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 directed this also against a more surprising foe—the production companies who had recently banded together in the legal superstructure of the Motion Picture Patents Com-pany.125 Established coincidentally in the midst of the intensification of regulatory discourses and practices in late 1908, the Patents Company had quickly used this situation to legitimate itself and to deflect concern about monopolistic practices.126 It immediately adopted the slogan, "Moral, Educational and Amusing."127

Early in January 1909 the Patents Company met with members of film exchanges and informed them of its terms of trade. Among the new regulations was a requirement that exchanges supply the company with a list of the theaters they serviced; the company would in turn determine which of those theaters it was prepared to license. It demanded that theaters be clean, well ventilated, well lit, and safe.128 In claiming the right to license theaters, the Patents Company was seeking to blame exhibitors for the perceived immorality of cinema, the consequent low cultural status of cinema, and reform and governmental intervention. Exhibitors associated with AMPENY responded in February 1909 by calling for censorship to "protect them from the film manufacturers who it was alleged foisted improper pictures on them."129 A struggle emerged between exhibitors and producers who, although united on some level in the necessity of responding to regulatory discourses and practices, were divided as to the proper course of action—with producers suggesting theater space was the problem and exhibitors suggesting film content was responsible for the troubles besetting the industry.

In approaching the People's Institute in late February to begin a censorship of films, the exhibitors sought to both deflect reform and state anxieties and interventions and to outmaneuver the Patents Company. A number of factors made the People's Institute a sensible choice. First, the People's Institute had declared itself against the formation of the Patents Company and had condemned monopoly in the industry.130 Second, the institute had undertaken, alongside the Women's Municipal League, the report favorable to nickelodeons published in early 1908, and the director of the institute, Charles Sprague Smith, had spoken up in defense of the film industry at the McClellan hearing.131 Smith had also repeatedly suggested that some entertainment forms could function as "counter-attractions," particularly in relation to the "saloon problem," and this rhetoric suited well the needs of film entrepreneurs, particularly exhibitors seeking to situate cinema space as respectable space.132 Third, the institute already had a dramatic department that ran a review of current plays alongside reports on their suitability for various audiences.133 Last, the institute pursued educational work as a central goal of its civic reform platform and thus dovetailed well with goals of entrepreneurs to present filmgoing as an educational experience in play at least since the Doull ordinance in late 1907 and to thus deflect regulatory concerns about children at moving picture shows.134

Looked at from the other side, a board of censorship was desirable for the People's Institute as a way of using the "new social force" of moving pictures as a "counterattraction" to less desirable entertainments like saloons, a counterattraction that could then create "more desirable citizenship." Like the Arnoldian stance articulated by, for example, Jane Addams in mid-1907, the institute thought that a carefully regulated moving picture business could educate audiences and could extend the civic educational work of the institute. John Collier, the secretary of the institute and chief architect of the proposal for the board of censorship, had previously written, "All the settlements and churches combined do not reach daily a tithe of the simple and impressionable folk that the nickelodeons reach and vitally impress every day. Here is a new social force, perhaps the beginning of a true theatre of the people, and an instrument whose power can only be realized when social workers begin to use it."135 Such a perspective on the educational potential of cinema was shared by other reform organizations, and the proposal for an experimental censorship board put forward by the institute in early March included representatives of the Public Education Association, the public schools, and the League for Political Education.136 Its membership, Moving Picture World commented, consisted principally of "persons connected with public and private educational institutions in New York."137

In accordance with the proposal, exhibitors associated with AMPENY agreed to screen only films previously approved by the board and to meet its costs. It was uncertain whether the producers in the Patents Company would cooperate with the board, but the company had little choice if it wanted to avoid being effectively locked out of the most profitable single market in the country and, on 20 March the Patents Company agreed to cooperate with the board.138 The first meeting of the New York Board of Censorship of Motion Picture Shows took place on 26 March and included the viewing of A Drunkard's Reformation. The exhibitors had succeeded in depicting the movie problem principally as a problem of film content, necessitating the regulation mainly of texts and not exhibition spaces. And this was further mandated when the board abandoned its original plan to inspect films showing in nickelodeons, deciding, instead, to inspect films at their source, the manufacturer.139 Equally significantly, the exhibitors had succeeded in aligning an influential reform organization with a commercial strategy of "uplift."

