Century Film Project

Celebrating the movies our ancestors loved

Tag: Moving Picture World

Picture Theaters of 1916

One of the first articles I wrote for context on this blog was a discussion of Nickelodeon audiences, and I followed that last year with a discussion of the transition to “movie palaces” that began in the mid-teens. This year, I’d like to explore a bit further what movie venues looked like a century ago. We can’t ever hope to re-create the conditions under which audiences saw these movies on our flat-screens or hand-held devices today, or even really at film festivals, but it helps to think about the surroundings people found themselves in when they went to the movies back then. It helps us to understand how different the experience was from going to a multiplex or just clicking on a link to see movie, and it also gives us a sense of how the movie industry was trying to convince itself and the world that it really was a legitimate art form, worthy of respect and high ticket prices.

Picture Theaters 1For this year’s article, I’m going to look at an article from the January 1, 1916 issue of Moving Picture World, called “Among the Picture Theaters.” This was a regular feature in the weekly magazine, which displayed some of the newest and most fashionable movie theaters across America. It’s important to realize that not all theater owners could aspire to this level of elegance, nor did all audiences necessarily enjoy it. But Moving Picture World was an industry magazine for exhibitors, and the owners did read and drool over what they saw here, probably picking up a few hints for their next renovations as they went along. These were some of the best places to go to the movies in 1916, and also probably some of the most profitable.

Portland Sunset TheaterFirst up, we pay a visit to my adopted hometown of Portland, Oregon, and the Sunset Theater, which was situated at Washington and Broadway in the downtown area, apparently on the most heavily taxed lot in the city at that time. With a rent of $900 per month, they had to pull in a lot from each screening just to cover the overhead. The corner was and remains one of the busiest intersections in the city. With seating for 500 people and four loges or theater boxes that could accommodate 34 people each, they certainly had the capacity when filled to show a tidy income. There was an organ in addition to a small orchestra space in the front of the house. The two entrances were finished in onyx and the lobbies set in Grecian marble. The restrooms included tapestries and furniture “in the Marie Antoinette” style. Surely a regal setting to watch the latest antics of Charlie Chaplin or adventures of Douglas Fairbanks!

Newark Proctors PalaceNewark Proctors Palace1Moving East to Newark, New Jersey, we get a glimpse of one of the styled walls and several balconies of the Proctor’s Palace. This true movie palace was designed to seat 2800, and is called by the Moving Picture World writer “the latest word in theatrical construction.” Located at 118 Market Street, it would have been close to the center of this suburb’s downtown, a place frequented by wealthy New Yorkers on weekends as well. The building was ten stories high, with offices available for rent above the theater level, making it one of the tallest in the vicinity, and with a series of “brightly lit hanging lights from the third to the tenth stories” making it visible from a distance at night. The floors of the lobbies were done in mosaic tile and the walls in white marble, while the ceilings were forty feet high, and there were smoking and lounging rooms available on each floor of the theater. One almost imagines buying a ticket just to hang out in these lounges socializing, and forgetting to head back in time to see Mary Pickford or Pearl White on the screen.

Wallace Grand TheaterWe don’t get any attractive pictures of the interior of the Grand Theater in Wallace Idaho, but the imposing outside of the structure suggests that it was one of the major institutions of that small mountain community (current population estimate = 780). Built at the economy rate of only $30,000, it held 700 patrons, many of whom might be stopping over at the railroad station on a trip West. Following a somewhat older model of entertainment, its shows combined vaudeville and live music with movie screenings, giving two “shows” per day of mixed entertainment. This is a more rustic concept of a theater, sturdy and functional, but not gaudy or decorative. I bet more than one Broncho Billy Anderson fan discovered his hero right in this theater!

Denver Strand TheaterWe return to a more exotic conception with the Strand Theater of Denver, Colorado, whose striking exterior is shown fully lit with “58,000 candlepower” electric lights. On Curtis Street, in the midst of other theaters, these lights made the theater “one of the most conspicuous” and the writer says that the entrance is “simply a blaze of white light.” The capacity was 1250, with wide, comfortable seats in rows spaced 30 inches apart. The price was only ten cents, and the house was restricted to screening features, apart from twice-weekly newsreels. A smoking room was also provided, although with those comfortable seats, I suppose more people stuck around to watch Theda Bara or Henry B Walthall purvey their art.

