The Genre Film
The Genre Film
Civil War Films
Detective Films, Serials, and Feminism
The Lubin directors are priding themselves upon the fact that they have brought out a story in which two sisters from the country come to the city and neither goes wrong.
—Moving Picture World, 2 April 1910, p. 511
Genre may be considered as standardization of the film product. The audience has some idea what to expect from a comedy or a Western, just as consumers know what to expect when they order a specific kind of sausage. Genre films certainly existed before this period, but with the organization of the industry they were incorporated into the system of production, distribution, and exhibition.
The peculiarity of this period of genre-film history is that as long as the program consisted of several films, there was a demand for a balance among them. Exhibitors wanted dramas, comedies, and Westerns represented in equal numbers in the day's program and resented it when they were served too much of one kind. They complained of the split reels with two comedies back-to-back on one reel because they thought it better to intersperse them with drama. As production increased and stabilized, each of the major producers tried to offer a balanced program of its own films. By mid 1911 an exhibitor who subscribed to the whole output of General Film might expect a regular diet consisting of a Western, a drama, and a comedy released on alternate days from each producer. Put together, these provided the nutritionally balanced program thought to be good for the audience. In June 1911 Vitagraph announced an increase to four reels a week and promised that one of the weekly releases would be a Western. Beginning on 1 July, Lubin increased its output from two to three reels a week, one a drama, one a comedy, and one a Western. By the first of August, Vitagraph was up to five reels each week: a military film, a drama, a Western, and a comedy, in addition to a special feature every month. Smaller companies began to concentrate on Westerns or comedies only, but when their product was contributed to a combined program such as that offered by the Sales Company, a balanced program of independent films could also be provided to the exhibitor. This kind of specialization by genre was a forecast of what would happen to the single reel when the coming of the feature film changed the system.1
In the early days of uplift, audiences got perhaps more than they wanted of classical dramas and of sentimental melodramas preaching sermons at them. In December 1908 Burton Allbee visited a number of nickelodeons to find out what the public was looking for. He concluded that it was plenty of action, pathos, crime detection, comedies (if good), religious films (in some cities), patriotic films only if there were battles, uniforms, and fighting, and love stories with happy endings. In February 1909 a critic reported, "Over and over again these last few weeks I have heard people say they are sick and tired of gloomily ending film subjects; of subjects which depress; of subjects which deal with the seamy side of life." An exchange man explained what was wanted out West: dramatic films were chiefly in demand; "blood and thunder" subjects were not popular in the Midwest, but they went well in Oregon. In the South and Midwest, they preferred comedy. In Mexico, he said, Othello would draw only 30 to 40 percent capacity, but murder and bullfight subjects would bring in 100 percent. A letter from Irving Wallace Landgraf, a Chicago exhibitor with a "family" audience, said that his clients preferred sensational pictures, war pictures, Indian and cowboy films; "some of us would starve," he said, on scenics, industrials, and educationals. In February 1911, aspiring scriptwriters were advised that the scenarios most in demand were original comedies of modern life, high-class Western comedies and dramas, and "refined dramas depicting modern American middle class life."2
In July 1910 the Mirror conducted a study of the entire American production for the month, consisting of 242 subjects. The purpose of the analysis was in fact to demonstrate that there was no need for censorship, but it is useful for us because it gives some statistics about genre midway through the second year of the industry's production after the organization of the Motion Picture Patents Company. The results are based on actual film viewing, a condition impossible for us today, and the perceptions of those films are probably somewhat different than ours would be if we had the films in front of us. The report on 242 films counted 52 "more or less thrilling melodramas," 23 of which were Westerns. According to the Mirror's analysis, 35 percent of the films were "humorous," 34 percent of them were "dramatic," 19 percent were "melodramatic," 3 percent were trick and novelty films, and 9 percent were "educational" (including scenic and industrial films). Those films they considered to be of "special literary and artistic merit, independent of educational and novelty pictures," represented 15 percent of the total. At the time, there was a distinction made between "dramatic" and "melodramatic" that is not entirely clear to today's viewers, but we know at least that dramatic films were perceived to be closer to the events of everyday life as experienced by the spectators. However, among those "everyday" happenings there frequently occurred such events as the loss of memory caused and restored by a blow on the head; the loss of sanity caused by grief or shock and restored by the innocent face of a child; selfishness, crime, and immorality reformed by the purity of a child; suicide as a noble act to avoid standing in the way of true love, or to prevent incest or bigamy; the extraordinary coincidences of meetings of lost family members or lost loves after years; blinding by explosions and restoration of sight by miraculous operations; and so forth. The Mirror also demonstrated by their survey that the licensed companies were producing a much higher proportion than the independents of the films they considered to be of "artistic and literary superiority. "3
In October 1912 would-be scenarists were asked by the World's columnist Louis Reeves Harrison to avoid the following plots, now considered to be clichés: Mother recovers her sanity after she loses a baby when another is brought in; the nightgowned child in prayer reforms a crook; the lady and burglar, telephone and police station; the girl reporter gets a scoop; the railroad operator saves the train or the heroine from destruction; the kidnapped child; the fuse-sputtering bomb. It does not appear that scenarists took this advice. After all, it probably was not possible to come up with original plots day after day, week after week. However, a shift in emphasis was noted by Harrison late in 1913: he found a trend toward sociological stories, detective stories, and stories of abnormal mental states, and more use of symbolism. By abnormal mental states, I think he was referring to the many films using hypnotism as a plot device at about that time. Harrison thought that directors were displaying more intelligence toward their audiences, and he credited this in part to the open market. When motion pictures were "no longer a mere means of cheap amusement," he wrote, "[they] may soar." At the same time, however, critic W. Stephen Bush hoped for an end to the emphasis on thrills and sensation. These two writers signal some of the changes in film genres and subjects that were taking place in the midst of the shift from short film production to the feature.4
The extraordinary life of the Western genre in this period is demonstrated by the fact that balance demanded having one on every program. The predominance of the Western gave the uplifters some problems. When Kalem tried to introduce a series of films especially made for children, for example, they gave up after a few weeks because the exchanges told them, "The demand is all for Wild West drama." Mr. Quimby of Zanesville, Ohio, who spent his summers running a showboat on the rivers, reported that what the people wanted were Wild West pictures. He covered a lot of territory, he said, and this was what they asked for all over. Reformers claimed that the demand came only from small boys and the European market, but it is evident that a large number of American adults were eager to see them as well.5
Selig and Essanay led the field in Westerns in 1908 and 1909. Based in Chicago, they were the first to send companies out West. The films, made far from home base, were full of action and usually did not have any interior scenes. Much of the time the actors were on horseback. The producers found it easier to use shorter shots and more dynamic camera positions outdoors and to avoid the staged compositions that seemed appropriate inside small studios. It was possible to find experienced horsemen in the western states, cowboys who could rope cattle and break wild horses as it had been done in the Old West. Producers found fast action, rugged landscape, and authenticity.
