathize with him.
Then, at the end of the cartoon, with the sergeant clinging to the airborne warplane, Woody’s latent insanity suddenly lets loose. He gives his signature laugh and fills the sergeant’s drop-seat with so many bombs that his underwear—they used to call it a union suit—bulges at the flap with explosives. He falls to the ground below and then BOOM! Pure cartoon violence, as clinically deviant as Siegel could have possibly brought to light.
Nonetheless, it falls short of her description as “unrelenting hostility dominat[ing] almost every scene.” It really only gets raw, in my opinion, at the end. It also has a parable ending, with Woody now required to trim every horse in a very long line, which is not much different in tone than the Little Red Hen offering her fresh-baked bread to the layabouts and then spitefully retracting it to make a point. In both cases, the slackers get what’s coming. Then, just as the film ends and the lights come up in the playroom, the nice lady leaves and the kids get to choose a toy—knife or tea set?
It is kind of amazing that Siegel achieved such a degree of fame for this study. She was only 24 years old and then mailed in her dissertation to Stanford to receive her doctorate in absentia. When she wrote a shorter summary as an article to appear in the journal Child Development, it was picked up by news outlets and, despite her admission of inconclusive findings, the subsequent coverage by American press gave this new field an instant credibilty. Without a doubt, Dr. Siegel was its rising star. Cartoons were under scrutiny.
Living in our violent society today, the debate on the role of media can take on a grave and somber tone. However, that shouldn’t be grounds to excuse the myth that developed around this early research, that watching Ace in the Hole provoked these kids to behave worse. In fact, Woody Woodpecker seems to have taken a bum rap on this one. In my next post, we’ll go a little deeper into this famous study to have a look at how the details were distorted over time.
I don’t want to appear to disparage Dr. Alberta Siegel. In fact, I quite admire how much she accomplished in her life as a scholar and an advocate for causes important to her. If someone has more information on this topic, or knows anyone involved with it, I’d be grateful for a message below, especially from the viewpoint of a pediatric psychologist. My attempt to shed some light on this—to set the record straight—is something that I think she too would support. Otherwise we’re just setting out a rubber dagger.