CHAPTER 7 / Part 1

FROM VAUDEVILLE TO THE NICKELODEON

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VAUDEVILLE: THE ORIGINAL VENUE

In the summer of 1902, an early version of Aladdin and His Lamp was a popular attraction at an amusement center in Des Moines, Iowa. The print was supplied by the Selig Polyscope Company, which did not identify Pathé-Frères as the maker of Aladdin, nor did Edison identify Pathé as the producer of an early version of Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves (Ali Baba et les quarante voleurs), even when advertising it as a “new . . . spectacular production” in the fall of 1902.[1] In the fall and winter of 1902-1903, the biggest motion-picture hit in vaudeville theaters in New Haven, Kansas City, New Orleans, and Los Angeles was Georges MélièsA Trip to the Moon (Le Voyage dans la lune—see Chapter 3.2). Virtually every American distributor had prints of A Trip to the Moon to sell or rent, but only Biograph acknowledged the film as “Méliès’s Magnificent Spectacle.”[2]

Most distributors referred to “magical subjects” or “mysterious films” imported from France, but almost no one mentioned the international competition by name. Rather, U.S. suppliers claimed to be “agents” for “foreign” producers and relied increasingly on dupes of European films—copies produced by making negative from positive prints—to satisfy the growing demand of domestic exhibitors. In other words, many American producers and distributors had resorted to trafficking in pirated versions of popular motion-picture subjects made by more productive competitors overseas. By 1902, reports Charles Musser, “duping of European fiction films effectively substituted for studio production” in the United States and had effectively become “the principal means for American producers to meet the growing demand for story films.”[3]

A Cultural Space for Women and Children
  There are complex reasons for both the popularity of European films and the slump in American production during the first three years of the century. A key factor, according to Musser, was the popularity of story films, which French companies were organized to produce in quantity while American companies were not.[4] Richard Abel argues for a more specific common denominator in films like Aladdin, Ali Baba, and A Trip to the Moon: all were suitable attractions for family audiences. By the turn of the century, he contends, the motion picture had become “a feminized cultural space of leisure largely defined by the presence of women and children.”[5]

See the moving picture

Royaume

    Georges Méliès, Le Royaume des fées,

                            France, 1903

In 1899, for example, Méliès’ seven-minute, twenty-scene rendition of Cinderella (Cendrillon—see Figure 7.18) opened during the Christmas holidays and, in some cities, ran almost continuously through the following May. In 1903, Méliès scored another commercial success with Le Royaume des fées, a twenty-minute extravaganza that played in the U.S. as Fairyland (Figure 7.1). Theater managers across the country singled out Fairyland for its drawing power, and both exhibitors and local newspapers stressed a connection between audience appeal and product quality. In Los Angeles, one theater billed it as “Better Than a Trip to the Moon,” and a reporter in Providence, Rhode Island, calling it “weird and gorgeous,” observed that it “made quite a stir . . . among the little people.”[6]

A Theater of Structured Variety

In the United States, the demand for motion pictures suitable for “family” audiences resulted in part from the integration of movies into what one commentator calls “pre-existing venues of ‘popular culture’ and ‘refined culture’ ”—in particular, into the format already provided by the vaudeville theater.[7] We must not confuse vaudeville with burlesque, which originated in the 1870s as male-oriented entertainment featuring female minstrel troupes trading less on musicianship than on ample displays of cleavage and leg. Vaudeville evolved when showmen like Benjamin F. Keith began targeting broader audiences of middle-class families. Traditionally offensive material was eliminated, and before long, the premiere Keith-Albee theater chain (see Figure 7.2) was known to veteran performers as “the Sunday school circuit.” Theaters catered to “Ladies and Gentlemen and Children” and reminded artistes that “vulgarity will not be tolerated.”

