LONEDALE OPERATOR, THE
(D.W. Griffith, 1911, USA, 17m, BW)
The Lonedale Operator (1911)
Directed by D. W. Griffith
Produced by D. W. Griffith
Written by Mack Sennett
Starring Blanche Sweet, Verner Clarges
Cinematography G. W. Bitzer
Distributed by Biograph Company
Release dates March 23, 1911
Running time 17 minutes (16 frame/s)
Country United States
The Lonedale Operator is a 1911 short American drama film directed by D. W. Griffith, starring Blanche Sweet and written by Mack Sennett for the Biograph Company. The plot of the film involves a girl who takes over a telegraph station after her father takes ill. After the payroll for the town's mine is delivered, two drifters try to steal the money. Their robbery is foiled because the girl is able to telegraph for help and then hold the would-be robbers off until help arrives. The Lonedale Operator includes "elements of romance, drama, suspense, Western, and even a bit of comedy near the end."
Unlike most films at the time which had a simple plot line set in one location, The Lonedale Operator "intercuts three primary spaces—the telegraph office interior, the criminals outside, and the rescue train." Although audiences in 1911 were not used to such editing, the use of the telegraph helped them understand the crosscutting between scenes in such a way that they could follow the plot. The film is also significant for Griffith's use of a close-up of a wrench, which the girl had pretended was a gun. At the time of the film's release, close-ups were still uncommon. The Lonedale Operator illustrates Griffith's growing mastery of the medium.
Verner Clarges as In Payroll Office
Guy Hedlund as On Train
Jeanie Macpherson as In Payroll Office
W. C. Robinson as In Payroll Office
Edward Dillon as Telegrapher (uncredited)
Francis J. Grandon as The Engineer (uncredited)
Joseph Graybill as A Tramp (uncredited)
Dell Henderson as A Tramp (uncredited)
Wilfred Lucas as The Fireman (uncredited)
W. Chrystie Miller as In Station Lobby (uncredited)
George Nichols as The Lonedale Operator (uncredited)
Blanche Sweet as Daughter of the Lonedale Operator (uncredited)
Charles West as Company Agent (uncredited)
Back in 1911, the Biograph Bulletin proclaimed D. W. Griffith’s drama The Lonedale Operator as ‘the most thrilling picture ever produced’ – a bold, sweeping statement which demonstrates that, while filmmakers had yet to master all the techniques of their trade, the studio’s publicity departments had already honed their talent for hyperbole to a fine art. Although The Lonedale Operator is undeniably a superior movie for its time, it’s only the final couple of minutes that can be described as remotely approaching the status of ‘thrilling’, even for audiences of 1911.
The near-interminable slowness of The Lonedale Operator’s lengthy opening scenes suggests that Griffith was perhaps experimenting with scene length and pacing by this stage of his directing career. The long early scenes, in which nothing much happens, eventually give way to shorter ones until what was a frantic pace for 1911 is reached as a would-be rescuer races against time to protect a damsel in distress. It was a scenario that Griffith would film many times (he even remade The Lonedale Operator just one year later as The Girl and Her Trust), and it’s a plot device which, in many respects, still forms the cornerstone of adventure movies today.
Unlike many of Griffith’s heroines, the distressed damsel here is actually quite a plucky young lass, and is played with remarkable naturalism by a 15-year-old Blanche Sweet (Judith of Bethulia). The girl assumes responsibility for a remote railway station after sending her sick father home to recuperate, and finds herself with a couple of unwelcome visitors after taking delivery of the payroll of a nearby mine. The visitors are a pair of ruffians (Joseph Graybill – The House with Closed Shutters – and Dell Henderson – The Unchanging Sea, Intolerance) who hitched a ride on the train with the specific intent of stealing the payroll. However, its plucky guardian provides stiffer opposition than they had anticipated.
