Conference diary


Newman House, Dublin

I was recently on my travels, attending a couple of conferences and a summer school, and this is my report. The first half of July was remarkably crowded with moving image-related conferences and other such events in the UK (and environs). Because of the jam-packed schedule, sadly I had to say no to the Visual Delights conference at Sheffield, on the theme of Visual Empires. This had an intriguing selection of papers surveying assorted lost empires and the media they sought to bend to their needs, with an encouraging number of new speakers (new to me, that is). Perhaps someone could say something about how they found the conference.

I also had to give a miss to Researching Cinema History: Perspectives and Practices, a symposium at Burlington House in London, which normally would have been right up my street, discussing as did the changes that seem to be happening to the historiography of cinema. For I was by then in Dublin, to speak to the Dublin James Joyce Summer School on Joyce and his fleeting management of the Volta cinema in Dublin in 1909 (centenary year, you see). This took place in the delightful Georgian building of Newman House, where they nervertheless managed to drum up a decent digital projector. The gathering of students looked a little bemused at times as I piled on the detail of how one went about managing (or mis-managing) a cinema in 1909, but they loved the film clips. A Cretinetti comedy (Come Cretinetti paga di debiti / An Easy Way to Pay Bills) and a scatalogical Pathé film C’est Papa qui à pris la purge, but could have been a film shown at the Volta entitled Beware of Castor Oil!, went down particularly well. The chances are now that it isn’t the film shown at the Volta, but it was certainly something like it (a man drinks his son’s castor oil medicine by mistake and gets caught short in assorted public places). In the end it was concluded that it was probably best that Joyce turned out to be such a poor cinema manager, because otherwise he’d have become a minor, prosperous businessman who never quite got round to writing that novel he’d been dreaming about, and none of them would have been there at such a summer school at all.


An uncredited Max Linder appearing in C’est Papa qui à pris la purge (1906)

And then it was off by plane to Birmingham followed by the epic train journey through Wales (anxiously following the first Test through text messages on the mobile phone) to get to the University of Aberystwyth for the Iamhist, or International Association for Media and History, conference, on the theme Social Fears and Moral Panics. Well, hard to go wrong with a theme like that, and there was a fine array of papers covering the multifarious ways in which the media acreates, reflects, perpetuates or addresses social fears – as well as being the subject of such fears itself. This was a particularly well-managed event, where for once I could find no complaint with any of the speakers that I heard (though surprisingly I encountered only one brave enough to try showing film clips) and all topics contributed usefully to the greater theme.

There wasn’t much on silent cinema, curiously enough, because the silent era had more than its fair share of moral panics – Fatty Arbuckle, Wallace Reid etc – indeed early cinema in general was ubiquitously viewed as a social threat of the first order. But for the record I heard papers on the ‘quality’ press and its adversion to commercial radio (Richard Rudin), the battles to preserve the Welsh language through film (Kate Woodward), how Limerick newspapers helped and hindered the fight against the 1832 cholera epidemic (Michelle Mangan), the very topical print history of influenza (Penelope Ironstone-Catterall), local reporting on the Ottoman bankruptcy crisis of 1875 (Gul Karagoz-Kizilca), the fears aroused by the arrival of the telephone (Gabriele Balbi), the image of Marconi operators given in the pages of Wireless World (David Hendy), the ‘Lady Chatterly’ trial and its press coverage (Nick Thomas), the use of fear in British government public information films (Linda Kaye, the speaker with the film clips) and the 1950s obscentity campaign against British seaside postcards (Nick Hiley).

In fact, the only silent cinema subjects I encountered were James Burns speaking on early cinema and moral panic in various parts of the British Empire, amusingly pointing out how different countries ended up worried about different things (in South Africa they feared racial mixing, in Southern Rhodesia it was sexuality, in the West Indies it was images that diminshed British prestige that concerned them, in India they worried about the threat of motorised crime); and me. I spoke on How Working Men Spend their Spare Time, a social survey conducted by George Esdras Bevans in New York in 1912, which I’ve written about on the Bioscope before now. You can find a copy of the talk on my personal website, should you be interested.


An impassioned moment from the debate on regulation and the media, with (L-R) Nick Cull (chair), Martin Barker, Julian Petley and Sir Quentin Thomas

There was a silent film screening, however. We were in the heart of Wales, with the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales just down the road, so it was more than appropriate that we were treated to Maurice Elvey’s The Life Story of David Lloyd George (1918), previously described here in detail. The film was shown in NSSAW’s distinctively cylindrical Drwm cinema, and had Neil Brand playing the piano. A somewhat prolonged introduction over-sold the film, and it was a rather flat atmosphere that was created by an audience of worldy-wise media historians unaccustomed to adjusting their perceptions to the demands of silent film. In February when I saw the film at the British Library it was fresh and thrilling; here it seemed to drag, and its highlights seemed perfunctory. It’s the audience that makes the film, every time.

With the practice such conferences have of parallel sessions I missed many papers, while others I had to skip while putting together mine (a last-minute job, alas as usual with me). There were also plenary sessions: one on Government, Panics and Media Crisis (Virginia Berridge eloquent on AIDS, Merfyn Jones – former BBC governor – choosing his words with care but equally with feeling in recounting the fresh history of the Hutton enquiry into the Iraq war), and a thought-provoking session on Regulation and the Media, with Martin Barker on ‘disguised politics’, Julian Petley on the failure of the 1977 Williams committee which sought to change laws on obscenity, and an urbane turn from Sir Quentin Thomas of the British Board of Film Classification, who didn’t saying anything much but said it with authority.

My travels should then have taken me to Colour and the Moving Image: History, Theory, Aesthetics, Archive at Bristol, but weariness overcame me. A shame, because this looked like an agenda-setting conference, with a remarkable range of papers mostly focussing on the aesthetic side of things. The publication of the papers would be very welcome.


The women’s 800 metres from De Olympische Spelen, the official film of the 1928 Olympic Games (a notorious event because one competitor – according to the evidence of the film – collapsed at the end of it, leading the event to be withdrawn from the Games until 1960 because it was thought to be too strenuous for women)

Instead, a few days later, I dragged myself to Pembroke College, Cambridge, for a conference held by the Sport in Modern Europe academic network. This was a select gathering of some of the leading sports historians, and I was somewhat dazzled to be in the same room as Richard (Sport and the British) Holt, Wray (Pay up and Pay the Game) Vamplew, and Kasia (Boxing: A Cultural History) Boddy. But no matter how wise in the ways of the world sports historians are generally, they welcome a bit of guidance when it comes to film, so that was my cue to speak to them about the films of the 1924 and 1928 Olympic Games (again, as previously covered here at the Bioscope), with emphasis on the use of slow versus natural motion and whether the sports filmmakers of the silent era were more interested in athletic records or idealised athletic motion (a bit of both, really).

So there you are – a couple of weeks in the life of the roving academic, and illustration of just where film can take you because it has this marvellous facility to reflect – and illuminate – all subjects. Which is perhaps why James Joyce was drawn to it, why the workingmen of New York in 1912 preferred it far above any competing leisure attraction, and why the seemingly plain records of the Olympic Games of the 1920s grow all the more fascinating the more you try to unpick them.

Going to the show


Postcard of the Bijou, Wilmington, N.C., 1914, from Going to the Show

Though there are some who would deny it, cinema history involves the history of cinemas. The study of a medium that ignores the social form in which it has been consumed is a blinkered one, yet sadly so much of film studies exists in just such state of denial. Happily there has been a concerted effort by a dedicated band of academics in recent years to investigate cinema-going as an integral part of cinema history. Inspired in the first place by Douglas Gomery’s Shared Pleasures: A History of Movie in the United States (1992), the school uses socio-historial tools to analyse the experience of movie-going through patterns of audience types (age, gender, race, class), venue locations, social mobility, transportation links, purchasing power, leisure time and competing attractions. The significant output from such investigations has become the database which maps and documents particular territories. We’ve already had Cinema Context for the Netherlands and the London Project for the early film business in London. Now we have Going to the Show for North Carolina, 1896-1930.