Note: MPW's caption says "Pageant" but the article says "Regent."

Note: MPW’s caption says “Pageant” but the article says “Regent.”

For Indianapolis’s Regent Theater, we get a very different impression from viewing the exterior. This 800-capacity house looks sort of like a giant Nickelodeon, with minimal decoration and simple posters advertising its wares, rather than fancy lights. We are told, however, that its opening day drew 8000 patrons to what we must assume were ten separate screenings, surely a profitable day for the owners! This theater included the “innovation” of aisle lights to help patrons find their seats in the dark. The “retiring rooms” were located in the basement, and the women’s room was attended by a maid and included free telephones and writing desks! Surely, that made it easy for female movie reviewers to phone in their thoughts on the latest Cecil B. DeMille drama.

Perth Amboy DitmasThe Ditmas Theater in Perth Amboy, New Jersey, looks more like a major train station than a movie theater from the outside to my eye. Situated on State Street, “the center of the city’s activity,” it catered to “the best and most exclusive playgoers” of the community. The “spacious and artistic” lobby was decorated with photos of “well-known” film stars – wouldn’t you love to know which ones made the cut? This was another 800-seat house with no balcony or boxes, but with “comfortable and roomy” chairs. The Ditmas showed Paramount and Universal pictures exclusively, with serials on Friday night and new features on every Saturday. Unlike the larger theaters with full orchestra pits, only a piano was provided for the music. Fans of Blanche Sweet and Owen Moore probably  found it more than adequate.

Hamilton LyricFinally, we have an impressive interior view of the Lyric Theater in Hamilton, Ontario, Canada, a sizable metropolis near the border with New York and part of the Niagara Peninsula. The picture reminds me of the theater frequented by Charlie Chaplin in “A Night in the Show.” With a capacity of 2200, it was originally opened as a vaudeville house, which converted to movies when they proved more profitable. They screened 13 reels to a show, apparently avoiding features which “mean an interruption to the system of programs in vogue,” so mainly a series of shorts, perhaps with live performances interspersed. At a rate of 10 cents for adults and 5 for children, this must have been the place that many a Canadian discovered the joys of Keystone comedies!

Censorship in 1916

There is a lot of confusion today over what “censorship” means, much of which I think is because the word itself has fallen out of fashion and become an accusation rather than a useful description of anything. One hundred years ago, people who felt that they had the ability to judge what other people should read, watch, or experience were far less shy about calling openly for censorship, and this kept things more honest. Today they call for “ratings systems” and laws for the “protection of children” (how could anyone be against protecting children?), which makes it all much more slippery.

CensoredNo industry wants to be restricted from doing business as freely as possible, and in a capitalist society censorship ultimately means placing restrictions of some kind on the ability of cultural industries to sell their wares. Whereas the publishing industry was an established force in the early twentieth century, the embryonic motion picture industry had less power, prestige, and legal protection. As a new technology, it was ripe for criticism from all quarters. People really weren’t sure what the long-term results of exposure to moving images would be (any more than they are today about the long-term effects of texting or the internet). Would children’s eyesight be damaged? Would their literacy suffer? Would they lose respect for parental authority? Would they all become criminals? No one knew, but some were willing to suggest the most dire of possible consequences.

Of course the motion picture industry didn’t take all this lying down, small and new though it was at the time. Motion picture exhibitors, distributors, and producers were making money hand over fist and they used some of that money to protect their own interests by forming associations and leagues dedicated to fighting motion picture censorship. One of their strongest allies was the magazine Moving Picture World, which I frequently cite in my reviews. The Moving Picture World was created as a news magazine for exhibitors, the owners of nickelodeons and movie palaces (and chains of such venues), so that they could keep up with trends in the industry, hot new titles, and technical advances. It also became a strong advocate against censorship, as we can see from this editorial page from the first issue of 1916 (click on it to blow it up so you can read it), where it talks about censorship at the local, State, and federal levels:

