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The Feature Film

reel films reels picture

Part two of this picture will be shown in one minute.

—THE BARGAIN (1914)

W hat is a feature film? The term “feature” was an inheritance of the vaudeville program. When the “feature film” was first marketed, it meant a special film, a film with something that could be featured in advertising as something out of the ordinary run. It was not just another sausage.

A feature was a film that cost more to make, more to buy, more to rent, and sometimes, though not always, it cost more to see. That usually meant longer films, and after 1909 “feature” was the term generally used for any multireel film. In 1909 a feature film was 1,000 feet long or a little less, running from fifteen to twenty minutes at its slowest speed. A short film, called a “split reel,” was 500 feet or less. In May 1910, when the Motion Picture Distributing and Sales Company established its rules to determine prices and to identify the minimum of six reels a week that cooperating exchanges were obligated to buy, a reel was defined as not less than 700 feet and not more than 1,050 feet, which could only be billed as 1,000 feet. However, over the next five years, the term “feature” could be applied to a film of two to eight reels, and only very rarely to a single reel. The longer ones were often distinguished by such terms as “special features” or “big features.” Adding to the confusion, up to the beginning of 1915, the two-reel film might be reviewed in the trade papers either in the feature section together with the longer films or in the regular program section. In short, there was no real precision in the use of the term in this period. 1

As we have demonstrated in earlier chapters, the motion-picture theaters were running variety shows. Despite the difficulties the manager might be experiencing in obtaining the specific films or kinds of films wanted, he or she still exercised the power of the showman to decide in what order the films would be shown and to combine them with the vaudeville acts and illustrated songs of his or her choice, as well as the musical accompaniment. The move to the long feature film, then, could be construed as another way for producers to have more control, a stronger voice in the consumption of their product. The longer the film, the less opportunity there was for the showman to intervene, and the less time available for nonfilmic elements. The exhibitor, perhaps unconscious of this loss of control, nevertheless strongly resisted it. As many of the exhibitors pointed out, one unsuccessful short film in the program could be offset by a good one, but if the feature was poor, the show could not be saved.

Any factor that brought higher prices to the exchange, which had fixed contracts with the exhibitors, was naturally resisted as well. “We wish to complain,” wrote three Los Angeles exchange men to the Motion Picture Patents Company in November 1909, “against the extra charges levied by the Pathé Company for coloring and acting, which they attach to about every third reel, and upon which extra charges we are allowed no rebates. It seems to us that there is an established price per foot, and therefore, the question arises, why this extra charge should be exacted?” The mention of “acting” as a reason for a higher price is an interesting example of the “extra” qualities, in addition to length, that defined a feature in 1909. 2

The producers belonging to the Motion Picture Patents Company are usually said to have been too conservative in clinging to the single-reel film and thus to have caused their own downfall. The fact is, however, that it was the rental exchange and the exhibitors, both licensed and independent, who were most reluctant to change. The whole system tended to keep films at the same length; in other words, the system that gave stability to the industry was also the system that resisted change.

At first, the exhibition format itself was the strongest barrier to increasing length. The nickelodeon was a gold mine only if there was a quick turnover of the audiences. But competition to offer the most reels for a nickel had worn away this concept in many areas of the country, thus contributing to the eventual acceptance of multireel productions. When the number of theaters with a large seating capacity increased, it was less necessary to have rapid turnover to make a profit. The public continued to cling to the habit of entering at whatever point in the program they wished, which did not matter much when, in the short film program, each new reel was a new beginning.

The multireel feature films began to be distributed after 1910 outside the established system and in the process created a new one. Feature films could be road-shown, as plays were, with stock companies playing the provinces. This was the method used to distribute Helen Gardner’s big feature film CLEOPATRA in late 1912. Numerous companies were sent out on the road with a print of the film, an advance man, a lecturer-projectionist, and a manager. Features were shown as special attractions in the local opera houses and town halls and legitimate theaters at advanced prices and stayed for as long as there was enough business to support them. 3

The separate distribution of features in large theaters marked the beginning of cracks in the existing system. The price of renting such a show was, of course, much higher than for the one-reel films from the exchanges. If the film was not being road-shown, or if that tour was completed, it could be sold by “states rights.” The “states rights” system meant that an individual or a small company could buy the rights for a specific territory and then go out and get whatever the market would bear from the special exhibition places or from an ordinary movie house. Pliny P. Craft gave himself credit for originating the system when he was working with the Buffalo Bill Wild West Show: inspired by the success of the Johnson-Jeffries fight film, Craft convinced Buffalo Bill to let the Wild West Show be recorded on film and then found backing for a three-reel feature. He claimed that “the states rights idea came into vogue with this picture as a necessary after-consideration. Film exchanges could not be induced to buy the Buffalo Bill Show film because it was thought to be too long.” After this experience, Craft went to Europe looking for another feature that he could exploit in a similar fashion and came back with DANTE’S INFERNO in 1911. 4

When a road show had milked the cities of all the money to be gotten for highpriced tickets, the worn and scratched print, without the extra costs of the special manager, advance man, projectionist, and the like, could then be billed as a special attraction at the nickel theater, which might or might not add on a higher ticket for that performance. In many parts of the country, Sunday was the day set aside for special “uplifting films,” and therefore Sunday was often the day for the occasional showing of a feature in the smaller theaters that ran the regular short film program the rest of the week. Here, the prestige of the special showings, although now fading, could be counted on as an attraction. Such methods, used outside the normal distribution system, were adequate during the period when the number of feature films was still small compared to the regular one-reel releases.