The essence of vaudeville was structured variety.[8] Acts featured singers, dancers, and musicians, comics and clowns, jugglers and acrobats, daredevils, magicians, and escape artists. Performers designed their own acts and furnished their own costumes and props and traveled over the course of the season, thus permitting booking agents to change programs on a weekly basis. Shows were continuous, running from morning to night, and usually began with a “dumb” act—say, acrobats or jugglers—who needn’t be heard to be appreciated while audiences settled into their seats. The second act—a song-and-dance or comedy team—would perform in front of the curtain while stagehands set the stage for a musical number or comedy sketch. After this number came the first star, usually a comedian or a singer, who might be followed by a famous actor in a dramatic excerpt. The penultimate spot was reserved for the headliner—again, a comedian or a singer—and the program closed as it began, with a “dumb” show during which customers could once again come and go. The keynotes of any bill, then, were pace and variety.

Sandow

                Vaudeville star

         Eugene Sandow, 1894

A Fascination for Stars and Star Turns
  The motion pictures that played vaudeville theaters included newsreels, topicals and actualities, and other documentary subjects that the camera could capture and bring back to the theater, as well comic vignettes and trick films staged specifically for the camera; many producers made advertising films (see Figure 7.3 [9]). Not surprisingly, however, the motion-picture subjects made for exhibition in vaudeville theaters borrowed heavily from the subject-matter preferences of the host institution. They also favored the stars and star turns of the vaudeville stage itself: like movies, vaudeville acts were brief, and they provided a convenient pool of professional talent (see Figure 7.4). Whatever the subject, the content of these early films was heavily determined by the exhibition context, whether the vaudeville theater or the related venues—penny arcades, amusement parks, traveling shows—that serviced the entertainment needs of a “new mass culture.”[10]

The Variety Format: “A Discontinuous Series of Attractions, Shocks, and Surprises”
  Typically, about eight short films constituted a twenty-minute “turn,” and the sequence of film subjects was arranged—by the theater manager—in order to satisfy precisely the same theatrical demands as the program itself: namely, pace and variety. Thus the variety format dictated both the motion-picture producer’s decision to diversify his product line and the exhibitor’s decision about how to maximize audience appeal.[11] A particular model of consumption-oriented entertainment, therefore, influenced both the content of films and the format in which they were exhibited.

According to American historian Miriam Hansen, this model also appealed to “the viewer’s attention through a discontinuous series of attractions, shocks, and surprises.”[12] In part, then, the motion picture continued to develop as a cinema of attractions because it was influenced by the conventions of vaudeville, the amusement park, and the traveling show. Hansen identifies three “distinct aspects of spectatorial pleasure” characteristic of the motion picture’s appeal to early audiences:

The Humiliation of the Unadjusted: Uncle Josh at the Motion Picture Show
  Hansen argues that under the pressure to compete among the spectacles with which they shared the vaudeville stage or the amusement-park midway, early movies tended to exploit these three forms of response indiscriminately. The result, she contends, was often “an excess of appeals,”[13] as in the Edison film Uncle Josh at the Motion Picture Show, which was directed by Edwin S. Porter in 1902 (Figure 7.5).[14] At a movie theater, a country bumpkin experiences three traumatic episodes as three short films appear on the screen in quick succession:

See the moving picture

Josh

              Edwin S. Porter, Uncle Josh

          at the Motion Picture Show, 1902

As the stereotyped “rube” (a stock character in vaudeville and other popular media), Uncle Josh is singled out not only literally but symbolically from the community of spectators watching the movie that inspires his simple-minded behavior. These spectators understand the proper relationships among spectators, the projecting apparatus, and the images that the projector is providing for the audience. They’ve learned to accept and enjoy the privilege and power of the machine that’s witnessed and recorded the events on the screen. Presumably, they’ve also made the psychological and moral adjustments entailed by spectatorship: they neither flinch before the train nor object to the behavior of the lovers. The same thing, of course, can be said of us—the audience attending Porter’s movie—and Uncle Josh’s humiliation seems designed to teach one lesson quite clearly: such adjustments are absolutely necessary to appreciate a medium which, both because of its own properties and because of the competitive conditions of its exhibition, appeals to us primarily because it displays things.