The Western film genre was a rediscovery of the wide open spaces, of the days of freedom and adventure, not very long before the time of these films, when the American people opened up a wilderness. If that were all, of course, the Western would have concerned itself with the tales of the explorers and the settlers, which actually made up only a small part of the subject matter. Instead, in this time period, many producers simply took the elements of stock melodrama and comedy and transplanted them to a western setting, which might be the Old West but also could be in the present day. There already existed a considerable body of western literature and dime novels to draw on for elements of the mythology of the West. The Wild West had been in show business for years, in the form of appearances, demonstrations, and entertainments by legendary frontiersmen and Indian fighters like Buffalo Bill Cody, with their troupes of Indians and cowboys, and exhibitions of the old western skills of riding, shooting, branding, and roping.
Selig's The Cattle Rustlers (September 1908) is an example of a film that uses some of the traditional western elements found in dime novels. It has cattle rustling, branding, a chase on horseback, a shooting with lots of gunsmoke, a man-to-man struggle, a shoot-out at the cabin where the outlaw has gone to recover from his wounds, and a "necktie party" that avoids the hanging scene itself because of the self-censorship of the time. The film was shot rather far from the camera in authentic western landscapes. Someone accidentally moved into range beside the camera for a second when they were shooting this film, but in those days of rapid production, the producers did not bother to cut out the mistake. Reshooting would have been out of the question because the error would not have been seen until they got back to Chicago and developed the film.
Essanay's A Ranchman's Rival (December 1909), on the other hand, used a well-tried formula from the melodrama in a modern western setting with western characters. A city man drives up to a western post office in a car, courts and wins the ranchman's girl, and pays another man to fake a marriage ceremony. The heartbroken ranchman, ready to leave town on the train, meets a woman at the station who is looking for her husband. When the ranchman sees the photo in her locket, he recognizes the bigamist from the city and rides to the rescue of his sweetheart. Every shot of this film is in the actual setting, the real houses and the real train station of Golden, Colorado, showing the extensive vistas and mountains around it.
"Broncho Billy " Anderson, who played the hero in A Ranchman's Rival some six months before he earned his nickname in Broncho Billy's Redemption (July 1910), made hundreds of Westerns, more than any other Western star. Only a handful of his films survive, and one must depend on the synopses in the trade periodicals for an idea of what they were like. These sources indicate that in the course of the years he spent making one-reel Westerns, from 1907 to 1914, he ended up writing, directing, and enacting just about all the Western plots that ever were invented, drawing as he did on dime novels, pulp magazines, and stage melodramas. In keeping with the period, there was usually a moral and very often a tragic ending. "Broncho Billy" was a noble character, every now and then playing the Good-Bad Man type that William S. Hart was to personify so well, an outlaw who reforms through the influence of a beautiful woman or an innocent child. Noble and selfsacrificing behavior was a key ingredient in Westerns in this period, together with fast action, rugged landscape, and swift riding.
In 1908 Griffith used the scenery of the Palisades cliffs in New Jersey, the lovely wooded surroundings of Cuddebackville, New York, and the Delaware Water Gap to make such Westerns as The Fight for Freedom, "a story of the arid Southwest, " The Greaser's Gauntlet, set in the Sierra Madre, and The Girl and the Out-law and The Red Girl, both taking place "on the frontier." In 1909, he made fewer western subjects, although he still kept on making an occasional Indian picture, at that time a special genre of its own. This may have been because Biograph represented the forefront of uplift and specialized in the moralistic melodrama, or because the authentic western scenery appearing in Selig and Essanay films was making eastern landscape less acceptable, or for both reasons. In any case, the first Biograph expedition to California at the beginning of 1910 had a dramatic effect on the landscape and atmosphere of his films. The barren desert, for example, was the scene of the somber Over Silent Paths (May 1910), set in the gold-mining days. Without knowing his identity, a girl falls in love with the man who murdered her father; when she discovers the truth, she turns him over to justice. The openness of the setting seems to have liberated Griffith to greater fluidity, to cutting on action, to avoiding some of the entrances and exits of earlier films, to permitting the actors to move on diagonals and to approach the camera. From 1911 through 1913, the use of extreme long shots emphasized the spectacular in Biograph's epic Westerns such as The Battle, The Massacre, and The Battle at Elderbush Gulch.
The Selig Company's acquisition of Tom Mix greatly increased the thrills to be found in their Westerns. Charles Silver undoubtedly expresses the attitude of many spectators of an earlier day when he writes, in recent times, that "when you come right down to it, it was surely more fun to watch Tom Mix dangle from a cliff than it was to see Hart struggling with his damn conscience again."6 Some of the reasons for Mix's later popularity may be seen long before he had reached stardom, in Selig's Saved by the Pony Express (July 1911). The film shows a novel square dance on horseback, which might be an invention of the Wild West shows from which Mix entered pictures. The plot concerns a false accusation of murder: the note that will clear the accused of the crime has to be carried by the pony express rider in a race against time. The film is perhaps not very well made and does not even make any important use of landscape—in fact, in an interior set probably made back in the studio in Chicago, a painted backdrop can be seen through the doorway. Nevertheless, it is fascinating to see the ease of the players in the saddle, especially the pony express rider, played by Mix, who jumps off his horse and onto the waiting horses with show-off skill. Mix never pretended to be a great actor, and even at the peak of his stardom chose to be filmed at a long distance from the camera most of the time.