This is a fabulous resource. It is going to make many other places wish that they had something much the same. Going to the Show “documents and illuminates the experience of movies and moviegoing in North Carolina from the introduction of projected motion pictures (1896) to the end of the silent film era (circa 1930)”. At its heart are 750 Sanborn Fire Insurance maps of forty-five towns and cities in North Carolina between 1896 and 1922 that locate film venues within general urban life. All of these are mapped to a database (a welcome feature for the specialist is that not only are all the database fields explained but the database relationship diagram is given) to which have been added photographs, postcards, newspaper clippings, architectural drawings, advertisements and more. It totals over 1,300 film venues across two hundred communities.


Film venues marked on Sanborn fire insurance map for Burlington, N.C.

As said, Going to the Show is based around fire insurance maps, and gives this explanation of their provenance and use:

From 1867 to 1977, the Sanborn® Map Company of Pelham, New York, produced large-scale (usually 50 feet to the inch) color maps of commercial and industrial districts of some 12,000 towns and cities in North America to assist fire insurance companies in setting rates and terms. Each set of maps represented each built structure in those districts, its use, dimensions, height, building material, and other relevant features (fire alarms, water mains and hydrants, for example). The intervals between new map editions for a given town or city in the early decades of the twentieth century varied according to the pace and scale of urban growth — from a few years to more than five years. In all, Sanborn® produced 50,000 editions comprising some 700,000 individual map pages. Because almost all early movie theaters were repurposed from an existing retail space located in the commercial heart of a town or city, they appear on thousands of Sanborn® map pages after 1906. Larger, purpose-built theaters were included in later Sanborn® maps.

Going to the Show takes these precise records of film venues and marries them to Google Maps, with all the familiar tools of zoom-in, zoom-out, scan across and marking of venues with hyperlinks to further information. But it is the range of extra information that makes Going to the Show so powerful. Map searches can be refined by year, venues and period in which the venue was active, while you can select whether to view modern or historical map with an opacity slider, and bring in current street names. Each venue is marked with a Ticket icon, which links you to additional information.


New Bern, N.C. shown through modern Google map and Sanborn fire insurance map, pinpointng the Dixie Theatre 1913-1918 catering for African American audiences only

A major aspect of the research has been the racial division of film venues. Keen to demonstrate how race conditioned the experience of movie-going for all North Carolinians – white, African American and American Indian – the resource extends beyond the silent era to document every known African American film venue in North Carolina operational between 1908 and 1963.

What distinguishes Going to the Show is its attention to database searching and presentation. The faceted browse option shows how you can refine searches by item type (Architectural Drawing, City Directory, Commentary, Illustration, Newspaper, Organization, Overlay Map, Periodical, Person, Photograph, Postcard, Typescript, Venue),
location (by City, County or Region), venue name, date (allowing for searching by decade), and keyword or tag (including such useful terms as admission price, boxing films, children, fire, influenza, penny arcade, racial policy, religious objection and separate entrance). The tag ‘notable’ leads you to some of the choice items, such as this 1897 press notice saying that owing to the popularity of the Edison Projectoscope at the Wilmington Opera House that the dress circle will be reserved for “colored citizens”:


Wilmington Star, 20 March 1897

And there’s more. Robert C. Allen, James Logan Godfrey Distinguished Professor of American Studies, History, and Communications Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, and the presiding genius behind Going to the Show, has produced an eye-catching timeline for Wilmington, N.C., chronicling and commenting upon twenty-six venues from 1897 to the end of racial segregation in 1954. Business papers from this period are a rarity, and another very welcome feature is the Joyland Theatre Ledger, the manager’s ledger from 28 September 1910, to 14 January 1911, including expenses and ticket receipts.


Going to the Show is handsomely and sensibly presented. It merits detailed study. It has been produced as one of a number of University of North Carolina digital resources under the title Documenting the South. It ought to be the springboard for much further research, not simply within film/cinema studies, but as part of that general social history of which film history needs to be a part. This is the point – that so much of film history speaks only to those who know about film. It constricts itself to a narrow field by not speaking the language that is natural to other disciplines. I’ve mentioned at a couple of conferences what for me is the shocking case of G.R. Searle’s A New England? Peace and War 1886-1918 (2005), part of the New Oxford History of England. This 951-page magisterial history builds on new research in the areas of social, cultural, ecnomic and political history, yet among all those 951 pages just one throwaway paragraph is devoted to cinema. The bibliographic essay notes the extensive work done in music hall and sport history, but has nothing on cinema at all. Film historians – and in this case particularly British film historians – simply aren’t writing in a language than anyone else recognises, or cares about. The situation is better in America, as the work of Gomery, Allen, Garth Jowett and others indicates, but much much more remains to be done. Moreover, such moviegoing studies as there are often tend to get subsumed within concerns about spectatorship – handy enough in itself, but still making the audience subservient to the film. For discussion on this issues, read Richard Maltby’s essay for Screening the Past, ‘How Can Cinema History Matter More?‘, the title of which rather sums it up. To read about some of the other projects worldwide which are investigating cinema-going, see the HOMER website (History of Moviegoing, Exhibition, and Reception).

To understand the phenomenon of film, of course we need to appreciate it as an art form, but we must ask those basic questions how, where and when motion pictures were consumed, and to see their world as integral to a wider social world. Datasets and databases don’t answer everything by themselves, but they provide the foundations for thinking about the right answers. Going to the Show points the way.


Robert C. Allen would welcome any feedback from Bioscope readers. You can email him at rallen [at]

Cruel and unusual comedy


Haunted Spooks (1920), directed by Hal Roach, starring Harold Lloyd and Sunshine Sammy, from

Slapstick was more than just getting knocked about for the amusement of others. As Cruel and Unusual Comedy: Social Commentary in the American Slapstick Film, a series of silent film comedy screenings taking place at MOMA in New York 20 May-1 June demonstrates, slapstick comedy of the silent era took on social, cultural and poltical themes that we can still recognise today. As the blurb for the season puts it:

Rude forms of comedy have long used incendiary subjects like industrialization, race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, violence, and substance abuse as vital source material – and enjoyed great success with mass audiences.

The exhibition draws on the strong MOMA collection of silent film, and because the films touch on “a number of potentially sensitive issues” each is preceded by a contextual introduction. To help you with your contextulisation needs, there is an exhibition blog with film notes, Cruel and Unusual Comedy, put together by Steve Massa and Ben Model, the latter of whom also supplies the piano accompaniment to the season.

The featured screenings are:

Drag Shows: Cross-Dressing the Sexes
Wednesday, May 20, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
Getting Rid of Trouble (1912) with Charlie Murray
Sweedie Learns to Swim (1914) with Wallace Beery
Chasing the Chaser (1925) with James Finlayson
Get ‘Em Young (1926) with Stan Laurel
Good Night Nurse (1917) with Roscoe Arbuckle, Buster Keaton

Race Riots: Beyond Black and White
Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
Black and White (1913) with David Morris
A Change of Complexion (1914) with Henry Bergman.
Haunted Spooks (1920) with Harold Lloyd, Sunshine Sammy
Below Zero (1925) with Lige Conley, Spencer Bell
A Natural Born Gambler (1916) with Bert Williams

Gratuitous Violence: No Turn Unstoned
Wednesday, May 27, 2009, 7:00 p.m.
Their First Execution (1913) with Ford Sterling
The Phoney Cannibal (1915) with Lloyd Hamilton, Bud Duncan
The Counter Jumper (1922) with Larry Semon, Oliver Hardy
A Deep Sea Panic (1924) with James Parrott
Cold Hearts and Hot Flames (1916) with Billie Ritchie