After those early scenes in which we see the girl being wooed by the train engineer (Francis J. Grandon) who will eventually come to her rescue, The Lonedale Operator does actually build up a decent head of steam, and Griffith wrings a certain measure of suspense from the situation. Graybill and Henderson’s exaggerated gestures, while perhaps not as bad as in some other early Griffith movies, is still in sharp contrast to Sweet’s more subdued style, and its curious how Griffith seemed to ignore the incongruity of these conflicting performances. There’s a neat twist at the movie’s end which requires the early use of a close-up, and a humorous flourish which hints at the direction in which screenwriter Mack Sennett’s career would eventually head. By now, German Billy Bitzer’s camerawork was also coming into its own, and he captures some nice shots of the Californian landscape.
This is one of the most talked-about of D.W. Griffith’s early shorts, in terms of his contributions to film “grammar” and especially editing. It is a fast-paced action film in which a pair of non-descript hobo thieves threaten Blanche Sweet, who manages to use her wits and high technology to save herself. The movie begins when “the young engineer” (Francis J. Grandon) is assigned to take out a locomotive. He seems to be hanging around the railroad tracks, hoping for work, and he gets up quickly to head out to the station, but not without stopping by to see his girl, Blanche Sweet. Sweet is shown reading a book, letting us know she’s smart, and her house fronts on the tracks, giving us a sense of her class and the likelihood that her family are railroad people. She walks to the station with Francis, but refuses him a kiss. When they arrive, Francis takes over his train, but Blanche stops in to visit her father (George Nichols), the wireless operator. He’s not feeling well, so Blanche offers to take over for him. He agrees, and offers her the revolver in his pocket, but she assures him she’ll be fine, and he leaves her alone and unarmed. She waves goodbye to her beau, excited to have this great responsibility thrust on her.
Soon, we see the arrival of the payroll for the local mine, which is delivered to her care, and the simultaneous arrival of two tramps (one of them is Dell Henderson, a Griffith favorite) who’ve been riding under the train. They hide out until the train has gone, and then try to get into the office to take the money. Blanche realizes what they are up to and locks the door, but with no gun, it’s only a matter of time until they break in. She quickly telegraphs the next station that there’s an attempted break-in going on and arms herself with a wrench. The boyfriend, hearing of his girl’s distress, now jumps on his engine and hightails it back to the station, but can he make it in time? Well, the tramps do break in, but Blanche turns the wrench around to look like a gun and holds them at bay until the train arrives and she is rescued. The tramps go to jail, and the money goes to its rightful payees. Presumably Blanche and Francis get hitched.
Now, this is a good movie, but I think its significance has been rather over-stated. For example, the Wikipedia entry says, “Unlike most films at the time which had a simple plot line set in one location, The Lonedale Operator “intercuts three primary spaces—the telegraph office interior, the criminals outside, and the rescue train.” Although audiences in 1911 were not used to such editing, the use of the telegraph helped them understand the crosscutting between scenes in such a way that they could follow the plot.” I think this kind of thinking comes about because the only movies people ever see from this period are D.W. Griffith and Georges Méliès. I mean, come on! Intercutting of primary spaces goes back to at least “Life of an American Fireman” (1902) and it’s done with greater sophistication in “The Great Train Robbery” (1903). Admittedly, neither of those depends on THREE simultaneous spaces (just two at a time), but I hardly think audiences were too dumb ten years later to figure it out. Even the claim that “most films” used only “one location” is ridiculous – by 1911, many films were shot on several sets, although I’ll grant you that many plots still unfolded sequentially.
Griffith understood the potential editing offered, and used it well. But, he didn’t invent sliced bread. One of his major (real) contributions to film was his use of very young actresses. Blanche Sweet was only 15 at the time. Griffith seems to have understood that, with the greater intimacy the camera offered over the stage, audiences would be aware of the facial details of the stars, and so he shot for a kind of personal ideal that obviously had mass popular attraction. While that has some creepy or even misogynist undertones, note that in this movie the female star is not portrayed as utterly helpless. Even without a gun, she figures out a way to save herself and tricks the bad guys with a wrench. She’s obviously well-read, and knows enough about Morse to send a clear distress call. She’s not quite tough enough to clobber the tramps by herself (and that would have been a bit hard to believe), but she’s the equal of any boy her age, at least. One other thing stuck out to me on my latest viewing of this movie: there’s a stunt that most people probably don’t think twice about. Seconds after the train pulls into the station, Dell and his buddy crawl out form underneath it – showing that they were riding that way, clinging to the bottom of the car, for at least some distance. That’s a dangerous way to ride a large vehicle like a train! If one of them had slipped, no one could have stopped the train until the whole thing had rolled over them, easily removing an appendage or worse! Never let it be said that actors took no risks on these movies.