The demand for Westerns was so great that in April 1911 the American Film Manufacturing Company undertook a policy of specializing in that genre alone. Beginning on 24 April two reels of Westerns were to be released every week. A new trademark was designed for these films, showing a cowboy on horseback throwing a lariat.7 Allan Dwan was the chief director. One of American's Westerns that survives today is The Ranchman's Nerve (July 1911). In it a pony express rider is held up by the bad man of the mountains, and the sheriff leads a posse, but when the sheriff is wounded, the other men lose their nerve. The sheriff has to find a replacement, and, in a test, J. Warren Kerrigan proves his "nerve" for the job. He undertakes to bring in the outlaw single-handed and without a gun, which he does by outfacing him and grabbing the gun from his hand. "For sake of the women," he tells the outlaw, "I'll give you one hour to get across the border. " But the bad man's sister has to shoot him to save the life of Kerrigan. The scenery is grand, the westerners look authentic, and there are plenty of thrills.
By 1912 the epic Western was being expanded by Thomas H. Ince with the help of the Miller "101" Ranch company, contracted to the New York Motion Picture Company for mass scenes of Indians, cowboys, and horses. Old stagecoaches and props of all kinds were bought up by the studios for use in the epics of frontier days. The clouds of dry California dust that settled on props, costumes, and the faces of actors, and the way the light fell on them, as well as the worn clothes of cowboy extras and stuntmen and the experienced way they sat in a cowman's saddle, probably contributed more to this illusion of reality than any strict observance of historical fact. The ideal of recapturing the real West inspired the former stage tragedian William S. Hart, who began to make films for Thomas Ince in 1914. He was not a westerner, but his childhood memories of traveling the American West deeply influenced him. The strong element in his films was not his adherence to historical details (which were not always correct), but the conviction he could convey by his stern and noble face.
The Deserter (March 1912) is among the few surviving films directed by Ince. Unlike the handful of films from his IMP period that may be seen today, the New York Motion Picture productions show Ince to have become a skilled practitioner of the modern style in which Griffith worked. The Deserter is the often-told story of the deserting soldier who encounters a wagon train of settlers and, when the Indians attack, goes to the army post for help, risking court martial and redeeming himself in death. The central sequence illustrates the classic Western composition: an extreme long shot of a wagon train, with Indians in the foreground looking down at it in a canyon; a medium shot of one of the covered wagons where the deserter tells the heroine his story, in a flashback; a return to the present; a return to the extreme long shot to show the Indians riding down on the wagons, now drawn up in a protective circle; a medium shot of the settlers interrupted at their meal by the attack; a long shot showing the confusion of the battle, the Indians riding around the circle, a horse falling and struggling. Later, when the deserter is riding to the rescue, alternate editing between the scenes of action adds to the suspense. All these scenes have been played in Westerns hundreds of times, and yet they still have the capacity to thrill an audience.
Indian films might be considered a branch of Westerns, but in the early years they constituted a separate genre. They could be made in the eastern or southern part of the United States, as well as in the Far West, without departing from authenticity. The attractions of Indian films included the beautiful landscapes and free movements of Westerns films plus elements of exoticism, nobility, and romance. There was also the allure of nudity (of men only), which had the same respectability as the nakedness of indigenes in travel films from distant lands. Fred Balshofer's testimony confirms this: "Inslee made a striking appearance on the screen, and the ladies simply went gaga over him. Oh's and ah's came from them whenever he appeared on the screen in one of his naked Indian hero roles, so naturally most of his pictures were on that order."8
When Pathé American first made Indian films, they could boast that "all the actors … are real Indians or sufficiently well made up to pass as such." Pathé's "real" Indians were very naked-looking Indians, as some were quite fat. They can be seen in the World's illustration for A Cheyenne Brave, and also in the surviving Pathé American film The Red Girl and the Child. The New York Motion Picture Company boasted about their two genuine Indians, Young Deer and Miss Redwing, both of the Winnebago tribe. James Young Deer, born in Dakota City, Nebraska, was with traveling circuses until he was hired for the movies by Kalem. Young Deer also worked for Lubin, where he wrote, directed, and starred. Biograph hired him to appear in The Mended Lute, and Vitagraph for Red Wing's Gratitude; he became a director-actor for Pathé American from its beginnings in the east (A
Cheyenne Brave, The Red Girl and the Child) and, as noted in the previous chapter, established Pathé's West Coast studio. Authenticity was an important advertising point for Indian films and was used with even more emphasis here than for the Westerns of the period. When the World did its 1911 survey of exhibitors to find out what the public wanted, they reported that the highest praise for Biograph's The Mended Lute came from the Dakotas, which, they said, spoke well for its authenticity.9
But the genre's strongest attraction in the heyday of the sentimental melodrama was the history of the native American. No longer simply the stoic, the stock type of the stage, he was the noble and tragic hero. In the words of Mrs. Austin, author of the play The Arrow Maker: "Indians love as romantically, as poetically, as the most sentimental white man. Every Indian is a born poet." And according to the Moving Picture World, a book that appeared in July 1911, The Soul of an Indian, said to have been written by a native American, showed "that the red race was intensely spiritual and had a child-like, but sublime conception of God and of man's duty to man."10 In this same spirit, The Redman and the Child, one of Griffith's first films for Biograph in 1908, featured
a Sioux Indian, who besides being a magnificent type of aboriginal American, is a most noble creature, as kind-hearted as a woman and as brave as a lion…. What a magnificent picture he strikes as he stands there, his tawny skin silhouetted against the sky, with muscles turgid and jaws set in grim determination (Biograph Bulletin No. 156, 28 July 1908, in Bowser, ed., Biograph Bulletins 1908—1912, p. 5).
In fact this actor was not an authentic Sioux but the same magnificent Charles Inslee who was hired the following summer by the New York Motion Picture Company to make Indian films in New Jersey.