Animals and Children: No Harm Done
Friday, May 29, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
An Elephant on His Hands (1912) with George Ober
Cat, Dog, and Co. (1929) with Our Gang
Mind the Baby (1924) with Pal the dog
The Knockout (1923) with the Dippy-Doo-Dads
When Summer Comes (1922) With Billy Bevan

The Machine Age: Mack Sennett vs. Henry Ford
Monday, June 1, 2009, 4:00 p.m.
Lizzies of the Field (1924) with Billy Bevan
His Bread and Butter (1916) with Hank Mann, Slim Summerville
Get Out and Get Under (1920) with Harold Lloyd
Squeaks and Squawks (1920) with Jimmy Aubrey, Oliver Hardy
Neck and Neck (1924) with Lige Conley

A hero of the valleys


The young David Lloyd George’s dream of David and Goliath. All images in this post are frame grabs from the DVD of The Life Story of David Lloyd George

How do we judge a film that no one saw? The audience gives a film meaning, or at least historical specificity. There are many examples of films that have never been seen (quite a few from recent British cinema history) because they were deemed uncommercial, and other grand projects that were never completed, such as Sergei Eisenstein’s Que Viva Mexico or Orson Welles’ Don Quixote. But the completed film that stands up as an exceptional work of art, that was a strong commercial possibility in its time, and whose exhibition could have changed film history (in a modest way) – such examples are rare.

One such example has just found its way to a DVD release after a remarkable history of idealism, political intrigue, slander, subterfuge, disappearance, rediscovery and restoration. The Life Story of David Lloyd George was made in 1918, vanished before any cinema audience had a chance to see it, and re-emerged to astonished acclaim in 1994. Its place must be in virtual history rather than actual film history, because its story is one of if onlys and maybes. But what a story it is.


Norman Page as David Lloyd George, Alma Reville as his daughter Megan

The story begins with the Ideal Film Company, formed by the brothers Harry and Simon Rowson in 1911 to distribute films, but deciding to move into production in 1915. Excited by the interest shown by the public in official films of the war, the Rowsons decided to make an epic drama about the origins and purpose of the war, employing none other than Winston Churchill – then in the political wilderness following the Dardanelles disaster – to furnish ideas which would be turned into a scenario by Eliot Stannard. When Churchill returned to the cabinet in summer 1916 the original project was dropped, only to transmogrify into a biography of the new Liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George (the Rowsons were strong supporters of the Liberal party). Conceived as an epic story of a man whom from humble beginnings rises to lead his country through to victory in the greatest war known to man, it was an undertaking unlike anything attempted in cinema to that date, nor would it have any subsequent parallel until the American and Soviet biopics of the 1930s onwards (Young Mr Lincoln, Wilson, Lenin in October etc.). And those conform to the classicial dramatic conventions of their time, and their subjects were long dead – Lloyd George was, and remains, unique in subject and form.

The script was written by a noted historian (though without film experience) Sidney Low. The director was Maurice Elvey, gradually rising to the top of his profession (at least in British film terms), while the cast were a mixture of Ideal stalwarts and lookalikes, most notably in the latter case the stage actor Norman Page, whose uncanny performance as Lloyd George carries the film (Page watched Lloyd George in full flow in the House of Commons and gives us what is probably a highly accurate record of his mannerisms). Alma Reville, later to marry Alfred Hitchcock, plays Lloyd George’s daughter Megan, and Ernest Thesiger can be spotted as Joseph Chamberlain. Helen Haye (not credited on the DVD but recently identified) plays Lloyd George’s mother.


The Birmingham Town Hall riot scenes

The film’s production was announced to the trade press in February 1918, under the title The Man Who Saved the Empire. It was not the only propagandist feature film epic to be made in Britain at this time, with American directors brought in by British official film interests to make Hearts of the World (D.W. Griffith) and Victory and Peace (Herbert Brenon), but it was the only one made on such a scale with private money only. Filming proper only began towards the end of August and astonishingly was completed by the end of September. Filming took place in several of the historical locations, including the north Wales of Lloyd George’s childhood, Birmingham and London. Shaping up to be two-and-a-half hours long, there were suggestions that the film could be released as a serial, but excitement was high at what promised to be the outstanding British film release of the year.

In October the trouble started. Horatio Bottomley, the rabble-rousing but influential owner of the nationalisitic journal John Bull, began a campaign against the film. Essentially his line was that the film was a disgrace because it was being made by Germans. The Rowsons were Jews, real name Rosenbaum, and in Bottomley’s nakedly bigoted mind, Jews were equated with Germans. Bottomley’s campaign against the film (Ideal won a libel suit against him) brought a lot of unwelcome publicity, and may have added to a sense of awkwardness felt by some in the government at the production of a film lauding the achievements of the prime minister at the time of an impending general election (one took place in December 1918, just after the war ended).

In the end, none of the evidence that we have really explains what happened next. The Ideal company were paid off, to the sum of £20,000 (around half a million pounds in today’s money), which was the cost of the film’s production – though not recompense for the anticipated returns. Lawyers for the government turned up, paid Ideal in twenty one thousand pound notes, took the negative away with them in a taxi – and that was the last that anyone saw of it, publicly at least. Someone in power thought it worth a lot of money to prevent the film from being shown, but to this day no one can really say why, and the documentary record (including a memoir written by Harry Rowson) is tantalisingly vague.


Symbolic illustration of a theme from one of Lloyd George’s speeches, showing the Allies learning to pull together

The only evidence we have for the film after this date is a reference in the diary of Frances Stevenson – Lloyd George’s secretary and mistress – over a year later. On 24 February 1920 she wrote:

Last night went to see a film of D’s life which Captain Guest had put on the screen in No 12 [Downing Street] – a perfectly appalling thing. The idea was all right but the man who was supposed to be D. was simply a caricature. I begged D. not to let it be shown. Mrs Ll. G. very angry with D. because she said I had put D. against it because I had objected to the domestic scenes in it!

Were there plans to show the film in 1920? Is Stevenson referring to this time, or 1918, when she says “I begged D. not to let it be shown”? Might she be speaking of a different film entirely? We do not know. The Life Story of David Lloyd George was no more, unseen by anyone, little more than a footnote in a history or two. British film historian Denis Gifford interviewed Maurice Elvey in 1967, shortly before he died, when Elvey said (with remarkable sang froid in the circumstances):

This I suppose must have been one of the best films I ever made or ever shall make … It is such a shame it has disappeared.

In 1994 the film was discovered. It was in a barn at the home of Viscount Tenby, David Lloyd George’s grandson. It was in pristine condition, though in an unassembled form. Considerable effort and ingenuity effort was required from the only recently-formed Wales Film and Television Archive to piece the film together. As the first sequences were constructed and shown to film historians and Lloyd George experts, the general reaction was astonishment. Instead of the quaint drama that, to be honest, we had been expecting, here was a film of skill and power, possessed of a fervour and a commitment to the issues of the day that were electrifying. The film had its premiere – literally so – on 5 May 1996 (precided by a showing on 27 April for an invited audience) at the MGM cinema, Cardiff, accompanied by the Cardiff Olympia Orchestra playing a score by Welsh composer John Hardy. Since that time it has had screenings around the world, usually with Neil Brand accompanying on piano, and it gained recognition as a unique classic. But there has been a huge struggle on the part of the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales (as they are now called) to get the film issued on DVD. Now, at last, with pseudo-orchestral score by Brand, it is available for all to see – and it is a film that demands to be seen.


Elderly inhabitants of the workhouse, freed by Lloyd George’s introduction of an old age pension scheme, materialise outside the workhouse walls

The Life Story of David Lloyd George tells the story of its subject from childhood to wartime victory (the film was completed before the war was won), told in key scenes selected to demonstrate a calling to national duty and a desire to overturn injustice. The early scenes, showing Lloyd George’s upbringing in Wales, have not been given the praise that should be their due. They capture an atmosphere of modesty, devoutness and dedication towards one’s fellow man which is moving in its general effect, and deeply touching in its detail, grounded as it is in an affectionate portrait of late Victorian Welsh society.

