During my senior year of college at Mississippi University for Women, I took an independent study course under the supervision of my mentor, Dr. Bridget Smith Pieschel. The subject was Women’s Autobiography, and my job was to transcribe and notate the diary of a former student of the school, Martha Smith (Dr. Pieschel’s aunt–one of several women in the Smith family to attend the university over the years). Martha was a student at the college (which was then called Mississippi State College for Women, or MSCW) from 1934 until her graduation in 1937. This particular diary covered the year of 1936, from the start of the second semester of her sophomore year. 
Martha was eighteen years old throughout much of the year, and like many teenagers (both then and now), she used her diary to remember good times, record her frustrations, gossip about her friends, and complain about her schoolwork. Taken in the context of the time period, there are some interesting references to life in Mississippi during the tail-end of the Great Depression, as well as some entertaining anecdotes revolving around college life. But as an avowed classic film fan, to me, some of the most fascinating entries in Martha’s diary are the ones in which she mentions the movies that she went to see on a regular basis at the local theater.
In the 1930s, Columbus, Mississippi was not exactly a hotbed of activity (nor, to be honest, is it now). It was sometimes difficult for students to find ways to entertain themselves–in her diary, Martha often complains of boredom and longs for “something exciting” to happen. That excitement largely comes from frequent trips to the cinema–a new-found privilege for MSCW students, apparently, and one that Martha takes full advantage of. On January 6, 1936, Martha ends a frustrating day’s entry with a bit of good news: “Oh yes! We can go to the Princess Theater for 15ct.–nice if I ever had time to go.” 
Her moment of pessimism is misplaced. Partly to be sociable, and largely to ignore the homesickness that never quite went away, Martha becomes an avid moviegoer. Over the course of 1936, she goes to the theater thirty-four times. While this many not seem to be an impressive number of visits to us now–after all, it averages out to less than one a week for the entire year–considering that Martha’s family was far from wealthy and the fact that the college placed many restrictions on young ladies’ behavior (including limits on their off-campus time), thirty-four movies in one year is a remarkable number to me!
Martha’s “reviews”–such as they are–of the films that she saw are relatively brief. After all, her space for writing about each day was limited: the diary itself is, as you can see from the picture above, quite small (if Twitter had existed back then, Martha could have written 140-character film reviews with no problem!). Still, she manages to make her opinions about these movies known despite the page limitations.
Martha’s favorite movie star is Ronald Colman; throughout the year, she goes to see several of his films, and she professes a great affection for a particular 1935 Charles Dickens adaptation:
But her love for Colman does not mean loving all of his films:
She also likes Bette Davis films, even sneaking out of a sports exhibition and risking being late back to campus to go see one:
And later that spring:
It is in 1936 that Martha sees a film in color for the first time, though she’s not all that detailed about her impressions:
Sprinkled throughout the diary are old newspaper clippings regarding the various things Martha has recorded on the pages. One of these is a snippet from a review of So Red the Rose (1935), which states: “There are more silly things in So Red the Rose than in any major picture your spy has caught all winter.” But Martha’s opinion doesn’t seem overly affected by the critic’s point of view; all she writes about the movie is:
Martha views her frequent trips to town to see “the show” as a lifeline. When her friend Kate is given a “campus” (a type of demerit that prevented the students from leaving the school grounds), Martha’s entry reveals her latent frustration with the rules imposed by the college:
Martha loves her romantic comedies, even when they are just too much:
Sometimes, Martha’s pithiness is frustrating, particularly when she neglects to name the film she’s mentioned, such as in an entry on October 30th, in which she claims to have seen “a very sorry picture,” or on August 5th, when she cannot recall the title of the movie she’s just seen:
[My best guess as to the "gruesome" movie would be Mark of the Vampire, a 1935 horror film co-starring Bela Lugosi.]
Some other films that caught Martha’s fancy throughout the year:
And some movies (and stars) with which Martha was less than impressed:
Martha’s final film-centric entry, on December 2nd, sums up the importance of these theater visits for the young student:
I can’t help but be glad that she went, too. The thirty-four films Martha saw over the course of 1936 brought her some measure of peace and laughter (however brief), allowing her to forget about her troubles for an hour or two and lose herself in another world. And that, in a nutshell, is why we all love the movies. They let us escape, just for a moment, and give ourselves over to pure joy and entertainment. There are few things more valuable than that. It’s why we treasure our cinematic memories, and it’s why we continue to celebrate the wonders of film, year after year.
Martha Smith graduated from Mississippi State College for Women in 1937. She became a dietician and worked at Louisiana State University. She and her husband, Jim, married in 1950 and had a daughter named Rachel. Jim died in the 1970s. Martha eventually developed Alzheimer’s in her later years and passed away in 2005 as a result of the disease.