In the mythological view of the first Americans, Indians behave more nobly than the white man. In Biograph's The Redman's View, the members of the Kiowa tribe, of the Shoshone family, are driven from their ancestral lands farther and farther west. The chief's son, whose sweetheart is kept as a slave by the white intruders, leaves her to follow his duty, to stay with his dying father and take over the leadership of his tribe when the end comes. Only after the burial (an opportunity to show quaint Indian rituals) is he free to go back for his true love. In The Aborigine's Devotion (World, 1909), the Indian takes care of the trapper's child, left to him when his friend died, and kills to protect him, saying, in a title, "I have done my duty."
Indians were mistreated by the white man, forced off the land, enslaved and slaughtered, and yet, should a white man, woman, or child be kind to an Indian, the time would come when the Indian would sacrifice his or her life for the white. In Biograph's The Broken Doll (1910) the little Indian girl runs to tell the white settlers who had given her a doll that the tribe is on the warpath. She is wounded and dies in the conflict. In Red Girl and the Child (Pathé American, 1910) an Indian girl heroically rides after the kidnappers of a white child whose father had protected her from the rudeness of drunken cowboys. In An Apache Father's Vengeance (1913, "101" Bison), when the Apaches attack the fort, the chief's daughter rides for help to save the white officer who has protected her. The loss of family honor causes her Indian father to shoot her. The whites, to honor her, drape an American flag over her body and kneel in front of her in homage.
Nonetheless, contact with white civilization was dangerous for the Indian. Many an Indian educated by the white man's college at Carlisle found himself rejected by both Indian and white society, as in Selig's Curse of the Redman (1911). While it was usual for love affairs between Indians and whites to end in tragedy, to avoid miscegenation, the moral values of the time could override even this prohibition on occasion. In Pathé American's For the Squaw (1911), the white man is compelled by his duty to remain with his Indian squaw and his child instead of marrying his white sweetheart.11
Eventually, owing to the enormous numbers of Westerns produced, and perhaps also to a poverty of ideas, it became common to use Indian treachery and warfare as a plot motive in action Westerns, with scriptwriters feeling no need to explain Indian actions on the basis of the white man's mistreatment. Indians changed from the tragic central figures to convenient villain stereotypes. Every once in a while, someone would remember their nobility and suffering at the hands of the white man and return to the subject, but by 1913 the amateur scriptwriting public was informed that Indian scenarios were not wanted by the studios. They were considered to be an exhausted vein, while the Westerns continued to be as strong as ever. The market for Indian plots was diminishing at the same time that the peak years of the uplift movement were coming to an end. People were interested in action, thrills, mystery, and happy endings, not tragic heroes.12
Civil War Films
The Civil War film was nearly as popular as the Western and Indian film in this period. Its numbers swelled in 1911, in direct relation to the beginnings of the fiftieth anniversary memorial activities, and the culmination came in 1915 with The Birth of a Nation, half a century after the end of the war that split nation. The Civil War was a topical subject in all the media at this time. Copyright records for the period show at least a dozen Civil War films in 1908, twenty-three of them in 1909, thirty-two in 1910, with a leap to seventy-four in 1911, only fifty-eight in 1912, another leap to ninety-eight in 1913, and just twenty-nine in 1914. (These figures do not account for all such films because not all films were copyrighted, and others may not have been identified as belonging to this genre.) The two biggest years, 1911 and 1913, were marked by major anniversary celebrations, which included enormous encampments of the Grand Army of the Republic on the sites of Civil War battles, dedication of monuments, and other ceremonies.13
In November 1908 Griffith brought out the first of his several films on the subject that would lead him seven years later to The Birth of a Nation. This was The Guerrilla, in which a Union soldier rides to the rescue of his sweetheart, whose home and virtue are threatened by a drunken guerrilla disguised as a Confederate colonel. The plot is similar to the other melodramatic thrillers that he was beginning to make at that time, containing the essential elements of home and family threatened by intruders and using the war only for a setting. However, The Honor of His Family (Biograph, January 1910) and The House with Closed Shutters (Biograph, August 1910) were different. These were chillingly grim civil War tales of Southern chivalric ideals. In the first, a father shoots his own son and lays his body in a gray, bare, twisted-briar corner of the battlefield rather than let the family name be stained by his cowardice. In the second, a mother locks up her cowardly son in mystery and gloom for the rest of his life to hide the fact that his sister died in his place to save the family honor.
Many of the Civil War films were stark tragedies of split families, loss and death, high nobility, and cowardice hidden by murder and suicide. Others were filled with thrilling battles and heroic deeds and spectacle. In these films producers tried out the ways to film and edit two sides of a battle scene in order to make clear to the spectator which side was which. If it were not for the uniforms, in many cases, they would not have succeeded. Such is the case in Kay-Bee film The Favorite Son (February 1913), directed by Francis Ford. The battle scenes are edited with shots alternating between the Yankees and the Confederates, but both armies fire their weapons in the same screen direction. When battle scenes are shown in alternate shots with each army firing consistently from opposite sides of the screen, a principle Griffith already followed in his Biograph Civil War films, it is much easier for a spectator to understand which side is being shown. According to a contemporary observer, "Northern officers invariably have black whiskers, while the Confederate officers wear gray whiskers."14
Love crossed the battle lines in most of the films, with heroines torn between loyalty to the flag and to their hearts. Sometimes they chose one, sometimes the other; sometimes they died, sometimes they were reunited with their lovers after the war. Spies of both sexes and escaping soldiers were hidden in wells with great frequency. Abraham Lincoln was shown granting pardon to all the spies, deserters, and sentinels who fell asleep at their posts during the entire war, on the plea of pretty sisters and wives or aged mothers. Once or twice General Lee did the same. Kalem's The Railroad Raiders of '62 (June 1911) reenacted a historical incident without any single hero or fictional story, for the sheer spectacle of a chase by railroad, and launched another popular genre, the railroad thriller.