The “Aesthetics of Display” and the “Regime of the Keyhole”
  Recall from Chapter 4 Tom Gunning’s definition of the cinema of attractions as the cinema’s “ability to show something.” Such a medium, says Gunning, “displays its visibility, willing to rupture a self-enclosed fictional world for a chance to solicit the attention of the spectator.”[15] It’s in this sense that, as Hansen puts it, films like Uncle Josh reveal “a distinctly primitive attitude toward cinematic illusion, one that includes the spectator in the space and process of make-believe.” We should not be surprised, then, to discover here a close relationship between the imperative to show and the willingness to look—between what Hansen calls “the aesthetics of display” and “the regime of the keyhole.”[16] These are the terms of the bargain that we strike when, as spectators, we agree to make the psychological and moral adjustments necessary for satisfactory moviegoing.

In this respect, the voyeuristic is the strongest of the early cinema’s appeals to “spectatorial pleasure.” This prominence is equally a matter of external commercial conditions and inherent properties of the entertainment format. If, as Hansen puts it, the appeal of this cinema “is predicated on . . . distracting the viewer with a variety of competing spectacles,”[17] then we can detect a pattern of competition in the exhibition arena to which the cinema of attractions was bound: while the motion-picture “act” competes with the diverse acts with which it shares the bill, each motion-picture subject competes with the others with which it shares the act. (As we shall see, this competitive paradigm also extends to the components that make up the film.)

Some implications of these issues—including the real or supposed “innocence” brought to the spectacle by the spectator as well as the exhibitionist—are pursued in Reading 7.1, “In Theory: Voyeurism: Fictions of Innocence and Ignorance.”

A Primitive Diversity of Appeals
  In Chapter 1.2, we described The May Irwin Kiss, an 1896 Edison closeup of a re-enacted stage-play kiss. Although the film proved extremely popular, many moviegoers objected to their unexpected proximity to the spectacle. Responses to The May Irwin Kiss (Figure 7.6; see also Figure 1.24) resulted as much from the filmmaker’s wish to display something—faces in closeup—as from the content of that display. Likewise, the display in Uncle Josh of trick-film ingenuity overshadows its “theme” (a mild satire on backward thinking in the presence of marvelous technology). In both cases, the “secondary” motives behind the exhibited product are inseparable from the primary motives.

See the moving picture

Kiss

                      The May Irwin Kiss,

               William Heise, Edison, 1896

The secondary motives of the two films, however, differ significantly. The secondary motive in The May Irwin Kiss is essentially mimetic in its appeal: it shows that the motion picture can reproduce in scrupulous detail the physical activity entailed by a kiss. In Uncle Josh, we can say that the kinesthetic is an important appeal of the secondary motive, especially if we agree with Hansen that kinesthetic appeal includes “a fascination not only with particular moving images but also with the apparatus that produces them.”[18] More importantly, however, the richness of Uncle Josh resides in its generic diversity: it’s both trick film and knockabout comedy. By comparison, of course, The May Irwin Kiss, made six years earlier, is considerably simpler: its primary desire to display something (faces in closeup) and its secondary appeal (the mimetic spectacle of two mouths meeting) are so closely related that distinguishing between them seems perhaps mainly a scholarly exercise.

See the moving picture

Hammock

                     Love in a Hammock,

             James H. White, Edison, 1901

Perspectives on Passion: Love in a Hammock
  Hansen observes that the “primitive diversity of appeals” in these early films is evident not only in those that adopt multiple forms of appeal, but in those “combining different genres, mixing stylistic trends as well as strategies of address. . . . The hybrid appeal of longer films is even more pronounced when the narrative no longer refers to a singular incident,”[19] as does that of The May Irwin Kiss. In a medium devoted to display, voyeurism becomes a genre—a distinctive type of narrative or a distinctive mode of expression—only when it becomes or contributes to something more than a spontaneous reflection of the urge to display. Consider, for instance, the Edison short entitled Love in a Hammock (1901—Figure 7.7). Under a big oak tree, a young couple in a hammock begin kissing and caressing, utterly innocent—or ignorant—of anything else going on around them. Two boys approach, one of whom climbs the tree and crawls onto a branch extending directly over the unsuspecting couple. As they continue to press their passion, the bough breaks; the boy comes down on top of the lovers, bringing the hammock and all three characters crashing to the ground.