MPW EditorialIt opens with concerns about local censorship in Oregon, my state of residence. I regret that it doesn’t specify the towns it mentions: one in which local exhibitors called for censorship to forestall worse censorship and one in which “young girls” comprised the censor board. Still, it exemplifies the frustration distributors had to feel when faced with different standards of censorship for each town where they wanted to sell their product. This also led to multiple different re-edited and re-cut versions of each film being distributed, infuriating the creators and confusing historians to this day. In a later paragraph, news about an exhibitors’ convention in New York is an entry to a call for visible opposition to State-wide censorship bills soon to be introduced in Albany. One of these bills would close all movie theaters on Sunday, one of the most profitable days for exhibitors, but also a contested day because of its association with church-going. In speaking about the “modern Sunday,” the editor means the secularization of leisure time, still an important issue at the time. The editorial ends with a petition against Federal Censorship, and by encouraging readers to find “citizens who are not in any way connected with the motion picture industry” to sign it. While dealing with local and State censorship is egregious, the MPW claims that Federal Censorship would “drive not hundreds, but thousands of exhibitors out of business.”

What they aren’t mentioning in all of this is the critical Supreme Court decision of the previous year. On February 23, 1915, the case Mutual Film Corp. v. Industrial Commission of Ohio was resolved in the State of Ohio’s favor. Ohio had set up a State Censorship Board in 1913, and Mutual, sick of having to re-cut films for each and every state they sold to, took them to court. In the decision, the Court stated, “the exhibition of moving pictures is a business, pure and simple, originated and conducted for profit … not to be regarded, nor intended to be regarded by the Ohio Constitution, we think, as part of the press of the country, or as organs of public opinion.”

SCOTUS-oldsenateThis is really important: so far as the highest court in the land was concerned, motion pictures had no free speech protections. This remained the case until the decision was overturned in 1952. So, during pretty much the whole “studio era” or what is now often called the “Classic” or “Golden Age” of Hollywood, movies could be legally censored by governmental organs. Which has a lot to do with what was produced and why, but we can get into more of that history as this project continues. For now, I want to look at some aspects of the court’s decision.

The biggest distinction they’re making is that films are businesses, and not therefore “part of the press…or organs of public opinion.” This is at least as bizarre to me (but also the reverse) as the Citizen’s United decision that spending money is the same thing as free speech. For some reason, the fact that newspapers are profitable businesses is completely ignored. They are elevated to a public good, treated as something apart from the business interests, as if they were publically-funded institutions like libraries or the post office, which by this interpretation would also presumably qualify for free speech protection. It’s unclear how the Court found this distinction between “press” and “business” in the Constitution in the first place, but the implications are staggering. Apart from this, they are ignoring (probably because Mutual’s lawyers never brought it up) the existence of documentaries and newsreels, which would become an important “organ of public opinion” within a few years, and had also been seen as the major purpose of motion pictures by many (including the Lumière Brothers and J.P. Chalmers, the author of the article for Moving Picture World) just a few years before.

12068530171690234341director chair.svg.medThere’s another aspect to all of this, which is the question of “movies as an art form.” While directors, actors, and others were arguing fervently that cinema should be taken seriously as a new art form, this doesn’t seem to have even entered into the conversation. Again, I believe this is because the lawyers for Mutual didn’t broach it. It says something about how the industry’s leaders saw themselves: they presented themselves to the Court as a business, and the Court responded in kind. Talk about “art” was all very well for the rubes, but they didn’t expect the idea to be taken seriously at a higher level, is how I read this.

A different decision by the Court a year earlier would have meant a very different editorial for January, 1916. Instead of calling for greater organization to fight hundreds of local censorship ordinances, the focus would have been on clarifying the constitutional limits of government interest in free expression and in local cases that still had not been resolved. The question of film as an “organ of public opinion” or an art form could have been taken more seriously, becoming a matter for serious, high-level discussion, rather than semi-serious ad copy. And, I would say, the growing dominance of the United States film industry would have been a more positive thing, as more creative and innovative product might have become available to inspire artists all over the world. But, history is the study of what did happen, not what didn’t, and from here we study an era in which censorship was an accepted fact of movie making life in the United States.

The Birth of a Nation, Part V

For this entry in my series on D.W. Griffith’s 1915 epic, I want to speak about the contemporary reception to the movie. Up to now, I’ve been arguing that the importance of the movie has been over-rated, often at the expense of an honest assessment of its content and what it says about the history of cinema. It wasn’t as big a technical breakthrough as has often been claimed, nor was it the “first feature film” (it wasn’t even Griffith’s first feature film), nor the “first blockbuster” or really much of the first anything. So, why do so many historians and filmmakers seem to regard it as such a big deal?

