Audiences of 1914

by popegrutch

For this week’s “context” post, I’d like to discuss what it was like to be in the audience of a movie a century or more ago. As I proceed through the project, I hope to read and learn more about this, but for now, this will be more of a speculative, even whimsical, essay.

I’ve always imagined the atmosphere of an early silent picture as carnivalesque. Indeed, many of the first films, shown during the “Age of Attractions” were in fact shown at carnivals. Movies were novelties, not art, and people went to see them to be amazed by the wonder of it all, not uplifted. A lot of the early movies seem to draw from pantomime and vaudeville, not from the so-called “legitimate” theater, which makes it seem as if they were meant to attract a working-class crowd. More snobbish audiences paid the higher ticket prices to see Shakespeare or Shaw, while people who didn’t know better plunked down their nickel at the nickelodeon. Because they weren’t trained in middle-class niceties, they weren’t the sorts to sit in silence while a performance went on. They were noisy and enthusiastic, or, if they didn’t like something, raucous and outspoken.

Silent cinema hit this country at the same time as one of the major booms of immigration, particularly from Eastern and Southern Europe. It seems to me as if the movies were a great entertainment option for people who spoke English as a second language, or not at all. For the most part, you could follow the plot even if you couldn’t read the intertitles. Or, you could go in a group, with one person along who could read and translate for you. Because it was a silent movie, it didn’t matter if someone was talking in Italian or Yiddish – that needn’t disturb the rest of the audience as they read along in English. And, those intertitles always seem to stay up far longer than anyone needs to read the English, but if you were semi-literate or trying to translate, that would be a boon.

So, my imagined theater of 1914 is a crowded, noisy place, with children running in the aisles and people speaking in different languages. People are smoking and maybe even drinking. There are loud outbursts of reaction to the screen, and audience members interact with one another and talk to the actors out loud. Once in a while the management has to eject a particularly disruptive character, but for the most part the audience polices itself, according to its own uncouth standards.

To a lot of modern movie snobs, this probably sounds like Hell, but when I was a teenager I used to go to movie theaters on 42nd Street in Manhattan, back when that meant something. It’s the experience of participatory audiences that I miss from those days. I feel like I’ve wasted my admission if an audience sits in stony silence through a screening. If I wanted that, I could watch it at home.

Now, let’s face it, my fantasy film audience is just that: a fantasy. I’ve heard film historians say that the target audience for early movies was more middle-class than is often assumed. A nickel wasn’t much, but for a lot of working class people it was more than they could spare very often. Movies were a technical innovation, and they appealed to the kind of people who buy ipads or use smartphones. People whose education made them feel that they were a involved in the technical progress of the day, not that they were overwhelmed by it.

I’ll leave you with a paraphrase that totally challenges my fantasized view. One of the commenters on one of the DVD sets I’ve reviewed (I actually don’t recall which) mentioned a quote by Louis-Ferdinand Céline, which I have since determined is from his book Death on the Installment Plan. In it, Céline purports to have seen the movies of Georges Méliès at the Theatre Houdin, which would be about the most carnivalesque environment I can imagine. But, according to Céline, he remembered it as a totally silent experience, without music, narration, or talking of any kind. Just the quiet hum of the projector. That’s much closer to my vision of Hell.

Update 4/2/2014: Since writing this, I went and got a copy of Death on the Installment Plan from my local library. The actual passage reads as follows:

Grandma realized that I needed a little fun, that it wasn’t good for me to be in the shop all the time. It made me sick to my stomach to listen to my lunatic father shouting his inanities. She bought a little dog for me to play with while waiting for the customers…He went everywhere with us, even to the movies, to the Thursday matinee at the Robert Houdin. Grandma treated me to that, too. We’d sit through all three shows. It was the same price, all the seats were one franc, one hundred percent silent, without words, without music, without titles, just the purring of the machine. People will come back to that, you get sick of everything except dreaming and daydreaming. The “Trip to the Moon” will be back again. . . I still know it by heart.

Now, there’s a few things: first of all, this is a novel. Although it is supposed to be somewhat autobiographical, it’s also a black comedy, and it’s hard to know where he’s being truthful and where he’s being funny. Also: the fact that the theater let him bring a dog in is more consistent with my vision. Finally, even if there’s any doubt as to whether “A Trip to the Moon” was narrated or had music played along (that’s how it’s presented today), there definitely were titles on the original prints, so he’s either exaggerating or misremembering to some degree.

So far as it goes, the last two sentences are confirmed by the very existence of this blog, and maybe that’s the more important takeaway here.