The World first noted in the spring of 1909, when reviewing Selig's Brother Against Brother, that "war dramas are becoming popular." Initially, the sympathies of the majority of the films seemed to be with the Northern side, resulting in some protests from the Deep South that came to a head after Kalem released Escape from Andersonville, about the horrors of the Confederate prisoner-of-war camp. The next year, an exhibitor in Charleston, West Virginia, wrote to the World to ask, "Why do all civil war pictures have the Northern army come out ahead? … Everyone knows the South won some battles … and a picture [like that] would simply set 'em up down here." The World explained that the reason was not a lingering prejudice against the defeated South, but that there were no manufacturers in the South and even the exchanges were fewer and more distant from the theaters. It was a question of the market.15
Even before the notorious Escape from Andersonville, Kalem had begun a series in their Florida studio that was to compensate in some degree for this oversight. The first venture was The Girl Spy, featuring scriptwriter-star Gene Gauntier as the heroic female spy working for the Southern side. She ought not to be overlooked when one reviews the beginnings of the motion-picture serials with their plucky heroines. Even at the time, a reviewer pointed out that the Civil War film "as a rule has emphasized the heroism of the North. … Kalem ['s film made] … during their sojourn in Florida … should be especially dear to Southern audiences."16
Producers soon discovered that the more romantic, noble, and heroic ideals to be found in the defeated South were attractive to both North and South. The emphasis of the Civil War genre shifted to give the edge to the Southern side. From 1911 on, the films that seem to reflect a Southern point of view, based on the published synopses, are more than twice as numerous as the opposite. This does not mean that such films claimed the South to have been correct politically, of course, but only that the film's heroes and heroines are the Confederates. In such films, former slaves often loyally risked or gave up their lives for their former masters: in Uncle Pete's Ruse (IMP, October 1911), Uncle Pete is a faithful black who pretends his master has died of smallpox to help him escape the enemy and persuades the Yankees to bury the coffin.
There was also the essential conflict of a dramatic scenario inherent in the tale of families split by the war, a theme that did not belong more to one side than the other. Many Civil War films took place in border-state communities where such tragedies were common. The Lubin film The Battle of Shiloh (November 1913) demonstrates the fairness doctrine in practice. Two soldiers on opposing sides respect each other and behave nobly when one is falsely accused of being a spy. They become prisoners of war when each soldier's sister betrays the other soldier, and they are exchanged at the war's end.17
The favored fictional genre before 1908 was slapstick comedy. But slapstick was vulgar, amoral, and anti-establishment, and reformers in the post-1908 period wanted it suppressed.
When Biograph's The Curtain Pole was reviewed early in 1909, a critic admitted that the audience loved it but lamented the use of "the wornout scheme of foreign producers." This was Griffith's one attempt at a French chase comedy of the old style, and a delicious example it is: an inebriated Frenchman, played by none other than Mack Sennett, future champion of slapstick, tries to carry a long curtain pole through the streets, with disastrous results, including the traditional comic pursuit. Nonetheless, Biograph quickly discarded this outmoded genre.18
About this same time, the Moving Picture World observed "a noticeable increase in long subjects of real, legitimate comedy, as distinguished from the absurd 'breaking-up-a-houseful-of-furniture-and-chase-through-the-street' type."19 For his part, Ben Turpin, a former vaudevillian who had started out making comedies at Essanay in 1907, recalled with a note of nostalgia:
I had many a good fall and many a good bump, and I think I have broken about twenty barrels of dishes, upset stoves, and also broken up many sets of beautiful furniture, had my eyes blackened, both ankles strained and many bruises, and I am still on the go. This is a great business (Moving Picture World, 3 April 1909, p. 405).
In fact, the little cross-eyed comic had many years to go when he wrote this in 1909, but one might guess that his article marked a slowing of the slapstick vein at Essanay, in response to the demands of uplift. It is difficult to know, however, because most of the Essanay films are lost. In any case, by the end of the year, an exhibitor was to complain, "There is too much high class drama, which cannot be understood by the average working man. … A very large proportion seems to thoroughly enjoy the old Essanay slap-stick variety."20
Many comedies were still made at this time, but not compared to the days before 1908, when they constituted 70 percent and more of the fiction films. The ratio of drama to comedy completely reversed itself from 1907 to 1908, and comedy grew even more rare in 1909. The producers struggled to find a more polite form. Griffith's Mr. and Mrs. Jones series at Biograph was typical of the move to less vulgar comedy, and indeed, it enjoyed great popularity. The role of Mrs. Jones gave a name that her admirers could attach to the anonymous Florence Lawrence besides just "the Biograph Girl." The Biograph production figures for 1910-1911, typical of these years, reflect the renewed interest in comedy: the ratio in 1910, for Biograph, was 29 percent comedies to 71 percent dramas, while in 1911 it became 46 percent comedies to 54 percent dramas.21
The genial and monumental John Bunny, previously a stage actor who had worked with Maude Adams, held sway at the Vitagraph studio from 1910 until his death in
1915. His gentle comedies were based on such simple situations as the henpecked but flirtatious husband, the homely wife (usually played by Flora Finch), and the beautiful young "typewriter." Bunny was among the first movie stars to be known all over the world, "rapidly becoming the most famous comedian the world has ever known," it was reported in 1911. When Sidney Drew, "the famed legit comedian," signed with Kalem to act and direct in his "well-known farce, 'When Two Hearts Are Won;' " it was called a great step for high-class comedy. When Drew later went to Vitagraph as director and star comic of a series, he produced the type of polite comedy based on real-life incidents that uplifters were calling for.22
By June 1910 the World reported that "the percentage of comedy releases is about one in five." The problem was that exhibitors, and, we suppose, the public, considered comedies to be an essential part of the program. The public could tolerate the uplift and the heavier stuff if there was a laugh in between. One exhibitor asking for more comedies wrote, "Just think, we have twelve short comedies out of fifty-seven subjects put on this market this week." A World editorial in mid 1911 claimed that tragedies outnumbered comedies at a ratio something like sixteen to one. It is not clear whether these figures included the slapstick comedies that continued to be imported from Europe, where comics such as Max Linder and André Deed were flourishing, but in any case they appear to be an enormous exaggeration compared to release charts. Nevertheless, the editorial demonstrates the growing demand for comedy.23
In 1910 "the comic policeman, … the chase, the mother-in-law joke, the mischievous boy, comedies with displays of lingerie or deformities, the cheap melodrama," were discussed by W. H. Buckwalter as clichés to be avoided. Except for the melodrama, these belonged to the period before 1908 and were already mostly suppressed in American cinema. But they were all to return unredeemed in the golden age of the slapstick comedy, which began to germinate after 1910 and exploded about 1915.24 Indeed, an insightful critic was to write in 1912:
G. M. Anderson and Thomas H. Ince, both in their respective individual ways, have appeared to show us the true vitality of the Western drama. They have proven that the offense is not in the kind, but in the quality—the manner of presentation. It now remains for some wise producer to push through the field of darkness and show the field the correct handling of so-called slapstick in pictures. … Who is to prove … that since burlesque is a legitimate form of amusement, there is a successful means of expression, devoid of crudity, before the camera? He shall wear a cap of discretion, see further than the greatest artist and walk hand in hand with human understanding—but he will appear (New York Dramatic Mirror, 2 October 1912, p. 24).
