Full-Length Programs: Fights, Passion Plays, and Travel
7The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight
Full-Length Programs: Fights, Passion Plays, and Travel
Lubin and Facsimile Reproductions
The Horitz Passion Play
The Passion Play of Oberammergau
Other Passion Plays and Religious Subjects
In the post-novelty period, exhibitors played a key creative role in the motion-picture field. Their claims to authorship were indeed often merited as they expanded and explored the wide-ranging possibilities for expression under their control. These showmen were responsible for the rich panoply of sound accompaniment that included voice, music, and effects. Perhaps even more fundamentally, they were responsible for either the construction of elaborate narratives or the shape and character of the variety programming. This potential for creativity was no more evident than in the evening-length, single-subject screen entertainments that became common during 1897-1898. These programs fell into three distinct genres, each of which was directed at a different cultural group. They thus underscored another significant aspect of the post-novelty era: the reassertion of social and cultural differences within the realm of reception or spectatorship.
A few travel lecturers, operating within the well-established expectations of refined culture, added motion pictures to their stereopticon exhibitions. Here the integration of motion pictures into conventional screen entertainment was particularly straightforward. Two other genres involved more complex issues that deserve particular scrutiny. These revolved around the passion play and boxing matches. Although at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, both depended on the cinematic medium for their success in somewhat analogous ways. In each instance, their subject matter lacked societal approval when presented as live performances, yet came to enjoy wide acceptance when mediated by cinematography.
Prizefighting had an impassioned following among those enjoying blood sports and other male-oriented amusements, not withstanding the strong opposition of religious groups and cultural elites. Although bouts were technically illegal in every state of the Union, they continued to be fought, often under the guise of "boxing exhibitions" or "sparring contests." The police, however, often stopped these "performances," as when they abruptly ended a "Boxing and Bag Punching Entertainment" at New York's Academy of Music with the arrest of the two contenders, Mike Leonard and George Dixon, in August 1895.1 Even fights in out-of-the-way places were not entirely safe from interruption, but the more prominent the match, the greater the likelihood of government intervention. As the grand-jury investigation of The Corbett-Courtney Fight demonstrated, filming such matches only added to the difficulties. Motion-picture photography of bona fide bouts required elaborate preparation and extensive publicity to maximize the public's interest and assure a profitable return on investment.2 These requirements encouraged civic protest and made state intervention almost inevitable.
Because the Lathams had already demonstrated the popularity of fight films, many amusement entrepreneurs were eager to capitalize on this commercial opportunity even as they tried to avoid controversy. Harry Davis, a Pittsburgh theatrical magnate, produced The Maher-Choynski Fight in a way that avoided many production problems—including the uncertain legality of fistic encounters. Peter Maher and Joe Choynski fought a contest that was slated to go twenty rounds at New York's Broadway Athletic Club on Monday evening, 16 November 1896; in the sixth round, Maher knocked out his opponent. Since Maher spent much of his time in Pittsburgh, Davis arranged for the fight to be reenacted there, apparently using both boxers and local Pittsburgh "sports" as audience members. As shown on the "zinematographe," the six-round Maher-Choynski Fight opened at Davis' Eden Musee in Pittsburgh on 1 February and received a favorable response.3 Less than twenty minutes long, The Maher-Choynski Fight was subsequently displayed at Bradenburgh's 9th and Arch Dime Museum in Philadelphia, Huber's Museum in New York, and other big-city venues that appealed to frequenters of inexpensive, sensationalistic amusement.
Films of championship bouts promised to generate the greatest financial rewards. Following the success of The Corbett-Courtney Fight, the Kinetoscope Exhibition Company sought a similar subject for its large-capacity peephole kinetoscopes but encountered many obstacles. Samuel Tilden, Jr., and Enoch Rector arranged with fight promoter Dan Stuart to film a heavyweight bout between Corbett and Robert Fitzsimmons in Texas. The Edison factory even constructed new, wide-format cameras to photograph the event. When Texas chief justice James M. Hunt ruled on 17 September 1895 that no law in that state prohibited pugilistic exhibitions, Stuart's plans seemed almost certain to reach fruition. A few weeks later, however, the governor requested and the Texas legislature enacted a bill that outlawed prizefighting.4 Subsequent attempts to stage the bout in Arkansas likewise ended in disappointment.
By November, Stuart was trying to hold the fight in Mexico, just across the border from El Paso, Texas. When Corbett announced that he had retired and turned his championship over to Pete Maher, Fitzsimmons angrily accepted the new matchup against Maher. On 21 February 1896, two hundred dedicated boxing aficionados took a train from El Paso to Langtry, Texas, tramped through a half mile of deep sand mixed with mud, crossed a pontoon bridge, and eventually reached a crude ring. The heavily overcast sky precluded cinematography, but delay was impossible lest the authorities disrupt the proceedings. Maher, still recovering from an eye infection, was routed in one minute and thirty-three seconds. Rector then offered a five-thousand-dollar purse for the two to fight for the kinetograph on the following day, but Fitzsimmons demanded ten thousand dollars and 50 percent of the profits. His price was too high, and the match failed to materialize.5 After six months of almost continual preparation and expense, the kinetoscope group still lacked a fresh subject to place in its peephole machines.
Projection came before further boxing matches could be arranged. Finally, on 4 January 1897, Robert Fitzsimmons and James Corbett signed an agreement to fight for a ten-thousand-dollar purse offered by Dan Stuart. The kinetoscope figured prominently in the negotiations. Fitzsimmons demanded and eventually received an equal share of the revenues, 15 percent of the profits going to each of the fighters.6 Stuart's task was to find a place to hold the prizefight legally: only then could he attract a large number of ringside spectators and sufficient press to publicize the bout, and only then would it be possible to organize the filming. While all states forbade prizefighting, they did not prohibit the exhibition of prizefight films. Thus the participants planned to make money not from the fight itself but from the films. Motion pictures suddenly made boxing a profitable sport per se. Previously, fighters like John L. Sullivan and James Corbett had made their living on the stage—by giving exhibitions and appearing in plays. The heavyweight championship had turned these boxers into celebrities, but fighting had not in itself been enormously profitable. Motion pictures changed this.