THE BEGINNING OF NARRATIVE
There was a 'crisis' in transitional cinema around 1907, signaled by complaints in the
trade press about lack of narrative clarity, as well as by exhibitors' increased use of
lectures in an attempt to make films understandable to their audiences. Films were poised
between an emphasis upon visual pleasure, 'the cinema of attractions', and story-telling,
'the cinema of narrative integration', but conventions for constructing internally coherent
narratives had not yet been established. In the transitional years, between 1907-8 and
1917, the formal elements of film-making all became subsidiary to the narrative, as
lighting, composition, editing were all increasingly designed to help the audience follow a
story. Integral to these stories were psychologically credible characters, created through
performance style, editing, and dialogue interties’, whose motivations and actions
seemed realistic and helped to link together a film's disparate shots and scenes. These
'well-rounded', believable characters, resembling those of the then fashionable realist
literature and drama, contrast sharply with the earlier period's one-dimensional stock
characters drawn from the melodrama and vaudeville comedy skits.
The increased use of editing and the decreased distance between camera and actors most
obviously distinguish the films of the transitional period from their predecessors. The
tableau or proscenium arch shot, showing the actors' entire bodies as well as the space
above and below them, characterized the early cinema. However, towards the beginning
of the transitional period the Vitagraph Company began using the so-called '9-foot line',
staging the action about 9 feet from the camera, a scale that showed the actors from the
ankles up. At around the same time in France, Pathe and companies under its influence,
Film d'Art and SCAG, also adopted the 9-foot line. By 1911 the camera had moved yet
closer, producing the three-quarter shot that became the predominant scale of the
transitional cinema and indeed of the entire silent period. In addition to moving the
camera closer to the actors, film-makers also moved the actors closer to the camera. In
chase films the actors had exited the shots in close proximity to the camera, but during the
transitional period the practice became standardized, deliberately employed to enhance
dramatic effects, as in a shot from The Musketeers of Pig Alley ( Griffith, 1912) in which
a gangster slinks along a wall until he is seen in medium close-up.
The decreased distance between action and camera not only enabled identification of the
actors and the development of the star system, but also contributed to the increased
emphasis upon individualized characters and facial expression. Editing was also
developed for this end; both to emphasize moments of psychological intensity and to
externalize characters' thoughts and emotions. The three-quarter scale already permitted
audiences to see the actors' faces more clearly than before, but filmmakers often cut even
closer at climactic points. This was designed to encourage fuller viewer involvement in
the characters' emotions, and not, as in early films like The Great Train Robbery, simply
for shock value. For example, in The Lonedale Operator ( Griffith, Biograph, 1911)
burglars menace a telegraph operator ( Blanche Sweet) and attempt to break into her
office. As Sweet desperately telegraphs for help, the film cuts from a three-quarter to a
medium shot, allowing a closer view of her fearful expression.
Editing was also used more directly to convey characters' subjectivity. In the earlier
period, film-makers had adopted the theatrical 'vision scene', using double exposure to put
the character and a literal embodiment of externalized thoughts in the same frame. Life of
an American Fireman ( Edison, 1902), for example, uses this device to show a fireman
thinking of an imperiled family, who appear in a balloon slightly above him and to his
right. This convention continued in the transitional period, as in The Life Drama of
Napoleon Bonaparte and the Empress Josephine of France (Vitagraph, 1909), in which
the divorced and distraught Empress reaches out to a superimposed vision of her erstwhile
husband. But the film's companion reel. Napoleon, the Man of Destiny, approaches the
conventional flashback structure of the Hollywood cinema, in which a 'present-day' shot
of the character authorizes the film's presentation of the 'past'. Napoleon returns to
Malmaison shortly before his exile to Elba and, as he 'thinks' of his past, the film cuts
from him to reenactments of battles and other events in his life.
