Policing Cinema

In the midst of its "crusade" against nickelodeons in early 1907, the Chicago Tribune carried a front-page report on a fire that had broken out in one of the city's new nickelodeons.1 Like "practically all the others," the theater was without "adequate protection," and in the "disorder" and "panic" that ensued one audience member was trampled on.2 Lurking behind the concern about physical safety, and the call for governmental regulation of building codes, lay concerns about moral danger. In other theaters, the paper noted, "the fire panic was lacking but the continuous performance panic of cheap songs, tawdry singers, and suggestive pictures reigned." Journalists ventured into the heart of the moral darkness of nickel theaters in the Tribune's lengthy campaign against the theaters, reporting back what "was seen" to predominantly middle-class audiences presumed to be unfamiliar with the new development.3 A series of "suggestive" pictures were described. In Bad Son, as the Tribune journalist described it, the eponymous son goes out to a gambling den, loses his money, enlists in the French navy, joins in a mutiny in which an officer is killed, enters a Turkish harem, and, at last, returns home. Likewise, in Burglars at the Ball burglars steal silver and jewelry from a house where a masked ball is in progress but are finally caught and clubbed by the police (although boys in the audience, the Tribune noted, thought that "the burglars could have made their 'getaway' if they had been a little smoother"). Last, an unnamed film, perhaps of "Parisian design," showed a "mob" of French waiters on strike, waving such banners as "Down with the Bosses" and "The Striker Forever" and fighting with the police.4

Following a description of "suggestive" and "immoral" films was an ac count of the audience watching the films, an aspect of the report apparently even more important to the Tribune's investigation (as the aside about boys assessing Burglars at the Ball suggested). A boy was reported to have left one theater "with his eyes popping and his mouth open in wonderment" before "walk[ing] on the street ready to kill."5 Likewise, the paper reported that there were "a number of little girls who should have been playing with dolls who were ruined through going to the nickel theatre."6 Linking bodily and psychological effects, this widely articulated perception—that cinema was what social reformer Jane Addams called a "mimic stage" and thus caused what psychologist J. E. Wallace Wallin called "psychic infection"— was informed by new knowledge in the social sciences about individual psychology, the ethical competences of new types of "susceptible people," and the establishment of "socialization" and the "social bond."7 Cinema, nickelodeons, and "impelling pictures" could trouble processes of socialization and "mar our fellow citizens" and society.8

Who were these citizens that needed to be, in the Tribune's words, "observed closely"?9 According to the Tribune the audiences at the new nickelodeons were "mostly the children of the poor." The "crowds" came from "the families of foreign laborers and formed the early stage of that dangerous second generation which is finding such a place in the criminals of the city."10 Like the Tribune, the plethora of reports and governmental investigations of the phenomenon of nickelodeons that began in late 1906 and ran through the 1910s frequently included accounts and what we might call "phobic representations" of the allegedly disorderly, "panicky," and potentially criminal "crowd" seemingly drawn to the new nickel theaters.11 Technologies for classifying and enumerating and a "new literature of exploration" as moral surveillance developed here, fueled by a compelling need to shine light on those audiences and ill-lit "moral sinkhole[s]," or "vice combustibles," ultimately to have them, as the Louisville Vice Commission noted, "carefully watched and controlled."12

Literatures of exploration and moral surveillance directed at moving pictures and nickelodeons were clearly linked with broad regulatory anxieties about the new development of cinema and about particular citizens and populations; accordingly, I begin this chapter by mapping out the parameters of those concerns. I look next at the concrete effects of these discourses about cinema and populations on the establishment of regulatory institutions and then at the response of the film industry to these discourses and practices. A final section considers the important effects of these struggles on the still malleable cinema. The chapter as a whole prepares the ground for and frames the more detailed chapters that follow.

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