The Spoor of the Woozle
The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910. Berkeley: University of California Press. 1999.
ISBN 0-520-21478-1 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)
Uploaded 1 March 2001
All of Richard Abel’s six books begin with epigraphs from Winnie-the-Pooh (not The House at Pooh Corner). A sizeable chunk of Pooh-Piglet dialogue about hunting and tracking opens The Red Rooster Scare, culminating in this exchange.
“Tracking what?” said Piglet, coming closer.
“That’s just what I ask myself. I ask myself, What?”
“What do you think you’ll answer?”
These quotations have an odd effect on Abel’s own texts which one must presume is intended. They seem designed to refashion their author as a wondering child not entirely in control of what he is doing, calling into question the wisdom and sophistication of what we will read, with all its craftiness and its divers rhetorical stratagems.
Now why would he be wanting to do that?
The Red Rooster Scare is not just an important book for early American film history, although it is most certainly that. Reading Abel’s account of changing American attitudes toward the Pathé company in the first decade of the last century, I found myself, as a sometime historian of early Australian cinema, constantly prompted by his careful and detailed analyses to ask what Pathé was doing in Australia at the same time and how the Australian trade was dealing with Pathé. These are questions most Australian film historians are not in a very good position to answer. We know, because of the research of Chris Long, Graham Shirley and others, that Pathé was a presence here, as it was elsewhere, before the First World War. We know, because of the research of Georges Sadoul, Richard Abel and others, that Pathé made some crucial changes in the extent and nature of its operations during the same period. What Abel’s work makes me realise is that what happened to Pathé in France and what happened to it in the United States are very likely to have generated direct and indirect repercussions – parallels and transformations – in Australia. That is, in short, that the history of the cinema is always properly a global, not a national, history.
Abel’s chapters proceed more or less chronologically (that is, with some overlapping by the end), but at the same time they set out arguments of their own and they recount an overall story that is an argument as well. Each begins with an analysis of attitudes garnered mainly from newspapers and the trade press, but each also contains extra added attractions: brief appended essays on such matters as early trademarks and the different ways in which music was used in nickelodeon cinemas, reprinted documents of the period, many contemporary illustrations and advertisements. Abel’s declared intention is to make a book that is “a textual experiment in ‘how to do history’ . . . a museum space or a cabinet of wonders”. The upshot of all of this is that The Red Rooster Scare manages to be simultaneously conventional and unconventional – its more or less traditional narrative constantly distracted by the flash of this or that like Walter Benjamin wandering in an arcade.
Blinkered from all the book’s storefront riches I am going to trace the most stolid and conventional of paths, marked out by the simplest line of argument in the book – the account of Pathé’s rise and fall in the American market.
The first chapter ties the emergence of French films as a force in the American market to the fraught debates over whether there was or was not some kind of commercial crisis in that market during the first years of the twentieth century. Abel, following Richard Allen, contends that there was not: that in 1900-1903 the market for films was expanding and that its area of principal expansion was vaudeville, especially “family vaudeville”, which was neighbourhood-based, small-time entertainment. But he also contends that French films were the crucial element in that expansion. This was Georges Méliès’s moment. His Star Films produced a string of fantasy hits distributed in the United States on the vaudeville circuit (Cendrillon/Cinderella 1899, Voyage dans la lune/A trip to the moon 1902, Le royaume des fées/Fairyland 1903). Abel argues that the spectacular success of these French films and others like them (including some produced by Pathé) was the crucial determinant in the expansion of the market into vaudeville and that, by appealing to women and children, the French fairytale films suggested new directions for cinema marketing and production worldwide.
In the second chapter Abel makes a case for Pathé’s importance in the transition from vaudeville, travelling and fairground exhibition to the first nickelodeons. The exceptional popularity of films like A Trip to the Moon and The Great Train Robbery (Porter, 1903) – neither of which were Pathé films – tends to be taken as the most significant “film” reason for entrepreneurs to decide to risk showing nothing but films in places set aside specifically for that purpose (“nickelodeons”). But Abel reasons that the new breed of cinema exhibitor would also have needed to have been assured of a reliable source of quality films supplying a large range of new titles every week. By 1906, at least, it seems clear that only Pathé fits that description. The French company was producing more films and better films (films with strong production values and audience appeal) than any other in the American market, and it had the organisation to reliably supply those films to those who wanted them.
Reading the first two chapters involves accepting certain moderately contentious arguments and allowing inferences from data that does not bear directly on the Pathé company or its films. The third chapter, however, makes no such demands. There is no dispute about Pathé’s preeminence in the American market from 1905 to 1908 – and in retrospect it would seem that the undoubted dominance of these years has tacitly warranted the arguments of the company’s growing influence in the previous two chapters. Pathé could not have come from nowhere to the point where by 1908 it was “mass marketing the largest number and the greatest variety of film subjects for an ever-expanding exhibition market”, and the first two chapters propose to account for the firm’s initial rise and rise. In describing how the company went from strength to strength from 1905 to 1908, Abel again stresses both the steadily increasing number and the variety of its offerings, paying particular attention to the 1907 version of their Vie et passion du Christ/Passion play, a four reel film that took an hour or more to show, and the long-lasting popularity of which garnered the company a great many respectable kudos over several years.