This grand prophecy was promptly fulfilled, in his own way, by Mack Sennett, bursting forth from the Biograph Company, home of the moralistic melodrama. No doubt the prophet would have considered him replete with crudity, but nevertheless, he represented in his comic talents a heartfelt reaction to the repressed period that began in 1908-1909. With the backing of Adam Kessel and Charles Baumann of the New York Motion Picture Company, Sennett founded an independent production company, Keystone, which would prove to be a veritable fountain of slapstick comedy. It is entirely fitting that the home of the moral melodrama provided the gestation of the greatest slapstick comedy (and the comedies Sennett made while still at Biograph should not be overlooked), but his talents only began to expand extravagantly after he left Biograph that September. The first Keystone releases included The Water Nymph and Cohen Collects A Debt (23 September 1912). Sennett's films burlesqued the old Biograph thriller and turned traditional melodrama upside down. In For Lizzie's Sake (January 1913), for example, a young woman is kidnapped by a villain who tries to force her to agree to marriage by tying her to a rock at sea during low tide and waiting for nature to take its course. Reformers were satirized in The Deacon's Troubles (November 1912), in which the head of the "Purity League" is caught flirting with a dancing girl in the show he wants to suppress. Civil War films were parodied in The Battle of Who Run (February 1913), and Westerns in Forced Bravery (February 1913).25
The Canadian-born Sennett brought the new Keystone Company (including Biograph's comics Mabel Normand and Fred Mace) to California in late 1912. Charlie Chaplin, English music-hall comic, came to the Keystone comedy factory in December 1913; his first film, Making a Living, was released on 2 February 1914. At the end of that year he went from Keystone to Essanay, and on to world fame.26 It took some time to find the unique rhythm of the Keystone slapstick comedies. Many of them, no doubt hastily made, consist of meaningless running about and falling down. The best of them, however, have been savored for generations for their surrealistic delirium and manic pace. The Sennett-Keystone films burlesqued everything that Americans took seriously, from melodrama, uplift, progressivism, patriotism, and mother love to the Ford car.
The slapstick films challenged new narrative systems by returning to some of the forms of pre-1909 cinema. In slapstick comedy, actors could play directly to the camera, the whole figure of the actor would more commonly be kept full in the frame, and the gags would often be based on the camera magic of the early trick films. A lot of the fun resulted from the playing with those sacred illusions of reality that in other films must never be broken. Jay Leyda has called this new American version of an old genre "California slapstick." It drew on the cheerfully amoral traditions of pre-1909 American film and vaudeville as well as the French and Italian slapstick comedies, and it mocked the excesses of the melodrama.27
The idea that slapstick comedies were to be deplored as vulgar, tasteless, and not for refined audiences persisted as a legacy of the reform period, but the spirit of joy in pre-1909 slapstick cinema was too strong to be held down for long. Audiences loved it. The idea that slapstick comedies might represent a new art form, however, was unlikely to have occurred to anyone (other than those closely involved in modern art movements) in the period covered by this volume. It would certainly have come as a surprise to Mack Sennett and his merry crew.
Of course, Sennett did not create the revival of slapstick entirely on his own. Other companies were also rising to the demand even before he started out. The Hank and Lank comedies coming out of Essanay in 1911 and featuring comics Augustus Carney and Victor Potel were full of slapstick. Al Christie, although less a slapstick specialist, was already making films for Nestor, and, like Sennett, training a coming generation of comics. Among the hundreds of comedies he created for Nestor and later for Universal, there was the Mutt and Jeff series in 1911. Arthur Hotaling was directing a comedy company for Lubin in 1912 in Jacksonville, where Oliver Hardy began his
film career, and the Punch Comedy series was being produced in the same town. Lloyd Hamilton and Bud Duncan created the witty Ham and Bud series for Kalem beginning in 1914. Hal Roach, Sennett's greatest rival as a comedy producer, was just starting to make his mark in 1915 with the films of Harold Lloyd.28
The comedy reel played a distinctive part in the revision of the distribution system to accommodate the feature film. In 1914, many exhibitors were still tied to the system of standing orders for a regular service of short films and thus compelled to pay an extra sum to get the feature from outside the system. But an alternative was in sight, as A. Trinz of the Rainbow Theatre in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, suggested at the end of that year:
Let the feature concerns supply a reel of comedy with each of their feature productions and they will have a lot easier time getting bookings. … Many of the houses are in a position to play exclusive feature programs, but cannot afford to play features all the week around and pay for the regular service which is not used with the exception of the comedy reel. If all four and five-reel features had a reel of comedy with them, it would be possible for the exhibitor to get away from his film exchange if he was in a position to play features right through the week. As it is, he has to pay as much for the occasional reel of comedy as he would for an entire program (Motion Picture News, 19 December 1914, p. 102).
Newsreels, according to Raymond Fielding in The American Newsreel, were popular in Europe before they appeared in the United States. Topical films had always been enormously successful in America, but it was difficult to build a regular release pattern based on sporadic events, and under the pressure of the organized production and distribution system, the number of such films had fallen off. Some producers thought that the newsreel would be best undertaken as a cooperative venture. Pathé Frères was producing a weekly newsreel in Europe that did not appear in America, probably because of the constraints on Pathé's releases in the Trust agreements. In 1911 Pathé proposed to produce an American edition of their newsreel to which all the licensed companies would contribute, but, says Fielding, Vitagraph was opposed, and that scheme fell through. Instead, Pathé launched its own American edition of the Pathé Newsreel in August 1911. It was to become the longest-running American newsreel. Two weeks later Vitagraph started its Vitagraph monthly, "Current Events," but this lasted only five issues.29
The independents, to meet the newsreel competition, contracted with another French company, Gaumont, whose Animated Weekly introduced an American edition, distributed through the Sales Company, in 1912. Although the American edition lasted only ninety-two issues, from 22 February 1912 through 10 December 1913, the Gaumont International Newsreel was distributed in America for many years. Selig teamed up with the Hearst newspapers to produce a newsreel in 1914, the beginning of another lengthy run. Once the feature film was firmly established in the exhibition system, the newsreel, together with the comedy, took a permanent place in the program.
