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High-Class Moving Pictures

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The rise of the story film and the decline of film as a visual newspaper meant that moving pictures were assuming more and more clearly the role of commercial amusement. Not surprisingly, more genteel motion-picture exhibitions did not experience the same dramatic expansion. Burton Holmes and Dwight Elmendorf remained among the few to show films in their travel lectures. Holmes had switched from 60-mm to regular 35-mm film stock in 1902. Although his original productions (still taken by Oscar Depue) remained central, the lecturer would now include films taken by other producers in his programs. For the 1903–1904 season, Holmes delivered a series of lectures on America, “having chosen them with the patriotic intention of extolling the beauties of our own country.” 36 These included “The Yellowstone National Park: The Wonderland of America,” in which, according to one critic:

By means of motion pictures and stationary projections, accompanied by almost sublime word painting, the speaker carried the audience from Livingston, Mont., through the Gate of the Wonderland, indicating as he proceeded the changes wrought in the last seven years, taking the observer to the very crater of the famous geysers, skirting the various falls and rushing down through the canyons and gorges. Not for a minute did interest lag. Among the most interesting and thrilling of the many motion pictures were those showing the mammoth buffalo herd, the minute man in action, the great fountain, the Black Warrior geyser, brink of the upper fall, the great fall of the Yellowstone and the upper falls from the right bank ( Pittsburgh Post , 28 November 1903, p. 4).

By late February 1904, Holmes had added “St. Petersburg and the Russian Army,” which, reported the New York World, was based on a trip he had taken to Russia three years earlier, during which “he made a close study of the Czar’s military system.” 37 Thus a simple travelogue became a timely documentary program on a country engaged in war.

During the 1903–1904 season, Elmendorf gave his own illustrated lecture “The Yellowstone Park: The Wonderland of the World.” One critic wrote:

Moving pictures constituted more than half the views shown on Saturday and included the majority of the geysers in the park first pictured in the gorgeous coloring of their surroundings and then shown in action. There were also many comical pictures of bears, one of an old bear and her cub, being immediately suggestive of “Mrs. Grumpy” and “Little Johnny” of Mr. [Ernest Thompson] Seton’s tales of the animals of the Yellowstone ( Brooklyn Eagle , 16 November 1903, p. 5).

Elmendorf and Holmes thus offered their overlapping audiences different views of the same subject. The following year, Elmendorf became a cause célèbre with “Old and New Castile.” As originally announced, the illustrated lecture at the Brooklyn Institute was to include “the only moving pictures of a complete bull fight from start to finish,” and announcements of the event jammed Association Hall with 1,500 eager patrons, two-thirds of whom were women. Elmendorf’s intentions were thwarted by Professor Franklin W. Hooper and officers of the institute, who forbade the film. Elmendorf protested but reluctantly accepted the censorship. At the exhibition, however, there were vehement calls for the banned subject. “The audience was made up of the very best people in Brooklyn, and there was nothing rowdyish or threatening in the demonstration, but it was certainly carried to the extreme limit of expression which well-bred people permit their emphatic and earnest disapproval to take.” 38 Despite these protests, the film was not shown.

Illustrated lectures had a strong following by 1903–1904, yet few joined Holmes and Elmendorf in appealing to patrons of refined culture with motion pictures. Likewise, American producers made little effort to cultivate religious groups with films on sacred subjects. Although exhibitions in noncommercial venues are particularly difficult to document, church-sponsored exhibitions do not appear to have grown with the same rapidity as those located in theatrical amusement centers. But even the exhibitors who appealed to religious groups were sometimes attracted to films of violence and crime. Lyman H. Howe, who retained important ties to Protestant groups, included A DESPERATE POACHING AFFRAY in his repertoire—and this must have dismayed conservative churchgoers. Film practice thrived when it catered to one particular cultural group, lovers of commercial amusement, and it was here that virtually all the innovations in production, representation, and industrial organization were made in the early 1900s.

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