The transitional period also saw the emergence of the editing pattern that is most closely
associated with character subjectivity: the point-of-view shot, in which a film cuts from a
character to what the character sees and then back to the character. This pattern did not
become fully conventionalized until the Hollywood period, but filmmakers during the
transitional period experimented with various means of 'showing' what characters saw. In
an early example, Francesca da Rimini (Vitagraph, 1907), there is a cut from a tableau-
scale shot of a character looking at a locket to an insert close-up of the locket. In The
Lonedale Operator, Enoch Arden ( 1911), and other films, Griffith cuts between
characters looking through a window to what they see, although the eye line match seems
'imperfect' by today's standards.
This last kind of editing, of course, not only externalized characters' thoughts but helped
establish the spatial and temporal relations crucial to narrative coherence, both in the
same scene (roughly, actions occurring at the same place and time) and between scenes
taking place at the same time in different locations. In the earlier period film-makers
occasionally broke down the space of a shot, selecting details for closer examination, as
in Grandma's Reading Glasses. While not as prevalent as it was later to become, this
analytical editing was sometimes used in the transitional period to highlight narrative
important details rather than, as in the earlier period, simply to provide visual pleasure. In
The Lonedale Operator, for example, when the burglars eventually break into the
telegraph operator's office, she holds them at bay with what appears to be a revolver but a
cut-in reveals to be a wrench. While analytical editing was comparatively rare,
conventions for linking the different spaces of one scene together, to orientate the viewer
spatially, became established practice. In fact, part of the suspense in The Lonedale
Operator depends upon the viewer having a clear idea of the film's spatial relations. When
the telegraph operator first arrives at work, she walks from the railway office's porch into
an outer room and then into an inner room. Following the principle of directional
continuity, the actress exits each shot at screen right and re-enters at screen left. When the
burglars break through the outermost door, the viewer knows exactly how much further
they must go to reach the terrified woman Here, character movement links the shots, but
various other conventions, many relating to the relative position of the camera in
successive set-ups, also arose for establishing spatial relations.
The Lonedale Operator also provides an example of an editing pattern primarily
associated with the name of its director, D. W. Griffith. He became famous for the
crosscutting, parallel action, or parallel editing through which he constructed his spine-
tingling last-minute rescues. Several pre-Griffith films, however, show that, while the
Biograph director may have conventionalized parallel editing, he did not invent it. Two
1907 Vitagraph films. The Mill Girl and The Hundred-to-One-Shot, cross-cut between
different locations, the latter even featuring a somewhat attenuated last-minute rescue.
Several Pathe films from 1907-8 also contain fairly brief parallel editing sequences, the
plot and editing of one, A Narrow Escape ( 1908), prefiguring Griffith's The Lonely Villa
( 1909). But from his earliest films, Griffith experimented with cutting between pursued,
pursuer, and potential rescuer, and he and other American directors soon developed
parallel editing beyond the fairly elementary form seen in French films. The climax of
The Lonedale Operator, for example, cuts from the menaced heroine, to the menacing
burglars breaking down doors, to the hero in the cab of a speeding locomotive, to an
exterior tracking shot of the onrushing train.
