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The audience screams; people duck

Millions of Americans are eagerly anticipating this year’s Academy Awards ceremony. For over a century, motion pictures have been a dominant cultural and leisure medium. There are, however, two aspects worth highlighting: the sheer novelty of motion pictures and the medium’s initial democratic nature.

Twenty-first century Americans have difficulty imagining the wonder and awe motion pictures inspired in the early 1900s. To simply see people running, jumping, and cavorting on a screen was mesmerizing. There is a wonderful scene in The Grey Fox, a movie about aging stagecoach robber Bill Miner. Upon release from the penitentiary, he wanders into a storefront theater. The theater is showing Edwin Stanton Porter’s The Great Train Robbery. At the end of the short film, a character points his revolver at the camera and fires. The audience screams; people duck. Bill Miner, stunned at first, realizes what has happened and begins to clap enthusiastically. Today’s audience would find little drama in the scene and it’s unlikely that anyone would duck. Motion picture technology has advanced so rapidly and so amazingly that it is hard to imagine what would spur today’s audience to similar reactions.

Another easily neglected aspect of motion pictures is the surprisingly democratic nature of the American movie industry in its initial stages. Although Thomas Edison hoped motion pictures would promote high culture, he completely misread the public’s use of the technology. Crowds of Americans, including many immigrants, flocked to converted storefronts serving as theaters, where they sat in a motley of chairs watching images flicker on a makeshift screen. Upper-crust Americans shuddered with disapproval at the spectacle of men, women, and children huddling in darkened rooms watching the films.

Staid Americans hoped motion pictures would be a passing fad, destined to fade away. When this hope proved stillborn, these Americans sought to repress motion pictures or at least cleanse the movies’ contents. In 1896, an obscure short film—all of forty-seven seconds long—descriptively titled The Kiss, showed May Irwin and John Rice, stage musical performers, recreating their stage kiss. Although audiences had seen performers kiss live on stage, the spectacle of seeing such activity on a large screen prompted one critic to complain,

“Neither participant is physically attractive, and the spectacle of the prolonged pasturing on each other’s lips was hard to bear. When only life size it was pronounced beastly. But that was nothing to the present sight. Magnified to gargantuan proportions and repeated three times over it is absolutely disgusting….The Irwin kiss is no more than a lyric of the Stockyards.” 

The critic, by calling it the Irwin kiss, leaves no doubt as to whom he blamed for the scandal, although obviously it took two to kiss. A century later, Americans still debate the morality depicted in motion pictures. Movie kisses, however, remain crowd-pleasing.

May_Irwin_John_C._Rice_Kiss_1896
Image still from “The Kiss” by Wisconsin Center for Film and Theater Research. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

The industry was also initially democratic on the production side. Because the industry was new and only required modest amounts of capital to set up primitive theaters or to produce simple films, even recent immigrants could enter the industry and eventually gain dominance; the Warner brothers and Louis B. Mayer exemplified this phenomenon. The story of the five Warner brothers pooling their meager funds to purchase a projector and renting space to show films is an embodiment of the American Dream.

Unfortunately, there were dark sides to these rags-to-riches tales. Motion picture moguls, as people dubbed them, proved ruthless, tying actors to long-term, one-sided contracts similar to those imposed on baseball players. Although prominent actors made much greater incomes than the average American—and the motion picture executives made sure the public was well informed of such—actors were exploited economically because they were tied to a single studio and could not seek bids from other studios. What the motion picture moguls did to the most prominent of their employees, they did to the unsung. Motion picture crews formed unions to gain bargaining leverage, but the industry was not known for good treatment of its workers.

The motion picture executives, appearing just after the apogee of the titans of industry—men such as Andrew Carnegie, John D. Rockefeller, J.P. Morgan—emulated their formation of industry concentration. By the 1920s, the industry was in the hands of a few companies. Even the much bally-hooed morality codes played into the hands of the major studios. Smaller independent studios might have hoped to gain an entrance into the industry by showing daring topics or actions, but the morality codes squelched such efforts.

A century on, motion pictures remain popular with Americans. The glamorous aspects of the industry often camouflage the raucous history of the medium, but the history is, in many ways, more interesting than the legend.

Image Credit: “Film Reels” by Global Panorama. CC by SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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