Stuart convinced Nevada officials that the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight would help the state's struggling economy. Despite protests from state governors and religious leaders, prizefighting was legalized on 26 January. Stuart selected Carson City as the site and 17 March as the date. Corbett, then appearing in A Naval Cadet, disbanded his theatrical company in Kansas City on 6 February and headed west to train for the bout. Meanwhile, Enoch Rector built new cameras especially for the event. These used a 23/16-inch-gauge film stock with a wide-screen format ideally suited for photographing a boxing ring.7
The reaction from Protestant groups and moralistic legislators was predictably angry. Congressman William F. Aldrich, at the request of the Reverend Wilbur F. Crafts of the National Reform League, submitted a bill providing that "no picture or description of any prize fight or encounter of pugilists or any proposal or record of betting on the same shall be transmitted by the mails of the United States or by inter-state commerce, whether in a newspaper or telegram."8 Clergy gave countless well-publicized sermons attacking this form of amusement. In a typical sermon, "Nevada's Shame and Disgrace," the Reverend Levi Gilbert of the First Methodist Church of Cleveland declared:
New Haven Register, 9 March 1897, p. 12">
This state, this deserted mining camp, revives brutality by an exhibition that must make its Indians and Chinamen wonder at Christianity. Corbett is called a gentleman, yet acted like an infuriated animal in his last fight. He is dissipated as is John Sullivan, who clubs his wife, and both of these are shining lights of the theater, and Christian people are lampooned for non-attendance.
Such exhibitions promote criminality by feeding the bestial in man. They debauch the public ideal. Such men sell their bodies for merchandise as surely as the harlots of the street. They show pluck, yes, but no better than the bulldog or the tiger (New Haven Register, 9 March 1897, p. 12).
Yet even those newspapers that condemned the bout devoted large amounts of space to its preparations as the fight became a national event. Gunfighter Wyatt Earp
was a special reporter for the New York World. Bat Masterson attended. And, as the Boston Herald announced in a front-page headline, "The Kinetoscope will Dominate Wholly the Arrangements for the Holding of the Battle." The battery of cameras, grouped together in a wooden shed, were given the best seats in the house while paying customers were forced to look into the sun. Stuart arranged for several lesser bouts so that the big fight could be postponed and the spectators placated, if the day was cloudy. On the night before the battle, Stuart even had the ring cut down from the regulation twenty-four feet square to twenty-two feet so the cameras would be certain to capture all the action. Only in this last instance was he unsuccessful, for the referee noticed the difference and insisted that the original size be restored.9
As the fight unfolded, round-by-round descriptions were telegraphed to the nation's theaters and read from the stage. In large cities, it was reenacted by experts—at Proctor's Pleasure Palace, for example, in a simultaneous exhibition billed as "a purely scientific illustration of the blows and ring tactics used at Carson," Fitzsimmons was played by Professor Mike Donovan, the New York Athletic Club's boxing instructor, while the role of Corbett was assumed by Professor Alfred Austin, an ex-middleweight champion of England. In Massachusetts, legislators left a debate on a women's-suffrage bill to follow its progress. For once, the bout went off as scheduled, and Fitzsimmons defeated Corbett with a blow to the heart in the fourteenth round. The fray equaled everyone's highest expectations. "I consider that I have witnessed today the greatest fight with gloves that was ever held in this or any other country," declared Wyatt Earp.10 But some spectators claimed that Fitzsimmons fouled his opponent with a smashing blow to the jaw as Corbett collapsed from the jab to the heart. If the punch had been late, partisans argued that Fitzsimmons should have lost. Many were anxious to see the films and judge the timing of the blow for themselves.
While the New Haven Evening Register believed that legality would tear the veil of romance from prizefighting and leave it "exposed in all its hideousness and depravity," most opponents of pugilism rejected a laissez-faire approach. Bills to prohibit the exhibition of fight films were introduced in Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Illinois, as well as other state legislatures, although in most instances they were defeated. Probably to reduce similar efforts, Rector announced that the Corbett-Fitzsimmons negatives had been ruined and that no exhibitions would take place. In some cases Dan Stuart's generous distribution of funds to lawmakers may have made a significant difference. In Massachusetts, the legislative calendar was drawing to a close and introduction of new bills needed approval by four-fifths of the legislature. This did not happen, for many of the legislators were themselves anxious to see the films. Only in Iowa and perhaps a few other states was the exhibition of fight films banned. A few localities, such as Pueblo, Colorado, also prohibited them.11
The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, shown by the Veriscope Company, had its debut on 22 May 1897 at the Academy of Music in New York City. Developing and printing the films as well as building the necessary apparatus for projection had taken over two months. The opening was heavily promoted, particularly by the New York
World which published a two-page spread showing drawings of the fight derived from key frames of the films. According to this pro-Corbett perspective, the term "veriscope" or "truth-viewer" was appropriate because it emphasized one of the selling points of the pictures: the camera recorded the foul that had eluded the referee. In the words of the World, it illustrated "a triumph of science over the poor, imperfect instrument, the human eye, and proves that the veriscope camera is far superior." Spectators could judge for themselves whether or not Fitzsimmons had fouled Corbett. The average man did not have to accept the authoritative word of the referee or the sportswriter but could reach his own conclusions. But were the World's drawings faithful to the film? "I do not believe there is single picture in the veriscope that will substantiate those published in The World," replied Fitzsimmons. "Those purporting to be scenes from the fight are manufactured."12
The war of fists had become a war of words, and the Academy of Music was jammed on opening night. The program lasted for approximately a hundred minutes and was one of the first full-length performances devoted exclusively to motion pictures. The projected images, according to the New York Tribune,"were larger than any that have been seen hitherto, but the flickering and vibration were most troublesome to the view and extremely trying to the eyes." Nonetheless, for the first time in almost everyone's experience, they could see a regulation championship fight, if not live, then recorded mechanically. Theater seats became seats at ringside as patrons saw this ritualized sport unfold from a single camera perspective in realistic time. As was to become the custom when exhibiting fight films, an expert stood to the side of the screen and offered a running commentary: the sports announcer had arrived.
In the sixth round, when Fitzsimmons was brought low for a few seconds, the crowd became so much excited that the lecturer who was explaining incidents had to give it up and let the spectators understand the rather complicated situation the best they could. He managed to get in just a word of explanation when it was nearly over.
Although the fight seemed to be pretty familiar to most of the persons present, the final blow of Fitzsimmons was unexpected, and few, if any, were prepared to say afterwards that they saw it. Corbett was seen suddenly to go down on one knee and crawl away, while the house rang with shouts of "Where's the foul? Where's the foul?" Corbett's attempt to get at Fitzsimmons after the fight was over was shown with great clearness, and was one of the most interesting incidents of the exhibition. At the end there were loud requests for the last round to be shown over again, but the operators seemed to think that they had done enough (New York Tribune,23 May 1897, p. 8).
While the single-camera perspective (perhaps with some jump cuts as one camera stopped and the next began) encouraged a sense of theatrical space, and indeed, the whole event had been engineered as a display for the camera, the presentational elements of The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight were most evident in the use of a commentator beside the screen. The details and significant moments that would one day be brought out by close-ups were now emphasized by the narration.