When Mabel Taliaferro, a celebrated theatrical star, agreed to appear in Selig’s three-reel CINDERELLA (1911), the trade press noted:

It may be that the only way stars can secure exceptional pay in motion pictures will be by appearing in some such way as was recently announced, regarding Sarah Bernhardt in Kinemacolor—a four-act play with Miss Bernhardt in the leading part. This picture could then be circulated much as the coronation films or as Dante’s Inferno—as travelling attractions at higher prices than the five and ten cent picture shows ( New York Dramatic Mirror, 13 December 1911, p. 28).

Similarly, when Mrs. Fiske, “the first really great American actress,” agreed to preserve her act for eternity by signing a picture contract with Daniel Frohman to appear in her most famous role as Becky Sharp, the same trade journal reported that “the pictures will make up a complete evening’s entertainment, and will not be presented in the regular moving picture theaters, but in the prominent theaters and under special conditions.” (Mrs. Fiske’s first film was TESS OF THE D’URBERVILLES , Famous Players, 1913; she did not make the film VANITY FAIR until 1915, for Edison.) 5

With the increasing prestige of motion pictures, the situation began to change:

Scarcely a film company of any prominence but has been approached repeatedly on behalf of stars of the first magnitude looking to their appearance in some sort of feature film production. The stars have been willing enough, but the manufacturers have not seen the way clear to carrying the projects forward with profit&. Single reel pictures mar keted on the system that has been built up in this country could result in only moderate profit for each individual production. There is little or no fluctuation in output for any company from one release to another. Standing orders tend to bring all productions of each company to a dead level of circulation. It has been to the interest of each company, therefore, to improve and maintain its general standard of excellence, rather than to produce a big feature film once in a while ( New York Dramatic Mirror, 13 December 1911, p. 28).

When it came to departing from this rule, it was one of the members of the Motion Picture Patents company, Vitagraph, that led the way. In 1909, the same year that standardization in length was achieved throughout the industry, Vitagraph began to experiment with some multireel releases. However, as was to be the practice throughout most of 1909 and 1910, the multiple-reel films were released sequentially in single reels, a week apart. This may seem strange now, but it was the result of the existing distribution system (and was probably less strange to a public accustomed to the issuance of novels in weekly parts in periodicals). Each producer associated with the Motion Picture Patents Company—and the independent producers in the Sales

Company as well—had a specified release date during the week and a set number of reels, while the exchanges and the exhibitors had their standing orders. The highest price was for the first-day release, considered as one reel. To change this system meant changing everything. If you managed a high-class show house, you bought first run. If you had a second-class place and were unable to pay for first run, you had the option to run the separately released films together, as one film. Gradually, that did happen, but only when the films were no longer “new.”

When Vitagraph’s pretentious feature NNAPOLEON, THE MAN OF DESTINY (1909) ran at a crowded Broadway house, the manager was asked if it could be held over for another day, whereupon, “he launched forth against full reel subjects and said that what he wanted was short comedies so that the house could be emptied and filled more frequently.” 6 In fact, the film that the reluctant manager had shown was only one of the two reels of the feature known as THE LIFE OF NAPOLEON . The first part, NAPOLEON AND THE EMPRESS JOSEPHINE , had been released a week earlier. There was no imperative to run both reels together, because they were not treated as modern story films, with a continuous narrative. Rather, the first American “features” tended to revert to the pre-1908 forms. Thus the two Napoleon reels were tableau films, illustrating separately the events in Napoleon’s life. In the case of NAPOLEON, THE MAN OF DESTINY , these episodes were linked by memory: the great man himself was seated, sunk in reveries of past glories, each of which appeared in turn, announced by the date and place appearing directly on the image. The tableau style, consisting of a series of carefully composed scenes often resembling famous paintings or book illustrations of well-known events, was also typical of the passion plays, the earliest of the special features. It was not a matter of asking audiences to come back next week and see how the story turned out.

ITALIAN CAVALRY RIDE , an Italian film in two reels, was released in the United States by an independent firm in the same month as the Napoleon films. Made by Ambrosio and released by the Chicago Film Exchange on 28 April, it began its run outside the regular distribution system. The Eden Musee in New York showed it to great acclaim, and subsequently it made its way into the unlicensed nickelodeons, glowing with the prestige of the earlier showings. However, it is quite possible and indeed very likely that most nickelodeons did not show the full version. An advertisement in a trade periodical reveals that it could be had in a length of 2,100 feet, but a version of 800 feet was also available. Rather than change the system, the product could be cut to fit. 7

In July 1909, in time for the national holiday, Vitagraph released another two-reel film, THE LIFE OF GEORGE WASHINGTON , one reel at a time. This was followed in August by a truly ambitious work, LES MISÉRABLES , in four reels. All during the autumn months, the Vitagraph studio worked on the five-reel THE LIFE OF MOSES , which was also released, as all these films were, in separate reels. But in 1910 the same films began to be shown here and there as multireel features, with all the reels in the same program. THE LIFE OF MOSES was as good as a passion play, and all five reels were in the exchanges before Lent. “In large houses,” reported the World, “the entire five reels may be run in one day, preferably Sundays, or they can be run on successive days.” 8

The Shubert Theater in New Orleans, among others, ran all the reels together. In April 1910 they held the show over for eight days, which could not ordinarily be done in the first runs because the prints were always due elsewhere to meet the prior   commitments of the standing orders. The film was accompanied by piano and organ and a vocalist “to render ‘Holy City’ as Moses ascends the mountains to die.” As already noted, this was the theater whose manager boasted of attracting the best people in the city. 9

