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Full-Length Programs: Fights, Passion Plays, and Travel - Passion Plays, Travel Lectures

films pictures motion holmes

I n the post-novelty period, exhibitors played a key creative role in the motion-picture field. Their claims to authorship were indeed often merited as they expanded and explored the wide-ranging possibilities for expression under their control. These showmen were responsible for the rich panoply of sound accompaniment that included voice, music, and effects. Perhaps even more fundamentally, they were responsible for either the construction of elaborate narratives or the shape and character of the variety programming. This potential for creativity was no more evident than in the evening-length, single-subject screen entertainments that became common during 1897-1898. These programs fell into three distinct genres, each of which was directed at a different cultural group. They thus underscored another significant aspect of the post-novelty era: the reassertion of social and cultural differences within the realm of reception or spectatorship.

A few travel lecturers, operating within the well-established expectations of refined culture, added motion pictures to their stereopticon exhibitions. Here the integration of motion pictures into conventional screen entertainment was particularly straightforward. Two other genres involved more complex issues that deserve particular scrutiny. These revolved around the passion play and boxing matches. Although at opposite ends of the cultural spectrum, both depended on the cinematic medium for their success in somewhat analogous ways. In each instance, their subject matter lacked societal approval when presented as live performances, yet came to enjoy wide acceptance when mediated by cinematography.

Prizefighting had an impassioned following among those enjoying blood sports and other male-oriented amusements, not withstanding the strong opposition of religious groups and cultural elites. Although bouts were technically illegal in every state of the Union, they continued to be fought, often under the guise of “boxing exhibitions” or “sparring contests.” The police, however, often stopped these “performances,” as when they abruptly ended a “Boxing and Bag Punching Entertainment” at New York’s Academy of Music with the arrest of the two contenders, Mike Leonard and George Dixon, in August 1895. 1 Even fights in out-of-the-way places were not entirely safe from interruption, but the more prominent the match, the greater the likelihood of government intervention. As the grand-jury investigation of T HE C ORBETT -C OURTNEY F IGHT demonstrated, filming such matches only added to the difficulties. Motion-picture photography of bona fide bouts required elaborate preparation and extensive publicity to maximize the public’s interest and assure a profitable return on investment. 2 These requirements encouraged civic protest and made state intervention almost inevitable.

Because the Lathams had already demonstrated the popularity of fight films, many amusement entrepreneurs were eager to capitalize on this commercial opportunity even as they tried to avoid controversy. Harry Davis, a Pittsburgh theatrical magnate, produced T HE M AHER -C HOYNSKI F IGHT in a way that avoided many production problems—including the uncertain legality of fistic encounters. Peter Maher and Joe Choynski fought a contest that was slated to go twenty rounds at New York’s Broadway Athletic Club on Monday evening, 16 November 1896; in the sixth round, Maher knocked out his opponent. Since Maher spent much of his time in Pittsburgh, Davis arranged for the fight to be reenacted there, apparently using both boxers and local Pittsburgh “sports” as audience members. As shown on the “zinematographe,” the six-round M AHER -C HOYNSKI F IGHT opened at Davis’ Eden Musee in Pittsburgh on 1 February and received a favorable response. 3 Less than twenty minutes long, The M AHER -C HOYNSKI F IGHT was subsequently displayed at Bradenburgh’s 9th and Arch Dime Museum in Philadelphia, Huber’s Museum in New York, and other big-city venues that appealed to frequenters of inexpensive, sensationalistic amusement.

Passion Plays

The passion play has had a tumultuous history in the United States. On 3 March 1879, a dramatic version by Salmi Morse was performed in San Francisco amid much controversy. The play opened despite vehement protests, but the manager deemed it wise not to perform the last scenes of the Crucifixion and Resurrection, and the performance ended with Christ (played by James O’Neill) being turned over to Pontius Pilate. 22

Salmi Morse found a new backer for his play in Henry E. Abbey, a leading New York impresario who later explained, “I was so impressed by the subject and treatment by him that I signed a contract for its production at Booth’s under his personal supervision.” This New York City debut was scheduled for 7 December 1880. Opposition from religious groups and the press intensified, however, as the board of aldermen voted, with only one dissenter, to do everything possible to ban the production. The Baptist Ministers’ Conference, noting the general outcry among Protestant leaders, condemned the “sacrilegious use of the most sacred things of our religion.” In the face of such pressure, Abbey withdrew the play the Sunday before it was to open. Ministers quickly altered their sermons to fit the new situation. The Reverend John P. Newman of the Central Methodist Church noted “the impossibility of an actor projecting himself into the character of Christ according to the requirements of his art.” He predicted such a play would increase infidelity since it represented only the weakness of Christ without a counteracting view of his divinity. Newman praised the many newspapers, community leaders, and even the the “best” theatrical managers and actors whose opposition prevented the play from being produced. In a desperate and final effort, Morse gave a reading of his play. The New York Times reprinted portions of the text, praised the music, found the playwright to be of reverential spirit, and then called it a “painful burlesque of sacred mysteries.” 23 The fiasco was indelibly imprinted on the memory of every amusement entrepreneur.