When Griffith first began directing at Biograph in 1908 his films averaged about
seventeen shots, increasing fivefold to an average of eighty-eight by 1913. The later
Griffith Biographs probably feature more shots per film than those produced by other
American studios, such as Vitagraph, during the same years, but American film-makers as
a general rule tended to rely more heavily on editing than did their European counterparts,
who were concerned more with the mise-en-scene and the possibilities of staging in
depth. American films tended to stage the action on a shallow plane, with actors entering
and exiting from the sides. Particularly toward the beginning of the transitional period,
they even used painted fiats, making no attempt to disguise their theatricality. By contrast,
European films, particularly the French and Italian, began to create a sense of deep space
not possible in the theatre. Lowering the camera to waist level from its previous eye level
facilitated shooting in depth; the reduction of the empty space above the actors' heads
produced both a larger, closer view of the characters and much more contrast between
characters closer to and further from the camera, permitting the staging of action in the
foreground, midground, and background. Convincing multidimensional sets for interior
scenes, often with doors that gave glimpses of an even deeper space behind the set, added
to the illusion of depth. The use of doorways and contrasting light and shadows often
enhanced the feeling of deep space in exterior shots, as seen in Romeo and Juliet (Film
d'Arte Italiana, 1909). In one shot, Romeo returns to Verona and walks through the dark
shadow under an arch into the well-lit deep space behind. The next shot, Juliet's funeral
procession, is a graphic match cut to the shadowy arched doorway of a vast church out of
which pours a huge cast. The film holds the shot long enough for the many gorgeously
costumed extras to wind past the camera, the lengthy procession drawing the eye back to
the church door
The American cinema's emphasis on editing rather than mise-en-scene was coupled with
the development of a new 'cinematic' performance style that contributed to the creation of
credible, individualized characters. Film acting began increasingly to resemble that of the
'realist' drama and to reject the codified conventions of an older performance style,
associated primarily with the melodrama. The earlier or 'histrionic' style was predicated
upon the assumption that acting bore no relation to 'real' or everyday life. Actors
expressed themselves through a pre-established lexicon of gestures and poses, all
corresponding to pre-specified emotions or states of mind. Movements were broad,
distinct, and forcefully performed. By contrast, the newer or 'verisimilitude' style assumed
that actors should mimic everyday behavior. Actors abandoned the standard and
conventionalized poses of the 'histrionic' style and externalized characters' thoughts and
emotions through facial expression, small individuated movements, and the use of props.
Two Griffith Biographs made three years apart, A Drunkard's Reformation ( 1909) and
Brutality ( 1912), illustrate the differences between the histrionic and very similar styles. In
both films a wife despairs over her husband's affection for the bottle. In the earlier film,
the wife ( Florence Lawrence) collapses into her chair and rests her head on her arms,
extended straight out in front of her on the table. Then she sinks to her knees and prays,
her arms fully extended upward at about 45 degrees. In the later film the wife (Mae
Marsh) sits down at the dining-room table, bows her head, and begins to collect the dirty
dishes. She looks up, compresses her lips, pauses, and then begins to gather the dishes again.
Once more she pauses, raises her hand to her mouth, glances down to her side, and
slumps a little in her chair. Slumping a little more, she begins to cry.
The changing use of interties’ during the transitional period also related directly to the
construction of credible, individualized characters. Initially, interties’ had been
expository, often preceding a scene and providing fairly lengthy descriptions of the
upcoming action. Gradually, shorter expository titles dispersed throughout the scene
replaced these lengthy titles. More importantly, dialogue titles began to appear from 1910.
Film-makers experimented with the placement of these titles, first inserting them before
the shot in which the words were uttered, but by about 1913 cutting in the title just as the
character spoke. This had the effect of forging a stronger connection between words and
actor, serving further to individuate the characters.
If the formal elements of American film developed in this period, its subject-matter also
underwent some changes. The studios continued to produce actualities, travelogues, and
other non-fiction films, but the story film's popularity continued to increase until it
constituted the major portion of the studios' output. In 1907 comedies comprised 70 per
cent of fiction films, perhaps because the comic chase provided such an easy means for
linking shots together But the development of other means of establishing patio-
temporal continuity facilitated the proliferation of different genres.
Exhibitors made a conscious effort to attract a wide audience by programming a mix of
subjects; comedies. Westerns, melodramas, actualities, and so forth. The studios planned
their output to meet this demand for diversity. For example, in 1911 Wagraph released a
military film, a drama, a Western, a comedy, and a special feature, often a costume film,
each week. Nickelodeon audiences apparently loved Westerns (as did European viewers),
to such an extent that trade press writers began to complain of the plethora of Westerns
and predict films genre's imminent decline. Civil War films also proved popular, particularly
during the war's fiftieth anniversary, which fell in this period. By 1911 comedies no
longer constituted the majority of fiction films, but still maintained a significant presence.
Responding to a prejudice against 'vulgar' slapstick, studios began to turn out the first
situation comedies, featuring a continuing cast of characters in domestic settings;
Biograph's Mr. and Mrs. Jones series, Vitagraph's John Bunny series, and Pathe's Max
Tinder series. In 1912 Mack Sennett revived the slapstick comedy when he devoted his
Keystone Studios to the genre. Not numerous, but none the less significant, were the
'quality' films: literary adaptations, biblical epics, and historical costume dramas.