Lloyd George is shown triumphing in the law and local politics through his oratory and commitment to noble causes. He gains notoriety through his anti-Boer War (1899-1902) stance, illustrated by a recreation of a speech he gave at Birmingham Town Hall which occasioned a near riot in the streets, which the film recreates with truly extraordinary newsreel-style realism, helped by many hundreds of extras. If these scenes impress by their documentary realism, the film’s greater power comes in how it illustrates the revolutionary effect of Lloyd George’s time as Chancellor of the Exchequer, introducing old age pensions and and the National Insurance Act (1911). The very rightness of the actions moves us now, and surely must have had – or would have had – an overpowering effect on a contemporary audience, to whom these great changes were recent occurences.


While most celebrate the homecoming of loved ones after the war, one woman represents those mourning the dead

Other vigorous tableaux follow, clearly inspired by the newsreels (Lloyd George himself was a consumate performer for the news cameras), notably the Queen’s Hall suffragette riots. The film makes much use of an impressive House of Commons interior set, peopled by lookalikes, shot and perfomed with an easy realism that could fool some into thinking they were watching actuality. The film dips somewhat in its second half when the First World War begins. Lloyd George served brilliantly as minister of munitions before becoming prime minister in 1916, but there is paradoxically less drama on show once the film has arrived at the climactic stage to which its first half has been building. The battle scenes are convincing, likewise Lloyd George’s visit to the Front, and there is a prolonged sequence inside a munitions factory which may lack dramatic interest but as a seemingly documentary record is superbly shot. But our emotions are not re-engaged until the film’s final scenes, when the war comes to an end. Troops line up on the parade ground in their hundreds, fall out, then run to their waiting loved ones, at which point they materialise into civilian clothes. Amid all the happiness, one woman turning her head and weeping stands for all those whose loved ones were not returning home. Shown live, it catches the audience’s breath every time.

It is not a film for every one. Those hoping for either a more conventional human interest story, or a political drama, may be disappointed. Its newsreel-style – a deliberate aesthetic choice to reflect the way in which many of the audience were most familiar with Lloyd Geoge as a public figure – lessens the emotion while it heightens the sense of living history. It is unlike any other silent film in intent and form. But watch The Life Story of David Lloyd George, and then try and take seriously one of the conventional dramas of the war made duing the war – Hearts of the World for example – and they come across as pitiable, not so much in their execution or use of dramatic convention as in their absence of real social and political feeling. The Life Story of David Lloyd George is not realistic as such, despite its newsreel inspiration. It is pure hagiography. But more than any other film of the period it manages to articulate what people were fighting for. Which is what the Rowsons had wanted for their epic war film, right from the beginning.


Lloyd George addresses the camera in the film’s final scene: ‘There must be no “next time”‘

The film runs for 152 minutes. Viewers will see from time to time sequences which clearly do not quite fit. Titles referring to Moses are followed by film of Boadicea (the film has several such emblematic sequences); Lloyd George’s vision of his prime ministerial predecessors has obvious re-take shots; longueurs in the latter half would undoubtedly have been edited down had the film been completed for release. The film had to be pieced together without a running order, and a place found for every extant shot, somehow. Tinting records came with the film, the colour richly but sensitively reproduced by the Wales archive.

On the DVD you get 47 mins of extras, including an interview with composer Neil Brand which goes beyond the thinking behind his sumptuous score to consider the value of silent film generally. It is a tour de force from Neil which I would recommend showing to anyone wanting to understand what the silent film means for us today. Kevin Brownlow is interviewed, stating that the film would have changed film history (particularly in Britain) had it been shown – Britain’s The Birth of a Nation. Would it have been a huge financial success though? I think Ideal may have ended up with a problem on their hands – a long film, without stars, partisan in politics, perhaps too reliant on the patriotic uplift occasioned by the war. But we’ll never know.

The DVD is available for purchase online from the National Library of Wales’ shop, price £18.99, or if you are passing through Aberystwyth, visit the shop in person. Those intrigued by the history should certainly check out David Berry and Simon Horrocks’ book David Lloyd George: The Movie Mystery (1998), which includes Harry Rowson’s memoir, and essays from Lloyd George’s biographer John Grigg, Nicholas Hiley, Sarah Street, Roberta Pearson, John Reed (who restored the film) and others. Information on the film, the archive that restored it, and a short video clips can be found on the Moving History website. Finally, on my personal site, there the text of a talk I gave on the British epic film of the silent era which puts The Life Story of David Lloyd George in that particular context.

The Life Story of David Lloyd George will never fit easily into film history, because it was never seen, and because there has never been anything else like it. But it is a major work irrespective of film history, and the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales have done us a great service in making available to all.

Lessons from Toledo

There has been quite an on-rush of new material appearing on the Internet Archive, some of it relating to our subject and period, and I’ll be working my way through selected titles and adding them to the Bioscope Library. First up is the Reverend John J. Phelan’s Motion Pictures as a Phase of Commercialized Amusement in Toledo, Ohio (1919). This is another example of a social survey driven by moral concerns rather than social science itself, and the distaste implied by the book’s title is reinforced by these lines from its introduction:

Students of social science are in quite general agreement as to the necessity of community control
of public commercialized amusements.

And yet there is rather more to this study than disdainful suspicion of popular taste for the movies. To begin with, Phelan recognises the virtues, listing these key advantages that motion pictures offered society:

1. The providing of a reasonable-priced and highly entertaining form of amusement.
2. Convenience both as to accessibility and continuous play hours.
3. The promotion of family unity – as seen in attendance of the entire family.
4. The counteraction against the influence of the brothel, saloon, public dance hall and other questionable forms of amusement.
5. A provision for amusement and relaxation.
6. The supplying of information in regard to travel, history and world events.
7. The treatise of high moral and educational themes.
8. The movies as an “art.”

So, while Phelan feels that the movies may appeal to those “who feed their nature upon the abnormal, distorted, suggestive and far too often, vicious things of life”, he feels that they are capable of “moral and educational worth”. But what makes his study valuable for us is that he wants to back up his understanding of motion pictures with empirical data.

Using Toledo as his subject, Phelan tells the number, type, size, location, ownership and function of the different cinemas in his town (there were six in 1919). He tells us of their proximity to other forms of commercialised amusements (saloons, dance halls etc.). We learn of their value, the rental fees charge, and the cost of machinery, fabric, employees, musicians, advertising, lighting and heating. He supplies figures on the composition of audiences, prices of admission, and the construction of cinema programmes. We learn what it cost to invest in the cinema business, the operating expenses and the revenue. This is all very useful data.

Phelan provides evidence of studies conducted at individual schools. There is a long list of suitable educational films, by itself an illuminating guide to how this new branch of the film business was starting to blossom. There is plenty on the moral issues, censorship and the hoped-for attractions of “non-commercialized” amusements valiantly fighting their losing battle against the irresistible attraction of the screen. Intriguingly, Phelan ends each section of the book with a series of questions for other “social studies” students, indicating the sort of things they should be asking of their own territories should they intend to conduct similar surveys.

The book concludes with substantial appendices. These includes a valuable bibliography; examples of relevant legislation; a list of all Ohio cinemas with owners, managers, seating, location and number of employees; sample questionnaires; sample testimony from juvenile courts; and much more. Beyond the moralising, this is study with a great deal of practical information to inform a particular study of American film-going in 1919 – well worth investigating further.

There’s no such thing as a bad home movie

Frame still of Mavis and Margaret Passmore (holding a piece of 35mm film), from the Passmore family films, c.1903, held by the BFI National Archive

So says John Waters, and while we’ve probably all sat through some relative’s earnest document of their holiday abroad and wished that some of the panning shots of scenery could have been a little shorter, he has a point. Home movies aren’t to be judged by the usual film rules. They are made for an interior purpose; every frame speaks to a select family audience which alone can decode the film’s particular references. And yet, as time passes, and such films turn up in archives, they then speak in a different way to us all, as we see the manners, the customs, the backgrounds, the clothing, the choice of subjects, that make these films such rich social historical documents. Moreover, in other people’s home lives, we see our own. In all these respects, there can be no such thing as a bad home movie.

