Americanizing the Movies and “Movie Mad” Audiences: 1910-1914

Richard Abel,
Americanizing the Movies and “Movie Mad” Audiences: 1910-1914.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.
ISBN: 978 0 520 24742 0 (hb) US$65.00
ISBN: 978 0 520 24743 7 (pb) US$29.95
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)

From outside USA, ‘Americanizing’ is what occurs when the American film industry shapes both public taste and film economics in those countries (like Australia) which became enthusiastic consumers of American films. But this book is written from inside USA, and concerns how Americans themselves, and particularly those of recent immigrant stock, learned to be American by watching American movies.

It is, therefore, concerned both with the content of the movies (asking what lessons were learned from the stories being told) and with the structure of the industry (asking who watched, and where and when). As the story of both film production and the audiences which grew up around this, becoming American in the process, this volume is a continuation of the themes taken up in Abel’s earlier book, The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910 (University of California, Berkeley, 1999). In the current volume, films and their audiences are examined in some of the major cities, but also in three regions chosen as significant – ‘part of New England (eastern Massachusetts and Rhode Island), northern Ohio, and the upper Midwest (from Missouri through Iowa to Minnesota)’ (6).

Abel suggests that the nickelodeon exhibition venue had encouraged the ‘variety’ programme – a series of short films, screened continuously, so that audiences could enter or leave the screening at any point in the cycle. In the years covered in this book, multi-reel films, presented in sessions at fixed times, became increasingly available and popular. This also led to differentiation among cinemas – according to their opening hours, their size, the classes of picture they screened and how often they changed their programme. Westerns, for instance, remained extremely popular across this period, whether they were one-reel or multi-reel, across the whole audience spectrum. However, they seem to have been more popular with some audiences, and some producers set out to ‘elevate’ the reputation of the western, to make it more up-market. Cinemas, also, went up-market in this period: as they became bigger, they introduced specialist services and tried to appeal to a ‘better’ (wealthier, more educated) class of viewer.

Drawing on the newspapers of the period, particularly those in his selected regions, Abel goes on to describe how American audiences gradually shifted allegiance from European films to the home-grown, particularly favouring those melodramas that proclaimed their American-ness (westerns and Civil War films). The preference for detective thrillers over those which focussed on the brilliant criminal (such as Fantomas) was also read in national terms, as a preference for the higher morality of the American films over the morbidity and immorality of the French. He reminds readers that illustrated songs remained popular within variety film programmes, and that non-fiction (particularly travel films) continued to have a loyal following.

This is also the period of the growth of the star system, and the shift in advertising from featuring the brand name of the product to highlighting the names of the actors. The increasing use of newspapers to bring information about the films and their stars to the potential viewing public contributes to this growth.

A feature of the book is the reproduction of documents from the times – some from trade journals, some from general-interest magazines; some in verse, some in prose. These both flesh out the story in fascinating anecdotes and discussions, and also provide variety for the reader. The bulk of the text summarises the evidence from newspapers and other sources – detailed, thorough, convincing, but often rather dry: the documents counter that with impressionistic and colourful writing. The only problem with this is that the documents are placed – very sensibly – at the end of each chapter: however, this means that the whole book ends – rather inconclusively – with a document.

However, for this reader the main interest was one probably not foreseen by the writer. Part of Abel’s thesis is to acknowledge variations in the stories he is telling: within the big cities, among his selected rural communities, and between the cities and the rural areas. This was a period of huge, and unpredictable, change: Abel proposes that it is the Americanizing project which holds all the local variants of these changes together. So it should not be surprising that, all the way through, I, as an Australian film historian, found myself comparing what I was reading with what I knew of the Australian film experience in the same period.

Abel describes a gradual change in America. At the beginning of his period ‘variety’ programming in nickelodeons dominated; by the end of his period, that boom had passed, and the larger cinemas were gradually shifting towards longer films in sessions with advertised starting times. However, in Australia there never were concentrations of population large enough to support the nickelodeon phenomenon, the kind of store-front cinemas that appeared on virtually every block in the major American cities. In Australia in the period 1910-1914, there were plenty of small, cheap cinema venues – particularly in the poorer suburbs and in rural areas – but these did not usually offer continuous programming. They were modelled on the legitimate theatre, and so were open only for the evening screening, and sometimes only once or twice a week. Purpose-built cinemas began in 1909, and the first cinema building boom started about 1916: before then, films were usually screened in public halls (particularly Mechanics Institutes and Town Halls) or in premises converted for the purpose (often from skating rinks or dance halls). Programming in all these started out very much like the variety programmes of which Abel speaks – a number of short films, including the humorous and the serious, fact and fiction, interleaved on the sandwich principle and finishing with something comic to send the audience home in a good humour. But these programmes began at advertised starting times, even in the major cities where cinemas could sustain up to four sessions every day of the week.

