American Cinema’s Transitional Era. Audiences, Institutions, Practices

Charlie Keil & Shelly Stamp (ed.),
American Cinema’s Transitional Era. Audiences, Institutions, Practices.
Berkeley: University of California Press, 2004.
ISBN: 0 520 24025 1 US$60.00 (hb)
ISBN: 0 520 24027 8 US$24.95 (pb)
371 pp
(Review copy supplied by University of California Press)

While the study of early cinema has successfully established itself in the last twenty years as a well-defined paradigm within film studies, casting aside all notions of traditional film history that the period between roughly 1895 and 1912 was “primitive,” the so-called “transitional era” before the establishment of classical Hollywood narrative and the studio system in 1917-18, remains less well defined, while being no less contentious a site for film historical inquiry than was the cinema’s first decade. The period from roughly 1911 to 1917 is marked by transitions on several fronts: in production from a cottage industry to a vertically and horizontally integrated industry; in exhibition from the nickelodeon to the movie palace; in film lengths from shorts to features; in film aesthetics from a cinema of attractions to one of narrative coherence and closure; in reception from genres to stars; and in audiences from predominantly working class to middle class.

Yet, as noted during a recent workshop at the Society of Cinema and Media Studies Conference in London (April 2005), the term “transitional” is hotly contested, since, on the one hand, it focuses “too much” on transitory structures and is in fact tautological, while, on the other hand, it implies that the movement towards the institutional and aesthetic standardization of classical Hollywood was inevitable, making it teleological. Indeed, while the event’s title, “Transitional Cinema? Reinvestigating American Cinema in the 1910s,” embraced workshop chair Charlie Keil’s usage[1] , the panelists, Richard Abel, Jennifer Bean, Michael Hammond, Peter Kramer, Moya Luckett, were more than willing to distance themselves from the label transitional. Bean, in particular, was especially critical, because she theorized that the “transition” from shorts to features was by no means smooth or absolute, so that privileging the shift has lead to the neglect of short film production, which continued unabated into the sound era, but also may be responsible for the critical neglect of such genres as serials, which themselves are aesthetically situated between shorts and features.

Be that as it may, Charlie Keil and Shelly Stamp’s anthology, American Cinema’s Transitional Era has much to recommend it, offering essays which never downplay the social, political, economic, and aesthetic complexity of the era, while offering the non-specialist readable and concise discussions of the critical issues that characterize the present debate. Indeed, these essays by many of the leading scholars of the period function as both as encyclopedic encapsulations of work by these authors, as well as expansions into newer areas of inquiry. Interestingly, Tom Gunning’s opening essay on The Lonedale Operator (D.W. Griffith, 1911), questions whether it is productive to find the period’s significance in its transitional nature from early to classical cinema, but then demonstrates how the productive tensions between the “inflexible one-reel format” and the artistic ambitions of filmmakers, like D.W. Griffith, lead them to create highly innovative formal systems, despite constraints. In other words, Gunning stays firmly imbedded on the early cinema side of the transition, not surprising, given his pivotal role in the creation of early film studies.

Charlie Keil’s introductory essay follows, giving both an overview of the film historical debates raging around cinema’s transitional era, while also questioning the evolving master narrative of early cinema, formulated by Gunning and many others, that the cinema of attractions was part and parcel to a preexisting culture of modernity. This has resulted, according to Keil, in a “canon for early cinema, which privileges films made prior to the transitional period… feature(ing) sensation, visual display, or variations of sensorial shock.” (55) Keil’s point is that if modernity is hardwired to attractions, how can one account for the continued influence of modernity in the transitional period, when narrative begins to gain more prominence? Keil states that of course modernity is very much visible in transitional films, but as subject matter and as a mirror of modernity in decor, rather than as a direct manifestation through the mechanics of visual perception.

While in the following essay Ben Brewster discusses the difficulties involved in any periodization of film history, Ben Singer continues the debate by analyzing the transition from variety programs to feature films, concluding that the introduction of feature films was in part responsible for the demise of the nickelodeon, which depended on a high turn-over of its audiences (given its limited seating), rather than higher ticket prices and limited showings, as was the practice in the emerging movie palaces. While the production of shorts did not nose-dive in the years 1915-16, the long-term trend of the industry was definitely away from shorts to multi-reel narratives, which were economically unfeasible for small theatres and thus accelerated the demise of nickelodeons, while simultaneous encouraging the construction of larger cinemas.

In the anthology’s next section, Jacqueline Stewart, Richard Abel, Lauren Rabinovitz, and Jennifer Lynn Peterson discuss films with African-American women, westerns, Coney Island comedies, and travelogues, respectively. What ties these four essays together, despite the heterogeneity of the genres in question, is the notion of audience agency in the act of reception. Thus, while Stewart discovers “aggressive Black female characters” slipping through the cracks of what would become a hegemonic racist mythology in American movies, Abel sees the western as a genre particularly conducive to helping forge an American mass audience out of the culturally and ethnically diverse audiences of the nickelodeon. Rabinovitz, likewise, sees the Coney Island comedies less as a visualization of the passive consumption of leisure culture, and more in terms of the spectator’s “visceral engagement and jouissance, a decentered perceptual experience that occurs across the body and that has been more associated with feminine pleasure.” (173) Finally, Peterson analyzes the extremely popular genre of travelogues, less as iconic visualizations of the real world, allowing armchair travelers to experience exotic locales, and more in terms of transporting the audience into a dream-like state of personal reverie, thus circumventing both classical subject positioning and narratives of educational uplift. As all of these essays demonstrate, the classical modes of address that would be predominate by ca. 1917, were far from a fait accompli in the transitional era, indeed filmmakers were still experimenting with narrative, while keeping an eye on audience response.