Image from a Kinora portrait record of the polar explorer Ernest Shackleton and his son Edward, c. 1912, from

Home movies are as old as cinema. They were produced throughout what was the silent era in commercial cinema, and continued to be shot silent for several decades thereafter. Some have argued for the scenes of their family life filmed by the Lumière brothers in 1895-96 to be the first home movies, but these were studied compositions for commercial consumption. However, cameras and projectors were soon aimed at the amateur market – indeed, in those first years of cinema some believed that the real money would be made by targeting the home. After all, the Kodak camera had shown where the business lay for still photography. Probably the first motion picture device for amateur use was the Birtac, a camera-printer-projector utilising 17.5mm film, introduced by Birt Acres (hence the name) in 1898. The Biokam, developed by Alfred Darling and Alfred Wrench followed in 1899. Gaumont in France came up with the Chrono de Poche, using 15mm film, in 1900. The Lumières themselves were behind the Kinora, a hand-held, flick-card viewer for which you could either have films made of your family as a ‘portrait’ in a studio, or film them yourself with camera using paper negatives (it was patented in 1896 but the first Kinora camera for amateur use appeared in 1907).

See a QuickTime movie of a Kinora in action, from the Royal Collection

Other such systems followed, employing narrow gauges which were cheaper and easier to handle. Initially the film used was flammable nitrate, but in 1912 there came the Edison Home Kinetoscope using 22mm safety film, and in the same year the Pathéscope, or Pathé Kok, using 28mm safety film. However, these were mostly for showing commercial films in the home, and it was 9.5mm film (introduced 1922) that was the format taken up most avidly by amateurs seeking to shoot their own films, though 16mm (introduced 1923) was used by the wealthy, and some of the first home movies in archives are those shot by the well-to-do upper middle class in the 1920s. A rival to 9.5mm that would soon overtake it in popularity was 8mm, introduced in 1932, and Super 8 appeared in 1965.

Thomas Edison with his Home Kinetoscope, introduced 1912, from Adventures in Cybersound

35mm was rarely used for home movies, such was the expense (and the fire hazard), but some examples exist, including what I think must be the earliest surviving home movies, those of the Passmore family of Streatham, filmed 1902-1908 and held in the BFI National Archive. They are a delight (they were shown at the Pordenone silent film festival in 1995). Home movies have grown in importance for film archives, or rather film archives have grown up which value such productions highly because of the way they record people and place. The smaller, or regional film archives around the world, are preserving a picture of our private selves which is likely to be rather more highly valued by future generations than the progressively quaint commercial entertainment films that still dominate moving image archiving philosophy generally.

All of which leads us to Home Movie Day. This is an international event, now in its sixth year, and for 2008 it falls on 18 October. Home Movie Day celebrates amateur film and amateur filmmaking through a wide number of events held locally at venues across the world. The events provide ordinary people with the opportunity to see home movies, show their home movies to others, to discover about home movie heritage, and to learn how best to care for such films. This year there are events taking place in Argentina, Australia, Canada, Germany, Italy, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Slovenia, the United Kingdom, and at many points across the USA. The Home Movie Day site provides information on all the events and the home movie day ethos. In the UK, there will be events in Manchester and London. This is the blurb for the London event:

On Saturday October 18, archivists and film lovers around the world will take time out of the vaults to help the public learn about, enjoy, and rescue films forgotten with the advent of home video. Home Movie Day shows how home movies on 8mm, Super8 and 16mm film offer a unique view of decades past, and are an essential part of personal, community, and cultural history.

Home Movie Day returns to London this year at the Curzon Soho cinema bar. It’s a free event and open to everyone. There will be a Film Clinic, offering free film examinations by volunteer film archivists from the British Film Institute, Wellcome Library and BBC, who will check the film for any damage and deterioration, and offer advice about how to store film in the home.

After examination, the films can be passed to one of the projectionists, who will be continuously screening home movies throughout the day.

You don’t need to bring a film to attend and enjoy the event; everyone has a chance to win prizes generously donated by the BFI and Wellcome Collectionjust by viewing any of the films on the day. Prizes include BFI DVDs and tickets to the IMAX.

The archivists can also offer advice about preserving films in film archives around the UK and transferring films to other formats such as DVD so they’remore easily watchable in the home.

Don’t throw your films away; bring them to Home Movie Day!

The London event takes place at 12-5pm at the Curzon Soho, 99 Shaftesbury Avenue, London W1D 5DY. For more information, contact Lucy Smee, at Dearoldsmee [at] The Manchester event takes place at the North West Film Archive.

The history of amateur film remains underwritten, though work has been done of late to remedy this. You could start with by Karen L. Ishizuka and Patricia R. Zimmermann’s Mining the Home Movie: Excavations in Histories and Memories (2007), or seek out Zimmermann’s earlier Reel Families: A Social History of Amateur Film (1995). There’s also Alan Kattelle’s Home Movies, A History of the American Industry, 1897-1979 (2000).

For the cameras and projectors designed for amateur use in the ‘silent’ era, the best source is Brian Coe’s The History of Movie Photography (1981), while the Kinora is covered by Barry Anthony in The Kinora – motion pictures for the home, 1896-1914 (1996). For images and information on narrow gauge film formats from the early period, visit the excellent (if increasingly out of date so far as its name is concerned) One Hundred Years of Film Sizes.

To find out about the work of regional film archives in the UK, visit the Film Archive Forum website. Film Forever is a good online guide to the preservation of films at home. Our history is in your hands.

Hollywood in Berlin

The latest addition to the Bioscope Library is a welcome example of a modern film scholarship text made freely available online. Thomas J. Saunders’ study, Hollywood in Berlin: American Cinema and Weimar Germany, looks at the American film in Germany during the Weimar period. German films of the 1920s have been much championed and studied, in part as alternatives to American films of the period, but the focus here is on the considerable impact American comedies, serials, society dramas and historical epics had in Germany, and the debates they occasioned on the influence of cinema and the perils of Americanisation. Films covered include The Ten Comandments, The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Ben Hur and Greed, and the image and impact of Jackie Coogan, Mary Pickford, Harold Lloyd, Rudolph Valentino, Chaplin, Keaton and ‘slapstick’ in general. The book therefore looks at cultural and industrial relations between Germany and America in 1920s, through the prism of popular cinema, bringing together economic history, reception studies, film studies and social history.

The book has been published online in chapterised, word-searchable, web form as one of the California Digital Library’s eScholarship Editions, a welcome initiative to make sample scholarly text freely available online to demonstrate its range of publications. Another example from the same source, already in the Library, is Charles Musser’s Before the Nickelodeon. Academic publishers, where they are rich enough to do so, are increasingly experimenting with multi-platform strategies, making texts available in print, online by subscription or to a restricted group (many of the eScholarship Editions are available only to University of California staff and students), and a few titles (or sample chapters) available free to the public. It breaks down barriers, demonstrates the flexibility of text, encourages discovery. More such forward-thinking initiatives, please.

Social fears and moral panics

A call for papers has been issued for the next IAMHIST conference, due to be held in Aberystwyth, Wales, 8-11 July 2009, and incorporating the 3rd Gregynog Media History Conference. IAMHIST, or the International Association for Media and History, is an organisation comprising scholars, filmmakers, archivists and broadcasters interested in the intertwined themes of history and film (and television, and radio, and related media). It holds a conference every two years, and in 2009 the theme is to be ‘Social Fears and Moral Panics’ – certainly something with great potential for those engaged with the silent film era. Here’s how they describe it:

The aim of the conference is to explore both the role of the media in addressing, highlighting or perpetuating social fears, and the mass media itself as a perceived moral agent and/or threat. Topics to address might thus include questions of media content and/or language; concerns about public intrusion; censorship and the freedom of information; the reporting of crimes or disasters; invasion and security fears in times of peace or war; religious, cultural and/or linguistic fears; fears relating to youth or children, or to minority groups; fears relating to particular behaviours, pursuits or leisure activities; ‘golden ageism’.