Cultural activities, nonetheless, often embody contradictions. The passion play had just been performed at Oberammergau, Bavaria, that summer, an event occurring once every decade. On 11 December 1880, only four days after the abortive premiere of the Morse drama, travel lecturer John L. Stoddard presented his illustrated lecture “Ober-Ammergau’s Passion Play” in New York. Taking his audience on a tour of the village and introducing the principal actors going about their everyday lives, Stoddard argued that these villagers were not rude peasants but artists whose rendition retained “all the simplicity and reverence of ancient days.” Having established the milieu from which the play sprang, Stoddard showed fifty stereopticon slides of the performance. At the drama’s high point, as Christ dies on the cross, Stoddard dissolved from one lantern slide to the next. Otherwise identical, the two slides gave an illusion of movement as Christ’s head dropped to his breast. 24 At this moment Stoddard was saying:

Finally it is evident that the end draws near. With a loud voice he cries at last:

“Father, into thy hands I commend my spirit.” The head drops wearily upon the breast. It is finished (John Stoddard, Red Letter Days Abroad 1884, p. 98).

Stoddard’s lecture, attended by people who had objected so strenuously to the Salmi Morse play, was widely praised and enhanced his reputation. After the 1890 performance at Oberammergau, many itinerant lecturers gave screen presentations that closely followed Stoddard’s. The possibilities of using motion pictures to present a similar program were obvious to everyone. While preparing for the vitascope’s commercial debut, Thomas Armat imagined such an undertaking. So, apparently, did the Lumières. Although a twelve-scene passion play was filmed by a Frenchman named Lear in the spring of 1897, T HE H ORITZ P ASSION P LAY , filmed an Austrian Village (now Horice, Czechoslovakia), was much more ambitious and apparently was the first to be shown in the United States. 25

Travel Lectures

Films of religious subjects and boxing matches often attracted more than their intended audiences of devoted churchgoers and fight aficionados. This was less true for illustrated travel programs, which embodied principles of America’s refined culture. While Henry Northrop and Alexander Black gave combined motion-picture and stereopticon programs during 1897-1898, both eventually lost interest in motion pictures and returned to their earlier, exclusively lantern-slide formats. However, two prominent travel lecturers made long-term commitments to using films: E. Burton Holmes and Dwight L. Elmendorf.

Many believed that E. Burton Holmes was the first to show moving pictures as part of the illustrated travel lecture, perhaps because Holmes laid claim to this “first” in his programs. While this is not strictly true, he appears to have been the first to make films specifically for his own lectures and to use films regularly in conjunction with a course of such refined presentations. During the summer of 1897, Holmes’s lantern operator, Oscar Depue, purchased a 60-mm motion-picture camera from Léon Gaumont in Paris and with his new acquisition, took films of Rome, Venice, Milan, and France. The exposed stock was then turned over to Gaumont for developing and printing. When Depue returned to the United States, he became self-sufficient by building his own printer and turning the camera into a projector. This accomplished, the cameraman filmed an onrushing express, Fort Sheridan, and various sights in Yellowstone National Park. At the conclusion of each lecture, Holmes showed seven to nine films, with selections usually focusing on a few locales. 44

The year 1897 was a momentous one for Holmes. John Stoddard retired from lecturing after the 1896-1897 season and designated the young man as his successor. Holmes thus stood out from his competitors and was given many new opportunities. For the first time, he presented lectures in New York City, Brooklyn, and Boston. As Stoddard had done, Holmes gave “courses” of five lectures that generally met once or twice a week, in either the afternoon or evening. A course ticket cost $5, with single tickets selling for 500 to $1.50, thus excluding all but the well-to-do. Holmes’s first New York lecture, “The Wonders of Thessaly,” won over a large majority of his audience, and critics praised the lecturer, who took his own photographs, for his ability “to recognize just what would make an interesting, an instructive, a characteristic or an amusing picture.” According to the Brooklyn Eagle, “New Yorkers will agree that however he may differ from John L. Stoddard in looks, manners and platform methods he is every way worthy to fill the latter’s place.” 45

Critical popularity was reflected at the box office. Holmes’s 4 March afternoon lecture, “The Yellowstone National Park,” grossed $578, of which he kept half. On other days he did less well but usually grossed from three to four hundred dollars a performance—enough to guarantee his return the following year. Films helped to give his presentations their own distinctive appeal. At his Manhattan lectures, a critic noted with surprise that “motion pictures seemed to be an entire novelty to a large part of the audience, in spite of the fact that such pictures have been on constant exhibition for the last year and half and more in the music halls and continuous performance theatres and have been used for advertising purposes in the streets.” 46 Holmes, like other travel lecturers, appealed to an elitist group that was little concerned with novelty outside its own select world. Since films had often been shown at Brooklyn Institute functions, Holmes’s moving pictures aroused little comment at that location.

