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 exhibition got no further, though, "for at this point the chief of police walked upon the stage and dramatically stopped the show," standing between the audience and the screen, physically blocking out the images of the scandalous film.2 Such literal policing continued in other places in relation to The Unwritten Law, the exhibition of which was stopped also in Houston, Worcester, Wickford, North Kingston, and New York City.3 Exhibitors showing the film were convicted of "imperiling the morals of young boys" and "impairing the morals of young children."4 Like other examples of the concerns emerging about the effects of moving pictures on vulnerable and dangerous populations after the rapid expansion of nickelodeon venues throughout 1906, this surveillance of public performance and space was consistent with Anglo-American legal traditions and with a broad formation of policing as governance that was predicated on a conception of the links between morality and public order.5

Later in the same month as the events in Superior, Wisconsin, The Unwritten Law was singled out in the influential "crusade" against moving pictures and nickel theaters by the Chicago Tribune as symptomatic of the demoralizing effects of "sensational" moving pictures and the new nickelodeons.6 The newly formed trade journal Moving Picture World saw the film as a lightning rod for developing regulatory concerns about moving pictures and nickelodeons: "The exhibition of this one film alone has been the cause of more adverse press criticism than all the films manufactured before, put together, have done. It has the police active in trying to put down the nickelodeon. It has been the cause of action by church, children's, purity and other societies and these societies have branded all alike, taking the old saying, 'Birds of a feather flock together.'"7 Considered by film historian Charles Musser as "the most controversial American film produced prior to the establishment of the Board of Censorship in 1909,"8 The Unwritten Law was the first film in the United States to be widely constructed as "scandalous," singled out as a specific focus for the "moral panic" about dangerous representations and spaces that emerged in early 1907. Located in this context, the film became central to the beginnings of a discursive cordon sanitaire separating licit filmic representations from the illicit; it was caught up in important formative debates and decisions both about the boundaries of what could be seen on cinema screens and of what cinema could be used for.

No doubt scandal surrounded the film largely as a consequence of its subject matter, for it was based on a widely reported sexual scandal, murder, and subsequent trial that had generated extraordinary press attention and social commentary from summer 1906 through spring 1907. Integral to the reporting of the scandal and the subsequent trials were discussions of "perverse" sexuality, of the corruption of children, and of the "moral turpitude" of an urban heterosocial leisure world.9 As is often the case with the reporting of scandals, the events of the Thaw-White case were rendered symptomatic of more widespread moral problems, in this case as a symbol of a broader social transformation characterized by an unraveling of social discipline and "good citizenship" and a moral malaise that was, for many, typical of "modernity" more generally.10 A crucial focal point for moral debate, the scandal can be seen as a privileged site for examining the broader "regulatory space" on the eve of the nickelodeon boom, particularly in relation to debates about sexuality and leisure.

Legal debates ensued about the propriety and legality of the public discussion and representation of private immorality in the sensational press.11 Even more pressing than this was the question about the morality and legality of the filmic reenactment, or "faked up representation," of the scandalous events in The Unwritten Law, which was produced and exhibited while the murder trial was going on in early 1907 and which was—police bodies aside—widely seen by those troublesome, vulnerable, and dangerous audiences frequenting the new nickelodeons.12 Through a process of discursive slippage that was characteristic of the metonymic and serial struc ture and function of "scandals" and "moral panics," the film effectively became a critical "transfer point" of knowledge and power in the construction of cinema more generally as a problem of morality and governance.13 Considered in this way, a network of connections can be traced among the issues animating the initial scandal, the debates over its filmic reenactment, and the larger "moral panic" about moving pictures and nickelodeons in early 1907. These regulatory concerns were thus enmeshed with both the broader processes of middle-class self-definition and activism and the debates about populations and governance so central to the regulatory discourses and practices of the period.

Located as a discrete event that illuminated the broader "regulatory space" from mid-1906 to early 1907, the reporting of the Thaw-White scandal is traced out in detail here because it provides a crucial intertext for our understanding of the precise discursive contexts that animated the developing contestation over cinema in late 1906 and early 1907. The chapter accounts for and analyzes the filmic reenactment of the scandal, the police and reform response to the film, and the nascent regulatory concerns about cinema more generally throughout 1907 that culminated with the establishment of a police censorship board in Chicago in late 1907, a sort of rationalization of the actions of the police chief in Superior. Later, the constitutionality of the board was upheld in the Illinois Supreme Court in a decision that set an important precedent for the legal measures considered in the following chapters. In this chapter, then, I begin to describe and explain the interaction between diverse reform responses to cinema, the responses of the film industry, and the actions of state authority.

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