Contemporary dramas (and melodramas), featuring a wide variety of characters and
settings, formed an important component of studio output, not only in terms of sheer
numbers but in terms of their deployment of the formal elements discussed above.
These contemporary dramas display a more consistent construction of internally coherent
narratives and credible individualized characters through editing, acting, and interties’
than do any of the other genres. In these films, producers often emulated the narrative
forms and characters of respectable contemporary entertainments, such as the 'realist'
drama (the proverbial 'well-made' play) and 'realist' literature, rather than, as in the earlier
period, drawing upon vaudeville and magic lanterns. This emulation resulted partially
from the film industry's desire to attract a broader audience while placating the cinema's
critics, thus entering the mainstream of American middle-class culture as a respectable
mass medium. Integral to this strategy were the quality films, which brought 'high' culture
to nickelodeon audiences just at the moment when the proliferation of permanent
exhibition venues and the 'nickel madness' caused cultural arbiters to fear the potential
deleterious effects of the new medium.
Although the peak period of quality film production coincided roughly with the first years
of the nickelodeon ( 1908-9), film-makers had already produced 'high-culture' subjects
such as Parsifal ( Edison, 1904) and L'Epoque Napolonienne ( PathE, 1903-4). In 1908
the French films d'art provided a model that would be followed by both European and
American film producers as they sought to attain cultural legitimacy. The Society Film
d'Art was founded by the financial firm Frères Lafitte for the specific purpose of luring
the middle classes to the cinema with prestige productions; adaptations of stage plays or
original material written for the screen by established authors (often members of the
Academic Fran9aise), starring well known theatrical actors (often members of the
ComedieFran9aise), The first and most famous of the films d'art, L'Assassinat du Due de
Guise(The Assassination of the Duke of Guise), derived from a script written by Academic
member Henri Lavedan. Although based on a historical incident from the reign of Henry
II, the original script constructed an internally coherent narrative intended to be
understood without previous extra-textual knowledge. Reviewed in the New York Daily
Tribune upon its Paris premiere, the film made a major impact in the United States.
Further articles on the film d'art movement appeared in the mainstream press, while the
film trade press asserted that the films d'art should serve to inspire American producers to
new heights. The exceptional coverage accorded film d'art may have served as an
incentive for American film-makers to emulate this strategy at a time when the industry
badly needed to assert its cultural bona fides.
The Motion Picture Patents Company encouraged the production of quality films, and one
of its members, Vitagraph, was particularly active in the production of literary, historical,
and biblical topics. Included in its list of output between 1908 and 1913 were. A Comedy
of Errors, The Reprieve: An Episode in the Life of Abraham Lincoln ( 1908); Judgment of
Solomon, Oliver Twist, Richelieu; or. The Conspiracy, The Life of Moses (five reels)
( 1909); Twelfth Night, The Martyrdom of Thomas a Becket ( 1910); A Tale of Two Cities
(three reels). Vanity Fair ( 1911); Cardinal Wolsey ( 1912); and The Pickwick Papers
( 1913). Biograph, on the other hand, concentrated its efforts on bringing formal practices
in line with those of the middle-class stage and novel, and its relatively few quality films
tended to be literary adaptations, such as After Many Years ( 1908) (based on Tennyson 's
Enoch Arden) and The Taming of the Shrew ( 1908). The Edison Company, while not as
prolific as Vitagraph, did turn out its share of quality films, including Nero and the
Burning of Rome ( 1909) and Les Miserable (two reels, 1910), while Thanhouser led the
independents in their bid for respectability with titles such as Jane Eyre ( 1910) and
Romeo and Juliet (two reels, 1911).
EXHIBITION AND AUDIENCES
During the early years of film production, the dominance of the non-fiction film, and its
exhibition in 'respectable' venues ~ vaudeville and opera-houses, churches and lecture
halls ~ kept the new medium from posing a threat to the cultural status quo. But the
advent of the story film and the associated rise of the nickelodeons changed this situation,
and resulted in a sustained assault against the film industry by state officials and private
reform groups. The industry's critics asserted that the dark, dirty, and unsafe nickelodeons
showed unsuitable fare, were often located in tenement districts, and were patronized by
the most unstable elements of American society who were all too vulnerable to the
physical and moral hazards posed by the picture shows. There were demands that state
authorities censor films and regulate exhibition sites. The industry responded with several
strategies designed to placate its critics: the emulation of respectable literature and drama;
the production of literary, historical, and biblical films; self-censorship and co-operation
with government officials in making exhibition sites safe and sanitary.
