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 of controversies over films and the ensuing legal decisions narrowed the accepted conception of the social function of cinema. Important here were tussles over the relation of cinema to the press, beginning most noticeably in 1910 in response to debates about the legality of prizefight films of the African American boxer Jack Johnson. In 1912 the so-called Sims Act resolved these debates by defining the films as "commerce" and thus subjecting them to interstate commerce regulation. The logic of this definition was followed by a Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of state censorship in 1915, when the justices stated that film was "more insidious in corruption by a pretense of worthy purpose" and so should be defined not as "vehicles of ideas" or as "speech" but as "entertainment."116 Local and state censor boards proliferated partly as a consequence of this extremely important decision. Like the Sims Act, this decision depended on a definition of cinema as commerce and as thus distinct from the press. Taken together, the decisions situated cinema as beyond the constitutional guarantee of free speech as enshrined in the First Amendment and in state constitutions.

Legal markers in the definition of the function of cinema were mirrored also by a revised stance articulated by the National Board of Censorship. Reversing its validation of the "uplift dramatic" genre, the board gradually began to find fault with those films representing contemporary social problems amid concerns about the proper limits of indexicality and realism and their effects on "suggestible" audiences. Important here were concerns about both the improper use of films purportedly conveying educational information about such subjects as sexual morality and about the use of cinema for political purposes, its possible development as—in the words of the chairman of the board, Frederick Howe—"the daily press of industrial groups, of classes, of socialism, syndicalism, and radical opinion."117 Within the board, and among other reform groups, there was a gathering sense that it was dangerous to disseminate knowledge about such important subjects as sexuality and politics to mass audiences, described by the board as "not composed of people of culture and refinement," through a medium that was becoming inextricably linked—legally and otherwise—to a commercial and entertainment function.118 Legal decisions and those internal to the mainstream film industry gradually established a consensus that mainstream cinema should principally offer harmless and culturally affirmative entertain ment, that cinema should be defined, and should function, as a space apart from the political sphere. Cinema's place in the public sphere of common discussion should be carefully delineated and delimited.

Let me suggest that a critical border around the definition of the function of cinema was drawn here in the midteens, effectively clearing out a space within which the classical cinema would come to operate thereafter. The attempted resolution of the problems cinema posed to structures of governance was ultimately concentrated in the definition and production of the social functioning of cinema as "mere entertainment," as a fictional, apolitical space, and thus by its delineation as self-consciously trivial, purposeless, and self-referential. In other words, a progressive differentiation of classical cinema from nonfictional discourses enclosed that cinema within a self-contained space, detaching it from and opposing it to other forms of discourse and so institutionalizing a social function for mainstream cinema that was divorced from social relevance. The establishment and continued functioning of the hegemonic formation of cinema in the teens—classical Hollywood—was tied to these performative definitional debates.

Members of the mainstream industry came around to accepting this definition of the social functioning of cinema because it helped avoid a crippling regulation of distribution and exhibition and thus kept state and reform forces at bay. Accordingly, it began to inform the self-definition of the industry, evident, for example, in the screenplay-writing manuals that emerged in the teens that both guided narrative norms but also invariably urged writers not to stray onto the terrain of politics. "[H]eart interest must predominate," the authors of a manual called Writing the Photoplay suggested, and "[t]hat form of journalism which is best known as muckraking is also out of place in the picture."119 Likewise, a broader mythologization of Hollywood as a utopian "dream factory" providing "mere," "pure," or "harmless entertainment" that morally uplifts audiences developed. The conception of the function of cinema complexly worked out in the preclas-sical period underpinned what film historian Ruth Vasey has termed "industry policy" in the 1920s, by which the self-regulatory body of the mainstream industry continually worked to exclude socially and politically contentious subject matter from the screen and to present "Hollywood's world as a realm apart, a self-contained universe, melodramatic but fundamentally benign."120 The Production Code of 1930 simply made this conception of the function of cinema extremely clear, for the preamble to the document as drafted by Father Daniel Lord stated precisely: "Theatrical motion pictures . . . are primarily to be regarded as ENTERTAINMENT."121

The definition of this function of cinema was worked out in the interactions between elite groups and the film industry in the preclassical period, when a gradual and complex marginalization of conceptions of the social functioning of cinema existing beyond the category of "entertainment" took place. Clearly this was a process that had profound and long-lasting effects on the shaping of mainstream American cinema.

Let us be clear here: in the years 1905 to 1915 the definition of the function of cinema and of what mainstream cinema might be was to some extent malleable, and film industry entrepreneurs were open to different practices that might make profits (for example, the production and exhibition of nonfictional boxing films or so-called educational films). After about 1915, though, a clear hierarchy was set in place because of the regulatory and commercial imperatives delineated here. Initially this can be glimpsed in the establishment of film programs from the teens onward that hierarchized the importance of genres, in particular rendering nonfiction and physical comedy as support "acts" to the main feature.122 Even more substantively though, this process of hierarchization shunted alternative conceptions of cinema to the margins of the mainstream, particularly apparent with politically orientated filmmaking, be that propaganda, the avant-garde, or "documentary," and visible also in relation to genres associated with the "exploitation" of sexuality.

Exclusionary practices had somewhat contradictory effects here, though, for this process of marginalization also opened up the space for alternative conceptions of cinema to coalesce into institutional structures. Exploitation cinema is a case in point. Eric Schaefer has shown how an exploitation genre that skirted the borders of the moral, that was frequently premised on rather dubious claims to educational veracity, and that was exhibited outside the circuit of mainstream cinemas emerged in the post-World War I period principally because the mainstream industry's self-definition as peddlers of moral entertainment opened a space for alternative conceptions of enter-tainment.123 As with the exploitation cinema, a contradictory nexus of mar-ginalization and production played a role in the establishment of an avantgarde defined in terms opposed to the stylistic norms and apolitical nature of mainstream cinema and also to the consolidation of preexisting non-fictional cultural practices into a genre linked to rhetorics of social persuasion and labeled in the 1920s—in an "expressive and euphonious" term that may well have pleased Nickelodeon—"documentary."124 Documentary, exploitation, propaganda, and the avant-garde embodied different conceptions of the function of cinema and were accordingly cast off from the mainstream cinema, pushed to what Christian Metz designates as "the marginal provinces, border regions . . . [of] the feature length film of novelistic fiction."125

Policing the social functioning of cinema in the preclassical period thus had profound effects on the emergence and consolidation of classicism in the teens, on the functioning of classicism for many years thereafter, and on the production and marginalization of alternatives to that classicism. No doubt this process was never complete, though, and although it was far-reaching and extremely important, it was also partial and uneven. "[N]o single logic," Richard Maltby reminds us, "has entirely shaped production decisions in Hollywood," and as Charles Musser observes, we must maintain a sense of continuity among practices and forms "if we are to understand transformation as a dialectic process."126 Filmmaking evidently addressed social problems about subjects such as sexuality and politics in the later 1910s and 1920s (and beyond), and contestations over particular films and over the effects of cinema have continued throughout its history. Even so, this filmmaking and the continuing contestations over cinema took place in a fundamentally delimited configuration of conceptions of cinema, against the backdrop of a by and large accepted definition and delineation of the social function of mainstream cinema. Post-1915 contestations over cinema do not aim to produce a fundamentally different cinema but are instead skirmishes within accepted parameters. Never again would there be so much at stake in the struggle to define, construct, and regulate cinema as there was in 1907 and at various points up until the midteens. I delineate the precise parameters of those struggles and their effects in the chapters that follow.

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