During the 1898-1899 season, Dwight L. Elmendorf used films in his programs and enjoyed increased attention as a result. To prepare his exhibitions, the New Yorker traveled to Mexico and throughout the West Indies, and spent time with a military unit in Cuba. He not only accumulated 160 slides for his program, “The Santiago Campaign,” but purchased pertinent standard-gauge films from producers and interspersed them throughout his presentation. One enthusiastic critic devoted almost a full column to his review, remarking:

Mr. Elmendorf was with the Ninth Regular Infantry. Their marches and evolutions, the routine of camp life and the amusements indulged in by the soldiers while waiting to go aboard the transports were deftly and wittily described as the successive scenes were actualized on the canvas. Stationary and cinematograph pictures of cavalry and artillery evolutions followed, with a good word for the black cavalry, especially the famous Tenth, whom the lecturer alluded to as “the black rough riders.” Portraits of Colonel Adna R. Chafee, of General Wheeler and the familiar figures of Colonel Wood’s and Lieutenant Colonel Roosevelt’s command came in such a way as to arouse a demonstration ( Brooklyn Eagle, 4 April 1899, P.3).

Elmendorf’s lecture “Old Mexico and Her Pageants” also interwove slides and films, including motion pictures of a Mexican bullfight.

Holmes, meanwhile, continued to show films only at the conclusion of his lectures. During the summer of 1898, he had visited Arizona and America’s newly annexed Hawaiian Islands, where he took still photographs and Depue shot the motion pictures. For programs on these subjects, the films focused on the same topic as the main exhibition. Holmes’s remaining programs, however, repeated earlier lectures and lacked films that paralleled the principal topics. It was not until the following season (1899-1900) that he integrated films into his lantern-slide programs, using material he and Depue had gathered while in Hawaii, the Philippines, and Japan. The lecture on Hawaii, reworked from the previous year, emphasized the local populace’s enthusiasm for annexation and focused on the warm reception given U.S. soldiers on their way to the Philippines. His lecture “Manila and the Philippines” emphasized the primitive conditions of life on the islands as well as the heroic actions of American soldiers fighting the local guerrillas. 47

To dismiss these programs as mere travel lectures is too simplistic. They were elaborate, sophisticated documentary presentations. Some were political, focusing on the Spanish-American War and the United States’ expansionist policies in the Pacific. Others, like Holmes’s study of Mokiland, were ethnographic in orientation. While they appealed primarily to aficionados of refined entertainment, they were considered sufficiently enlightening and informative to have the support of moralistic Protestant religious groups. Thus, when Association Hall was booked, the Brooklyn Institute often held its illustrated lectures in a local church. The long-standing alliance of church moralism and polite culture continued to operate. Travel lectures, however, did not generate broad patronage comparable to the veriscope and T HE P ASSION P LAY OF O BERAMMERGAU . In a few cases, these were condensed and appeared on the vaudeville stage. Early in 1899 J. C. Bowker gave “an entertaining number” entitled “Travelogue on Hawaii” in Keith theaters. 48 His stereopticon program was one of Keith’s many attempts to provide vaudeville with a more refined image.

Travel programs were limited in their commercial success partly because they were not designed for exhibition by multiple units. An Elmendorf lecture required Elmendorf to accompany the images with his thoughts and voice: it was his perceptions and analyses that were presented. Holmes was one of the rare lecturers ever to use stand-ins, but even so in an extremely limited way. In contrast, T HE C ORBETT -F ITZSIMMONS F IGHT and the various passion-play programs simply relied on an appropriate individual to narrate them. Travel lectures not only addressed a different audience but involved distinctively different methods of exhibition from other feature-length film programs.

For all their differences, these three kinds of full-length programs functioned within an already extensive practice of nonfiction screen presentations. They looked backward to the stereopticon lecture and forward to what became known as the documentary. 49 Reviews and other information about these evening-long programs testify to the ambitious scope of motion pictures in the wake of the novelty era. In contrast, the smattering of surviving films, frequently of poor quality, offers only the slightest idea of what it was like to witness those exhibitions. Unless today’s viewers recognize that these brief pictures were frequently the building blocks for much larger shows, they will fail to understand some of the most basic characteristics of 1890s cinema, for on these occasions the exhibitor was typically the creator—or at least the arbiter—of narrative, the author of the show. Showmen integrated moving pictures into established screen practice and so transformed it.

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