Note, first of all, that Love in a Hammock requires us to watch two things at once: the romantic activity on the hammock and the juvenile mischief on the tree branch. The spectator, though perfectly aware of the boy in the tree (and of the danger to the lovers, whether of discovery or of physical injury), must regard the couple as oblivious to him. Otherwise, there would be one or both of two consequences, both hypothetical but both detrimental to the narrative premise: if the boy were detected, the lovers would immediately cease their lovemaking and/or the boy’s fall on top of them wouldn’t be adequately comical. The spectator, therefore, makes the adjustment necessary to accommodate what—for him—amounts to multiple points of narrative interest.

The Tendency toward Visual Overload: The Tableau Tradition
  In the type of cinema that we’re describing here, the shot is treated as a relatively autonomous unit, not as a component of a coherent narrative whole. This tendency, though clearly originating in the technology of early motion-picture production, was reinforced by the influence of what Hansen calls “the tableau tradition” that typified spatial organization on the stage: “The type of shot considered most characteristic of the ‘primitive’ style,” she writes, “is the theatrical tableau, with its long-shot distance, frontal perspective, and often static . . . composition.” The appeal of many early films reflects the kind of display offered by the tableau. Moreover, says Hansen, this kind of display tends “to be overloaded with visual meaning.”[20] In other words, every detail with which the director wants to appeal to an audience must be compressed into a static form of representation. The motion picture reflects this theatrical convention even though it possesses the advantage of images that move (see Figure 7.8 [21]). A film like Love in a Hammock, for example, has more than one point of interest because it combines the exhibitionist interlude with an exterior location and a slapstick gag. The presentation of multiple points of narrative interest is itself a strategy of cinematic display.

Generic Hybrids
  Similarly, two genres are clearly grafted onto one another in this little sketch:

Biograph

              The Story the Biograph Told,

      Wallace McCutcheon, Biograph, 1903

A comic staple since the 1890s, the bad boy film—in which one or more mischievous little boys disrupt some adult activity to comic effect—was particularly popular at Biograph, which promoted it as family fare at the vaudeville theater.[22] Bad Boy and Poor Old Grandpa (1897), in which a boy sets fire to his grandfather’s newspaper, is a fairly pure example of the genre. As we can see from such a film as Love in a Hammock, however, it’s a genre that’s highly conducive to hybridization. In the five-shot The Story the Biograph Told (1903), for example, an office boy learns how to operate the company’s camera. When the pretty secretary arrives, she takes a seat in the boss’ lap and they begin kissing passionately. Unnoticed, the boy puts his newfound skill to work by filming the action. Later, when the boss accompanies his wife to the theater, he’s stunned to find himself and his secretary the stars of the featured film. The wife clubs her husband, whose new secretary, as revealed in the final shot, is a young man (Figure 7.9).

Here again, the hybrid is clearly a product of the exhibitionist interlude and the bad boy genre, but there’s an important added element: The Story the Biograph Told is a movie about making and going to movies, and in its self-reflexivity, it invites the audience to participate fully in the process of make-believe. On the other hand, although the film has become longer and more complex, it hasn’t developed those techniques of relating to an audience that we associate with the so called “classical” cinema. There has not yet developed for the spectator what Hansen describes as “an ideal vantage point from which to witness a scene.” Rather, the spectator is invited to take up a stance which is part of the make-believe (the display is for the spectator’s benefit) and from which he or she is privileged to judge the actors’ innocence or ignorance of events in the story. The spectator is not yet regarded as “an invisible, private consumer.” He or she is treated instead as “a member of an anticipated social audience and a public”—as member of a community of viewers which shares certain knowledge and makes certain judgments (and from which “rubes,” like Uncle Josh, are excluded).[23]

The treatment of voyeurism in the cinema of attraction is undoubtedly much different than its treatment in the contemporary cinema. Today, for example, it’s possible to take both eroticism and invasion of privacy with a certain degree of seriousness, and contemporary movies often remind us that we like to look more than perhaps we should. The makers of the films that we’ve been describing, however, seem to feel that voyeurism is not sufficiently entertaining by itself: it usually needs a boost from elements borrowed from various comic genres.

