Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Audiences

Projection in 1916 and the Great Frame Rate Debate

I’ve deliberately avoided talking about “frame rates” and the “correct” speed of silent films on this blog, and for good reason – it’s a very contentious subject, and also quite technical, but looking at the history of presentation will give us some insight. My layman’s version goes like this: After sound film came in, all projectors were motorized and set to run at 24 frames-per-second (although some could be slowed down to lower settings, 24 was the standard for sound). This was pretty fast, compared to earlier standards, but projectionists with no experience would occasionally screen silents (especially Charlie Chaplin) during the sound period, and it would run fast. By the 1960s, everyone had forgotten what movies used to look like, and they came to think that silent movies had always looked fast and jerky. But then, someone found an old copy of Moving Picture World that said that the “official” standard during the silent era was 16 frames-per-second. New projectors were built for specialists who wanted to study films at their “original” speed, and silent movies slowed to a crawl. A new problem was discovered: at that speed, movies have a noticeable “flicker” effect as the eye catches the light between frames. Some film historians assumed that silent audiences were used to that, and just accepted it.


Lumiere projecting with the Cinematographe

But wait! Along comes James Card, William Everson, and a few other collector-historians who were old enough to remember the silent days. They were darn sure that the movies they saw of Douglas Fairbanks and Clara Bow when they were children didn’t flicker, and they sure didn’t crawl along like molasses on a cold day in January. They suggested that going back to 24 frames-per-second was a better standard. Who was right?

Well, this gets tricky, like I said, but let’s start with one fact that I deliberately left out of this: until the transition to sound, most cameras and projectors were hand-cranked, not motorized. By the end of the silent era, motorized projectors were coming in, but the camera was hand-cranked until the day it had to be synched with sound. In other words, different cameramen and different projectionists did different things, no matter what their “standards” said. It also appears that there was a kind of frame-rate-race between the two professions for much of the period, so the real standard changed over time. This goes back to that issue of exhibitors not really respecting the producers’ wishes in terms of their movies: sometimes, instead of cutting a film, they just told the projectionist to speed up. This was apparently very common, and camera operators began to fight against it by speeding up as well, which led the projectionists to go even faster, and so on. Tests made at the time by the Society of Motion Picture Engineers confirmed this, and they revised their standards upward occasionally, though they were in general conservative about it. Billy Bitzer, for example, was actually timed at right around 16 frames-per-second, so that’s a perfectly reasonable rate for screening “Intolerance,” but other cameramen went a lot faster.

Projector BioscopeSo, here’s one conclusion I draw from all of this: those folks in the 60s may not have been so far off after all. Probably most early movies weren’t run at 24 fps, but it happened some of the time, and fast was much more common than slow. This is probably why there wasn’t that much protest during the occasional Chaplin revival in the 1930s and 40s. A lot of people did remember him moving fast.

A Bell & Howell projector

A Bell & Howell projector

But, so what? Do we have to watch a jerky, speeded-up film just because that’s what people did then? Do we have to sit in uncomfortable folding chairs because that’s what a Nickelodeon usually had? Is it “cheating” to watch a Chaplin movie on your phone? Is it not fair to watch “Intolerance” in a building that lacks a sumptuous lobby and a live stage performance? My real conclusion is that frame rate was pretty much subjective in the pre-automated era, so we should be equally subjective now: go with what looks good. Often, that probably will be about 24 fps, as Card and others advocated, but with earlier movies it probably needs to be slower, and there are probably a few that look better at an even faster rate. This needs to be audience-subjective. We don’t usually get a choice what rate to watch a movie nowadays (the recent “Phantom of the Opera” release from Kino Classics is an exception), and so we leave it to experts to decide for us. On most of the high-quality releases we get today, the action looks natural at whatever speed the distributor has chosen, and I have yet to see a silent film festival that really messed up the speed of a silent movie, so this debate is largely academic anyway. I only mention it because there are people out there who get really het up about it, but then there are people who can’t hear Chaplin’s name without reflexively saying “Keaton was funnier,” and who wants to be friends with them?

Movie Nights in 1916

For this “context” post, I want to look at how exhibitors showed movies, and hence how audiences saw them, at the time under study. I’m not arguing that this is how these movies “should” be seen, or that there’s something wrong with us watching them today on cell phones, or high-definition TVs with Blu-Ray, or with modern music, or whatever. We live in the present, and the only way we can interact with the past is through that filter. Still, when asking ourselves questions about the past, like why a given movie was popular or why people in the forties thought silent comedies were “supposed” to run super-fast, it can be helpful to know something about how movies were seen in their original runs.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

I’ve already written some articles about the transition from Nickelodeons to movie palaces. Read the rest of this entry »

Venues of 1915: Nickelodeons to Movie Palaces


Last year around this time, I talked about my understanding of the audiences of a century ago. Today, I’d like to expand that a bit by talking about what I’ve learned since then about the places people went to see movies.

My periodization suggests that we are now moving from the “Nickelodeon Era” to the “Silent Classical Period.” So, the nickelodeons are on the way out? What does that mean? And what the heck is a nickelodeon in the first place?