With the third chapter, the dates begin to overlap like footprints in the snow. The third chapter begins in 1905, a year before its predecessor concluded. Chapters four and five cover 1907-1909 and 1907-1910 respectively, tracing the tracks of their prey over themselves, so to speak. The sixth, and last, chapter abandons all pretence of forward motion and tramples heavily over 1907-1910 like the one before it. This slightly looping chronology is dictated by the substance of each chapter: it depends entirely upon what is being tracked. In chapter four, the prey is the restoration of American market hegemony into the hands of American companies. In the fifth, it is the related transformation of Pathé from a sign of imported quality to a sign of foreign contamination. And in the sixth, it is “Americanization project” of the Indian and western films of the last years of the decade, to which Pathé in the end contributed as a tactic of the company’s own “Americanization”.
As Abel tells it, Pathé never had a chance. The company did misread the future of the trade in 1907, when it determined to ally itself with Edison’s moves to assert centralised control over the market, but it is hard to imagine any strategy that could have prevented its being forced from its superior market position. Over the next few years, the company compromised its pivotal position as the biggest player in the game, cut itself off from the burgeoning “independent” (anti-Edison) sector, and was effectively manoeuvred to the margins by Edison and other growing American companies. As part and parcel of these “purely business” moves, the American companies also launched (or perhaps only tacitly supported) a press campaign that suddenly discovered all kinds of wickedness in Pathé’s family-oriented movies: unmanliness, exoticism, debauchery, sordidness, violence and incomprehensibility. All the good work of the fairy tales, religious epics and films d’art was undone by the unwholesomeness of the (European) life depicted in its popular crime, comedy and action films. Pathé remade itself, as much as was possible, into an American company: basing most of its production for the American market in the United States and eliminating the marks of foreign-ness from its films until it could be acknowledged to be “producing American subjects for American audiences”, in the words of a reviewer for Moving Picture World.
In an afterword, Abel notes that in a poll to select the ten best movies of all time held in 1911, only six Pathé films were mentioned (out of 148 that received more than 25 votes); and he speculates that were such a poll to have been held just two years earlier “the majority of film titles would undoubtedly have been Pathé’s”. In a year or so, then, the company had gone from being a by-word for quality (and quantity) to an afterthought. A foreign invasion of the United States had been recognised and repelled: the movies had, perhaps for the first time, become consciously American; and the stage was set for “Hollywood” and the era of Yankee media imperialism in which, it seems, some of us live today.
There doesn’t seem to be much doubt about how Richard Abel would respond to Piglet and Pooh’s uneasiness over what they are tracking. The signs on the trail here are unmistakable, and oddly familiar. They point to a Woozle. Who can doubt that it is America up ahead, crouching over the eviscerated corpse of yet another ravaged land? Pooh and Piglet would be well advised to take cover before they too fall victim to global Disneyfication (uh oh, too late).
But if this story is one that has been told many times, it is also, by and large, true. American economic domination does go hand in hand with a certain domineering culture that demonises and denigrates as it subordinates. At the same time, my Austral-American eyes seem to discern the traces of a shadow lurking behind the Yankee beast, a presence that Abel’s writing tends to downplay somewhat, but one that would account for what happened almost as efficiently as he does.
In order to account for the power of the impulse to “Americanize” which he identifies as so crucial in the years from 1907 to 1910, Abel loops back to the 1880s and’90s, before the cinema. These were the years of the vanishing frontier, culminating in American imperialist expansion into the Caribbean and the Pacific, and they were host to a great deal of influential racist, sexist and nationalist rhetoric, some of which Abel quotes (“manifest destiny”, the “virility” and “fighting spirit” of “Anglo-Saxons” and so on). His argument is that films then identified as “American”, and especially films about the west, tended to buy into and to promulgate such attitudes, which some of them surely did.
But, of course, these attitudes were hardly exclusive to the United States, and nor were nationalistic films. Arguably, the attitudes and the films were not even as significant in the United States as they were in countries like France, England and Japan – or in colonies like Australia and India. In 1906, perhaps somewhat in advance of the rest of the world and almost undoubtedly partly in reaction to Pathé’s films, Australia began producing “Australian” narrative films – that is, films which overtly capitalised on their Australian-ness and were clearly aimed primarily at an Australian market. By 1907 (under no influence at all from Australia) film companies all over the occidental world were discovering the spectacular national attractions of national landscapes, national histories, national literatures and national characters. The 1908 French film d’art movement, which was parallelled and even anticipated in other European countries (but not in Australia), was everywhere as much an exercise in national cultural posturing as it was in global embourgeoisement. In French films, Italian films, German films, Russian films, “art” was defined in terms of a national middle class taste. In Pathé’s case nationalism at times bordered on arrogance – as, for example, when the company advertised such films as Le grand bretèche (1909) in the United States under their French titles, assuming a connection between their American target audience and middlebrow French culture that simply did not exist.
