Wednesday Afternoon at the Movies
Movies and the Middle Class – Part Two
When the Edison Company (which incorporated under various names) began selling its Kinetoscope and moving picture film strips to entrepreneurs there was a rapid development of “parlors” where patrons could view these “movies.” These were know by many names but, after a few years, were generally referred to as “nickelodeons.” In 1897 there were no nickelodeons; by 1907, ten years later, there was an estimated four to five thousand in operation; almost all were thriving and the market was growing rapidly. As amazing as it may seem, it was estimated that in 1907 an average of two million attended a nickelodeon on any given day. At first glance this seems unbelievable, but the math supports that estimate. That number, 2 million, indicates that 5,000 nickelodeon theaters would need 400 patrons a day to meet that estimate. The typical nickelodeon opened for business around noon and operated continuously into the late evening. The typical program was less than an hour long. There were usually twelve showings; this would translate to 33 patrons per program.
Prior to 1898 the Kinetoscope operations began as traveling shows visiting mining camps and other work locations, showing their ‘motion pictures’ on a sheet hung up in a darkened room. Very soon thereafter, in several cities, some vacant storefronts were converted into ‘motion picture theaters.’ These urban theaters catered to the working class and were crude affairs with wooden benches for seats. Some were described as being dank holes that crawled with roaches and reeked of disinfectant. By 1907 many theaters existed that were well kept, orderly establishments where women and children constituted the largest portion of the afternoon crowd.
The character of the audiences of “motion pictures” at that time was overwhelmingly working class; referred to as ‘the lower classes” by the gentry of that time. Movies were considered fit only for the lower classes. Another way of viewing the prevalence and success of the motion picture industry at that time, from an economic perspective, is that an entirely new stratum of society was developing into theatergoers. Primarily due to the cost of tickets, the working class could not attend dramatic and musical theater. It was a popular opinion of that time that working class people could not appreciate legitimate theater; that they lacked the emotional and intellectual development to experience and enjoy cultured and complex drama and music.
Much of the information in this article relies on data in an article from that era written by Joseph Medill Patterson and published in the Saturday Evening Post, November 23, 1907. I would like to present a couple of short paragraphs from that article.
Regarding the impact of motions pictures; “Civilization, all through the history of mankind, has been chiefly the property of the upper classes, but during the past century civilization has been permeating steadily downward. The leaders of this democratic movement have been general education, universal suffrage, cheap periodicals, and cheap travel. Today , the moving picture machine cannot be overlooked as an effective protagonist of democracy. For through it, the drama, always a big fact in the lives of the people at the top, is now becoming a big fact in the lives of the people at the bottom. Two million of them a day have found a new interest in life.”
Regarding the comprehension and appreciation by the audience; “The nickelodeon spectators readily distinguish between good and bad acting, though they do not mark their pleasure or displeasure audibly……… During the show of which I have spoken (an opera) the men, women and children maintained steady stares of fascination at the changing figures on the screen, and toward the climax, when forgiveness was cruelly denied, the lips were parted and eyes filled with tears. It was as much a tribute to the actors as the loudest ‘bravos’ ever shouted in the Metropolitan Opera House.”
Although the products of the Edison Company; cameras, film, viewers and projectors, was the largest company of its kind in those years, it was not the only producers of equipment. The Edison Company acquired patents on their versions of these items and proceeded to file law suits against anyone using anything, similar to these patents. This company even claimed to own the very process of motion pictures and used legal actions and strong armed interference to harass anyone producing, distributing or showing motion pictures on much of the east coast.
The Los Angeles, California Chamber of Commerce aggressively courted the independent producers and movie makers, and promised; sunshine, a cheap labor force, inexpensive land for building studios, and various landscapes nearby for all genres of films. In addition, then as now, Los Angeles was tolerant of all genres of interests, activities and lifestyles. These conditions were found to be very attractive to independent film makers such as; the Warner brothers, D. W. Griffith, Sam Goldwyn, Adolf Zukor, Marcus Leow, Jesse Lasky, Carl Laemmie, William Fox and Louis B. Meyer. By 1912 there were 15 independent in operation in Los Angeles competing for the ever growing market for movie films.
The Edison Trust was important in the industry until 1913. In that year they lost an anti-trust suit initiated by a group of independent studios including Fox, Universal and Paramount, and ordered to pay $20 million in damages. Then in 1917 the Edison Trust was ordered disbanded by the U.S. Supreme Court. But, by then, the shift of the center of film making to the Los Angeles area had occurred and would not be reversed. “Hollywood,” with its distinctive carefree lifestyle was producing 60% of the American made movies and was on its way to become the world leader in films.
The Influence of the Working Class
By 1913 the Nickelodeons had pretty much disappeared. They had been rapidly displaced as theaters dedicated to feature length films; 5 and 6, sixteen minute reels. Many of these theaters were magnificent “palaces.” Smaller, more modest theaters were being built wherever there was enough population to support Friday night through Sunday afternoon showings. The profits of these early films were enormous. In 1918 one of the earliest full length movies earned $1.5 million at a production cost of $25, 000. And, there was no income tax in that era.
Although the movies genre was attracting some of the professional and commercial class, the financial support for movies was primarily the working classes. As the novelty of the early films wore off, the audiences expected a consistent plot; they wanted a story. Before recorded sound was introduced to films the comedies and melodramas were the most popular films. When sound was introduced the preference shifted to musicals. The first two movies with sound tracks were the musicals, “Don Juan” and “The Jazz Singer.” They were hugely profitable and many musicals more were then produced.
This is a good example of the dynamics of motion picture selection and production, as a function of what the working class would pay to see. This dynamic was there from the beginning of the motion picture industry and further examples will show that this financial interaction has always been the dominate force driving the growth and influence of motion pictures.
By the 1920’s Hollywood was a hot and dynamic swirl of independent studios, a dense population of creative individuals, and a lifestyle which encouraged innovation and experimentation. All this was brought to a rolling boil by the heat of millions, then billions of dollars injected by the movie consuming public. An industry of immense power and reach, supported by and dedicated to the American working class, had been created.