The veriscope played at the 2,100-seat Academy of Music for just over five weeks and then moved to Brooklyn for two more. It opened a four-week stand in Boston on 31 May and one of nine weeks in Chicago on 6 June. According to the Chicago Tribune, the attraction drew "immense audiences at the Grand Opera House both at the evening and daily matinees, and the receipts for this reproduction have broken all records of the theater since its existence." Admission ranged from twenty-five cents for a gallery seat to one dollar in the orchestra. Generally, there were breaks of three to five minutes every fourth round while the operator changed reels of film on his single projector. In Boston, at least, these intermissions were considered a desirable means of saving the spectators' eyes. Efforts were quickly undertaken to solve some of the exhibition's technical problems: improvements were made in the printing and developing as new prints replaced the first positives, and the projecting machines may have also been modified. Additional openings soon followed: Buffalo for four weeks on 7 June, Philadelphia for three weeks on 26 June, and Pittsburgh for two weeks on 3 July.13 A West Coast company opened in San Francisco on 13 July for three weeks and then moved up to Portland. Also widely exhibited overseas, the veriscope opened in London on 27 September.
The program was seen by enormous numbers of Americans, not only in large cities but smaller towns. Distribution was frequently handled by sales of territory on a states rights basis. By fall, approximately eleven companies were touring the United States with The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight, usually performing in crowded theaters. The program also returned to many cities. For its two-week Boston reengagement in April 1898, admission was lower, the technical quality had improved, and 1,400 feet of film showing the ring after the fight had been added. This program sparked interest in the Bob Fitzsimmons Vaudeville Company, which played immediately afterward at the same theater. A Veriscope and Vaudeville Company toured other major cities for one-week stands during the 1897-1898 season. In remote parts of the country, veriscope exhibitions continued to be given, albeit with decreasing frequency and attendance, until 1900. With profits said to exceed $120,000 (apparently after the fighters received their percentages), Rector was forced to sue Dan Stuart for an accounting and his share of the proceeds.14
Although men of sporting blood were the veriscope's intended audience, the fight films drew from an unexpectedly broad cross section of the population. Many attendees had never previously seen a boxing match of any kind. Not only members of New York's four hundred families (who symbolized refined culture) but members of "the fairer sex" visited the Academy of Music. In Boston, women were reported to form "a considerable portion of the audience," and according to at least one source, women constituted fully 60 percent of Chicago's patronage. In many other cities and towns, a similar pattern emerged. To male reporters, it was a puzzle. Perhaps the absence of noise, blood, and the sounds of distress made the fight acceptable to women's more refined sensibilities, the Boston Herald suggested, or perhaps many of them attended "with the expectation of being shocked and horrified." Today other explanations seem more credible. By attending, women asserted their independence and loosened a code of conduct that narrowly circumscribed their public sphere. Many middle-class women took this opportunity to see a part of the male world from which they were normally excluded. The theaters housing the veriscope were those that women regularly visited, and many of the "fairer sex" felt free to go on their own, at least to the matinees. Suddenly they had access to the forbidden and could peruse the semi-naked, perfectly trained bodies of the male contestants. For women of the leisure class, the Herald noted, it had "become quite the proper thing to drop in and see a round or two of the pictures."15
The fact that The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight was an "illustration" of a fight rather than a fight itself made the attraction not only legally but socially acceptable viewing material. The moralistic, conservative Protestant groups who condemned the sport as barbaric were at least temporarily routed, defeated by proponents of popular culture who had managed to win over or neutralize the cultural elites as well. Opponents of pugilism were put on the defensive. Fighting was legalized in New York State, at least for a time, and several championship bouts would be fought there in the late 1890s. Although the death of a fighter later set back the cause of legal boxing in New York, never again did championship fighters lack an American location where they could hold a contest.
The Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight raised other questions about filmic representation. When live bouts had been so hard to see, urban "sports" often had to be satisfied with staged reenactments that either coincided with the event (like the one at Proctor's Pleasure Palace mentioned above) or were restaged by the reigning champion as he toured the country's theaters. During the 1897-1898 theatrical season, for example, Fitzsimmons toured with his vaudeville company and gave a sparring exhibition with Yank Kenny, who "wears his hair in a pompadour and greatly resembles Jim Corbett in style and action." Sigmund Lubin took advantage of the reenactment tradition to produce his own fight films "in imitation of Corbett and Fitzsimmons." The performers, two freight handlers from the Pennsylvania Railroad, were made up to look like the champions and acted out the drama on a makeshift rooftop studio.16 By condensing the action and decreasing the camera speed (the number of frames exposed per second), Lubin filmed each round on fifty feet of 35-mm stock.
Lubin advertised his Reproduction of the Corbett and Fitzsimmons Fight a week before the Veriscope's premiere and sent several exhibition units on the road. The Veriscope Company threatened to sue, but nothing legally prohibited the practice. Audience reaction was less easily ignored, however. In Chicago, the " 'fake' veriscope" opened in a storefront. According to one published account,
the fighters maul each other in unscientific fashion and the supposititious knockout in the fourteenth round is a palpable burlesque. Several patrons of the performance protested yesterday and were informed by the gentleman in charge that they were "lobsters." "We advertise a facsimile of the fight," he declared, "and that's what we give. What do you expect for 10 cents, anyhow?" (Phonoscope, June 1897, p. 12).
In many locales, hoodwinked patrons proved less complacent. When the Arkansas Vitascope Company showed the films in Little Rock, five hundred people attended opening night, including ex-governor Clarke and many members of the state legislature. According to one published account:
Little Rock Gazette, in Phonoscope, June 1897, p. 12">
The audience was entitled to a kick before the exhibition was five minutes old. The views were decidedly on the fake order, being unrecognizable by people who are familiar with the ring and who know pictures of Corbett and Fitz. The first round was so tame that the lovers of the manly art could not restrain the disgust they felt at the palpable fakeness of the alleged representation.
"Fake!" "Cheat!" "Give us our money back!" and various other cries rang out in all parts of the theatre. Dozens of people picked up their hats and started out. Some left the theatre and others lingered in the entrance lobby around the box office. Some others remained in their seats hoping that the succeeding views would be better; but they were doomed to disappointment. At the conclusion of the third round, the indignation of the duped spectators knew no bounds. A rush was made for the box office and the cries of "Give us our money back!" were deafening. The "fight" came to an abrupt termination at the end of the third "round" for lack of an audience. Scores of indignant men joined the clamorous crowd in the lobby and declared that they would not budge an inch until their money was refunded. Several policemen were on hand but they could no more restrain the impatient and thoroughly exasperated crowd from rushing pell-mell at the box office than human hands could push back the Johnstown flood (Little Rock Gazette, in Phonoscope, June 1897, p. 12).