Mutual released the Mutual Weekly beginning on 1 January 1913 and continuing for the next five years; in January 1914 it began a series called Our Mutual Girl, which ran for a year. Our Mutual Girl was not a newsreel, but a curious mixture of fiction and reality somewhere between a newsreel and a serial. Our Mutual Girl, played by Norma Philips, was a fictional character, a young woman from the country on a visit to her aunt in New York City. In the course of her modest adventures she visited all the fashionable places, the Plaza, the Ritz, Central Park, and Fifth Avenue, saw all the latest fashions of the top New York dressmakers, and met every celebrity of the day, whether in society, politics, theater, or opera. In one of the early issues, the producers persuaded Andrew Carnegie, Billie Burke, Mayor Mitchel, and District Attorney Whitman to appear before the cameras. Through the films, small-town audiences could participate in the life of big-city sophisticates.30
The independent firm Yankee began a detective series in October 1910 with The Monogrammed Cigarette, in which "the fearless daughter of a famous detective" solves her first case after the father is killed. Another film in this series, The Woman Who Dared, was described at the time as "an excellent detective story, showing the famous girl detective in one of her most fascinating unraveling acts." According to theMoving Picture World, "It is mysterious up to the last scenes, when the solution is given. … There is an interest which never flags from the time the picture begins until the last scene has disappeared." These films reflect the current fascination with scientific apparatus for detection, such as the "dictograph," which enabled girl detectives to overhear the crooks' conversation, as the heroine does when tracking down the white slave traffickers in Traffic in Souls (1913). Detective mysteries were also becoming an increasingly popular literary genre at the same time. By late 1911 a disgruntled exhibitor who had resigned himself to receiving one Indian picture for every show remarked that he was dismayed to note an influx of detective stories.31
Like the girl spy of the Kalem company, Yankee's girl detective anticipated the serial queen. The Exploits of Elaine, succeeding The Perils of Pauline from the Pathé Company, had as "an added value" the "use of genuine scientific methods in the detection of crime." This included the use of the "detectaphone" which the real-life Burns Detective Agency was said to have adopted for its work. In the new serial, Motion Picture News reported: "The general scheme … will be to present a series of high class scientific detective stories. Instead of thrills created by smashing property, there will be those caused by tense situations and marvelous achievements of science."32
The serial with its brave heroine signaled the emergence of the New Woman. She wore less restrictive clothes, she was active, she went everywhere she wanted, and she was capable of resolving mysteries, solving problems, and escaping from danger. In the movie industry the New Woman was not only adored as a star, but also pioneered a new profession known as "script girl" (keeping track of every detail during the shooting of a script), and she formed teams to assemble the separate shots and titles of each film positive. She also managed movie theaters in respectable numbers, wrote a large proportion of the film scripts, and found it easier to get into directing than she would in later periods of film history. Prominent female writer-directors included the pioneer Alice Guy, wife of Herbert Blaché and the chief executive of her own company, Solax; Gene Gauntier (working with Sidney Olcott); and Lois Weber (with Phillips Smalley). When a writer for the World mentioned Miss Jeanette A. Cohen, a poster sales woman, he added, "Why not?" Sometimes patronized, sometimes feared, the New Woman was nevertheless welcomed by reformers for the refinement and culture she could bring to the industry.33
The Progressive cause of women's rights was echoed most directly in a lot of comedies in which the humor comes at the expense of those funny suffragettes, but also frequently mocks their opponents. However, there were also quite a few serious films on the subject. Vitagraph made a film called Daisies (August 1910), in which the heroine insists on an education over the objections of her fiancé and nearly at the sacrifice of her engagement. By the end of this feminist film, the fiancé is compelled to admit that the young woman was right. The film was shot in part at Vassar College. The intertitles were wreathed in flowers, and the critic Louis Reeves Harrison, noting the graceful movement rather than the feminist message of the film, speculated that a woman had something to do with it. Undoubtedly some woman did, but, unfortunately, her name is not known. The film itself is lost.34
The subject of women's rights was hot in 1912, an election year. Teddy Roosevelt, leader of the Progressive party, was advertised in a campaign film as "the first American statesman to recognize the right of American womanhood to help rule the country." In bold type, the advertisement proclaimed, "Women want to see him." But Wilson won the presidential election that fall. Universal suffrage was postponed until after the war.35
The Congregational Church of Appleton, Wisconsin, showed Reliances two-reel drama VOTES FOR WOMEN on the program with a talk by Harriet Grim, a "well-known Wisconsin suffragette." Other nights, this progressive church had shown the tuberculosis films with educational lectures. The Edison Company, trying to launch its newest talking-picture device, the Kinetophone, with the characteristic Edison message of reform, offered Mrs. O. H. P. Belmont, "one of the most prominent leaders of the Suffrage movement," the opportunity to deliver a six-minute speech by means of the newest invention. The great English militant Mrs. Emmeline Pankhurst and the American leader of the Women's Political Union, Mrs. Harriet Stanton Blatch, appeared personally in What Eighty Million Women Want—? (November 1913), a fiction film exposing corrupt politics in New York City.36
Edison's How They Got The Vote (1 January 1913), directed by Ashley Miller, was a fantasy in which time is stopped, probably a direct inspiration from Jean Durand's Onesime Horloger (1912), a French film in which time was speeded up in order that a man could collect his inheritance sooner. In the Edison film, a young man wants to win the daughter of a suffragette, and to win favor, he must do something for the cause:
He visits a magician who gives him the images of the god of progress and the goddess of sleep, and he tries their power on the crowded thoroughfares of London. He finds to his delight that they give him the ability to bring traffic to a standstill. All London is mystified by the strange happenings and the prime minister is in a quandary. The young man declines to better matters unless the prime minister favors "votes for women" (New York Dramatic Mirror, 8 January 1913, p. 28).