One reason for this difference in the treatment of voyeurism is the difference in the way that the cinema of attraction regarded its relationship to the spectator. This issue is the topic of Reading 7.2, “In Theory: The ‘Look at the Camera.’” Reading 7.3, “Jump Cut: A Movie of Childish Logic and Adolescent Metaphors,” argues that the genre of the “bad boy” film has remained remarkably durable, especially as a premise for motivating sexual curiosity and the display of feminine images.

GLOSSARY

dupe   Copy of a film made by making a negative print from a positive print

vaudeville   Form of American theatrical entertainment (flourishing from roughly 1875 to 1930) that featured a fast-paced series of varied, continuously programmed acts

REFERENCES

[1] Quoted by Richard Abel, The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1999), p. 9.

[2] Abel, The Red Rooster Scare, p. 9.

[3] The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907(Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1990), pp. 322, 331. See also Jennifer Forrest, “The ‘Personal’ Touch: The Original, the Remake, and the Dupe in Early Cinema,” in Dead Ringers: The Remake in Theory and Practice, ed. Forrest and Leonard K. Roos (Albany: State Univ. Press of New York, 2002), esp. pp. 92-93, at http://books.google.com (accessed July 1, 2016).

[4] The Emergence of Cinema, p. 337.

[5] The Red Rooster Scare, p. 12.

[6] Quoted by Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, p. 299; quoted by Abel, The Red Rooster Scare, p. 12. On the handling of multiple sites of action in Le Royaume des fées, see Elizabeth Ezra, Georges Méliès: The Birth of the Auteur (Manchester, UK, and New York: Manchester Univ. Press, 2000), pp. 44-45, at https://books.google.com (accessed July 1, 2016). For Figure 7.1, see Abel, The Ciné Goes to Town: French Cinema 1896-1914 (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1994), pp. 73-74.

[7] Roberta Pearson, “Early Cinema,” in The Oxford History of World Cinema, ed. Geoffrey Nowell-Smith (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1996), p. 21.

[8] On vaudeville, see Trav S.D., No Applause—Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous (New York: Faber & Faber, 2005), and Charles Samuels and Louise Samuels, Once Upon a Stage: The Merry World of Vaudeville (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1974).

On vaudeville and early cinema, see the following: Robert C. Allen, “‘A Decided Sensation’: Cinema, Vaudeville, and Burlesque,” in On the Edge of Your Seat: Popular Theater and Film in Early Twentieth-Century American Art, ed. Patricia MacDonnell (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 2002), pp. 39-89; Richard Butsch et al., “Going to the Movies: Early Audiences,” in Movies and American Society, ed. Steven J. Ross (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley-Blackwell, 2002), Ch.1, at www.blackwellpublishing.com (accessed July 1, 2016); “Vaudeville! A Dazzling Display of Hetereogeneous Splendors” (Univ. of Virginia, 2002), at http://xroads.virginia.edu (accessed July 1, 2016); Library of Congress, “Variety Stage Motion Pictures” (1999), at http://memory.loc.gov (accessed July 1, 2016); American Museum of Vaudeville Inc. (Edgewood, NM, 1998-2015), at www.vaudeville.org (accessed July 1, 2016).

On Benjamin F. Keith and Keith-Albee theaters, see M. Alison Kibler, “The Keith/Albee Collection: The Vaudeville Industry, 1894-1935” (April 1992), University of Iowa Libraries: Special Collections and University Archives (2014), at www.lib.uiowa.edu (accessed July 1, 2016); Michael Slowik, “Film Exhibition in Vaudeville: What We Learn from Keith-Albee Managers’ Reports,” Nineteenth Century Theatre and Film 39:2 (2012), pp. 73-92. For a study of movie trailers and the heritage of vaudeville marketing, see Lisa Kernan, Coming Attractions: Reading American Movie Trailers (Austin: Univ. of Texas Press, 2004), esp. pp. 18-21, at http://books.google.com (accessed July 1, 2016).

[9] For Figure 7.3, see Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 283, 285, 287; Robert C. Allen, “Contra the Chaser Theory,” in Film before Griffith, ed. John L. Fell (Berkeley and Los Angeles: Univ. of California Press, 1983), p. 112. On Edison’s Admiral Cigarettes, see Phil Hall, “The World’s First Advertising Film,” Business Superstar (April 4, 2013), at www.business-superstar.com (accessed July 1, 2016).