The opera-house manager, fearing a riot, turned over receipts of $253 to a state senator who, after a brief deliberation, refunded the patrons' money. Members of the crowd fought their way to the box office. "The fellow with a 25 cent check ran the risk of having his limbs broken, his face smashed and his clothes torn off, but it seemed to make no difference. The satisfaction of getting the money back after being duped was worth a great deal." Similar "misunderstandings" occurred elsewhere. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, when people with fifty-cent seats learned the meaning of the word "facsimile," the theater management also felt fooled and, anxious not to alienate its regular customers, offered a refund.17
In urban settings, where the conventions of fight reenactments were well known, spectators came to accept facsimile reproductions as a legitimate form of amusement. Over the next ten years Lubin produced at least a score of such subjects, which found regular outlets in places like Bradenburgh's Ninth and Arch Museum in Philadelphia and Huber's Fourteenth Street Museum in New York. One clever manager even made moralistic arguments in favor of the reproductions, claiming that the ring's "objectionable environment" had been eliminated.18 Generally shown where admission fees were lower, these films were usually part of a larger variety entertainment. Lubin's facsimile reproductions became the poor man's way to see the fight.
Although The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight was immensely profitable and the pictures served as a long-standing model for future amusement entrepreneurs, these epigones often encountered misfortune. On 9 June 1899, the American Vitagraph Company photographed the next heavyweight championship bout, between Fitzsimmons and Jeffries, at night under the intense illumination and heat of seventy-five arc lights. When the lights overheated and burned out, filming came to an abrupt halt.
Nonetheless the bout continued, with Jeffries the victor in eleven rounds. Lubin's reproductions with counterparts filled the resulting void and enjoyed wide circulation; even Vitagraph used them for a time. Somewhat belatedly, Vitagraph and the Edison Manufacturing Company filmed their own reenactment with the actual fighters. The Palmer-McGovern fight encountered somewhat different adversity. Filmed by the American Sportagraph Company on 12 September 1899, the bout was expected to be a vicious, closely fought battle, and interest was high. Modeling themselves on the Veriscope Company, the group built their own special-gauge cameras, printers, and projectors, but when Terry McGovern knocked out "Pedlar" Palmer in the first round, American Sportagraph folded.19
The most successful set of fight pictures after the Veriscope effort was The Jeffries-Sharkey Fight, taken on 3 November 1899 at the Coney Island Sporting Club. This twenty-five-round fight went the distance, with the decision given to Jeffries. Biograph shot the entire bout with 70-mm film, and some 350 miniature arc lights to illuminate the nighttime scene. The 10,050 spectators were not permitted to smoke lest it harm the quality of the pictures. Although Lubin produced his usual reenactment and American Vitagraph smuggled a camera into the club and filmed some of the rounds, Biograph enjoyed marked success after opening its program in New York on 20 November, less than three weeks after the event. This initial program interspersed vaudeville acts between films of each round—a practice that was generally not continued in other venues. Publicity once again emphasized that spectators could decide for themselves whether the referees decision was just. In Philadelphia at least, the theater manager distributed ballots to his patrons "so that every spectator may vote on the question."20 Biograph soon had at least six companies on the road, first playing major cities for a few weeks and subsequently touring the smaller population centers for the remainder of the 1899-1900 season.
Although fight films continued to be a prominent if financially risky genre throughout the period covered by this volume, they never enjoyed the broad-based success of The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight. After their initial glimpse of the exclusively
male sporting world, women ceased attending these amusements in significant numbers. Having satisfied their curiosity and asserted their right to see such events, they withdrew. The faddish aspects of fight films passed away, and the all-male world of blood sports reasserted its homosocial identity.
Fight films focused attention on representational issues. Before cinema, an event could not really be re-presented. It could be recounted, recreated, or reperformed but the results always involved the subjective reinterpretation of the performers or reporter. Now a view of an event could be captured on film and shown again and again. Promoters and spectators recognized the possibility of, and the demand for, what is now called "observational cinema."21 The filmmaker's role was to record an event and then re-present it with as little intervention as possible, so that the audience was in a position to judge the outcome for themselves. The kinds of reenactments or even jump-cut ellipses commonly found in turn-of-the-century documentary material had the opposite effect. Although fight films utilized performances of a kind as their raw material, they implicitly challenged certain theatrical conventions that had been carried over to film, for instance the indicating of unfolding time (through manipulation of the mise-en-scène) rather than a credible rendition of its actual unfolding. Fight pictures thus worked against crucial aspects of the presentational approach that dominated early cinema, even as they retained or reinforced other aspects, such as the lecture.
The passion play has had a tumultuous history in the United States. On 3 March 1879, a dramatic version by Salmi Morse was performed in San Francisco amid much controversy. The play opened despite vehement protests, but the manager deemed it wise not to perform the last scenes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and the performance ended with Christ (played by James O'Neill) being turned over to Pontius Pilate.22
Salmi Morse found a new backer for his play in Henry E. Abbey, a leading New York impresario who later explained, "I was so impressed by the subject and treatment by him that I signed a contract for its production at Booth's under his personal supervision." This New York City debut was scheduled for 7 December 1880. Opposition from religious groups and the press intensified, however, as the board of aldermen voted, with only one dissenter, to do everything possible to ban the production. The Baptist Ministers' Conference, noting the general outcry among Protestant leaders, condemned the "sacrilegious use of the most sacred things of our religion." In the face of such pressure, Abbey withdrew the play the Sunday before it was to open. Ministers quickly altered their sermons to fit the new situation. The Reverend John P. Newman of the Central Methodist Church noted "the impossibility of an actor projecting himself into the character of Christ according to the requirements of his art." He predicted such a play would increase infidelity since it represented only the weakness of Christ without a counteracting view of his divinity. Newman praised the many newspapers, community leaders, and even the the "best" theatrical managers and actors whose opposition prevented the play from being produced. In a desperate and final effort, Morse gave a reading of his play. The New York Times reprinted portions of the text, praised the music, found the playwright to be of reverential spirit, and then called it a "painful burlesque of sacred mysteries."23 The fiasco was indelibly imprinted on the memory of every amusement entrepreneur.
