Wednesday Afternoon at the Movies
Movies and the Middle Class – Part One
About a year ago the daughter of old friends of mine asked me to write a column for her blog. After a few moments of pretended shyness, timidity and lack of confidence, I accepted. Now that she was my editor, she gave me some instructions, one of which was, “As long as you mention ‘movies’ someplace in the text you can write about anything you wish.” Little did she know that I had volumes of things I wanted to write about; little did I know how much motion pictures had affected me and my thinking through the years. A year of writing articles about movies has opened my eyes, again. The following is an essay which I will serialize in my column over the next several months; or years. Any comments will be welcomed.
If I remember correctly, it was a homework assignment in Psychology 1A, in my first semester in Los Angeles City College. This course was required for all entering full time students and taught study habits, appropriate behavior for college level students, and, each student created their own personal “Psychograph” by taking and analyzing various tests to determine personality traits, interests and abilities.
It seems that LACC viewed the counseling departments of the Los Angeles City School District with some disregard, perhaps even some contempt. I personally had no opinion; I didn’t know my high school had a counseling department. I thought high school was primarily about control and punishment, and that their half hearted attempt to educate was merely a façade to camouflage some sort of evil social purpose. Oh well, I had a lot of peculiar ideas at that age.
This homework assignment consisted of listing at least 20 experiences that were the most important factors in forming our thoughts, opinions and behavior; what made us who we were at that time. Then we were to rank them according to importance of influence. We were told that somewhere in the first five items most people would list family, church, and school. We were also told to omit any reference to sexual activity or lack thereof. In retrospect, I can see why it was important to omit this subject when they were dealing with a group of 18 year old young men and women, in a publically funded school.
I don’t remember my entire list, but I do remember the first few because they seemed a bit unusual, even to me. First on my list was my family; I think everyone made that selection. From there on it was a difficult assignment, I had trouble coming up with 20 factors, and I had even more trouble describing some of them. However, the top 5 on my final list were: family, public libraries, movies, science classes and living in various regions of the United States. That was what I thought at the age of 18 and looking back, I think that was pretty much valid at that time. As with most people, other activities in life would move into top positions, but that was a pretty apt assessment of the major socializing agents of this writer at age 18.
The instructor in that Psych course tabulated the results of the class paper and gave us the list and number of ‘hits’ on each subject. Movies were listed on almost all the papers. There was no class discussion but the instructor gave his opinions about the results, and dismissed the prevalence of ‘movies’ and a few other items as adolescent misunderstanding of what was truly affecting social development, and what was merely a time consuming diversion. We young adults were used to these types of insults from authority figures in the 1950’s and the class proceeded on it’s pre-determined path, with no further comments about movies, current novels, television or anything else that wasn’t part of the instructors socialization in the 1920’s.
Outside the classroom, in the world where I lived, worked and played, I was still nagged by the question; was the presence of movies on my list unique to me; did others also regard movies as important influences on their thoughts and ideas, or did most regard them a mere entertainment? So, I raised the subject in conversations with my friends and associates. Although only a few would rank movies as high as I did, everyone said, “Of course some movies affected them.” From that time forward I looked for the lesson in movies, and what the message might mean me? I still do. Even today, ‘movies’ would still be in the top ten of my list of what influences my opinions; and that fact has led me to my study of this art form and the conclusions I have developed from these observations.
Serendipity of Technologies and Social Change
My research into the relationship of motion pictures and the middle class lead me to a set of events, technologies and personalities which I had never before seen grouped together; Thomas Edison, sound recordings, visual recordings, Henry Ford, and New Orleans jazz. In a 30 year period a remarkable change occurred the American society; and the creative minds of Thomas Edison and then Henry Ford were in the forefront.
Edison achieved the recording of sound on wax cylinders in 1887, and by 1890 the Edison Company was producing and selling sound recordings on unbreakable cylinders. In 1910, the Edison Company begins production of sound recordings on discs rather than cylinders.
The work of Edison on motion pictures resulted in his patented machine called the “Kinetograph” in 1888. This machine was a peep hole device for a single viewer. By 1898 Edison’s company was producing and selling Kinetographs to entrepreneurs who are charging one penny for a one minute show. A few years later several Kinetograph strips were spliced together for a longer show and the fee became a nickel; Nickelodeons were born.
Also in that year, 1898, Edison had progressed to projectors and film strips that could be shown on a wall or a fabric screen, and the Edison Company had an inventory of 341 films.
In 1903 Edwin S. Porter produced the first film that told a story, “The Great Train Robbery,” a one reel film.
In 1905 John Harris and Harry Davis established a Nickelodium ‘theater’ in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania which showed films on a screen.
The Warner brothers, who had been visiting to mining sites in Pennsylvania and West Virginia, as a travelling Nickelodium show, formed a company to distribute films to the growing number of ‘theaters in a four state region in 1907.
Louis B. Meyer built the first theater dedicated to showing motion pictures in Haverhill, Massachusetts in 1907. Films had now become feature length, one hour or more.
Henry Ford enters this scenario from a different direction and place, and with no connection with the development of motion pictures. But what he did had a profound affect on movie production. In 1913, Ford introduced assembly line production at his company and begins mass production of automobiles.
Also in 1913 a number of film production companies moved from New York to southern California to escape the pervasive and consistent litigation the Edison Company brought against anyone entering the film business in New York. Also, film production, much of which was shot out of doors, could continue the entire year in the Los Angeles area; and wage scales for actors were lower.
In 1914, Henry Ford doubled the wage scale for skilled workers at his automobile plant. He began paying $5.00 per day to skilled mechanics, which is equivalent to $110.00 per day in 2008 wages. Working a 5 day week, that translates to $2,310 per month; and there was no income tax or Social Security tax in 1914.
In 1916 the Ford Model T cost $360.00, which is equivalent to $7,000 in 2008 prices and sales were exceeding all expectations. Other automobile companies and other industries began initiating assembly line production in their factories and matching Ford’s wages. A radical evolution was underway in American industry.
In 1917 New Orleans closed the Storyville district, putting a large number of jazz musicians and singers out of work. They migrated north, primarily to the river port cities of St. Louis, Memphis; and then to industrial cities particularly Chicago and New York.
There is the outline; I hope you found this interesting. In my next section I will more fully explain the interaction of these events, and how they came together the produce the ‘20th Century Love Affair’ between the movies and the middle class.