We welcome paper proposals that address the theme in both contemporary and/or historical perspective; proposals which engage with the theme comparatively (both geographically and temporally); and proposals which engage with theoretical approaches, including the social theory of moral panic.

We also welcome proposals on their work in progress from postgraduate and early-career scholars in the field of media history, including on topics that may not be on the conference theme.

Proposals for complete panels (three themed papers) are welcome, as well as individual paper submissions. Papers presented at the conference should be 25-30 minutes in length and should use illustrative material (for instance film clips) wherever possible.

Abstracts of no more than 300 words per paper should be sent to Dr Sian Nicholas by 14 November 2008 at c/o Department of History and Welsh History, Aberystwyth University, Penglais, Aberystwyth, Ceredigion SY23 3DY, Wales UK.

The conference is being organised by IAMHIST, in association with the Centre for Media History and Departments of History and Welsh History, and Theatre, Film and Television, Aberystwyth University, the Department of Media and Communications, Swansea University, and the journals Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television and Media History, with the support of the National Screen and Sound Archive of Wales, National Library of Wales, Aberystwyth.

For further details, see the call for papers on the Aberyswyth University web site. For further information on IAMHIST and its many activities and interest, visit And for the Bioscope’s take on last year’s conference, held in Amsterdam, on empires and such like, go here.

Incidentally, you do wish those planning such events took a look at the calendar (even the Bioscope’s calendar) first. There are now three conferences on history and the visual media taking place in Britain in July 2009 – the others are Visual Empires at the University of Sheffield, and Colour and the Moving Image at the University of Bristol. Come on somebody – show a little consideration, please.

(I’m not a) juvenile delinquent

In the last post, on the Lynds’ Middletown, there was a footnote reference to Cyril Burt’s The Young Delinquent. That 1925 text has now also gone into the Bioscope Library. This renowned study of the phenomenon of youth crime (source of the illustration, left) was an early work of British psychologist, Sir Cyril Burt (1883-1971). Burt is best known for his work in educational psychology, and is controversial for his ideas on heredity and intelligence, and for possibly having falsified some of his research data.

Such debates are the concerns of others; our interest is in his book The Young Delinquent, and its sections on cinema. One gets a clear idea of cinema’s place in the scheme of things in the contents listing, where under ‘Environmental Conditions’ one finds cinema listed alongside betting and gambling as evidence of ‘Excessive facilities for amusement’. Cinema is not blamed of itself for juvenile crime, but is seen as part of a milieu where crime was likely to flourish. Consequently, Burt has several references to the part cinema played in the lives of the young who were associated with crime. He begins thus:

The Cinema. One feature among the attractions of every town and suburb a feature already mentioned more than once demands discussion at some length. The cinema, like the ‘penny dreadful’ before the advent of the film, has been freely censured and abused for stimulating the young adventurer to mischief, folly, and even crime. Among those who criticize it on this ground, the most credible are teachers of wide experience and magistrates of high standing; but perhaps none is so eager to advocate this view as the young culprit himself, who frequently sees, or thinks he sees, in such a derivation of his deeds a chance to deflect blame and attention from his own moral laxity to that of the producer of films.

Burt identifies three ways in which he finds that ‘the power of pictures is harmfully exerted’, two of which he holds to be unusual and over-emphasised, the third to be the more serious yet less remarked upon. The first of unusual circumstances is the child who imitated crimes it had seen on the screen. This rather ludicrous assertion had exercised the minds of authorities for several years – indeed, it still does, as we are repeatedly warned of harmful imitative behaviour after watching violent or crime-oriented films, without so much as a shred of real evidence to prove any connection between the two. Burt writes:

On sifting the evidence adduced by those who express these fears, it is plain that both their inferences and their psychological assumptions are by no means free from fallacy. Nor are their facts better founded. They have between them hardly one well-attested instance from their own first-hand knowledge, hardly a single analysed case to put forward in proof. That certain children at certain ages are highly suggestible and imitative, I am far from wishing to dispute; and, beyond doubt, the peculiar conditions of cinematographic reproduction heighten this natural susceptibility still further by artificial means. The darkened hall, the atmosphere of crowd-excitement, the concrete vividness of visual presentation, the added realism due to movement and to the play of facial change, and, above everything, the intensely sensational character of the emotional scenes portrayed all are calculated to increase the child’s suggestibility, and to stamp upon the impressionable mind graphic images and lasting recollections. Mental pictures, so deeply imprinted, may sometimes issue in obsessions haunting and irrepressible recurrent thoughts and impulses bound from their very persistence and strength to work themselves out by action. All this is not to be denied. Yet, of the ensuing acts, how much is crime? Most of the characters and situations rehearsed by film-smitten children are as innocent as those of any other piece of childish make-believe. Who has not seen street-urchins mimicking Charlie Chaplin, holding each other ‘up’ with toy pistols, or masquerading in the feathers of Red Indians or the wide-awake hats of cowboys, every flaunted detail manifestly picked from the romances of the film? Even where the model is a heroic pirate or bandit chief an Arsene Lupin or a Long John Silver the adventures themselves may be as innocuous as those of Tom Sawyer or Huckleberry Finn. The direct reproduction of serious film-crimes is, in my experience, exceedingly uncommon: and, even then, it is usually the criminal’s method rather than the criminal’s aim that is borrowed: the nefarious impulses themselves have been demonstrably in existence beforehand.

Burt found only four or five incidents where a child, ‘dull or defective’, had commited a crime directly inspired by the cinema.

The second unusual circumstance was that cinema provided ‘a standing temptation to steal money for admittance’: that is, that its very desirability among the young was a cause of criminiality. Burt argues, however, that the temptation to steal should be seen a separate from what such money might be spent on; that is, the child stole the money first, then considered the best way in which to spend it. Cinema was, in this instance, only an indirect, not a direct cause of such criminality. Moreover, as he argues:

the temperament of the typical thief is just the temperament to which the sensations of the picture-house appeal most strongly; he comes from just the dreary, comfortless home which makes the cinema almost his sole means for mirth and amusement; hence, the union of the two habits the habit of stealing and the habit of picture-going a coincidence rightly observed to be significantly frequent, is not so much a matter of effect and cause; it is the double by-product of a deeper common source: the underlying adventurous nature of the child, for which his humdrum life affords no satisfying outlet, animates and penetrates them both. The attraction of the cinema, therefore, can be counted as a direct incentive, only where the child has acquired an over powering habit, an inveterate taste and craving, for that particular form of diversion.

For Burt, the ‘main source of harm’ was not these two common complaints, but was one of ‘moral atmosphere’:

Throughout the usual picture-palace programme, the moral atmosphere presented is an atmosphere of thoughtless frivolity and fun, relieved only by some sudden storm of passion with occasional splashes of sentiment. Deceit, flirtation, and jealousy, unscrupulous intrigue and reckless assault, a round of unceasing excitement and the extremes of wild emotionalism, are depicted as the normal characteristics of the everyday conduct of adults. The child, with no background of experience by which to correct the picture, frames a notion, altogether distorted, of social life and manners. The villain or the vampire, though outwitted in the end, has nevertheless to be portrayed with a halo of fictitious glamour, or interest would flag: he does wrong things; but he does them in a smart way, with daring, gallantry, and wit. It is true that, in most of the plays, the scoundrel is infallibly unmasked and eventually requited. But the hollow and factitious character of this pseudo-poetic justice seldom deludes the most youthful spectator.

For Burt, those very qualities of cinema that could be argued to be its greatest virtues – namely, its appeal to the imagination and the encouragement of fantasies – are to be seen as its leading vices, at least for the unbred young.