Cultural activities, nonetheless, often embody contradictions. The passion play had just been performed at Oberammergau, Bavaria, that summer, an event occurring once every decade. On 11 December 1880, only four days after the abortive premiere of the Morse drama, travel lecturer John L. Stoddard presented his illustrated lecture "Ober-Ammergau's Passion Play" in New York. Taking his audience on a tour of the village and introducing the principal actors going about their everyday lives, Stoddard argued that these villagers were not rude peasants but artists whose rendition retained "all the simplicity and reverence of ancient days." Having established the milieu from which the play sprang, Stoddard showed fifty stereopticon slides of the performance. At the drama's high point, as Christ dies on the cross, Stoddard dissolved from one lantern slide to the next. Otherwise identical, the two slides gave an illusion of movement as Christ's head dropped to his breast.24 At this moment Stoddard was saying:
Finally it is evident that the end draws near. With a loud voice he cries at last:
"Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit." The head drops wearily upon the breast. It is finished (John Stoddard, Red Letter Days Abroad , p. 98).
Stoddard's lecture, attended by people who had objected so strenuously to the Salmi Morse play, was widely praised and enhanced his reputation. After the 1890 performance at Oberammergau, many itinerant lecturers gave screen presentations that closely followed Stoddard's. The possibilities of using motion pictures to present a similar program were obvious to everyone. While preparing for the vitascope's commercial debut, Thomas Armat imagined such an undertaking. So, apparently, did the Lumières. Although a twelve-scene passion play was filmed by a Frenchman named Lear in the spring of 1897, The Horitz Passion Play, filmed an Austrian Village (now Hořice, Czechoslovakia), was much more ambitious and apparently was the first to be shown in the United States.25
The Horitz villagers had performed miracle plays for centuries, and their passion play, first mounted in 1816, had become an elaborate production by the early 1890s. A major tourist attraction attended by royalty, the play still used local actors but had a professional staff. Zdenek Stabla reports that the Lumières' American representative, Charles Smith Hurd, had returned to Europe in 1896, visited Horitz, and saw a performance of their passion play.26 He immediately approached the theater group about making a film and negotiated a contract which called for the actors to be paid 1,500 Austrian florins and the company to receive 2,000 florins per year for five years. Exhibitions were also limited to non-German-speaking countries. With permission in hand, Hurd looked for a producer to finance the production, exhibit the films, and share the profits.
Hurd's search for financing ended when his proposition was accepted by the theatrical producers Marc Klaw and Abraham L. Erlanger. They placed Dr. Walter W. Freeman in charge of the project and hired Charles Webster and the International Film Company to do the cinematography and lab work. Although the "Lumière process" was said to be used, the cinématographe had become readily available and the undertaking had no formal ties to the Lumière organization. The group spent much of the following spring and summer in Horitz as Freeman supervised the taking of slides and films. Once again the earlier Stoddard lecture was used as a model, and the leading performers were introduced with lantern-slide portraits. Some of the play's opening tableaux, among them one of Adam and Eve being expelled from the Garden of Eden, were also presented as lantern slides.27 The Horitz rendition traveled quickly through the Old Testament and Christ's early years, before focusing on the traditional events leading up to the Crucifixion. The final program of thirty negatives totaled 2,400 feet of film. Unfortunately, neither prints nor frame enlargements exist to tell us any more about this ambitious project.
The Horitz Passion Play was presented in an hour-and-a-half exhibition that also included projected slides, a lecture, organ music, and sacred hymns.28 Klaw and Erlanger, acquainted with New York's reaction to the Salmi Morse production, chose to tour other cities before arriving in the nation's theatrical capital. The American
premiere occurred on 22 November 1897 at the Philadelphia Academy of Music and received a highly favorable response, with local clergy making up a substantial portion of the appreciative audience. Calling it the "most notable, and certainly the most noble use to which that marvelous invention, the cinematograph, has yet been put," the Philadelphia Record observed:
Endless lectures on Ober-Ammergau have not been able to give so vivid an idea of that more famous Passion Play as last night's spectators at the Academy gained as they sat in silent and all-absorbed attention before these scenes. The Horitz drama is much more marked by primitive simplicity than that of Ober-Ammergau. There is a decidedly more naive and child-like treatment of these great sacred themes and episodes. Without the life-like movement of these views it would have been impossible to have appreciated anywhere near to the full the unquestioning, credulous simplicity of this theatrical representation. In these pictures, however, we actually see the half-naked Adam and Eve running about in a quaint little Garden of Eden, with invading devils lurking under the Tree of Life, and an odd-looking Serpent of Evil leaning its flat head out of the boughs. Cain kills the kneeling Abel, but one sees how the pretense of realism is not so necessitous but that the bad brother brings his club down unmistakably far away from Abel's head. The Flood scene, with its swimmers in the immovable scenic waves, affords also a queer spectacle (23 November 1897, p. 6).
Various technical imperfections (blurred images and flickering) were noted but were played down. After the first week, The Horitz Passion Play moved to Horticultural Hall, where it remained for an additional two weeks. The exhibition was gradually polished. While organ music accompanied the lecture from the outset, the producers soon added three singers, including baritone N. Dushane Cloward.29
The producers, assuming they had an exclusive attraction, opened next in Boston on 3 January and remained for two weeks. The program provoked little controversy, in part because of the careful way it was promoted. Initial publicity distinguished the exhibition from a regular theatrical performance. "There will be no 'real' actors, no living personages in the presentation of this most sacred and sublime of the world's tragedies," the Boston Herald assured its readers, "and yet it will seem to be instinct with life and physical movement but with an entire absence of flesh and blood and vocal concomitants, that will relieve it from all trace of irreverence and make the conception seem sublime." The newspapers also ran an interview with Professor Ernest Lacy, who delivered the descriptive lecture. Lacy, a Philadelphia high-school teacher, was described as a "brilliant young scholar, poet and playwright." Alluding to his previous appearance in Philadelphia, the Herald told Bostonians that "a finer or more reverent piece of word-painting has seldom been heard."30 Lacy's reputation was a guarantee of high quality.
Because past lectures on the passion play had celebrated the Oberammergau performance as something special and unique, focusing on Horitz posed potential hazards. To avoid these dangers the Klaw and Erlanger group astutely situated their exhibition in relation to the Oberammergau play. On one hand, they promoted the Horitz actors as the "Austrian Oberammergau Company" and imposed a format on The Horitz Passion Play that inevitably recalled Stoddard's famous lecture. On the other, Lacy defused the danger of seeing the Horitz play as a cheap imitation by arguing:
The Horitz production is nearer to nature, in that the players who perform the various parts are untutored, unread peasants, with nothing but their faith to guide them.
…The Oberammergau production is more up-to-date as it were, and the effect of sincerity is not so deeply impressed on the mind as in the Horitz production (Boston Herald, 2 January 1898, p. 32).
The Horitz rendition, it was asserted, was preferable to the better-known performance. A brief history of the Horitz passion play was provided to authenticate this choice.