A direct link between feminism and serials is illustrated by episode 13 of The Hazards Of Helen (Kalem, February 1915), where Helen Holmes loses her job as the railroad telegrapher after she is robbed by two tramps. A man is sent to replace her, but the intrepid Helen sees the tramps fleeing on a freight train and captures them herself, dropping off a bridge onto the moving train, engaging them in hand-to-hand combat, and falling from the train into water with one of the crooks. She gets her job back.
The opposite side of the coin, the fear that the New Woman engendered, may well have given rise to a new type of female villain, the vamp, exemplified by Theda Bara in Fox's A Fool There Was (January 1915). Theda Bara was far from the first of these. In 1910, Selig produced The Vampire, described as "the sensation of the age—from the most talked-of poem ever written and suggested by Sir Ed. Burne-Jones' Famous Painting." A year earlier, the poem and the painting had provided the sources of a popular stage play, A Fool There Was, which was also the basis of the Theda Bara film. By 1912-1913, the vamp type was frequently found in films. Rose-mary Theby's portrayal in Vitagraph's The Reincarnation Of Karma (December 1912) is only one of many. The character may be seen fully developed and perhaps better motivated in Vitagraph's Red And White Roses (March 1913), in which "the Woman" is found reclining chin down on a tiger-head rug, smoking, in the extreme lower-left corner. She boldly propositions a married man, a reform candidate for governor, contrasting her charms to those of his wife: "She is a white rose, pale and colorless—I am a red rose—glowing and made for love."37
The cause of prohibition gave rise to many lurid melodramas. It was a subject very well suited to the uplift movement and yet could exploit violence and dramatic thrills. Drink led to the breakup of the home, a major social concern of this era. Biograph's contributions to the cause of prohibition included A Drunkard's Reformation (March 1909) and What Drink Did (June 1909). In the former, scenes from the play Drink are reenacted, effecting reform in the drunkard who attends the performance. Drink was Charles Reade's dramatization of Zola's L'Assommoir (The Drunkard), in which Charles Warner made his New York debut at the Academy of Music on 14 September 1903. In October 1909, there were "awestruck crowds" at the showing of Pathé's two-reel film version, Drink, at Keith and Proctor's Bijou Dream in New York. As we know from the later results, prohibition was not favored by the majority of the American people, and Drink did not play so well in the provinces. Some of the anti-prohibition exhibitors complained of the influx of films on the subject. A review of a film with a temperance lesson included the gentle aside "but one doesn't always care to be sermonized in a moving picture theater." An exhibitor was more outspoken about "the gory and ridiculous anti-drink pictures" that the Anti-Saloon League of Indiana was asking exhibitors to play, even paying them to do so. The St. Louis Times reported that an exhibitor was nearly ruined by rumors that he was a prohibitionist: his customers went from three hundred a night to forty, until he made a sworn oath to the contrary and displayed it behind glass outside his show.38
The subject of organized labor and labor unrest, a very big issue in the period before the war, loomed up in many films. When Vitagraph's Capital Versus Labor was filmed in the streets of Flatbush, the mounted police were called. They charged into the crowd of actors playing the strikers. Whether a bystander or a Vitagraph publicity person called the police is unclear, but the results were reported to be almost disastrous. The World took a management position on this genre, declaring that Capital Versus Labor "is much too realistic to be comfortable. … Perhaps the picture will have a salutary influence during this season when strikes pervade the air and from almost every section of the country comes talk of industrial complaint. " In another issue, a writer complained that "it is not the story of an American strike, but an anarchist revolution, with no moral lesson to it."39
Most of the labor films portrayed a greedy capitalist with a progressive son or daughter or foreman who could negotiate and reason with the strikers and bring about reform. The formulas of the moralistic melodrama were readily applied to this subject too. Films were made by capitalists, after all, even if they were progressives. Improvement in labor relations, they felt, was to be brought about by education and reform, and certainly not by a change in the system. Reliance's Locked Out (1911), however, according to the description of its plot, was extremely pro-labor. It showed starvation in the homes of the strikers, police shooting strikers, and the ghosts of these martyrs confronting the owner of the factory, who dies from the shock. The World complained that the National Board of Censorship should have rejected this film. In its view, exhibitors should not "excite the masses by showing them innocent women killed in the act of earning their daily bread."40
In Essanay's The Long Strike (8 December 1911) the boss's arrogant son takes over on the eve of a strike, but the daughter of a striker saves him from the violence of the workers and appeals to the owner to settle the strike. As one reviewer noted:
In this labor melodrama the workingman is treated more as a normal man than in most film stories dealing with this delicate subject … yet … while the workingman is not represented as a child and the employer as a patronizing snob, there is a plain tendency to assume that a strike must necessarily have its crimes and violence. Recent events show that there is a distinct element in labor's ranks ready to resort to crime, but it is not pretended that this element is in majority. The masses of Union Labor know nothing about dynamite plots. … The matter-of-course way in which the strike leaders in this picture are made to plot arson will not therefore commend the picture to working people. As The Mirror stated some time ago, picture producers will show wise discretion by letting labor subjects severely alone (New York Dramatic Mirror, 13 December 1911, p. 33).
By Man's Law, a Biograph film of November 1913 directed by William Christy Cabanne, took quite an extraordinary point of view for a capitalist producer and stout member of a trust then under attack by the federal government. An oil magnate ruthlessly buys up independent rivals until he controls the industry, then cuts wages and closes factories, causing much suffering among the working classes. As a result of the evil capitalist's greed, a young working girl becomes a member of the unemployed and nearly falls into the hands of the white slavers.
The development of film genres standardized the manufacture and distribution of the product for a newly organized industry. For audiences, the genre film made it possible to achieve satisfaction in the fulfillment of expectations, and at the same time to be entertained by variations of the form. The genre film facilitated the lulling of the spectator into the cinematic dreamworld.