[10] As Abel points out (The Red Rooster Scare, p. 5), the phrase is borrowed from John Kasson, Amusing the Million: Coney Island at the Turn of the Century (New York: Hill and Wang, 1978), p. 8.

[11] See esp. Miriam Hansen, Babel and Babylon: Spectatorship in American Silent Film (Cambridge and London: Harvard Univ. Press, 1991), pp. 23-44.

[12] Babel and Babylon, esp. pp. 25-34.

[13] Babel and Babylon, esp. p. 28.

[14] On Uncle Josh, see also Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 321-22; Wanda Strauven, “Early Cinema’s Touch(able) Screens: From Uncle Josh to Ali Barbouyou,” Necsus, no. 2 (Autumn 2012), at www.necsus-ejms.org (accessed July 1, 2016); Isabelle Morissette, “Reflexivity in Spectatorship: The Didactic Nature of Early Silent Films,” Offscreen (July 31, 2002), at www.horschamp.qc.ca (accessed July 1, 2016); Judith Mayne, The Woman at the Keyhole: Feminism and Women’s Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1990), pp. 31-32, at http://books.google.com (accessed July 1, 2016); Francesco Casetti, Eye of the Century: Cinema, Experience, Modernity (New York: Columbia Univ. Press, 2008), pp. 144-46. Uncle Josh is also discussed in Reading 7.1 and Figure R7.2.

[15] “‘The Cinema of Attraction’: Early Film, Its Spectator and the Avant Garde,” Wide Angle 8:3/4 (1986), p. 64.

[16] Babel and Babylon, pp. 32, 34, 35.

[17] Babel and Babylon, p. 34.

[18] Babel and Babylon, p. 46. On The May Irwin Kiss, see J.A. Sokalski, “Performed Affection: The Spectacle of Kissing on Stage and Screen,” in Allegories of Communication: Intermedial Concerns from Cinema to the Digital, ed. John Fullerton and Jan Olsson (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 2004), esp. pp. 307-13; Daniel Eagan, America’s Film Legacy: The Authoritative Guide to the Landmark Movies in the National Registry (New York: Continuum, 2010), pp. 4-5, at http://books.google.com (accessed July 1, 2016); Dave Thompson, Black and White and Blue: Adult Cinema from the Victorian Age to the VCR (Toronto: ECW Press, 2007), pp. 21-23.

[19] Babel and Babylon, pp. 46-47.

[20] Babel and Babylon, p. 34.

[21] For Figure 7.8, see Mary Chapman, “‘Living Pictures’: Women and Tableaux Vivants in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction and Culture,” Wide Angle 18:3 (July 1996), esp. pp. 24-28. Steven Jacobs, Framing Pictures: Film and the Visual Arts (Edinburgh: Edinburgh Univ. Press, 2011), Ch. 4, traces the evolution of tableaux vivants from early to classical and modernist cinema. For a discussion of the early cinematic adaptation of tableaux motifs from 19th-century stage, magic-show, and vaudeville presentations, see Vito Adriaensens and Steven Jacobs, “The Sculptor’s Dream: Tableaux Vivants and Living Statutes in the Films of Méliès and Saturn,” Early Popular Visual Culture 13:1 (2015), pp. 41-65. For a description of the opening of Méliès’ Le Voyage dans la lune as a tableau, see Dan North, “A Trip to the Moon / Le Voyage dans la lune (1902),” Spectacular Attractions (March 2012), at http://drnorth.wordpress.com (accessed July 1, 2016).

[22] See Musser, The Emergence of Cinema, pp. 228, 230, 355, 383. See also Murray Pomerance and Frances Gateward, “Introduction,” in Where the Boys Are: Cinemas of Masculinity and Youth, ed. Pomerance and Gateward (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 2005), pp. 3-5, at http://books.google.com (accessed July 1, 2016).

[23] Babel and Babylon, pp. 23, 34. On The Story the Biograph Told and a related Biograph film, A Search for Evidence (1903), see Paul Young, The Cinema Dreams Its Rivals: Media Fantasy Films from Radio to the Internet (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 2006), pp. 36-39, at http://books.google.com (accessed July 1, 2016).

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