For the Patents Company the uplifting of the cultural status of cinema could also be advantageous, and it accordingly sought to co-opt the moral authority of the board, supplying a screening room and a stipend for expenses and proclaiming in statements that the Patents Company had started the board and that the board "will put the moving picture show on a level with the very finest and highest types of theatrical entertainment."140 Local or municipal censorship boards had proliferated around the country in imitation of the one established in Chicago and the Patents Company had quickly realized that the New York board could impose a national standardized product that bypassed expensive and problematic reediting of film prints and that this could also be controlled in some ways by the Patents Company. Furthermore, the board could be utilized as one aspect of the Patents Company's attempts to marginalize foreign producers. In an early statement about the formation of the Patents Company, the company claimed one of its goals was to "eliminate the cheap and inferior foreign films which have been forced upon the market, and to so educate the public taste that only high class and attractive films will be accepted as reaching the American standard."141 Non-American films were seemingly more frequently censored by the board, suggesting that the board's regulation of cinema effectively complemented the policies of the Patents Company.142

Not surprisingly, the Patents Company strongly supported the trade press and reform journals in their suggestions that the board become a national organization, obviating the need for the local censorship that frequently took the "shape of a blue coat and brass buttons and a club."143 The New York

Board of Censorship of Moving Picture Shows became the National Board of Censorship in May 1909.

Early statements of the standards of the board focused on "obscenity" and on "crime-for-crime's sake."144 "[C]rime for its own sake we condemn," Collier wrote in June 1909, "pictures whose chief appeal is to morbid appetite we condemn, bad taste where it becomes vulgarity we condemn. We condemn anything that seems dangerously suggestive in its tendencies."145 In relation to this the board cautioned against "unwritten law themes" and scenes of "barrooms, drinking, drunkenness."146 Yet the board focused in the main less on content and more on the organization of content. "[B]ar-ring indecency, barring ghoulishness," Collier continued, "there is hardly any incident in life or drama that may not be so treated," for the board would evaluate whether "the sum total of effect, the unified effect, is positive and harmless" and thus base its "decisions on the general effect a picture will have on an audience."147 Similar statements made up the board's first articulation of its policy and standards of censorship in October 1909, which reiterated that scenes glorifying crime and vice would be objected to but that "[t]his does not imply the cutting out of any representation of a crime for such might be incidental to an entirely proper and desirable story."148 Regulation by the board was not simply repressive, then, but was productive of a certain configuration of filmic discourse and of particular narrative patterns, fundamentally encouraging filmmaking based on a moral discourse.

Significantly, regulation, and the moral discourse associated with it, was closely linked to middle-class women reformers, who quickly made up the majority of volunteer censors at the board—by 1912, 57 of 75 censors were women, and by 1915 the figure had risen to 100 out of 115.149 The "great policing force of the business" was staffed largely by women reformers, working from a "politics of domesticity" that designated them as respectable and important moral arbiters for the community and nation.150

Censorship was never the sole aim of the National Board of Censorship, though, for it sought also to promote an educative cultural function for cinema. The statement of intent and standards published in Moving Picture World in October 1909 read: "The National Board of Censorship has been organized for the improvement of motion pictures and for their further extension in this country as social and educational forces. Its work consists of censoring moving pictures and dealing constructively with the social, civic and educational problems connected therewith."151 As well as its obvious commercial function, the statement continued, "The Board also sees in the moving picture an agent which can educate" and that is "capable of use in direct pedagogical ways."152 Supporting this argument, the board gave some model shows to demonstrate the "social possibilities of moving pictures," significantly beginning in May 1909 with a show organized for an audience of public school teachers that included slides reproducing classical statues, paintings, and architecture, and a number of films, including "several of a Biblical nature."153 Likewise, in February 1910 Charles Sprague Smith arranged a "special program of educational motion pictures" for clergymen and church workers in order to "demonstrate the possibilities of pictures for social entertainment and instruction."154 Significantly, most of the films shown were actualities, suggesting a film program similar to the actuality-dominated ones of the years before the rise of the story film and the nickel theater and to the blue and pale blue Sunday exhibitions.155