Part Three of American Cinema’s Transitional Era looks at the evolving institutional structures of the American cinema industry in this period. Picking up on the intense debate of several years ago between Bobby Allen and Ben Singer, concerning audiences and locations of nickelodeons in New York, J.A. Lindstrom studies the growth of Nickelodeons in Chicago’s working class neighborhoods and concludes that new nickelodeon construction was often clustered in the business districts of emerging neighborhoods i.e. nickelodeons functioned as not only local sites for family entertainment, but also as pillars for the establishment of those neighborhoods and other businesses.

Scott Curtis’ essay on the Motion Picture Patents Company and the General Film Co. bunks many of the myths surrounding that particular organization, especially the often repeated notion that the MPPC and its member companies failed because of its unwillingness to transition to feature film production, and because of the United States Supreme Court decision of 1915, declaring the motion picture trust to be a monopoly. As Curtis notes in his essay’s title, “A house divided,” the members of the MPPC spoke neither with one voice, nor were they ever, even at their founding, in agreement on what the specific goals and policies of the trust were to be. Indeed, individual members, including Essanay, Selig, and George Klaine, actively subverted the MPPC, even as they paid lip service to its policies. George Eastman’s Kodak Company was another fifth columnist, officially selling raw film stock exclusively to the members of the Trust, while liberally supplying the independents under the table through the Kodak agent Jules Bruletor. As Curtis notes:

The MPPC was a marriage of convenience that brought together former rivals who had a long history of mutual animosity. If contemporary publicity and subsequent histories portrayed the organization as an efficient and happy household, the pressures of money, continued antitrust litigation, and the feature film would crack the corporate façade of unity. (248)

While the following two essays by Lee Grieveson and Constance Balides discuss issues of censorship and the commercialization of leisure, respectively, the former more or less lifted from Grieveson’s excellent book, Policing the cinema, [2] Roberta E. Pearson’s following essay zeroes in on the death of popular theatre, which occurred simultaneously to the expansion of movie palaces and may stand in causal relationship to the former. But Pearson’s more provocative thesis is that not only do many forms of popular theatre, including melodrama and burlesque comedy migrate from the theatre to the cinema, spatially and metaphorically, along with the mass audience attracted by low ticket prices, but also that the remaining theatre, divested of its need to satisfy the unwashed masses, transformed itself into a high cultural institution for the social elite, leading to a renaissance in serious drama from Shakespeare to Eugene O’Neill.

The anthology concludes with co-editor Shelly Stamp’s essay on the mass migration of legions of women to early Hollywood, hoping to break into the movies and become stars. While Stamp notes that such pipe dreams were exactly that, leading to the sexual exploitation of many of these hopefuls, she also discusses the success many independent minded women had at finding employment in the film industry, in particular behind the camera as secretaries, assistants, scriptwriters, and directors. Unlike the rest of America, where employment for young, unmarried women was severely restricted, the film industry was an open field for female talent, at least during this transitional period, allowing many to experience the sexual and social freedoms of feminism without reprisals. By the 1920s, though, the institutionalization of the studio system and morality campaigns against Hollywood’s supposed loose lifestyles once again pushed women into subservient positions or out of the employment market altogether.

Thus, Keil and Stamp’s anthology covers a very broad selection of topics in reference to the cinema of the 1910s, making it a useful teaching tool. Regardless, then, whether one agrees with the term transitional or not, this anthology demonstrates that the cinema industry’s development in the period from 1910 to 1917 was one of intense and systematic change and that there are no one-dimensional explanatory models for that transition.

Jan-Christopher Horak


[1] Charlie Keil, Early American Cinema in Transition: Story, Style, and Filmmaking, 1907-1913, Madison, University of Wisconsin Press, 2002.
[2] Lee Grieveson, Policing cinema. Movies and Censorship in Early-Twentieth-Century America, University of California Press, 2004.
Created on: Monday, 18 July 2005 | Last Updated: 18-Jul-05

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

About the Author

Jan-Christopher Horak

Jan-Christopher Horak is Director, UCLA Film & Television Archive and Professor, UCLA Critical Studies. PhD. Westfaelische Wilhelms-Universitaet, Muenster, Germany. Publications include: Making Images Move: Photographers and Avant-Garde Cinema (1997), Lovers of Cinema. The First American Film Avant-Garde 1919-1945 (1995). Presently writing a book on the American designer, Saul Bass.View all posts by Jan-Christopher Horak →