Publicity had the desired results. Boston's opening night was attended by what the Boston Herald called "a splendid audience, including in its numbers not only regular theatregoers but a considerable contingent of people who are much oftener to be found at church than attending a play." For the paper's reviewer, the exhibition had all the power of a theatrical performance yet none of its drawbacks. At first aware that the images were only representations of a representation, the critic soon felt in the presence of the actors themselves. "Then the players begin to depict the birth and life of Christ, and with this change of subject there comes a new change of mental attitude. So absorbing becomes the interest of the pictures that the onlooker, from merely regarding the figures of the real, live people who acted the play in Bohemia, begins to forget all about what was done in Bohemia and henceforth is lost in the thought that the faces and forms before him are the real people who lived in Palestine 2000 years ago, and with their own eyes witnessed the crucifixion of Christ."31
As late as April 1898 only a single set of Horitz films was available for exhibition. After Boston, these were shown for two weeks in Baltimore, where Cardinal Gibbons attended and endorsed the pictures as "wonderfully realistic and deeply religious." A Rochester, New York, opening followed. By the time that The Horitz Passion Play opened in New York City on 14 March as a Lenten lecture at Daly's Theater, any possibility of controversy had been dissipated, not merely because of the positive reactions generated in other cities but because a similar type of exhibition had already opened at New York's Eden Musee.32
New York City's Eden Musee was on Twenty-third Street, west of Madison Square. Opened in late March 1884, it appealed primarily to a well-to-do clientele by cannily mixing an "educational" approach with sensationalism. Waxworks and musical concerts were its key programming elements until 18 December 1896, when films were first projected in the Musee's Winter Garden. Popular with patrons, moving pictures quickly became a major commitment.33
Richard Hollaman, the Musee's president, had been anxious to acquire the film rights for the Horitz passion play and felt betrayed when Hurd gave the contract to Klaw & Erlanger. Nevertheless, Hollaman and an associate, Frank Russell, attended
the Philadelphia premiere and were sufficiently impressed to embark on their own production, which, for promotional purposes, was said to be based on the Bavarian staging. In reality, while photographs and drawings from that famous rendition may have provided some guidelines, the Salmi Morse play was dusted off and generally performed the role of scenario—as one informed critic later noted, nearly one-third of the scenes in Hollaman's version did not even exist in the Oberammergau passion play. Albert Eaves became involved in the Hollaman effort and provided the costumes that he had acquired from the Abbey production. The well-known stage director Henry C. Vincent supervised the production, painted the scenery, made the properties, and selected the actors. Frank Russell played Christ, while William Paley, who had given exhibitions with his kalatechnoscope projector, photographed the scenes with his camera on the roof of the Grand Central Palace.34 With cinematography possible only on sunny days and even then only for a few hours, it took six weeks to accumulate twenty-three scenes totaling approximately 2,000 feet. Shot at about thirty frames per second, they produced some nineteen minutes of screen time. The resulting scenes, with their sparse sets and simple, frontal compositions, evoked the long, powerful tradition of religious paintings.
The films were made in great secrecy. Just as putting on a boxing match was illegal but showing films of such a match was fine, the discovery that an actor was playing Christ for money might have created a public outcry even though the exhibition of
such films would not. And it would surely have alerted Klaw & Erlanger, who might well have preempted the Musee's New York debut. Hollaman was also uncertain how to publicize the resulting Passion Play of Oberammergau. The Horitz Passion Play had gained public acceptance in part because it was performed by simple Bohemian peasants. The reaction to Hollaman's project, if its actual production circumstances were known, could not be fully predicted. Ties to the Oberammergau passion play were thus maximized and the re-enactment aspect downplayed. It was hinted, if not clearly stated, that the filming involved the Oberammergau villagers.
Following a press screening on 28 January, it became clear that journalists were less concerned about the potential for religious sacrilege than about misrepresentation. "All the preliminary announcements of this exhibition have tended to convey the impression that this is a genuine reproduction of the celebrated passion play at Oberammergau," the New York Herald protested in its February review. In the face of such skepticism, Hollaman made a strategic retreat, and subsequent advertisements and publicity emphasized the reenactment aspects of the production—although the debt to the Morse play went largely unmentioned.
By 1898 the screen presentation of religious subjects was sufficiently familiar that the Musee's awkward handling of the press failed to harm the program's popularity, and the show did even better than Hollaman had expected. Among the many visitors were ministers and church people, many of whom enthused about the moral benefits of the passion-play pictures. "The 'Passion Play' might well be said to give those who see it a personal and loving acquaintance with the Divine One. After the exhibition was over I left feeling like living a better life, becoming a better man, trying to follow the teachings of One whom I now know as I never knew before," a prominent lawyer told the Musee manager.35 A short time later, the Reverend R. F. Putnam wrote the editor of one prominent magazine:
The performance of this play in New York by living actors and actresses was prohibited by the conscientious sentiment of the people, the influence of the press and the action of the authorities. But to the rendition of it by these pictures there can be no objection. One might as well object to the illustrations of Doré and other artists in the large quarto Bibles. Intensely realistic they are, and it is this feature which gives them truthfulness and makes them instructive. Painful they are necessarily to sensitive and sympathetic souls, and so are many of the pictures which surmount some of the altars of our churches…. I cannot conceive of a more impressive object-lesson for Sunday school scholars (Home Journal, 15 February 1898, reprinted in Motion Picture World, 22 February 1908, P. 133).
Other ministers, including Madison C. Peters of the Bloomingdale Reformed Church, attended and offered their endorsements.36 The devout saw The Passion Play of Oberammergau as an effective way to convert those who were not religious and to inspire the faithful. At times, the Musee seemed like a church.
The Passion Play of Oberammergau had no fixed form. Because reviews usually focused on the films, the full diversity among programs is difficult to establish fully. At the Musee, a well-known lecturer, Professor Powell, stood beside the screen and accompanied the films with a narration. The extent to which lantern slides were
integrated into these initial programs in order to create a full-length entertainment is uncertain. The immense popularity of these exhibitions, however, meant that the Musee was soon sending out traveling companies to present two-hour passion-play entertainments. One of the first units traveled through the Northeast, opening at the Hyperion Theater in New Haven on 14 March. This full evening's entertainment, narrated by the Reverend N.B. Thompson of New York, used slides and film and began "by showing a map of the Holy Land and then [took] the listener on an imaginary journey detailing the many events in the life of Christ and the most important of which were illustrated by the cinematograph."37
Thompson's Musee-sponsored exhibition, however, immediately found itself in competition with a rival showing identical films. For reasons discussed in the following chapter, films from the Eden Musee's production were quickly sold on the open market. Professor Wallace, a Boston-based exhibitor of lantern slides and films, opened a passion-play program at Sylvester Z. Poli's Wonderland vaudeville theater in New Haven one week before Rev. Thompsons Hyperion run. Poli charged ten and twenty cents for admission, much less than the Hyperion had intended. But the show not only appealed to Poll's regular, often working-class, clientele: according to local press reports, the theater was crowded with "audiences representing the best people of the city." Church people entered a vaudeville house! "Some beautiful sacred music is introduced, and while the audiences are coming and going a fine set of stereopticon views of semi-sacred subjects are shown," one reviewer noted. "During the performance of the play no passing to and fro will be permitted, and the doors will be closed against newcomers."38 The Passion Play of Oberammergau had an appeal beyond the specific audience of evangelical Christians to include frequenters of more refined and popular commercial culture.