In addition to the Vitagraph multireel films, the 1909-1910 season saw the entry of longer foreign films into the American market. Other countries did not face the same limitations of an organized film industry in determining the length of their product, and when these foreign multireel films were imported, they would usually be shown outside the established distribution system, in their entirety instead of one reel at a time. It was Pathé Frères, a licensed producer, that first tried to change the practice of showing longer films in separate reels in the regular movie houses. Thus DRINK , the adaptation of Zola’s L’Assommoir that, as we have already seen, opened to “awestruck crowds” in October 1909, was shown complete—"in a magnificent 2,000-foot presentation"—in its first screenings. Pathé was still a foreign producer at that time, not having opened its American production studio, and its multireel productions were made for the European market. To get back the cost of bigger productions, Pathé would certainly have wanted to show them on the American market, and a special arrangement with the Patents Company may have been necessary to make this possible. 10

But DRINK faced other problems, as Jacques Berst of Pathé testified in 1913:

I remember it because we had quite some trouble in placing that film in the market. The exchanges at that time had no use for multiple reels, and they would not stand for it, and in order to be able to make them accept it, we had to release one reel one week and the second reel, the following week. They would not take it as a whole in one week. The market at that time was not adapted to multiple reel subjects ( US v. MPPC 4:1949 [December 1913]).

The resistance of exchanges and exhibitors is again demonstrated by the next part of the letter previously quoted, from three Los Angeles exhibitors who complained to the Motion Picture Patents Company in the autumn of 1909:

The ‘Pathe Drink Picture’ of some 2,100 feet, and costing us in the neighborhood of $235.00, has proven to be almost a dead loss to us, inasmuch as the larger cities do not want it and the smaller ones cannot use it. However, we are obliged to take it and pay the extra charges on coloring and acting (Clune, Tally, and Krantz, US v. MPPC 3:1465).

At just the same time, an editorial in the Moving Picture World reflected some industry concern about the trend to longer films. It was noted that among the current licensed releases, there were no less than seven subjects of about 1,000 feet. Few producers, it was argued, could fill 1,000 feet with excitement, and the average 600-foot film did much better with the public. 11

Part of the exchange men’s objections came from the fact that the licensed producers were using the new noninflammable stock, which at first was thicker than ordinary stock. A full 1,000-foot film could not be wound on a 10?-inch reel and could not fit in the magazine of the projector. This meant cutting out part of the film, which, distributers complained, represented “an absolute loss to the exchange. Secondly, where the film is too long, the first 50 feet and the last 50 feet are ruined in about one week of friction…. Members said they would cut off standing orders to those manufacturers who insisted upon sending out 1,000-foot subjects.” Over time, however, these problems were ameliorated by technological changes: the film stock, even the unsuccessful noninflammable type, was made thinner, and by August 1910 Edison was offering larger reels, up to eleven inches. In October of the same year, Motiograph advertisements for its new projector announced, “The fireproof film magazines have been made considerably larger … for films that may be considerably in excess of 1,000 feet.” They also described longer reel arms to accommodate the larger magazines. And by October 1913 the Moving Picture World reported, “The two-thousand-foot magazines now in use and growing in popularity promise to revolutionize present methods of presentation. A four-reel feature presented in two parts will seem much more acceptable than the four-reel division with its incident delays.” 12

The same exchanges that complained about the 1,000-foot films also objected to the release of two reels separately: people who had seen the first, they contended, did not come back for the second because they thought they had already seen the film. Different posters were needed to advertise each reel. The Reverend H. F. Jackson, resident clergyman on the staff of the World, further complained of the difficulty of reviewing these multireel films one reel at a time: “This instalment [sic] plan of presenting any important work is decidedly detrimental to its best interest.” 13

Despite all these problems with longer films, the limitations of the 1,000-foot reel were beginning to be felt. Louis Reeves Harrison, reviewing Edison’s THE STARS AND STRIPES in July 1910, asked rhetorically, “When are we going to have two-thousand-feet reels?” and added, “We miss the best part of the fight, the hand-to-hand conflict…. [There is] not enough room in a thousand-foot reel.” In November the World editorialized, “If filmmakers would put the same amount of good work in one subject four times the duration of four subjects, they would be able to produce … some of the best subjects of the times.” The same editorial called for an end to the daily change, noting the problems with Vitagraph’s UNCLE TOM’S CABIN , first shown in “sections,” and now being shown complete, but only for one day, so that the eager customer was unable to catch up with it. The daily change was yet another part of the distribution-exhibition system that the coming of the feature film altered. Feature films cost too much and took too long to make to show them for just one day. 14

Another editorial at the beginning of 1911 found that many films came to an abrupt and unsatisfactory conclusion and that the fault lay in conforming to the standard length of a reel:

It would seem that the time has come when the length of the film should in no way have anything to do with the subject matter; there is too much evidence of “cutting off” to the detriment of the continuity of the pictures and this slaughtering of the subject only increases the ambiguity of the whole…. Clear, well sustained plots, carried to a full and finished ending, leaving with the audience a feeling of satisfaction and completeness, are demanded (Moving Picture World, 7 January 1911, pp. 14–15).

When one of the Keith and Proctor houses in New York played the two reels of FAUST in July 1911 with two acts of vaudeville between them, the World’s W. Stephen Bush was shocked at such ignorance or hostility. Attempting to make the best of the system, Edwin Thanhouser later released a 1,500-foot film with a short film added to make it two reels. “It was a matter of being artistic,” he explained. “It seems too bad that a producer must sell a story in a given length.” Meanwhile, independent producer Herbert Miles felt himself forced to give in to the single-reel distribution system and announced in November 1911 that his Republic Film Company, “bowing to the will of the majority of the exhibitors in this country, … will no longer release two-reel films on the same day, but a week later.” 15

Overall, in the view of the World, at least, the new feature films were part of an upward trend in quality. In a June 1911 editorial, the journal had top praise for the two-reel ENOCH ARDEN (Biograph) and admired as well Vitagraph’s A TALE OF TWO CITIES :

It is bound to come and, in two or three years it will be the rule rather than the exception…. We cannot do justice to the subjects especially worth while in a thousand feet of film. The play, even with the spoken word, takes from two to three hours…. It is, however, absolutely es sential that two and three-reel subjects be shown together. To show one on Monday and the other on Thursday is ridiculous ( Moving Picture World, 17 June 1911, p. 1355).

