Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern city, 1896-1930.

Main Street Amusements: Movies and Commercial Entertainment in a Southern city, 1896-1930. – book reviews

Denise J. Youngblood

Early cinema – once derided as primitive and therefore not worthy of serious analysis is currently the ‘hot’ field in cinema studies. Certainly the recent spate of books, articles, festivals, conferences and special journal issues is related in part to the centenary of the first film showings, but I would argue that the focus on this subject will endure well beyond 1996. As the coverage in this journal alone has shown (e.g. Stephen Bottomore’s review essay in June 1995 and the theme issue in December 1995), early cinema provides unusually fertile ground for examining a multitude of critically important topics in cultural, social and economic history fin de siecle. As we rapidly approach another such turning point, we are naturally drawn to a reexamination of our roots in the early twentieth century.

The three books under consideration here testify to the excellence of most of this recent work. Though very different in style and focus, Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception, Main Street Amusements, and Cecil B. DeMilie and American Culture have much in common. They are scrupulously researched and rigorously analytical, yet they also succeed in conveying the vitality and iconoclasm that characterized the film world in its youth. And all three books move beyond the narrowly filmic to engage issues of social and cultural importance, specifically the ‘bourgeoisification’ of turn-of-the-century societies through the medium of film.

Yuri Tsivian, a senior research fellow at the Latvian Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Folklore and the Arts, is known to readers of this journal through his work in preserving the legacy of early Russian cinema. As a result, a significant percentage of the extant films have been made available on video both through commercial and archival venues. Another example of this early phase of Tsivian’s work is the catalogue Silent Witnesses: Russian films 1908-1919 (London, 1989). His most recent book, Early Cinema in Russia, is an abridged and revised translation of his Istoricheskaia retseptsiia kino (Riga, 1991), which carried his analysis to the year 1930, rather than stopping in 1918.

Early Cinema in Russia, though the most difficult of the three titles discussed here, reveals Tsivian’s strengths very well and demonstrates why he is, in my opinion, the finest film historian of his generation in the former Soviet Union. The book is superbly researched, both in cinematic and general cultural terms, and it is, like all Tsivian’s work, characterized by his gift for the telling detail. This is not to say that the book can be read easily, characterized as it also is by an idiosyncratic structure (to the Western eye) and Tsivian’s insistence (p. xi) on retaining the ‘Russian’ (Soviet) definition of reception, which has more to do with elite theories of reception than with an effort to understand audience views from the bottom up. Tom Gunning attempts to contextualize Tsivian’s approach in his introduction, and Richard Taylor’s practiced editorial hand is also in evidence, but some patience on the part of the reader is still in order.

Perseverance will be richly rewarded, as Tsivian presents us with a theoretically sophisticated explication of the ways in which the physical circumstances of viewing, leisure customs and practices, specific narrative structures and filmic techniques and the intertextuality of Russian urban culture in the late imperial period combined to affect the reception of films. Especially interesting is Tsivian’s detailed examination of the cultural intelligentsia’s intense and positive interest in cinema, most notably that of Andrei Belyi and Kornei Chukovskii, among others. Tsivian demonstrates the influence of the movies on their work and thought as well as the ways in which the literati contributed to filmmaking. Of exceptional originality is his discussion of sound in the movies, including not only musical accompaniment and the ‘talking’ pictures, but also an analysis of the effects on audiences of ‘external’ noise, like that emanating from the projectors. Like the other titles in Routledge’s ‘Soviet Cinema’ series, Early Cinema in Russia is handsomely produced and lavishly (and imaginatively) illustrated with photos of posters, theatre interiors and exteriors, theatre plans and cartoons in addition to the usual stills.

Main Street Amusements takes place a world away from the cosmopolitan elite stratum of Moscow and Petersburg society. Gregory A. Waller, professor of film and popular culture at the University of Kentucky, has centered his research on the exhibition practices of early cinema in the decidedly provincial and decidedly bourgeois southern town of Lexington, Kentucky (population 26,000 in 1900). The resulting book is a fine piece of local history as well as a significant contribution to an understanding of the institutional structures in the early years of cinema. Waller is especially good at capturing the stifling insularity, the stuffy moralism, and the casual racism endemic in Lexington at this time and showing how cinema both reinforced and challenged norms, values and conventions.

Although the protracted, creative and sometimes difficult efforts of exhibitors to overcome middle-class fears that cinema was corrupting to youth, especially girls and young women, are not dissimilar to those articulated in other studies of early American cinema, Waller’s thorough examination of the dynamics of the process as it took place in a small regional city is new. Lexington was a community in which everyone in business circles knew everyone else and everyone went to church, so businessmen and civic leaders had close relationships. When theatre owners took pains in this relatively closed world to make it seem that running a movie theatre was very nearly a public service and certainly not a moral menace, their arguments more often than not were favorably received. Lexington was also large enough to support a number of permanent theatres so that movie-goers did not have to rely on the vagaries of the travelling shows, which might not be as ‘respectable’. The movie entrepreneurs in town worked hard and successfully to draw connections between ‘legitimate’ arts and the movies and to arrange for the ‘best’ folk in society to attend premieres.

In addition, Waller provides an interesting look at the vagaries of film censorship, the relationship between movie-going and other popular leisure activities (like vaudeville especially, but also the roller skating craze and jazz). Waller’s attention to the race issue is noteworthy as well, and he traces the evolution of racial separatism from separate entrances and back balconies to separate theatres for whites and then, as a result, for African Americans.

Sumiko Higashi’s Cecil B. DeMille and American Culture is on the surface the most traditional of the three books. But it does not take long for the reader to realize that this is no ordinary auteur study. Rather, it is a revisionist examination of DeMille by a skilled social historian, focusing on his early social dramas and comedies, and using his oeuvre of this time as a paradigm to examine key Progressive Era debates. Higashi, an associate professor of history at the State University of New York at Brockport, is that rare historian who is fully conversant with cultural studies theories (especially the concept of intertextuality), and her book represents a model of how to adapt these approaches to a historical study while retaining allegiance to more established historical methodologies.

Higashi demonstrates how DeMille, scion of a well-known theatre dynasty, threw over the respectable career on Broadway that was his destiny to make films that were not only popular, but able to attract ‘highbrow’ city audiences and keep them coming to the movies. As Higashi shows, DeMille had a remarkable (if not always unerring) instinct for the ways in which his culture was a commodity. He knew how to place his movies to sell, not only through post-release promotion but through selection of story, casting, and especially through costuming and set decoration. By the early 1920s, DeMille’s films were not only providing inspiration to the upwardly mobile as a ‘guide to life’, they were also setting style for those who had already made it.

What sets Higashi’s book apart from Tsivian’s and Waller’s is that she actually discusses the movies. Indeed, one of the great strengths of her book is her facility in describing DeMille’s movies so vividly that I had no trouble visualizing them, with the aid of the carefully selected stills. Particularly intriguing is her reading of DeMille’s sensational 1915 hit The Cheat, starting Sessue Hayakawa and Fannie Ward. This analysis, which exemplifies Higashi’s sophisticated approach to film critique, thoroughly contextualizes the film in terms of race and gender issues as well as in the ‘Orientalism’ fads of American society at the time. The Cheat has just been made available on video, and I look forward to seeing it, thanks to the interest Higashi’s work has inspired.

In sum, my admiration for these books is virtually unqualified. They carry my highest recommendation.

COPYRIGHT 1996 Carfax Publishing Co.

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group