After its commercial runs, The Passion Play of Oberammergau was shown increasingly in churches and for religious purposes. Colonel Henry H. Hadley, a noted Methodist evangelist, also bought a set of these films, which he showed in a tent at Asbury Park, New Jersey, during the summer of 1898 and then at evangelistic meetings during the fall. Hadley's program had two parts: first, a lantern lecture on missionary rescue work delivered by the English evangelist Sara Wray and then a nineteen-scene presentation of The Passion Play. Hadley's program appears to have included individual scenes from several productions including those by Hollaman-Eaves and Klaw & Erlanger.,39
Early cinema's presentational elements were powerfully articulated in these passion-play programs. The images were designed as moving illustrations of "the greatest story ever told." Yet the narratives were actually constructed both in the spectators' responses to familiar iconography and through the lecturers' narrations. The programs' dominant presentationalism was not only in their old-style theatrical indicating of space, time, and place but also in their consistent reliance on lecturers who linked and interpreted the images.
Other versions of the passion play were made and/or shown in the United States. The Lear passion-play scenes appear to have had their American debut in February 1898, when the Reverend Thomas Dixon, Jr., future author of The Clansman (the basis for D. W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation), gave an illustrated lecture on "The Story of Jesus" in New York. Fifty stereopticon slides were also used, and music was provided by an organ and choir. Sigmund Lubin made his own version of THE Passion Play of Oberammergau in the spring of 1898.40 Although the Horitz and Eden Musee passion-play films were initially offered to exhibitors only in complete sets, they were soon sold on a scene-by-scene basis so that exhibitors could purchase and then organize individual scenes into any combination that they desired. In some cases, an exhibitor used films made by more than one producer, purchasing the scenes he liked best or adding to his collection when finances permitted. Many exhibitors showed passion-play films, but no two programs were exactly alike. Showmen exercised a fundamental, creative role. They each selected their own moving pictures and stereopticon scenes, placed them in a particular order, wrote and delivered a narration, and provided incidental music. They had to know the audience to which they were appealing in order to avoid offending religious sensibilities. In short, their exhibitions revealed a strong continuity with earlier screen traditions.
Religious subjects in general were an important genre for the early film industry. Early in 1898, W. K. L. Dickson arrived in Rome with references from an array of prominent prelates and spent the next four months trying to obtain permission to film at the Vatican. He won Pope Leo XIII's cooperation after explaining that "in this way the pontifical blessing could be conveyed to his many thousands of subjects in America."
That April and May, Dickson photographed twelve scenes of the pope. Leo XIII, who saw at least one of the films on a mutoscope before giving his consent to having them shown, was reportedly delighted with the results. These had their New York premiere at Carnegie Hall on 14 December 1898 and were enthusiastically received. "In all the pictures the face of the Pope came out with extraordinary distinctness, while his white robes contrasted strongly with the dark color of his attendants and guards, and made him the most prominent object in every picture," the New York Tribune reported. "The Pope was seen being carried in his sedan chair through the chamber of the Vatican, walking in the grounds, on his way to an audience, driving in his carriage, and sitting on his bench in the grounds." According to the same source, the high point for the audience came when "His Holiness blessed the instrument which had recorded his movements, and through it …those who would see the pictures afterwards." As with the passion-play exhibitions, an accompanying lecture was given by a church official, in this instance the Reverend Thomas N. Malone; the Catholic clergy were now in heavy attendance.41
By the end of 1898, a program of Pope Leo films was being shown in Boston with its heavily Irish Catholic population. Playing at Keith's Theater on Sundays and at the vaudeville magnate's smaller, underutilized Bijou Opera House during the week, the films were preceded by a stereopticon lecture, "Ancient and Modern Rome." M. T. H. Cummings, who had lived for several years in Rome, narrated both parts of the program.42 The well-publicized show enjoyed an eight-week run.
Watching inspirational religious subjects was usually seen as a desirable Sunday afternoon activity. The Reverend Thomas Dixon, Jr., gave his passion-play lecture on that day, and the Reverend N.B. Thompson also performed regularly on the holy day. "Sunday concerts" featuring Pope Leo films were given at a Rochester vaudeville house and at New York City's 14th Street Theater. Other films in these Biograph programs, however, were less serious. In Rochester, scenes of football games were projected in reverse, producing a ludicrous effect and much hilarity. (Even in the original Pope Leo exhibition at Carnegie Hall, scenes of the pontiff, too brief to constitute an entire program, were supplemented by coronation views of Queen Wilhelmina of Holland as well as other American and European scenes.) For many showmen, religious subjects simply became a way to evade Sunday blue laws. While Waite's Comic Opera Company showed regular films between the acts of its musical comedies during the week, it presented The Passion Play of Oberammergau on Sundays, when the troupe could not otherwise perform.43 A strong argument could be made that in the end amusement entrepreneurs exploited religious subject matter for their own commercial purposes and ultimately absorbed it within their own cultural framework. Religious subjects did not necessarily oppose the flourishing world of popular amusement but rather were often subsumed by it.
Films of religious subjects and boxing matches often attracted more than their intended audiences of devoted churchgoers and fight aficionados. This was less true for illustrated travel programs, which embodied principles of America's refined culture. While Henry Northrop and Alexander Black gave combined motion-picture and stereopticon programs during 1897-1898, both eventually lost interest in motion pictures and returned to their earlier, exclusively lantern-slide formats. However, two prominent travel lecturers made long-term commitments to using films: E. Burton Holmes and Dwight L. Elmendorf.
