16 / 11 / 02 – 15 / 12 / 02
Exhibition / Films / Talks / Performance

What Do Those Old Films Mean?
Each part 26 Min., Dir.: Noël Burch

Return to main: What Do Those Old Films Mean?

Vol. 1: Great Britain 1900-1912
Along the Great Divide

Vol. 4: France 1904-1912
The Enemy Below

Vol. 2: USA 1902-1914
Tomorrow the World

Vol. 5: USSR 1926-1930
Born Yesterday

Vol. 3: Denmark: 1910 – 1912
She! The City and The History

Vol. 6: Germany 1926-1932
Under Two Flags

Show business… mass audience… These concepts were invented in late nineteenth century America in a drive to create consensus through the ”universal” appeal of facile entertainments. On the stage, it was turn-of-the-century vaudeville that was the crowning glory of this typically American approach to social control.

In the earliest days of cinema (pre-1905), efforts were made to integrate film into the composite vaudeville show. Was the vaudeville audience really so indifferent to films that the tiny reels were no better than ”chasers” to empty the house between shows? Be that as it may, patrons accustomed to the luxury and relative sophistication of live vaudeville must have found films made before 1905 extremely primitive. Yet, these clearly address this very same audience, composed largely of native American newcomers to the fast swelling cities. Vaudeville was their initiation to a secular, urban world of science and technology the famous illusionist Harry Houdini invariably ended his act with a detailed explanation of his tricks. Thus, when W.S. Porter showed his stock country character Uncle Josh tearing down a screen because he mistook a moving picture for the real thing, this ”demonstration” of the movies was in the true spirit of vaudeville.

To what extent did these earliest films address the immigrant - the new subproletariat streaming into the slums, into the factories and sweat-shops, to the satisfaction of prospering industrialists, yet equally to the alarm of native workers still battling for the most elementary rights?

Given the small-town origins of the first U.S. film-makers - as of their audience - it is not surprising that the immigrants portrayed in their films appeared ridiculous or downright loathsome; the film-makers seized upon an current news item which would allow them to give vent to their fear and hatred of the newcomers - be it the execution of the immigrant assassin of President MacKinley or the ”scandal’’ of respectable white women teaching Chinese labourers.

The immigrants, it seems, seldom attended the vaudeville shows, which were too expensive and too ”native” for them. But they would have seen films in the Penny Arcades. And they may have felt that those many reels which were aimed at newcomers to city life concerned them also. However, even after 1905, when immigrants were, for a number of years, almost the sole adult patrons of the Nickelodeons, it remains questionable whether it was the actual content of the films which made cinema their favourite pastime. The more prosperous, who owned and operated the Nickelodeons, had ambitions well beyond the trickle of five-cent pieces brought in by their impoverished fellows. With the support of the trade papers and, soon, the directors and producers, the Adolph Zukors and Carl Laemmles set out to entice the middle-class vaudeville public, notably by including vaudeville acts in their programmes of one- and two-reelers. And by policing the children and boisterous adult working-class immigrants.

But as the middle classes began to discover cinema, they also discovered how well it reflected a violent reality which its plebeian audience already knew at first hand, but which a genteel sensibility preferred not to notice. It was this effort to attract a new class of patrons that first incited the American film industry to censor its own productions — a practice which was to devitalise creation and social criticism in Hollywood for half a century (until the early sixties, that is, when sex and violence could, in their turn, become an integral part of the ideological consensus).

With the arrival in the studios of petit-bourgeois, self-taught directors like D.W. Griffith, more sophisticated narrative forms appeared, often adapted from the kind of sketch that he had directed on the vaudeville stage. Less blatant ways were found of addressing both the new city folk and the villager, bonding them in a common nostalgia for the simple life, with its idealisation of poverty.

The great target of the new films was middle-class women. Whereas the films of the first ten years had tended to express openly, often through ridicule, the fear of the New Woman who had so suddenly abandoned her domestic seclusion to enter the labour market, the new films from Biograph or Vitagraph tended to show charming heroines defending their virtue against male molesters or their cash-boxes against tramps. For indeed, if the respectable middle-class woman could be induced to enter the cinemas, then the battle for a mass audience was as good as won.

How did the American film so rapidly arrive at the articulateness which the whole world admired as early as 1915 in films like The Italian?

For the American cinema got off to a late start in the elaboration of film language and film expression. In terms of narrative editing, it was the British, in terms of acting and visualisation the French who were still “well ahead” in 1907. But then, within a scant eight years, from the point of view strictly of ”film grammar” (though not from that of literary or artistic sophistication) this situation was reversed: by 1914 American films led the world. And this lead undoubtedly played its part in constituting a domestic mass audience and, ultimately, in conquering the world market.

Ideological incentives played a decisive role in this spectacularly rapid development of film language in America. But one must not neglect he important influence of several remarkably clairvoyant trade-paper journalists who were not only the world’s first professional film critics, but the first theorists of cinema, as well. Men like Louis Reeves Harrisson, Steven W. Bush and Frank Woods felt that their task was not merely to praise or damn films according to their personal (or class) taste, but to advise actors and directors as to what it was they were doing “wrong”. Expressly hired by the entertainment establishment and acting as its “communications consultants,” these writers rightly saw themselves as representative of that middle class audience targeted by the industry and demanding a more coherent, less ambiguous form of expression than had hitherto been provided by the films of the “primitive era”.