At this point, however, the World’s gift for prophecy was undermined by the special interests of the editor, a professional film lecturer who now took the opportunity to state that such films needed to be accompanied by lectures. Otherwise, he declared, it is too much strain on the eye and the brain. In the same issue, a reviewer of ENOCH ARDEN pointed out:

Just as the absorption of the audience is complete, the first reel comes to an end. It is to be greatly regretted that upon the first run the second reel cannot be seen by the audience until June 15th, three days after the run of the first reel, but this is a disadvantage which can, of course, be overcome later ( Moving Picture World, 17 June 1911, pp. 1358-1359).

The lack of two projection machines was another factor that hampered the showing of multireel films. The first nickelodeons, running short films in a variety format, had no reason for more than one projector. Most newly built houses, acknowledging the growth in the length of the program, included a booth large enough for two projectors, but for a very long time to come, there were a lot of places where audiences had to wait while the reels were changed, even in high-priced theaters, if the projection facilities had not been modernized. In the days of single reels, the time needed to change reels had often been filled with an illustrated song or a vaudeville act, but that meant a loss in continuity for the multireel film.

When the three-reel TEMPTATIONS OF A GREAT CITY , a Danish import, was shown in 1911, a reviewer remarked: “The interest is so strong that one actually becomes impatient while the reels are being changed. We would advise exhibitors to use two machines, if possible, when showing this film.” 16

One other problem was, as far as I know, unique to Boston, where a city regulation of 1908 limited continuous showing time to twenty minutes, interspersed with another form of entertainment for at least five minutes. The original purpose of the law was said to have been to protect the eyesight of the spectators. It had never been consistently enforced, and in 1913, as feature films became common, there was a move to amend this outdated provision. 17

The titles at the end of reels in this period, when they have survived the wear and tear of projection, show that the break was expected. Like many of the surviving prints, THE BARGAIN , released as late as the end of December 1914, has a title at the end of the first reel that reads, “Part two of this picture will be shown in one minute.” When reel two begins, it is with a duplicate of the film’s main title.

More significantly, filmmakers also planned for the break in the construction of the film. To achieve a sense of completion in itself, each reel would reach a kind of conclusion at the end. Similar motives were at work even when all the reels were released together, because they might be shown with a break for the changes. It was thought desirable to end each reel in a kind of climax that would carry over the break. The next reel would then begin more slowly, to build up the interest once again and draw the spectator into the mood of the film. The structure of the multireel film was formed in the early years, and the climax or completion of an episode at the end of a reel continued long after it was made necessary by these conditions, a clear example of how exhibition practice can have an effect on the formal structure of films.

When Vitagraph’s three-reel A TALE OF TWO CITIES was announced for three release days in February 1911, F. H. Richardson admonished his readers:

Now Mr. Manager for the love of Mike don’t run these reels separately. Wait until all are released and run them together as a complete play…. In this I believe you are given a slight foretaste of what will be the future of the photoplay. I believe the time is not far off when complete plays of five, six or seven reels will be the regular thing, rather than the novelty ( Moving Picture World, 25 February 1911, p. 427).

His recommendation was followed by the Olympia Theater in Boston (illegally, according to the city ordinance), and exhibitors in Washington, D.C., in Brooklyn, and in Portland, Oregon. From Washington came the report that the film showing at the Pickwick

created quite a stampede before this house. For four days this film was eagerly sought by the public, who viewed the dramatization of the great novel with educational and entertaining interest. It is always Manager Brylawski’s intention to uplift the masses, so the usual price of five cents was maintained during the display of this costly film ( Moving Picture World, 25 March 1911, p. 639).

For the uplift movement, the feature film meant prestige. The biggest excitement of the spring 1911 season came from an Italian import, THE FALL OF TROY , though the version distributed was only two reels long. This was Giovanni Pastrone’s historical epic of 1910, L A C ADUTA DI T ROIA , the beginning of a series of Italian spectacle films that gave great impetus to the feature film in America. It was not its   length—by 1911 there were quite a lot of 2,000-foot films—but its lavish production values, sets, costumes, and crowds that impressed viewers. THE FALL OF TROY successfully revived (for American audiences) some of the earlier forms of narrative construction. It used a variety of spaces within the single shot for playing out its action without cutting, a practice not unknown in America but one that seemed fresh in 1911, which was a peak period for fast cutting of short shots, at least for those who worked at the forefront of modern American style. Similarly, THE FALL OF TROY reminded American filmmakers of the use of pans to follow action, another practice of the earlier days in America that had fallen off by 1911. Pastrone’s employment of this system prepared the way for the complex camera movements of his CABIRIA in 1914.

THE FALL OF TROY was a great succès d’estime for the Sales Company, which released it in competition with Vitagraph’s A TALE OF TWO CITIES . It ran for four days at the Virginian in Washington, D.C., thanks to an energetic manager who enlisted the participation of the local schools as part of their history courses, and when it was shown at the Janet Theater in Chicago, masses of people waited in the lobby and in the street to get in. At the Ideal Theater in Chicago, it broke all house records as people came back two and three times to see it again. The Exhibitors League of Ohio complained that the Sales Company did not buy enough copies of it to satisfy demand, in order to force exhibitors to take all the rest of their (very inferior) product. THE CRUSADERS; OR , JERUSALEM DELIVERED , in four reels, followed THE FALL OF TROY into the American market in July 1911 and was accordingly hailed as “the second great epic in films that has come to us from Italy.” 18