Many believed that E. Burton Holmes was the first to show moving pictures as part of the illustrated travel lecture, perhaps because Holmes laid claim to this "first" in his programs. While this is not strictly true, he appears to have been the first to make films specifically for his own lectures and to use films regularly in conjunction with a course of such refined presentations. During the summer of 1897, Holmes's lantern operator, Oscar Depue, purchased a 60-mm motion-picture camera from Léon Gaumont in Paris and with his new acquisition, took films of Rome, Venice, Milan, and France. The exposed stock was then turned over to Gaumont for developing and printing. When Depue returned to the United States, he became self-sufficient by building his own printer and turning the camera into a projector. This accomplished, the cameraman filmed an onrushing express, Fort Sheridan, and various sights in Yellowstone National Park. At the conclusion of each lecture, Holmes showed seven to nine films, with selections usually focusing on a few locales.44
The year 1897 was a momentous one for Holmes. John Stoddard retired from lecturing after the 1896-1897 season and designated the young man as his successor. Holmes thus stood out from his competitors and was given many new opportunities. For the first time, he presented lectures in New York City, Brooklyn, and Boston. As Stoddard had done, Holmes gave "courses" of five lectures that generally met once or twice a week, in either the afternoon or evening. A course ticket cost $5, with single tickets selling for 500 to $1.50, thus excluding all but the well-to-do. Holmes's first New York lecture, "The Wonders of Thessaly," won over a large majority of his audience, and critics praised the lecturer, who took his own photographs, for his ability "to recognize just what would make an interesting, an instructive, a characteristic or an amusing picture." According to the Brooklyn Eagle, "New Yorkers will agree that however he may differ from John L. Stoddard in looks, manners and platform methods he is every way worthy to fill the latter's place."45
Critical popularity was reflected at the box office. Holmes's 4 March afternoon lecture, "The Yellowstone National Park," grossed $578, of which he kept half. On other days he did less well but usually grossed from three to four hundred dollars a performance—enough to guarantee his return the following year. Films helped to give his presentations their own distinctive appeal. At his Manhattan lectures, a critic noted with surprise that "motion pictures seemed to be an entire novelty to a large part of the audience, in spite of the fact that such pictures have been on constant exhibition for the last year and half and more in the music halls and continuous performance theatres and have been used for advertising purposes in the streets."46 Holmes, like other travel lecturers, appealed to an elitist group that was little concerned with novelty outside its own select world. Since films had often been shown at Brooklyn Institute functions, Holmes's moving pictures aroused little comment at that location.
During the 1898-1899 season, Dwight L. Elmendorf used films in his programs and enjoyed increased attention as a result. To prepare his exhibitions, the New Yorker traveled to Mexico and throughout the West Indies, and spent time with a military unit in Cuba. He not only accumulated 160 slides for his program, "The Santiago Campaign," but purchased pertinent standard-gauge films from producers and interspersed them throughout his presentation. One enthusiastic critic devoted almost a full column to his review, remarking:
Mr. Elmendorf was with the Ninth Regular Infantry. Their marches and evolutions, the routine of camp life and the amusements indulged in by the soldiers while waiting to go aboard the transports were deftly and wittily described as the successive scenes were actualized on the canvas. Stationary and cinematograph pictures of cavalry and artillery evolutions followed, with a good word for the black cavalry, especially the famous Tenth, whom the lecturer alluded to as "the black rough riders." Portraits of Colonel Adna R. Chafee, of General Wheeler and the familiar figures of Colonel Wood's and Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt's command came in such a way as to arouse a demonstration (Brooklyn Eagle, 4 April 1899, P.3).
Elmendorf's lecture "Old Mexico and Her Pageants" also interwove slides and films, including motion pictures of a Mexican bullfight.
Holmes, meanwhile, continued to show films only at the conclusion of his lectures. During the summer of 1898, he had visited Arizona and America's newly annexed Hawaiian Islands, where he took still photographs and Depue shot the motion pictures. For programs on these subjects, the films focused on the same topic as the main exhibition. Holmes's remaining programs, however, repeated earlier lectures and lacked films that paralleled the principal topics. It was not until the following season (1899-1900) that he integrated films into his lantern-slide programs, using material he and Depue had gathered while in Hawaii, the Philippines, and Japan. The lecture on Hawaii, reworked from the previous year, emphasized the local populace's enthusiasm for annexation and focused on the warm reception given U.S. soldiers on their way to the Philippines. His lecture "Manila and the Philippines" emphasized the primitive conditions of life on the islands as well as the heroic actions of American soldiers fighting the local guerrillas.47
To dismiss these programs as mere travel lectures is too simplistic. They were elaborate, sophisticated documentary presentations. Some were political, focusing on the Spanish-American War and the United States' expansionist policies in the Pacific. Others, like Holmes's study of Mokiland, were ethnographic in orientation. While they appealed primarily to aficionados of refined entertainment, they were considered sufficiently enlightening and informative to have the support of moralistic Protestant religious groups. Thus, when Association Hall was booked, the Brooklyn Institute often held its illustrated lectures in a local church. The long-standing alliance of church moralism and polite culture continued to operate. Travel lectures, however, did not generate broad patronage comparable to the veriscope and The Passion Play of Oberammergau. In a few cases, these were condensed and appeared on the vaudeville stage. Early in 1899 J. C. Bowker gave "an entertaining number" entitled "Travelogue on Hawaii" in Keith theaters.48 His stereopticon program was one of Keith's many attempts to provide vaudeville with a more refined image.
Travel programs were limited in their commercial success partly because they were not designed for exhibition by multiple units. An Elmendorf lecture required Elmendorf to accompany the images with his thoughts and voice: it was his perceptions and analyses that were presented. Holmes was one of the rare lecturers ever to use stand-ins, but even so in an extremely limited way. In contrast, The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight and the various passion-play programs simply relied on an appropriate individual to narrate them. Travel lectures not only addressed a different audience but involved distinctively different methods of exhibition from other feature-length film programs.
For all their differences, these three kinds of full-length programs functioned within an already extensive practice of nonfiction screen presentations. They looked backward to the stereopticon lecture and forward to what became known as the documentary.49 Reviews and other information about these evening-long programs testify to the ambitious scope of motion pictures in the wake of the novelty era. In contrast, the smattering of surviving films, frequently of poor quality, offers only the slightest idea of what it was like to witness those exhibitions. Unless today's viewers recognize that these brief pictures were frequently the building blocks for much larger shows, they will fail to understand some of the most basic characteristics of 1890s cinema, for on these occasions the exhibitor was typically the creator—or at least the arbiter—of narrative, the author of the show. Showmen integrated moving pictures into established screen practice and so transformed it.
"Full-Length Programs: Fights, Passion Plays, and Travel." History of the American Cinema. . Encyclopedia.com. 25 Mar. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.
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"Full-Length Programs: Fights, Passion Plays, and Travel." History of the American Cinema. . Retrieved March 25, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/arts/culture-magazines/full-length-programs-fights-passion-plays-and-travel
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