When continuous programming was introduced by J.D.Williams in Sydney in 1909, it could not have been more different from the down-market nickelodeons. His Melba and Colonial cinemas were purpose-built, with an impressive foyer and lavish furnishing, brilliantly lit at night to make their own advertisement. Entrance certainly was cheap (6d and 3d) and the programming continuous from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., which he boasted filled the cinema twelve times a day! (Lone Hand 1 July 1911, p. 278) So, continuous programming arrived in Australia just as it was winding down in USA, and it continued, at least in the state capitals, in parallel with fixed sessions for quite some time.

‘Variety’ programming, however, declined earlier and more quickly in Australia than Abel describes for USA, partly because of the larger number of multi-reel films exhibited in Australia from an earlier date. The international dominance of Hollywood was in place by the end of World War 1: up to the beginning of that war films circulated globally, with the French being the world leaders till at least 1910. As Australia was part of that international distribution circuit, Australian audiences saw very similar films to American audiences, including those longer European epics, travel films and films of sporting events described by Abel. However, the local production of The Story of the Kelly Gang (1906) initiated a rush of multi-reel fictions. At least 4000 ft long, this was the longest continuous dramatised narrative film produced in Australia to that time, and its extraordinary success encouraged further such productions. From 1906 to 1912, about two thirds of the 93 Australian fiction films listed by historians Andrew Pike and Ross Cooper (Australian Film 1900-1977, OUP 1980) were multi-reel: more than half of these were at least two reels and more than 40% were at least three reels. Abel describes nothing like this in USA, where producers resisted making multi-reel films till around 1912, despite the popularity of some imported multi-reel productions (such as the French 3-reel thriller Zigomar 1911).

Whatever their length, Australian films were never a majority of the films screened here, but if a film was multi-reel or made locally it was likely to be a ‘featured’ part of the programme, and so given prominence in advertising. This meant that Australian audiences were accustomed to longer films, and to the kind of programming (in sessions, starting at fixed times) best suited to such films. Abel implies that his reliance on newspapers is different from the kind of sources used by other film historians. However, the dearth of local production houses, and the concomitant dearth of industrial records, has always forced Australian film historians to rely heavily on newspaper sources: on advertising (which was often very detailed, for instance including synopses of longer films such as The Story of the Kelly Gang), on paragraphs in the news columns (often supplied by entrepreneurial distributors or exhibitors), and on reviews and general interest articles. There was a great deal of this, from very early.

Abel describes a comparatively late arrival of film newsreels in USA in August 1911. Pathé produced a newsreel in France from 1908, and from November 1910 there was a Pathé Australia newsreel circulating widely, and followed by other such weekly local productions.

In Australia, the bushranger film was the equivalent of the American western – not just as an outdoor action genre, but as an expression of indigenous themes that supported the national project. The Story of the Kelly Gang was followed by many more bushranger films, many of these multi-reel. However, such productions were artificially curtailed in 1912, when a ban on bushranging films was put in place by the New South Wales police, who were acting as state censors and objected to the poor portrayal of the police in these stories. Local producers turned to other sensational stories, often concerning the convict days or the gold rushes. However, the police did not object to the imported American westerns, which were enthusiastically welcomed by Australian audiences, and became a staple of exhibition, and part of the process of ‘Americanizing’ the Australian audience.

Abel’s description of how Americans objected to the lax morality of European films, which they felt did not come up to American standards, made me chuckle. It was, for instance, proposed as desirable that ‘European producers get closer to the American ideal’ (185). In Australia, as censorship slowly came into operation from about 1908 onwards, it was the American films that were always being singled out for criticism, and the British which provided the model towards which Australian censors proposed that Australian films should aim.

Overall, it appears that in that early period which Abel describes, Australia was far more in tune with developments in Europe (including Britain) than with those in USA, and capable of moving ahead of even these in some ways (such as the production of multi-reel films). These differences have been obscured by the world-wide dominance of Hollywood, which developed during World War 1. The ‘Americanizing’ of the world, through Hollywood films, has encouraged film fans to assume that as America led the world in film it must always have been so. Historians should know better. Paradoxically, it is the kind of detailed research presented by Abel about the American industry that can remind us just how different the film world was before the rise of ‘Hollywood’.

Ina Bertrand,

Created on: Saturday, 2 June 2007

About the Author

Ina Bertrand

About the Authors

Ina Bertrand

Ina Bertrand is Principal Fellow, Cinema Programme, School of Culture and Communication, University of Melbourne, Australia. She was foundation editor of Screening the Past.View all posts by Ina Bertrand →