An Abyss Of Moral Turpitude

Late in the evening on 25 June 1906, Harry K. Thaw shot and killed the prominent architect Stanford White at the opening of a new musical review at Madison Square Garden, New York City. The flash of that pistol, the New York Evening Journal wrote four days later, lighted up the depths of degradation, an abyss of moral turpitude, or what the New York World later termed a festering moral ulcer.14 Lit up as they were in the glare of the sensational press between summer 1906 and spring 1907, the...

Acknowledgments

It is entirely likely that no part of what follows would have been written without the help of Peter Kr mer, in whose class on silent cinema too many years ago this book first began to take shape. A good part of the pleasure I have derived from writing this book has come from my developing a dialogue and friendship with Peter. His insightful readings and comments inform pretty much every page to the detriment of both our phone bills and it is impossible to thank him enough for his help,...

Film Fights

Looking for a way to sidestep a ban on the exhibition of films showing the African American boxer Jack Johnson's 1910 world-title fight against the white boxer Jim Jeffries in the states of Arkansas and Tennessee, entrepreneurs devised a clever plan to show the film on a barge midstream of the Mississippi River, literally in between states and so on territory claimed to be outside the jurisdiction of the two state governments.1 In the event, police officers ignored the constitutionally correct...

Immoral Or Obscene

Leaving aside for the time being the question of the reasons for elite anxiety about cinema, we can ask now the next obvious question what strategies did elite groups use in regulating and shaping cinema Local investigations into the spread of nickelodeons from 1906 on and their effects on vulnerable and dangerous audiences by organizations like the Juvenile Protective Association, the Children's Committee of the Cleveland Humane Society, the Chicago Vice Commission, and so on led to calls for...

Introduction

Essanay Film Company organized a competition in 1910 to coin a word both as a substitute for the somewhat unwieldy term 'motion picture theater' and to describe motion picture entertainments.1 Entries from the public, that collective of people beginning to be called spectators,2 were judged by a committee made up of producer George Kleine, distributor F. C. Aiken, and exhibitor Aaron Jones, and a decision was announced in late 1910 After careful consideration of the list of words . . . we have...

Morals And The Community

The suggestion that cinema fulfilled an educative cultural function and that it reinforced domesticity failed to persuade Mayor McClellan, who, as we have seen, issued a blanket revocation of common show licenses on Christmas Eve 1908.113 Even though much of McClellan's statement addressed fire and safety issues and general public health issues, his conclusion shifted to a consideration of moral and spiritual health Because of the serious opposition presented by the rectors and pastors of...

Reforming Cinema

Legal questions about the Sunday opening of nickelodeons, alongside broader concerns about their safety and morality, prompted the mayor of New York City to call a public meeting to gain light and leading on the issues in late 1908.1 Leading off the discussion in the packed aldermanic chamber, a loose coalition of clergy and members of child-saving organizations condemned the nickel theatre as a moral sinkhole and a physical deathtrap.2 Singling out specific suggestive films, these critics of...

Schools For Crime

A cycle of sensational films proliferated on the eve of the nickelodeon boom, tapping into the popular sensationalism then characteristic of sensational melodrama (such as The Millionaire's Revenge) and the tabloid press.96 The cycle became increasingly problematic after the nickelodeon boom, when moving pictures were seen in greater numbers by lower-class, immigrant audiences as the concerns expressed about the most visible example of this cycle, The Unwritten Law, attest. Immediately after...

Uplift Theaters

Early in May 1907, just a month after the publication of the Chicago City Club's report on Chicago's nickel theaters and in the midst of the Tribune's ongoing campaign, a special meeting of the City Club was convened to debate its findings and to work out a policy for regulating the nickel theaters.138 Juvenile court judge Julian Mack argued for the complete exclusion of children under thirteen, a stance already articulated by the Tribune and in other accounts of the nickel theater business....

Scandalous Cinema

Looking to capitalize on the notoriety of a widely reported scandal and murder trial, the management of the Grand Opera House in Superior, Wisconsin, sought in April 1907 to show The Unwritten Law A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Case (Lubin, 1907). A brief account in the Motion Picture Notes section of Moving Picture World reported that the house was packed with an audience two-thirds women and that as the first picture was thrown upon the screen . . . the interest was intense.1 The...

Exhibitions Of Crime

While the Hull House experiment in noncommercial and nontheatrical exhibition was in progress, The Unwritten Law replete with hustle, fights, fellows getting hurt, and sex was banned by police in Chicago.157 Likewise, two exhibitors in New York City were investigated by the New York Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children after showing The Unwritten Law, described by a Superintendent Jenkins as lewd and disgusting.158 Arrested and tried, the exhibitors were found guilty of imperiling...

Mere Entertainment

Leaving aside for the time being the question of the film industry's response to regulatory concerns about cinema, let me now turn to delineating what I take to be the principal effects of the process of interaction between elite groups and the film industry on the shaping of the definition and function of mainstream cinema. The sugar-coating of the educational with the dramatic was clearly important here. Yet this conflation would become increasingly problematic through the teens as a series...

Moral Advances

Let me turn now from these questions of regulatory discourses and practices to consider the response of the beleaguered film industry, asking three simple but important questions that will guide the rest of this chapter how did the film industry respond to elite concerns about cinema and to the regulatory strategies of elite groups Why did it respond in this way And, most important, what effects did this process of interaction between elite groups and the film industry have on the shaping of...

The Eternal Question

Evelyn Nesbit Thaw was also a critical figure in the proliferation of discourses around the scandal. A picture of Nesbit drawn by Charles Dana Gibson when she was an artists' model, entitled The Eternal Question and in which Nes-bit's hair is arranged as a question mark figure 3 , was widely reproduced during the scandal, offering an embodiment of the confusion that circulated around the figure of Nesbit. Gibson's pictures, historian Kevin White has noted, broke away ever more decisively from...

Drunkard S Reformation

What Drink Did 1909

Theatrical temperance dramas had proliferated in the mid-nineteenth century in conjunction with the reformation of the cultural status of theater that was aligned with ideals of education and with appeals to women and family audiences as signifiers of respectability. The creation of museum theaters in the 1840s, billed as lecture rooms, was an important development within this process of reformation. Such theaters featured lectures on a variety of educational and moral topics but began also to...

Uplift Dramatic Films

Late in February 1909, shortly after this renewed struggle over Sunday closing and the category of the educational, a committee delegated by the Association of Moving Picture Exhibitors of New York AMPENY approached civic reform organization the People's Institute to seek advice regarding the public hostility to which the motion picture art was subject and the practicality of creating a censorship board.124 Clearly responding to the regulatory concerns delineated thus far, the exhibitors...

Education Or Sacred Entertainment

Laws restricting Sunday activities so-called blue laws were common in the regulation of social behavior in the nineteenth century, linked to religious ideals and frequently to the maintenance of good order, moral tone, and public welfare.18 Sabbatarian policy was an established part of the regulatory matrix pivotal to governance in the nineteenth century but became increasingly contested around the turn of the century, as new forms of entertainment and recreation emerged alongside ever-larger...

Veritable Copying Machines

Why were social, political, and cultural elites anxious about cinema 13 Clearly there exists a longer history of elite concern about the effects of culture, stretching back at least to Plato's call for the banning of poets from the perfect state. A struggle over culture and cultural space is, indeed, virtually a defining feature of democratic societies, which almost inevitably involve a complex negotiation between public authority and the dissemination of facts, ideas, and representations in...