Meanwhile, American films were still being shown for the most part one reel at a time, and audiences were becoming impatient with the practice. When Thanhouser’s three-reel DAVID COPPERFIELD played the Gem in St. Louis in November 1911, the first reel was run and then “much disappointment resulted from the fact that the other two reels were not forthcoming.” 19

The licensed companies began to distribute some special features for purposes of uplift as well as to offset foreign and independent competition. At first, they offered such features as a group: all the member companies joined together in the release in order that no one company would get the benefit of the larger profit. One of the cooperative releases was the two-reel ROOSEVELT IN AFRICA , filmed by Cherry Kearton traveling with Theodore Roosevelt on a well-publicized big-game safari. The prints were made by the Pathé Company at its laboratory in Bound Brook and distributed by the licensed exchanges (about to be combined into General Film), which had to pay nearly double, twenty cents a foot. It was expected that the theaters would pay special prices as well, and that an advance admission would be charged. Kearton retained the right to market the film in Europe, although the prints were to be made by Pathé in America. 20

The Trust was not fortunate in these cooperative ventures, however. ROOSEVELT IN AFRICA , released on 18 April 1910, was a box-office failure (a “lemon,” the exhibitors called it), despite a big publicity campaign and despite the magic of Teddy Roosevelt’s name as an attraction. The next unlucky joint project was the filming of the 4 July 1910 prizefight in which Jack Johnson, a “person of color,” knocked out the white ex-champion, Jim Jeffries, in Reno, Nevada, where the fight had been moved after the governor of California refused to permit it to take place in that state. Prizefights and passion plays, a peculiar combination, certainly, had comprised the   first feature films made before 1907. Prizefights were not exactly high-class, and were illegal in most areas (but not the films of them). Nonetheless, society people sometimes attended the fights, and so did some of the moving-picture producers. Reformers’ protests against the brutality of prizefight films did not get far, until race prejudice got mixed up in the uplift game. “Pop” Rock, recently freed of his duties as the manager of the Vitagraph rental division by the organization of General Film, together with George Kleine, negotiated rights to film the fight on behalf of the combined producers of the Patents Company. J. Stuart Blackton undertook to oversee the filming of the fight with nine cameras in relays of three at a time, and the cameramen of Essanay, Selig, and Vitagraph worked together on the project. Blackton and Rock hurried back to New York from Reno with the fight negatives, planning a film longer than two hours, which would not be shown in the regular distribution system, of course, but at big theaters as a special attraction. 21

But national attention was now focused on the film. Had the aging white boxer won the fight over the young black upstart, the same uproar presumably would not have occurred. As it turned out, the film was banned in many cities, such as Washington, D.C., and Baltimore, Maryland, for the reason, said the officials, that the showing might cause a race riot. Why would it cause a race riot? Why, the blacks would take the occasion to gloat over the whites. Race riots did not erupt, but in every city there was a great deal of attention to the question of whether showings would be permitted, with racial feelings exacerbated in the process. The moving-picture trade papers called the “hue and cry … silly.” What these reformers should have done, they said, was to prevent the fight, not the showings of the film, and they further argued that the pictures would be shown as a full program in themselves and would be advertised as such. Those who did not want to see them could stay away. The World noted with alarm that “There was never a time when the general interests of the moving picture business were more at stake than during the period following the Johnson-Jeffries fight at Reno, Nevada. For years and years fights have been reproduced in moving pictures … with no intimation of objection.” This project really backfired on the Trust. 22

After his victory, Jack Johnson went into vaudeville, in the form of a filmed monologue about the fight, which was recorded on records for the Cinephone. He traveled with (and later married) a white woman. According to fight historian Jim Jacobs, this action resulted in the enactment of the Mann Act, under which Johnson was subsequently imprisoned. In any event, his notoriety displeased the forces of uplift. Later, film historian Terry Ramsaye quoted George Kleine as saying in justfication, “We were not so excited about making the fight picture, but we did not want some of the Independents to get them and do a lot of exploiting that would have been harmful to the business.” In other words, Kleine claims that the “irresponsible” independents would have stirred up more notoriety than the Trust, in order to promote the film. But Kleine could hardly have anticipated prior to the fight the storm of scandal that would erupt. In fact, I think the Trust’s only motive was trying to beat the Independents to the profit. 23

Two years later, as a direct result of the scandal, Congress made interstate traffic in fight films against the law. Until this happened, the Patents Company sold the fight film on a states’-rights basis, which enabled them to distance themselves a little from the notoriety. The film’s length, if nothing else, would have made it unsuitable for the regular distribution system. It was shown in the advanced-ticket theaters, that Page 203  is, in cities where it was permitted, such as New York, and there it was “a gold-mine.” 24

Frank Dyer, trying to explain the system of distribution, while at the same time illustrating the Trust’s efforts to try to upgrade the motion-picture business, testified in 1913 that “for a short period, a year or more ago [General Film] acquired certain multiple reel subjects by paying the negative costs of the manufacturers, and I know in one or two instances, extra payments to the manufacturers have been made over and above the footage price. The further exception is ‘From the Manger to the Cross,’ which we handled for the Kalem Company, and sold out the various State rights for most of the States.” The negative cost of FROM THEM ANGER TO THE CROSS , produced by the Kalem players when traveling in the Holy Land, was, he said, $25,000. 25

In a year-end summary of the important trends of 1911, the Mirror singled out “the tendency toward longer subjects” and went on to observe:

Films of more than one reel are no longer a curiosity, and, generally speaking, they have been received with favor. House managers who had found Vitagraph’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin in three reels a money maker for them became eager for other subjects of feature length, and again the manufacturers responded. Several films of two and three reels were issued during the year, and all found ready demand. Indeed, not a few met with phenomenal sale in Europe as well as America ( New York Dramatic Mirror, 31 January 1912, p. 51).