They provide models and material for all-engrossing day-dreams; and create a yearning for a life of gaiety a craze for fun, frolic, and adventure, for personal admiration and for extravagant self-display to a degree that is usually unwholesome and almost invariably unwise.

This is so sad to read. How can anyone condemn something that promised ‘fun, frolic and adventure’, and for a section of society largely denied such pleasures from any other quarter? In the end, though, Burt at least comes to a sense of proportion. He concludes:

When all is said, however, it is easy to over-blame the cinema, to exaggerate the actual harm and ignore the possible good. It is clear that, in comparison with the incalculable number of films that are manufactured and released, the offences resulting are infinitesimally few. The victims are almost wholly those who, temperamentally or otherwise, are already disposed to anti-social conduct; and the cinema can do little more than feed and fan the latent spark?

The Young Delinquent inevitably tells us more about the prevailing attitudes of the moral authorities rather than the youth themselves. It is interesting for what it reveals of the fear of youth crime in period earlier than we might normally expect, and for the association many made between cinema and delinquency. Interestingly, Burt ultimately does not put the ‘blame’ on heredity, the theme of his later work, but on environment. Cinema was a common feature of ‘low’ environments; it was therefore damned by geographical association.

The Young Delinquent is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (38MB), PDF (43MB) and TXT (1.5MB) formats.

For earlier (1917) anxieties about the connection between cinema and crime, see last year’s post on The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities, the deeply-biased but highly recommended report from the National Council of Public Morals (what a name!), also available from the Internet Archive. For a fine social history of the young from 1875 to 1945, with much on the association in the public mind between youth, anti-social behaviour and cinema, see Jon Savage’s Teenage: The Creation of Youth, recently out in paperback. For a summary of Cyril Burt’s work, and the ongoing controveries surrounding him, see Indiana University’s Human Intelligence site.

Movies in Middletown

Muncie, Indiana, from the Centre for Middletown Studies,

Usually when the Bioscope comes across interesting and relevant texts on silent cinema which are freely available online, they get described and placed for future reference in the Bioscope Library. In the case of Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd’s Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture, the main body of the book has relatively little to do with cinema per se, but it has three or pages of real interest to us, so I’m reproducing the entirety of that text here (while still putting it in the Library).

Middletown is a classic sociological study, published in 1929 (with a sequel, Middletown in Transition, published in 1937). ‘Middletown’ was the name the Lynds gave to an archetypal small American city, which could be looked upon as a model example by which to examine sociological trends. The city chosen was Muncie, Indiana, population 38,000 at the time of the study, which began in 1924 and looked at changes undergone in this small Midwestern city between 1890 and 1925. Middletown was instantly recognised as a classic study, and it has enjoyed enduring influence and popularity down to the present day.

The Lynds studied Middletown under six main social activies: Getting a living, Making a home, Training the young, Using leisure in various forms of play, art, and so on, Engaging in religious practices, Engaging in community activities. In the area of leisure time, their main thesis was that time for leisure had increased, but that much of this new leisure time was spent on ‘passive’ recreations, such as the cinema. The evidence presented on the place of cinema in America in the mid-1920s is rich in interest and meticulously-researched detail. One may feel a little uneasy at the mass audience being examined under the microscope like this, but there is also a heartening sense of that audience delighting in an entertainment that belonged to all, untroubled by those dwindling forces in society that might wish to clean up or close down its simple joys.

Here’s the relevant text, with the footnote numbers in square brackets and the notes themselves following after the main text:

Like the automobile, the motion picture is more to Middletown than simply a new way of doing an old thing; it has added new dimensions to the city’s leisure. To be sure, the spectacle-watching habit was strong upon Middletown in the nineties. Whenever they had a chance people turned out to a “show,” but chances were relatively fewer. Fourteen times during January, 1890, for instance, the Opera House was opened for performances ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Black Crook, before the paper announced that “there will not be any more attractions at the Opera House for nearly two weeks.” In July there were no “attractions”; a half dozen were scattered through August and September; there were twelve in October.[17]

Today nine motion picture theaters operate from 1 to 11 P.M. seven days a week summer and winter; four of the nine give three different programs a week, the other five having two a week; thus twenty-two different programs with a total of over 300 performances are available to Middletown every week in the year. In addition, during January, 1923, there were three plays in Middletown and four motion pictures in other places than the regular, theaters, in July three plays and one additional movie, in October two plays and one movie.

About two and three-fourths times the city’s entire population attended the nine motion picture theaters during the month of July, 1923, the “valley” month of the year, and four and one-half times the total population in the “peak” month of December.[18] Of 395 boys and 457 girls in the three upper years of the high school who stated how many times they had attended the movies in “the last seven days,” a characteristic week in mid-November, 30 per cent, of the boys and 39 per cent of the girls had not attended, 31 and 29 per cent, respectively had been only once, 22 and 21 per cent, respectively two times, 10 and 7 per cent, three times, and 7 and 4 per cent, four or more times. According to the housewives interviewed regarding the custom in their own families, in three of the forty business class families interviewed and in thirty-eight of the 122 working class families no member “goes at all” to the movies.[19] One family in ten in each group goes as an entire family once a week or oftener; the two parents go together without their children once a week or oftener in four business class families (one in ten), and in two working class families (one in sixty); in fifteen business class families and in thirty-eight working class families the children were said by their mothers to go without their parents one or more times weekly.

In short, the frequency of movie attendance of high school boys and girls is about equal, business class families tend to go more often than do working class families, and children of both groups attend more often without their parents than do all the individuals or other combinations of family members put together. The decentralizing tendency of the movies upon the family, suggested by this last, is further indicated by the fact that only 21 per cent, of 337 boys and 33 per cent of 423 girls in the three upper years of the high school go to the movies more often with their parents than without them. On the other hand, the comment is frequently heard in Middletown that movies have cut into lodge attendance, and it is probable that time formerly spent in lodges, saloons, and unions is now being spent in part at the movies, at least occasionally with other members of the family. [20] Like the automobile and radio, the movies, by breaking up leisure time into an individual, family, or small group affair, represent a counter movement to the trend toward organization so marked in clubs and other leisure-time pursuits.

How is life being quickened by the movies for the youngsters who bulk so large in the audiences, for the punch press operator at the end of his working day, for the wife who goes to a “picture” every week or so “while he stays home with the children,” for those business class families who habitually attend?

“Go to a motion picture … and let yourself go,” Middletown reads in a Saturday Evening Post advertisement. “Before you know it you are living the story laughing, loving, hating, struggling, winning! All the adventure, all the romance, all the excitement you lack in your daily life are in Pictures. They take you completely out of yourself into a wonderful new world … Out of the cage of everyday existence! If only for an afternoon or an evening escape!”

The program of the five cheaper houses is usually a “Wild West” feature, and a comedy; of the four better houses, one feature film, usually a “society” film but frequently Wild West or comedy, one short comedy, or if the feature is a comedy, an educational film (e.g., Laying an Ocean Cable or Making a Telephone), and a news film. In general, people do not go to the movies to be instructed; the Yale Press series of historical films, as noted earlier, were a flat failure and the local exhibitor discontinued them after the second picture. As in the case of the books it reads, comedy, heart interest, and adventure compose the great bulk of what Middletown enjoys in the movies. Its heroes, according to the manager of the leading theater, are, in the order named, Harold Lloyd, comedian; Gloria Swanson, heroine in modern society films; Thomas Meighan, hero in modern society films; Colleen Moore, ingenue; Douglas Fairbanks, comedian and adventurer; Mary Pickford, ingenue; and Norma Talmadge, heroine in modern society films. Harold Lloyd comedies draw the largest crowds. “Middletown is amusement hungry,” says the opening sentence in a local editorial; at the comedies Middletown lives for an hour in a happy sophisticated make-believe world that leaves it, according to the advertisement of one film, “happily convinced that Life is very well worth living.”