Permanent exhibition sites were established in the United States as early as 1905, and by
1907 there were an estimated 2,500 to 3,000 nickelodeons; by 1909, 8,000, and by 1910,
10,000. By the start of 1909, cinema attendance was estimated at 45 million per week.
New York rivaled Chicago for the greatest concentration of nickelodeons, estimates
ranging from 500 to 800. New York City's converted store-front venues, with their
inadequate seating, insufficient ventilation, dim lighting, and poorly marked, often
obstructed exits, posed serious hazards for their patrons, as confirmed by numerous police
and fire department memos from the period. Regular newspaper reports of fires, panics,
and collapsing balconies undoubtedly contributed to popular perceptions of the
nickelodeons as deathtraps. Catastrophic accidents aside, the physical conditions were
linked to ill effects which threatened the community in more insidious ways. In 1908 a
civic reform group reported: 'Often the sanitary conditions of the show-rooms are bad;
bad air, floors unclean, no provision of spittoons, and the people crowded closely
together, all make contagion likely'
In urban areas at least, cinema audiences were (without being fully documented)
predominantly working class, many were immigrants, and sometimes a majority were
women and children. While the film industry asserted that it provided an inexpensive
distraction to those who had neither the time nor the money for other entertainments,
reformers feared that 'immoral' films ~ dealing with crimes, adultery, suicide, and other
unacceptable topics-would unduly influence these most susceptible of viewers and, worse
yet, that the promiscuous mingling of races, ethnicities, genders, and ages would give rise
to gender transgressions.
State officials and private reform groups devised a variety of strategies for containing the
threat posed by the rapidly growing new medium. The regulation of film content seemed
a fairly simple solution and in many localities reformers called for official municipal
censorship. As early as 1907, Chicago established a board of police censors that reviewed
all films shown within its jurisdiction and often demanded the excision of 'offensive'
material. San Francisco's censors enforced a code so strict that it barred 'all films where
one person was seen to strike another'. Some states, Pennsylvania being the first in 1911,
instituted state censorship boards.
State and local authorities also devised various ways of regulating the exhibition sites.
Laws prohibiting certain activities on the Christian Sabbath were invoked to shut the
nickelodeons on Sundays, often the wage-earners' sole day off and hence the best day at
the box-office. Authorities also struck at box-office profits through state and local statutes
forbidding the admission of unaccompanied children, depriving exhibitors of a major
source of income. Zoning laws were used to prohibit the operation of nickelodeons within
close proximity to schools or churches. Li counter-attacking, the industry attempted to
form alliances with influential state officials, educators, and clergymen by offering
evidence (or at least making assertions) that the new medium provided information and
clean, amusing entertainment for those otherwise bereft of either education or diversion.
The more powerful members of the industry, such as the Motion Picture Patents
Company, often encouraged the incorporation of health and safety requirements into local
ordinances dictating the construction of new exhibition venues and the upgrading of old
ones. The New York City ordinance of 1913, specifying in detail such matters as the
number of seats, aisle width, and air flow, represented the culmination of efforts to make
exhibition venues more salubrious, that is, bearing a stronger resemblance to legitimate
theatrical houses. In fact, in that year and in that city, the first 'movie palaces' appeared.
These large and well-appointed theaters contrasted strongly with the nickelodeons. With
seats for up to 2,000 patrons, architecture mimicking Egyptian temples or Chinese
pagodas, large orchestras, and uniformed ushers, these theaters provided environments
nearly as fantastic as those projected on to their screens.