The “phenomenal” European sale of features was a convincing reason to enter into regular feature production for those Patents Company members who depended on the European market for an important part of their business. In May 1912 the Trust brought the multireel film into the system of distribution for ordinary movie theaters in an organized way by offering a special feature service through General Film, which could be obtained, in addition to the regular service, at a higher price. The service began with Selig’s three-reel THE COMING OF COLUMBUS , released on 6 May 1912.

The three reels of THE COMING OF COLUMBUS were meant to be released and shown together. However, the structure of the earlier multireel films carried over. Reel one ended with a big spectacle scene showing Columbus being named admiral by King Ferdinand, which, a reviewer noted, “forms a fitting close to the first reel.” Reel two ended with Columbus’ arrival in America and the planting of the Spanish flag. The final reel ended with Columbus being carried off in chains to Spain to stand trial, with an editorial comment in the last title, “Sic transit gloria virum.” The Latin tag gave class but was probably too much for the ordinary viewer, because on the surviving print the title appears in English as “So goes the Glory of Man.” Selig’s motive in selecting this subject was the presence in Lake Michigan of replicas of the Santa Maria, Pinta, and Nina given by the Spanish government to Chicago’s park commission after the Great Columbian Exposition. There was an additional advertising value in appealing to the Knights of Columbus, for whom special screenings were arranged. Later, a copy of the film was presented, through an emissary, to the pope, who responded with the gift of a special medal for Selig. 26

Only the larger theaters or higher-priced ones would buy the General Film Special Feature Service, because it cost more than the regular one, and this was to contribute Page 204  to the eventual forcing out of the nickelodeon. The little store show, with its limited seating capacity and five-cent admission, could not afford the feature service and lost out to the competition. For the producers and distributors, however, the Special Feature Service was the solution to the problem of the sporadic release of multireel films, which were really difficult to fit into a standing-order service. Now, it was agreed, two and three-reel films would be made by all the licensed companies on a regular basis. By November 1912, production of multireel features had reached a steady two per week, released every Monday and Friday, in addition to the fortytwo one-reel subjects per week. “They will not interfere with your releases regularly booked and are only an added attraction for your patrons,” advised General Film. 27

Not all the Patents Company producers were able to contribute at first, and Biograph contributed few if any multireel films to the special program until 1914. As in the case of some of the other Biograph policies, the reasons are not clear. Griffith was directing some two-reelers, none longer, with increasing frequency during 1912 and early 1913. In the summer of 1913 he made his first big four-reel spectacle, JUDITH OF BETHULIA , reportedly without the permission of the Biograph execu tives. The last multireel films he made for Biograph, including JUDITH OF BETHULIA , were put on the shelf and were not turned over to General Film for distribution until 1914, long after Griffith had left the company.

In a 1913 advertisement listing the two-reel releases produced by Kalem, Essanay, Vitagraph, Pathéplay, Selig, Lubin, and Cines-Kleine, General Film declared:

Some so-called features are merely single-reel stories “padded” to fill more than a thousand feet of film. Not so, however, with General Film features. In every case the story must require more than a thousand feet to tell it clearly or it is not accepted in the form of a multiple-reel. A favorite trick with some producers of features[?] is to use certain big scenes, as for example, a battle in a war drama, in several different pictures ( New York Dramatic Mirror, 4 June 1913, p. 31).

The longer the film grew, the more the producers had to struggle with the complexities of narrative. Feature films brought many of them back to the legitimate theater as a model. At the same time, feature films began to attract theatrical producers to the medium. In the fall of 1912 major theatrical interests began to get seriously involved in the motion picture, and there was an enormous amount of excitement about the future of the long film. One reason for the renewed interest of theatrical managers was clearly the tremendous publicity and prestige surrounding the importation of Sarah Bernhardt’s QUEEN ELIZABETH that summer. Managers thought that with multireel films and the new talking-picture devices, it would soon be possible to produce “canned theater” and send it out on the road like so many stock companies. Robert Grau, himself a theatrical manager, predicted:

The season of 1912-1913 will be a noteworthy one, in that the leading theatrical managers who were wont to decry the motion picture industry are nearly all interested heavily in what are called special releases, and it is a fair statement to proclaim that one-third of the nation’s playhouses will revert to the silent drama, while a score of new and palatial theatres will be dedicated solely to its use. The Metropolitan

Opera House ’ will be the scene of A. H. Woods’s film production of Max Rembrandt’s [sic] The Miracle. ’ Nathaniel C. Goodwin and Blanche Walsh are emulating Bernhardt and Rejane in capitulating to the cameraman, and Madame Nazimova is to follow in their footsteps. ’ At least two of our greatest inventors have announced that all the problems for the perfect synchronization of the cinematograph and the phonograph have already been solved, and already in Europe the chronophone (the Gaumont invention) is a sensational success, in that ’ Il Trovatore, is to be heard. ’ In the Fall the Edison speaking pictures will make their advent ’ ( New York Dramatic Mirror, 24 July 1912, p. 13).