Next largest are the crowds which come to see the sensational society films. The kind of vicarious living brought to Middletown by these films may be inferred from such titles as: “Alimony – brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrific smashing climax that makes you gasp”; “Married Flirts – Husbands: Do you flirt? Does your wife always know where you are? Are you faithful to your vows? Wives: What’s your hubby doing? Do you know? Do you worry? Watch out for Married Flirts.” So fast do these flow across the silver screen that, e.g., at one time The Daring Years, Sinners in Silk, Women Who Give, and The Price She Paid were all running synchronously, and at another “Name the Man – a story of betrayed womanhood,” Rouged Lips, and The Queen of Sin. [21] While Western “action” films and a million-dollar spectacle like The Covered Wagon or The Hunchback of Notre Dame draw heavy houses, and while managers lament that there are too few of the popular comedy films, it is the film with burning “heart interest,” that packs Middletown’s motion picture houses week after week. Young Middletown enters eagerly into the vivid experience of Flaming Youth: “neckers, petters, white kisses, red kisses, pleasure-mad daughters, sensation-craving mothers, by an author who didn’t dare sign his name; the truth bold, naked, sensational” – so ran the press advertisement under the spell of the powerful conditioning medium of pictures presented with music and all possible heightening of the emotional content, and the added factor of sharing this experience with a “date” in a darkened room. Meanwhile, Down to the Sea in Ships, a costly spectacle of whaling adventure, failed at the leading theater “because,” the exhibitor explained, “the whale is really the hero in the film and there wasn’t enough ‘heart interest’ for the women,”

Over against these spectacles which Middletown watches today stand the pale “sensations” of the nineties, when Sappho was the apogee of daring at the Opera House: “The Telephone Girl – Hurricane hits, breezy dialogue, gorgeous stage setting, dazzling dancing, spirited repartee, superb music, opulent costumes.” Over the Garden Wall, Edith’s Burglar, East Lynne, La Belle Maria, or Women’s Revenge, The Convict’s Daughter, Joe, a Mountain Fairy, The Vagabond Heroine, Guilty Without Crime, The World Against Her (which the baker pronounced in his diary, “good, but too solemn”), Love Will Find a Way, Si. Plankard. These, it must be recalled, were the great days when Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with “fifty men, women, and children, a pack of genuine bloodhounds, grandest street parade ever given, and two bands,” packed the Opera House to capacity.

Actual changes of habits resulting from the week-after-week witnessing of these films can only be inferred. Young Middletown is finding discussion of problems of mating in this new agency that boasts in large illustrated advertisements, “Girls! You will learn how to handle ’em!” and “Is it true that marriage kills love? If you want to know what love really means, its exquisite torture, its overwhelming raptures, see — .”

“Sheiks and their ‘shebas,'” according to the press account of the Sunday opening of one film,” … sat without a movement or a whisper through the presentation … It was a real exhibition of love-making and the youths and maidens of [Middletown] who thought that they knew something about the art found that they still had a great deal to learn.”

Some high school teachers are convinced that the movies are a powerful factor in bringing about the “early sophistication” of the young and the relaxing of social taboos. One workingclass mother frankly welcomes the movies as an aid in child-rearing, saying, “I send my daughter because a girl has to learn the ways of the world somehow and the movies are a good safe way.” The judge of the juvenile court lists the movies as one of the “big four” causes of local juvenile delinquency, [22] believing that the disregard of group mores by the young is definitely related to the witnessing week after week of fictitious behavior sequences that habitually link the taking of long chances and the happy ending. While the community attempts to safeguard its schools from commercially intent private hands, this powerful new educational instrument, which has taken Middletown unawares, remains in the hands of a group of men – AN ex-peanut-stand proprietor, an ex-bicycle racer and race promoter, and so on – Whose primary concern is making money.[23]

Middletown in 1890 was not hesitant in criticizing poor shows at the Opera House. The “morning after” reviews of 1890 bristle with frank adjectives: “Their version of the play is incomplete. Their scenery is limited to one drop. The women are ancient, the costumes dingy and old. Outside of a few specialties, the show was very ‘bum.’ When Sappho struck town in 1900, the press roasted it roundly, concluding, “[Middletown] has had enough of naughtiness of the stage … Manager W – will do well to fumigate his pretty playhouse before one of the dean, instructive, entertaining plays he has billed comes before the footlights.” The newspapers of today keep their hands off the movies, save for running free publicity stories and cuts furnished by the exhibitors who advertise. Save for some efforts among certain of the women’s clubs to “clean up the movies” and the opposition of the Ministerial Association to “Sunday movies,” Middletown appears content in the main to take the movies at their face value “a darned good show” and largely disregard their educational or habit-forming aspects.


17. Exact counts were made for only January, July, and October. There were less than 125 performances, including: matinees, for the entire year.

18. These figures are rough estimates based upon the following data: The total Federal amusement tax paid by Middletown theaters in July was $3002.04 and in December $4,781.47. The average tax paid per admission is about $0.0325, and the population in 1923 about 38,000. Attendance estimates secured in this way were raised by one-sixth to account for children under twelve who are tax-free. The proprietor of three representative houses said that he had seven admissions over twelve years to one aged twelve or less, and the proprietor of another house drawing many children has four over twelve to one aged twelve or less.

These attendance figures include, however, farmers and others from outlying districts.

19. The question was asked in terms of frequency of attendance “in an average month” and was checked in each case by attendance during the month just past.

Lack of money and young children needing care in the home are probably two factors influencing these families that do not attend at all; of the forty-one working class families in which all the children are twelve years or under, eighteen never go to the movies, while of the eighty-one working class families in which one or more of the children is twelve or older, only twenty reported that no member of the family ever attends.

“I haven’t been anywhere in two years,” said a working class wife of thirty-three, the mother of six children, the youngest twenty months. “I went to the movies once two years ago. I was over to see Mrs. — and she says, ‘Come on, let’s go to the movies.’ I didn’t believe her. She is always
ragging the men and I thought she was joking. ‘Come on,’ she says, ‘put your things on and we’ll see a show.’ I thought, well, if she wanted to rag the men, I’d help her, so I got up and put my things on. And, you know, she really meant it. She paid my carfare uptown and paid my way into the movies. I was never so surprised in my life. I haven’t been anywhere since.”

20. Cf . N. 10 above. The ex-proprietor of one of the largest saloons in the city said, “The movies killed the saloon. They cut our business in half overnight.”

21. It happens frequently that the title overplays the element of “sex adventure” in a picture. On the other hand, films less luridly advertised frequently portray more “raw situations.”

22. cf. Ch. XI.

Miriam Van Waters, referee of the juvenile court of Los Angeles and author of Youth in Conflict, says in a review of Cyril Burt’s The Young Delinquent: “The cinema is recognized for what it is, the main source of excitement and of moral education for city children. Burt finds that only mental defectives take the movies seriously enough Jo imitate the criminal exploits portrayed therein, and only a small proportion of thefts can be traced to stealing to gain money for admittance. In no such direct way does the moving picture commonly demoralize youth. It is in the subtle way of picturing the standards of adult life, action and emotion, cheapening, debasing, distorting adults until they appear in the eyes of the young people perpetually bathed in a moral atmosphere of intrigue, jealousy, wild emotionalism, and cheap sentimentality. Burt realizes that these exhibitions stimulate children prematurely.” (The Survey, April 15, 1926.)

23. One exhibitor in Middletown is a college-trained man interested in bringing “good films” to the city. He, like the others, however, is caught in fthe competitive game and matches his competitors’ sensational advertisements.

Middletown is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (30MB), PDF (33MB) and TXT (1.3MB) formats. There’s more on the influence of motion pictures on Middletown society throughout the book, which is marvellous window on a society, easy to read and enticing in all its detail. If you are interested in finding out more about Middletown itself and the studies that came out of it, there’s a Centre for Middletown Studies at Ball State University, Muncie, which continues the research work and has a wide range of background information and digitised resources.