It was not only in the United States that film houses faced criticism and opposition in this
period. Permanent exhibition sites appeared in Germany in 1910, a few years later than in
the United States, but the rapid growth and increasing popularity of the new medium
attracted the attention of state officials and private reform groups concerned about film's
possible malign influence upon susceptible audiences and the nation's culture. The Berlin
Police Commission instituted an official pre-censorship plan in 1906, a year earlier than
their Chicago counterparts. As in the United States, children were perceived as
particularly vulnerable and in need of protection. Teachers and clergymen produced
several studies testifying to cinema's deleterious effect upon the young while teachers'
associations and other groups for popular and continuing education denigrated the use of
the cinema for amusement and urged increased production of scientific films for teaching
purposes. In 1907 reformers joined together in the cinema reform movement
(Kinoreformbewegung) and touted the new medium's potential both for child and adult
education. Supported in their efforts by the trade press, who saw co-operation as a way to
avoid more official censorship, the cinema reformers were successful in persuading the
German industry to produce educational films, or Kulturfilme, that dealt with natural
sciences, geography, folklore, agriculture, industry, technology and crafts, medicine and
hygiene, sports, history, religion, and military affairs.
In 1912, literary intellectuals became interested in the by then predominant fiction film,
urging adherence to aesthetic standards to elevate the story film to art rather than ‘mere'
amusement. The industry responded with the Autorenfilm, or author film, the German
version of the film d'art. The first Autorenfilm, Der Andere (The Other One), was adapted
from a play by Paul Lindau about a case of split personality and starred the country's most
famous actor, Albert Bassermann. The prestigious theatre director Max Reinhardt
followed with filmed versions of two popular plays, Eine venezianische Nacht ( A
Venetian night, 1913) and Insel der Gesegneten (' Island of the blessed', 1913).
Britain had no real equivalent to the American nickelodeon period, although debates
about cinema's cultural and social status paralleled those taking place across the Atlantic.
By 1911, when film rental and permanent exhibition sites became standard, most cinemas
mimicked the up-market accouterments of the legitimate theatre. Before this, films were
exhibited in a variety of locations-the music halls and fairgrounds that had constituted the
primary venues of the early period as well as the so-called 'penny gaffs'. Although never
as numerous and often more transient than the nickelodeons, these store-front shows were
equivalent to their American counterparts in being unsanitary and unsafe. The first theatre
devoted entirely to film exhibition seems to have been established in 1907, and, between
the following year and the advent of the World War, films were increasingly exhibited in
'picture palaces', the equivalent of the American 'movie palaces', replete with uniformed
ushers and red plush seating for up to 1,000 or even 2,000 customers. While prices
remained low enough to permit former patrons to continue to attend, all these amenities
served to distance the cinema from its previous associations with the music halls and the
working class, to attract, as the trade press fervently^ hoped, a 'better' class of customer.
Like their transatlantic counterparts, British filmmakers also pursued respectability
through more positive tactics. In 1910 producer Will Barker paid the eminent theatrical
actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm-Tree £1,000 for appearing in a film version of
Shakespeare's Henry VIII. Rather than selling the film outright to distributors, as was still
the dominant practice. Barker gave one distributor exclusive rights to rent, but not to sell,
the film, claiming that its high production costs and high cultural status required special
treatment. Barker produced other films of a similar nature, establishing the .exclusive' or
'quality' picture, the adjectives referring to both the films and their distribution. Hepworth
and other producers followed Barker's lead, adapting contemporary plays and literary
classics that would appeal to the customers now patronizing the up-market theaters. In
1911 the Urban Company issued a catalogue of films suitable for use in schools. In the
same year, the trade paper Bioscope urged the industry to persuade government
authorities to recognize the educational value of film, even arranging a film screening for
members of the London County Council.
French films d'art provided the model for film producers in other countries, in their quest
for cultural respectability. French film-makers also emulated the narrative strategies of
more respectable entertainments, imitating the stories in popular illustrated family
magazines such as Lectures pour tous. Upon taking the position as chief producer-director
at Gaumont in 1907, Louis Feuillade wrote an advertisement for the studio's new serial.
Scenes de la vie telle qu'elle est ( Scenes from Real Life), claiming that the films would
elevate the position of the French cinema by affiliating it with other respectable arts.
'They represent, for the first time, an attempt to project a realism on to the screen, just as
was done some years ago in literature, theatre, and art.'
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