In fact, the Edison “speaking pictures” were not ready until February 1913 and then not truly ready. When the Chicago press saw the demonstration at the Palace Theater, a report noted that while the registration was perfect, the sound quality was not, and the conditions of recording appeared to be quite limiting. But of course, he said, Edison would be able to perfect it, and then “we will hear and see Sothern and Marlowe, Nazimova, Mrs. Fiske and all the rest for the modest sum of fifty cents. Later we will hear and view them for a quarter, and then a dime.” Other companies revived all the failed projects and inventions for sound films that littered this period, but the story was the same. Synchronization, amplification, and fidelity were not Page 206  sufficiently satisfactory in practice to justify investments in new equipment for the theaters, nor for the producers to make drastic changes in their production methods. The “talkies” remained a novelty for traveling showmen to exploit in the big theaters on a temporary basis. Sound was still much desired, in the name of realism. “It is unnatural to see something happen that naturally produces a noise and hear nothing,” declared an advertisement for the Excelsior Sound Effect Cabinet in November 1913. 28

The feature-length film brought new interest in novels as well as plays as source materials for the motion picture. Short stories and episodes gleaned from newspapers, satisfactory as sources for one-reel films, were beginning to seem insufficient for multireel features. Nell Shipman, an experienced scenarist and movie agent for the top-selling novelists, signed up George Randolph Chester, Emerson Hough, Louis Edmund Vance, and Anna Katharine Green. “The growing demand for the book photodrama marks another milestone in the advance of the photoplay industry, and in keeping with this spirit of progress, it is unlikely that any more 500 or 1,000 feet scenarios will emanate from Nell Shipmans pen,” announced the Mirror. Hobart Bosworth achieved a great publicity coup by signing a contract with Jack London for all his works to be filmed in multireel features. London himself appeared in introductory passages of these films as a kind of guarantee of authenticity. The first one filmed was T HE S EA W OLF , in seven reels, released in December 1913 and distributed on a states-rights basis. 29

The peculiarities of the system that caused multireel films to be issued one reel at a time on the first run also made the industry receptive to one of the genres mentioned in the last chapter, the serial. Series films, with separate stories but common leading characters, were made by Kalem in 1909 in their GIRL SPY series, by Biograph the same year in their MR. AND MRS . JONES series, and by Yankee in 1910 in their GIRL DETECTIVE series.

In 1912 the Edison Company teamed up with the Ladies’ World to publish the stories of the WHAT HAPPENED TO MARY series in conjunction with the release of the film versions. The practice of linking films with serial publication in magazines and newspapers was the essential ingredient that now led to the great success of the serial. The scheme provided enormous publicity for the films from a source that had previously given scant attention to movies (except to attack their scandalous nature): the daily newspapers, which had discovered a potent device for increasing circulation. The MARY series, starring Mary Fuller, is usually not classed as a serial, since each story was supposed to be complete in itself, but in fact, there was some suspense introduced: at the end of episode 3, for example, audiences were left with the question: “Which way will she choose?” And they were expected to return to see the next episode. The standing-order system meant that a theater that got the first run of a specific company would show all the episodes of a series as soon as they appeared. The import of Feuillade’s FANTOMAS late in 1913 gave impetus to the suspenseful ending that eventually defined serials: “The end of the feature leaves the spectator in profound suspense. It was the exact psychological moment for the ‘Continued in Our Next’ effect,” remarked Stephen Bush. The long chapters characteristic of the European serials, however, did not catch on. Many American serials consisted of one-reel chapters; some were two reels and began the first chapter with three reels, but none were four or five reels. The restrictions of the distribution system were no doubt influential here as elsewhere. 30

The series of films usually defined as the first real serial was THE ADVENTURES OF KATHLYN , starring Kathlyn Williams. The first chapter, “The Unwelcome Guest,” was released by the Selig Company on 29 December 1913, simultaneously with serial publication of the story in the Chicago Tribune. At the end of January 1914, Edison brought out DOLLIE OF THE DAILIES , starring Mary Fuller, which was syndicated to a group of newspapers. Pathé-Eclectic’s THE PERILS OF PAULINE , directed by Louis J. Gasnier and starring Pearl White, began on 23 March 1914, and Thanhouser’s MILLION DOLLAR MYSTERY in June. By the end of the year, Thanhouser had launched ZUDORA , and Pathé THE EXPLOITS OF ELAINE . The suspense ending that came to characterize the silent serial is perfectly illustrated by the ending of the twelfth episode of THE PERILS OF PAULINE : someone has sent Pauline a basket of flowers in which a large snake has been hidden, and she buries her nose in the flowers. “There the film ends, which is something like breaking off a story in the middle of a sentence,” commented one bemused reviewer. 31

Lubin neatly met the problem of exhibitors’ differing needs with its first serial, “a series of single reel dramatic photoplays under the general title of THE BELOVED ADVENTURER .” Begun on 14 September 1914, this series was based on stories by Emmett Campbell Hall that were to be published in book form at the same time and distributed by the film company at a special low price as a promotional item. Arthur

Johnson and Lottie Briscoe were the stars. The advertisement presented the serial as “a series of 15 single reel dramatic pictures, which might be run singly, as released or used in threes and fives as special features.” Such flexibility toward changing distribution and exhibition practices was characteristic of the business brains of the Lubin Company. Unfortunately, there were other factors that prevented Lubin, like the other Trust companies, from surviving long after this period. 32

By 1914, which might be called the year of the serials, some theaters were specializing in feature-length films, and the serial, like the single comedy reel and the newsreel, fit neatly into the program. All three genres were equally adaptable to the theaters still running single-reel programs.

On 21 April 1913 the Italian spectacle film Quo VADIS? premiered at the Astor Theater in New York, presented by the theatrical managers Cohan & Harris. The New York Dramatic Mirror headlined it as “A Masterpiece.” The film was accompanied by the Wurlitzer Automatic Orchestra, and following stage conventions, the eight reels were shown in three acts, with intermissions. “The scenes have depth, and the massive furnishings appear so genuine,” wrote the reporter, “that the spectator feels as if he might walk down the orchestra aisle and enter Nero’s banquet hall.” All the most thrilling scenes, including the eating of the Christians by the lions, won spontaneous applause. 33

By June, while QUO VADIS ? was running twice daily at the Astor, the film was also playing at McVicker’s Theater in Chicago, the Garrick Theater in Philadelphia, the Academy of Music in Baltimore, and Teller’s Broadway Theatre in Brooklyn, and was Page 211  just beginning its run at the Cranby Theatre in Norfolk, Virginia. It was being booked as a theatrical attraction by Cohan & Harris, rather than through the moving-picture theater distribution system. The shrewd importer of this big success was George Kleine. It was bought through his contract with the Italian producer Cines, which had replaced Gaumont productions in his licensed imports when the Gaumont contract ended on 1 January 1912. 34