Let’s start by talking about what a nickelodeon isn’t, first. It’s not an arcade lined with peep-show machines like Kinetescopes, nor is it the name of any such device. That sort of movie-viewing was a brief fad in the late-nineteenth century, which rapidly disappeared when camera-and-projection systems were developed by Lumière, Edison, and others. For some time afterward, movies were shown in temporary venues, like World’s Fairs or museums, or at traditional live theaters adapted for the purpose, as with the Théâtre Robert-Houdin of Georges Méliès.


Both of these were somewhat outside the range of the poorer classes, at least as regular entertainment options. So long as the movies were restricted to these kinds of venues, the demand for new material was small enough to be manageable. But the desire to see moving pictures meant that there was a market for anyone who could make them available cheaply. In 1905, John P. Harris decided to convert a small storefront in Philadelphia to a makeshift theater and show movies there for 5 cents. He called his new establishment a “nickelodeon” from the word for a five-cent-piece and an adaptation of the Greek word for “theater” (“odeion”). His business model, and the name, soon caught on as hundreds of small-time exhibitors began opening dime- and nickel-theaters.

So what was a nickelodeon like? It was not a purpose-built theater, but usually a darkened storefront or back room with some folding chairs and a screen at one end. The seats were level, not graded, so people in the front blocked the view of those behind them. The projector was often out on the floor and the proprietor might run it personally and offer narration to accompany the pictures. As they made more money, they might hire a professional “operator” to run the machine, and possibly put in a piano, or a small band, for accompaniment. The program would often include audience sing-alongs, with slide shows, and sometimes a live vaudeville act. There would be a ticket box at the outside. Shows generally ran thirty minutes, and would include multiple films. In the early years, a good percentage were “actualities” meaning documentary-style images of real or staged events, but demand for narrative stories rapidly grew. Nickelodeons frequently had bad ventilation, uncomfortable seating, and poor fire safety. That last was a particularly big issue, since the nitrate film used at the time was highly flammable, and local fire departments were among the biggest foes of the early motion picture industry.

Nickelodeons were believed to be a bad influence on youth.

Nickelodeons were believed to be a bad influence on youth.

There was also a perception, once the middle class press discovered the existence of this cottage industry, that they were places that encouraged vice and laziness among the worst segments of society. It is certainly true that they appealed to the urban working poor and to immigrants. Movies did not require any education to understand, and, since they were silent (and intertitles were limited, especially in the beginning), it didn’t matter what language you spoke. Anyone could understand them. The nickelodeon, so far as I can tell, was a largely American phenomenon, and it partly explains why the United States quickly became one of the largest markets for movies, as they led the world in making them cheaply accessible to the masses. And the masses responded, but meanwhile elites worried over what was really going on in those dark rooms, and might there be some way to “elevate” both the movies and their viewers.

Meanwhile, the owners of these little movie halls were getting rich. They opened more and more shops, in some cases forming empires through franchise systems. There seemed to be no limit to the number that could be opened in a given town – they often lined up in rows on a given street in a poorer neighborhood, and, as long as there were different movies at each one, they all turned a profit. Because supply was so far below demand, many of the more successful exhibitors started going into production, simply in order to be able to have something new to show. For some reason, the industry standard was to change the program every day, which meant that each nickelodeon needed at least 365 original films per year (more, really, since each program included multiple films). It was widely believed that “daily viewers” were the bread-and-butter of the industry, although I haven’t seen any studies that confirm this idea.


One of the results of this economic situation is that the movie industry worked fast and made lots of product, struggling to keep up with the demands of daily change-over in thousands of little storefronts. This partly explains the reluctance of Biograph and other early production companies to move towards making longer films. The nickelodeon owners counted on a full house every half an hour, and they would have to raise prices (possibly losing their audience as a result) if they showed movies lasting more than 20 or 25 minutes. They bought by the reel, not by the story, and sometimes the second part of a two-reeler would be shown first, or alone without any context, to an audience that didn’t realize it was out of sequence. But, the American motion picture industry grew rapidly under all the pressure for new movies.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

The Mark Strand Theater in 1914.

Another result is that as the owners got rich, they tried to improve their businesses. They expanded the spaces by buying out extra lots, they made fireproof booths for the projectionist, they improved the seating. Eventually, some of them were making enough money to buy out failing theaters and convert them to movie halls. Then, in 1914, the Mark Strand Theater was built in New York City at a cost of 1 million dollars. It was the first purpose-built movie theater in the world. The improved concept of a movie theater made it possible to attract a higher-class audience, to charge more for admission, and to show longer pictures. The movies were finally becoming an “art form” or at least a cultural model with some degree of acceptance by elites.

Nothing changes overnight, of course, but you can already see the decline of the nickelodeon model in the early teens, as more longer movies start to show up with more “serious” subject matter, partially dictated by the progressive values of movie censors. By 1915, the feature film is an established fact of movie life, and D.W. Griffith famously succeeded in opening “The Birth of a Nation” in $2.00 theaters in various parts of the country. $2.00 was what people paid to see “legitimate” live theater on Broadway at the time. Nickelodeons continued to exist alongside the big theaters for some years to come, but their control of the market had slipped and would never return.

*Note: Much of the information for this article comes from Eileen Bowser, The Transformation of Cinema, New York: Simon & Schuster, 1990.

Audiences of 1914

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.