MPP Birth Sale

Well, part of that answer starts with the media campaign and critical response in 1915. To confirm just how big a deal it was at the time, I went and looked at the Moving Picture World issues for the end of 1915 and searched for its name. The movie actually had its first screenings in January, and officially premiered in LA in February, and movies at this time usually ran for a week or two at most, so just finding mentions of it being held over in New York week after week in October, November, and December was already an indicator of just how big a smash it was. There were still cities where it was opening for the first time as well, and these would list prices from 50 cents to $2 for seats (a lot of money in 1915) and packed houses of 2000 people or more. Many of these people, it was presumed, had already seen the picture in neighboring cities, or when traveling to larger urban centers. It broke records for screenings and attendance in various places during this time. In October, a story broke about a distributor paying $250,000 for the rights to it in 16 states, which was reported as “the largest transaction ever conducted for the rights to a traveling attraction in the history of the American theater” (later stories suggest that this may have been exaggerated).

MPP Simplex ad

Beyond the box office, I found that “The Birth of a Nation” was also treated as a major artistic achievement. Even passing mentions of the film frequently referred to it as “the big Griffith spectacle,” “this wonderful feature,” a “masterpiece,” or “an immense picture creation.” Studios compared their new releases to it, claiming them as “second only to The Birth of a Nation” or a movie with action that “outdoes ‘The Birth of a Nation’ in thrills.” One film was released as “a Birth of a Nation among children’s films,” and a new Mutual comedy was touted as “The Mirth of a Nation.” The Simplex projector company proudly stated that its machines were “used exclusively” for screenings of “The Birth of a Nation,” which were referred to as “the greatest production in the world.” The movie appealed to people who didn’t usually praise film at the time: the Minneapolis Superintendent of Schools is quoted as saying that “all children should see such pictures” and a Wisconsin pastor “thanks God” he lives in an age when he can see it.

MPP Thank God

All of this despite the fact that the movie met with resistance from the NAACP everywhere it opened, and that African Americans tried to get it banned anywhere they had a voice. The Moving Picture World, of course, was strongly opposed to censorship, and it’s even possible that to some degree their support of the film was a statement in favor of freedom of expression. But, the word “censorship” didn’t have the stigma then that it does today, a great many people did feel that there should be some kind of state control over what could be presented to audiences in theaters. Yet, again and again, and in spite of some strident arguments for the potential harm that could be caused by the racist material in the movie, white city counselors, official censor boards, and higher government officials passed the film, allowing its performance despite the objections of a part of their constituency.

MPP Mirth

The other aspect of all this that seems puzzling is that, when I look at the film now, it really isn’t all that impressive; least of all by comparison to other movies coming out in the US at the end of 1915. Maybe in February and March of that year there wasn’t much to beat it, but by the last months you’ve got “Carmen,” “The Cheat,” “The Italian,” and “Alias Jimmy Valentine,” all much more technically advanced, visually sophisticated, and narratively complex movies. Yet people at the time were still holding it up as the measure of cinematic greatness, and apparently being taken seriously, to judge again by box office success.

I may need several more essays to discuss usefully why this should be the case, but it begins with two points: white middle class audiences at the time lived in an environment where there was “nothing wrong” with the racial views the movie espoused, and Griffith successfully exploited the desire of white Americans everywhere to celebrate their national and racial pride. Reports of the record-breaking screenings in Portland, Oregon make much of “a score of horsemen clad in Ku Klux regalia [who] were a common sight on the streets” during the run (it will be recalled that Oregon had the highest per capital Klan membership in the nation only a few years later). The movie was shown at elaborate “movie palaces” or high-class dramatic theaters, with a full orchestra and uniformed ushers, not in second-rate nickelodeons. Moreover, it was one of the most explicitly nationalist features to come out of the US in that year. Other nations, especially Italy and Russia, had gotten in ahead in terms of making nationalist epics, and the Italian ones, at least, had been released in the US to the amazement of viewers. But they were the stories of foreigners, and I think Americans wanted to feel that their history was as important as the Punic Wars. Griffith gave them that, and whether his telling of it was true or not, it did conform with the historical myths that many believed, or wanted to believe, about their country. That this meant trampling on the dignity of a minority was far less important at a time in American history when African American enfranchisement was still tenuous, at best.