Abel, who takes a somewhat different stance in his book about early French cinema, The Ciné Goes to Town (1994), seems to want to portray Pathé only as the victim of chauvinism while paying little attention to the chauvinism implicit in the company’s willful blindness to the prejudices of its American market. If it was oikish for American reviewers to condemn Pathé’s crime films for their continental depravity, it was also oikish for Pathé to expect that American audiences would set aside their much-commented-on provincial prudery in the face of some indefinable cultural superiority within the sensationalism it was passing off as French sophistication.
That is, in the conflict between Pathé and its American competitors, there are two virulent nationalisms, not just one. This was also the case in Europe (and elsewhere) at a somewhat later date when Hollywood set out to conquer the world: invading “American” culture was demonised by self-appointed guardians of “French” (or “Australian”) values. The fact that the cards were stacked in favour of the United States in the latter instance, just as they were when Pathé was sidelined in the teens, does not, as the left used to think, make French (or Australian) knee-jerk national cultural jingoism any more worthy of our sympathy and support than the American variety. I believe it is more instructive (and better politics) to understand what happened in both cases in the context of a constantly transmuting global nationalism than as the triumph of echt-Americanism alone.
“Better politics” in this case also means foreswearing the kind of absolutism that allows Abel to know – as we all know – what “Americanization” means even as he presents layer upon layer of evidence of a variegated, shifting, not-masculine, not-white, levelling Americanism partially brought into realisation by the cinema and its “foreign influence”. In the circumstances presented by this book, it seems willful indeed for Pooh and Piglet to find the Woozle Amerika they have been imagining rather than something more amorphous, perhaps more reassuring – even rather like themselves.
For it is the Woozle we are tracking in the epigraph at the beginning, and the Woozle does turn out to be something imagined from our own footprints – as Christopher Robin tactfully points out at the climax of the story (“Silly old Bear!”).
Although that may be what was intended, it is difficult to read this book as an exercise in Woozle exorcism or a revelation of the mirror of scholarship. Abel follows the spoor of his prey so assiduously and so craftily that this constant reader at any rate, cannot believe that he only sees himself in the end. There are some few mentions of an uncle who may have articulated (or actually subscribed to) many of the precepts of “Americanization” that Abel identifies. But we are given to know that this uncle is most certainly not the author and tracker himself, much less the constant reader – rather, it is another, more personal figure of Americanisation, Abel’s Other.
The book throughout is made of polarities. Some of them seem to be: “foreign” vs “American”, “feminine” vs “masculine”, “popular” vs “elite”, “non-white” vs “white”. But the ruling polarity, the book’s master trope, is “Self” vs “Other”. In these Jekyll-and-Hyde terms, exclusion is the principal strategy – and the Woozle of their imagination is not Pooh and Piglet, but rather Pooh and Piglet’s Other, their dark side, their childish fears – what they are not and must overcome to be truly, wholly themselves and grown-up.
This too is absolutism, the kind of ethically-based absolutism that is fostered by politics and articulated in the accepted figures of politics (“happiness”, “justice”, “the end of history”, “the new world order”, “maturity”). We can’t do, or think, without absolutism – but nor can we do, or think, without the corresponding nihilism, the questioning cynicism that foreswears idealism and understands politics only as a series of contingencies.
That would be Christopher Robin in this case (someone who does not appear in the epigraph to The Red Rooster Scare). Christopher Robin knows neither monsters nor angels, only imperfect stuffed animals who reenact his belief. But Christopher Robin is almost as absent from the book as he is from the epigraph: his loving, self-reflective, self-destructive gaze has generally been overlooked, omitted even in the evil Other imagined here. This is a pity, I think, because we need him more than ever now that the absolute sense of the world has been established globally and most of our beloved animals are becoming endangered species.
Of course my political hesitation does not mean that I think The Red Rooster Scare is a Foolish and Deluded book. On the contrary, Richard Abel is in this book, as he has been in his others, easily the Best of All Bears – consistently the most sophisticated and “experimental” historian of early films writing in English. The Red Rooster Scare is something of a treatise-by-example on how to use the sources available to one’s best advantage: how to read the trades, what to look for in the papers. It is a mine of period “snapshots”. Each chapter begins with a contemporary epigraph about the movies – a poem or an anecdote. There are drawings of movie audiences and cartoons, in addition to numerous ads and the nine longer documents included uncut (one of these even contains detailed specifications for how to convert a storefront into a family movie theatre). Each of the short essays appended to the chapters suggests material for more books, more research, more thinking and argumentation. There are nearly one hundred pages of notes, many of which are as fascinating and provocative as the main text.
Moreover, by shifting the United States from agent to patient in its narrative, The Red Rooster Scare substantially refines and redirects that genre dedicated to rethinking the American cinema industry in a world context which was established with Kristin Thompson’s Exporting Entertainment (1985) and continued perhaps most notably in Thomas Saunders’ Hollywood in Berlin (1994). I cannot imagine anyone interested in film history who would not profit by reading this volume. It is a very important, very good book.