George Kleine, a stalwart member of the Trust, had nonetheless reached outside the system the Trust had established to find a way to release the big Italian feature. The success of QUO VADIS ? was so enormous that Kleine decided to invest in the production of more Italian spectacles and distribute them in road-show companies. He contracted with Ambrosio for OTHELLO and THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII (GLI ULTIMI GIORNI DIP OMPEII ). The language of the contract describes some of the characteristics of the Italian spectacle film: “There is to be the most liberal use of performers, and one or more scenes are to be spectacular in the full extent of the word. The staging in all scenes is to be as elaborate as possible.” 35

For the release of THE LAST DAYS OF POMPEII , Kleine hired the Chicago composer Palmer Clark to write a fifty-page score, which was bound and sent in advance to the theater musicians. “This is probably the first case on record where a composer has been hired to write his score from the motion picture,” announced the publicity story. (It was not.) When it was shown at the De Luxe Theater on Wilson Avenue in Chicago, “despite the fact that the evening was cold and rainy, a mob swarmed into the De Luxe, almost wrecking the box office, and requiring special police to keep order.” Although they may have almost wrecked the box office, this was definitely not a nickelodeon audience: “One significant fact was the appearance of hundreds of automobile parties, whose cars lined the streets for blocks on either side.” Kleine was building a big studio outside Turin when the outbreak of war in 1914 brought an end to these expansive plans. 36

Attending a movie theater where only short films were shown was an everyday affair, but attending a feature was a special event. In December 1913 Jacques Berst of Pathé testified that special features were the most important part of the program: “The public nowadays … think a special feature of two or three reels [is] like if they go to a theatre and see a big show, whereas in the single reels, of course, it seemed to get to be monotonous and an every-day affair.” This impression was confirmed by Harry Marsey, an exhibitor in Buffalo, New York: “It seems it is the general sentiment of the people. They want to see features or productions produced in more than one reel. It is a case where everybody is doing it, and we had to do it too.” But, he added, “I, personally, do not favor it.” 37

Matthew Hansen, an exhibitor with three theaters in Yonkers, New York, stated that he was exhibiting six reels of special features a week; twelve features each week (two new ones each day) at the Getty Square Theatre: “One each day I get from the Page 213  General Film Company and one from an outside source.” At the other theaters, he was showing “licensed, with every now and then, to strengthen the show, an outside feature.” Asked if special features were an important part of the program in his theaters, he replied: “I consider it so, for the simple reason that up to three weeks ago at Getty Square, we were playing for a five-cent admission to the General Film program of four reels, and I decided to put in an outside feature each day and advance the admission to ten cents, and my business has just doubled.” 38

Ike Van Ronkel, manager of a Chicago branch of General Film, gave the following details of the distribution situation at the end of 1913: “Famous Players can now supply a feature a week that is a full evening’s entertainment, exhibitors are getting regular short film service from either General Film Company, Universal or Mutual for six days a week and taking Famous Players features on the seventh day. The toprated features rent for $50. a night, while the short film service the rest of the week averages $45. Exhibitors are paying more for one night than for the rest of the week. If that isn’t convincing evidence that features are the future, I don’t know what is.” And still farther to the West, G. P. Hamilton, president of the Albuquerque Film Manufacturing Company reported that in New Mexico and adjoining states, “Features are the thing right now. They’re all using features, mostly the three-reelers. The exhibitors in the West will go to all sorts of trouble to book a feature, and then they play it up well in advance, especially the fellows in the remote and inaccessible towns where it is hard to get features because of shipping troubles. Features sure have a grip on them out there.” 39

But had the feature film replaced the short-film program by the beginning of 1915? Let us look at the release charts published in the Moving Picture World for the month of December 1914, as shown in the accompanying table.

Long features might well be getting all the attention, and some theaters were beginning to play features every day, but the figures make it clear that single or double reels were still shown on a regular basis. Many theaters used the formula of a regular service of short films, as in the past, but added a Sunday evening show with features booked separately from one of the companies specializing in them.

In a series of articles written in July 1914 on the passing of the single-reel film, Stephen Bush admitted that there were still many small-house exhibitors showing eight or nine reels for five cents, while the newer, bigger houses were showing features at ten to twenty cents. In fact, the length of the program had nothing much to do with the higher admission prices: it was the special qualities of the “features,” even though these may have been only two- or three-reel films. 40

In spite of the enthusiasm for features, exhibitors holding a convention in New York in June 1914 passed a resolution in which they “expressed their disapproval of the production of reels of 1,000 feet and upward.” They proposed that manufacturers reduce the unit to 500 feet. At the end of the year, P. A. Powers, president of the United Film Service, called for a return to the five-cent admission (many theaters did still charge five cents at this time) and continued to maintain that film is “a form of variety,” not comparable to the legitimate stage. 41

The feature film was the future, certainly, but it was viewed with reluctance, even disbelief, by many distributers and exhibitors. As for producers, there were conservatives among both the licensed and the independent companies. “That the single reel photo-drama is the keystone of the motion-picture industry becomes more apparent daily,” Colonel Selig observed in July 1914, explaining, “Patrons of the film drama want their programs as diversified as possible.” He acknowledged that feature films were valuable, but, he said, “These will be offered in another class of theaters.” Horace G. Plimpton at Edison was more uncertain of the future. In his view, the 1913 craze was overdone, and now there was a reaction against the four- and five-reelers. 42

The future belonged to other producers.

The Lid Comes Off - Kinemacolor [next]

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