The board would continue for some time to promote the educational potential of cinema and its proposed role as a forum for public discussion. In the pamphlet Suggestions for a Model Ordinance for Regulating Motion Picture Theaters, for example, the board proposed that moving pictures should be valued as "a form of journalism, of editorial discussion, and of platform discussion" and, further, suggested, "The motion picture may within a few years become the most important vehicle of free public discussion in America."156 Lagging behind only the press and the public school, chairman Frederick Howe later suggested, moving pictures should be seen as the "greatest educational agency of the age ... universalizing our knowledge of common topics . . . and making America think together."157 The board disseminated "educational films" to nonprofit organizations in the teens and organized committees and publications that sought to "further the production, selection, distribution, and use of selected motion pictures and programs for young people."158 Significantly, the board's Committee on Children's Pictures and Programs, set up in 1916, was run mainly by women from the General Federation of Women's Clubs.159 The sense of the malleability of audiences, particularly children, in this rhetoric matched in some respects the accounts of social scientists and "repressive" reformers but with the import of this turned around, for now cinema's "suggestive" potential could be configured as crucial to the education of children and the goals of better citizenship.

A number of developments sought to capitalize on this conception of the social function of cinema. Influential distributor (and Essanay "photoplay" competition judge) George Kleine began in late 1909 a distribution catalog devoted solely to educational films "suitable for school, church, college and lecture work," including actualities and scenic and industrial films alongside films of literary classics and well-known historical events.160 Sugges tions that moving pictures could supplement children's education, and might even become part of the school curriculum, proliferated. Thomas Edison, for example, claimed that "I look for the time, and it's not far distant, when every college and school in the world will boast of its projecting machine and library of educational films."161 Likewise, Nickelodeon quoted a high school teacher asserting that "moving pictures have an educational value which will be recognized. At a small cost moving picture machines can be installed in the public schools." The journal commented favorably on the president of the board of education in Detroit noting that "[i]t is only a question of time when we will be using motion pictures in our schools to teach such subjects as geography and history."162 Later, Moving Picture World and Motography began columns surveying "Current Educational Releases," and the Patents Company set up its own educational unit, which distributed actualities, biblical films, literary classics, and films of historical events.163 Cinema could even function, one commentator suggested in late 1908, as "a kind of recreative school for the whole family."164

Simultaneously, the trade press began a concerted campaign to boost "educational" films, particularly "scenic" or travel pictures, suggesting that they were more popular with audiences than producers and exhibitors thought and that they also effectively conflated education and entertainment. Educational, or in this context principally actuality films, had been central to exhibition practices prior to the rise of the story film and the nickelodeon but had become increasingly marginalized as entrepreneurs sought mass audiences. (Recall, for example, the boy who was unimpressed with the films shown at the uplift theater at Hull House in Chicago, complaining, "Things has got ter have some hustle. . . . This show here ain't even funny, unless those big lizards from Java was funny.")165 Yet the trade press sought to revive these films at this moment, clearly responding to regulatory concerns and to the widely felt need to foster an accommodation between the educational and the entertaining in moving pictures and to thus serve what Constance D. Leupp called "the double duty of holding interest and giving instruction."166

Nickelodeon, for example, asserted that "the educational picture is viewed with as much pleasure as is the story picture" and later suggested that travel and "scenic pictures" had both educational and entertaining components:

Among those who have thought much about it, there is a prevalent misunderstanding of the function of the scenic picture. It is popularly classified as educational; yet scenery is fundamentally and primarily merely entertaining.That is, it appeals to our emotional side. We respond to beautiful scenery, whether real or pictured, much as we respond to beautiful music. It is educational first because anything that is beautiful and appeals to the better emotions is educational; and second, because it gives us a knowledge of the harmony of construction of this beautiful old world of ours. But the educational function is purely secondary.167

Seeking to carefully define the parameters of the educational and the entertaining, as those police officers had done in New York City's nickelodeons in late 1908 and early 1909, the journal's campaign to revitalize the popularity of the travel genre included also details from polls apparently showing travel pictures at the top of audience preferences. A poll conducted by the St. Louis Morning Times, the journal suggested, clearly showed that "[t]he preference of the public is for travel pictures." Likewise, a poll conducted by the Baltimore News resulted in "[t]ravel and educational pictures receiv[ing] such large proportions of the votes that it is hardly worth while to consider the other classes at all."168

Trade journals used these supposed poll findings to try and persuade exhibitors to show these films. "The chance is at hand for the progressive exhibitor to show the metal [sic] he is made of," Nickelodeon wrote in early 1910. "Those exhibitors who have tabooed educational subjects are of two classes: The ones who, not intellectual themselves, cannot appreciate the attractiveness of such subjects to the people; and the ones who, acknowledging the interest of the subjects, are unfortunately situated amongst a low-class patronage which enjoys only the slap-stick comedy or the melo-drama."169 For the trade press the promotion of cinema's educative cultural function sought to assuage regulatory discourses and practices and to attract a "better class" of patronage for commercial reasons. The promotion of the educational potential of cinema was linked closely also to the efforts to attract women audiences, for women's traditional role was closely linked to the education of children.

It is apparent also that the promotion of nonfictional scenic and travel pictures was consistent with other practices in the culture that validated the nonfictional. For example, the American Library Association and many librarians enforced restrictions on children checking out fictional books and steered them toward nonfiction.170 Librarians frequently worked with a hierarchy of genres that placed nonfiction over fiction and that effectively saw fictional texts as divorced from educational imperatives.

Yet also developing in the period was the growth of a use of fiction as part of education, in particular a conception of fiction as crucial to moral for-mation.171 This latter sense became increasingly important to film industry entrepreneurs, who evidently realized that nonfictional scenic and travel pictures were simply unpopular with mass audiences seeking entertainment and that what was needed was a subtler joining of the goals of education and entertainment and nonfiction and fiction, both at the level of discourse and practice.

It was in this context that Nickelodeon championed what it called "the uplift dramatic film." In the journal's account such a film was fictional, narrative, entertaining, but also educational:

The uplift dramatic film is peculiar. It is in a class by itself. It is not an educational subject in the ordinary sense of the word; rather it is an altruistic drama—a story of things and men as they should be. ... Its purpose is truly educational, but the musty flavor conjured up by that word is concealed in a sugar coating of drama and perhaps even comedy. Under the guise of relaxation and amusement we are educated, uplifted and inspired.172

Sugar-coating the educational was an important compromise formation, as the film industry struggled to situate itself in relation to regulatory space and to simultaneously pursue commercial goals. "Many exhibitors will not show educational films thinking the audience will not like them," the journal noted. "But the uplift picture is the answer."173 The cultural capital of educational films could be tied together with entertainment, this logic suggested, divorcing education from the nonfictional scenic and travel pictures or from biblical films—from the actuality programs of those blue and pale blue Sundays—and uniting it with thrilling or comic forms, shifting from a sense of education as the presentation of facts to a sense of education as moral formation. "Uplift dramatic films" were the halfway point between the sense of cinema's educative cultural function, visible from progressive reformers like those associated with the board of censorship, and the commercial imperatives of the mainstream film industry.

The stories of "things and men as they should be" in these "altruistic dramas" frequently focused on precisely that—the reformation and conversion of various configurations of deviant masculinity and the delineation of a moral configuration of masculinity in accordance with ideals of domesticity. Here stories of individual transformation and moral renewal internalized the strategies of film entrepreneurs to reposition cinema as respectable and as central to a reconfigured heterosocial leisure world, effectively positioning the reformation of masculinity and the family onscreen as metonymic for the reformation of cinema itself. In the following section I consider in detail some of these altruistic dramas or, what we might call, fictional conversion narratives.

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