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Watching the Screen - Fan Magazines, Trade Papers, The MPPDA

film picture industry motion

T he feature film was born during the heroic age of American journalism, when even an average-size town might offer its citizens a wide selection of morning and afternoon papers. As noted elsewhere, various newspapers and their publishers involved themselves in motion pictures very early on, specifically in the production of newsreels, animated cartoons, and serials. William Randolph Hearst’s Cosmopolitan studio even used short fiction from the Hearst press as a source for features.

Film as a subject for newspaper coverage was another matter, one that proved especially attractive to the more aggressive papers of the day. In this regard, it is an unfortunate accident of history that the one newspaper whose film reviews are most easily accessible, the New York Times, was never very interested in motion pictures and gave them extremely low priority throughout the silent period. Not only is the entire run of Times film reviews reprinted, but there is also a volume of highlights and a multivolume selection of Times feature articles on film, which generally are of far greater value than the reviews. The level of criticism in the Times was so shallow that many historians, looking here first and assuming that it represented the current journalistic standard, dismiss newspaper reviews of the period out of hand. Myron Lounsbury, for example, in an otherwise comprehensive analysis of early American film criticism, manages to ignore newspaper reviewing altogether. But the broad market penetration of American newspapers during the first decades of this century suggests that their coverage of film was of real significance in shaping the way their readers approached the phenomenon of motion pictures. 1

While film might be covered on the same arts page that dealt with the legitimate stage, the cinema’s relatively recent arrival put it in a very different category from music or theater. The first newspaper coverage of motion pictures presented them as a technological phenomenon (“Edison’s marvel”), then as a social problem (“nickel madness”), and ultimately as an economic statistic (“the nation’s fourth largest industry”). The movies were news before they were art, and so the earliest film reviews in American newspapers were straightforward accounts of news events.

Not yet worthy of a by-line, the generally anonymous reviewers of the era tell us what happened when they went to the picture show. They report not only on the film but on the theater, the audience, the stage performance, even the weather. It should be remembered that the film was not always the most significant element of this mix anyway, and that critical commentary was usually extracted from the sum of these parts. “Judging from the comments of the auditors who were a unit in declaring it to be one of the greatest pictures they had ever seen, this picture promises to be the most talked about film ever seen in Paterson,” wrote one small-town critic, reviewing BLIND HUSBANDS (1919) by reporting on the audience response. 2 Often, owing to a lack of press screenings and the short duration of many runs, some “reviews” would be simple announcements, pasted together from press handouts, trade papers, or out-of-town notices.

Pressure to use editorial space as a reward for advertising was traditional in the newspaper industry and was certainly reflected in reviews and feature articles. To what extent this occurred varied from paper to paper, with some critics purportedly quite independent (Richard Watts, Jr., on the New York Herald Tribune, for example), others simply reprinting distributors’ press handouts under their own bylines.

By the 1920s many more writers were signing their reviews, but the ultimate goal was still more journalistic than critical. Instead of developing an aesthetic of cinema, these men and women used their columns as literary sounding boards for pontificating, amusing, cajoling, or otherwise entertaining their growing readership. Ward Marsh of the Cleveland Plain Dealer, Harriette Underhill of the New York Tribune, and Kitty Kelly of the Chicago Examiner are all worth reading for these period insights, but perhaps the most interesting was the reviewer of the Chicago Daily News, poet Carl Sandburg. 3 From 1920 to 1927 Sandburg discussed films and film stars, interviewed visiting celebrities, and generally enjoyed the opportunity to speak his mind regarding this powerful new cultural force. Like most reviewers, he reviewed the show as much as the film, and the best of his columns deal with the larger social phenomenon involved as much as with any particular picture. His thoughts on UNDERWORLD are an example:

The scene is yesterday at noon. The doors of the Roosevelt Theater swing open and crowds wander out. A “spill” has come—a “spill” being the departure of large groups of customers at the end of the picture.

Those faces look exhausted, eyes turn up and down State Street as in a daze. Underworld has left them limp, these Chicagoans who have come to see the gunmen and gangsters of their city brought at last to the screen.

Within the theater packed rows of faces are staring as the picture starts again on its endlessly circling path of savagery. Faces have been rapt and nerves have dangled in suspense here before, but never like this (Chicago Daily News, 14 November 1927, reprinted in Carl Sandburg at the Movies, p. 189).

Such reportage assumed that going to the movies meant more than just watching a film, and like a good newpaperman, Sandburg was able to use his column to comment on something beyond the immediate issue at hand. Few daily reviewers were able to accomplish this very consistently, but the fact that the attempt was being made is one of the critical hallmarks of the period.

Fan Magazines

The earliest fan magazines, Motion Picture Story and Photoplay, were founded in 1911, essentially as short-fiction magazines trading on the increasing popularity of films and film stars. Most of their pages were filled with plot synopses of one- and two-reelers, while star portraits, letters to the editor, popularity contests, and rambling editorial columns made up the rest. In January 1915 James R. Quirk became vice-president of Photoplay and, substantially revising its editorial policy, first appointed Julian Johnson editor, then took full editorial control himself in 1920. Quirk strove to eliminate the synopses and increase the magazine’s critical and informational content, bringing in as reviewer the respected legitimate critic Burns Mantle, editor of the annual Best Plays. Occasionally Quirk himself fired an editorial salvo, most notoriously his 1922 blast at FOOLISH WIVES as “an insult to every American.” 4

That Quirk could be so inflamed only underscores the high regard in which he held film, as well as his notion of film criticism as an active method of improving the field by educating filmmakers and audiences alike. His own standards were too idiosyncratic for any reader to fully comprehend, but more important than the reviews in Quirk’s Photoplay were the feature pieces. Adela Rogers St. Johns contributed a witty series of profiles and interviews, and it was for Photoplay that Terry Ramsaye originally composed his massive industry history, A Million and One Nights. Quirk’s main competition was provided by Eugene V. Brewster, co-founder of Motion Picture Story (after 1914 simply Motion Picture) as well as Motion Picture Classic (1915–1931) and Shadowland (1919–1923). Motion Picture proclaimed itself “the oldest, largest, and best movie magazine in the world,” but while it did antedate Photoplay by several months and exceeded it in circulation, its editorial policy (and layout) was largely derivative of Quirk’s magazine (table 7.1). With much of Motion Picture’s editorial space still devoted to plot summaries as late as 1919, there was correspondingly less space available for interviews and features, and in any case, Hazel Simpson Naylor was no Adela Rogers St. Johns. When Motion Picture did find some room for a serious piece, the tone was often more adventurous than what could be found in Photoplay, however. Katherine Anne Porter interviewed boyish film star Charles Ray in the October 1920 issue, and Harry Carr’s continuing series on Hollywood directors set an agenda for decades of auteur criticism to follow.

Brewster’s Motion Picture Classic was an upscale version of Picture, with occasional feature pieces by Matthew Josephson or Jim Tully, the celebrated “tramp author” whose biographical sketches of film personalities also appeared in Vanity Fair. Laurence Reid handled the film reviews. Shadowland was the most elaborate of Brewster’s journals, although, belying its title, it usually included only a single film article per issue. Covering the entire art scene, Shadowland featured highbrow prose and artistic photography, with a liberal sprinkling of nude studies. Its discussion of movies on the same plane as poetry, photography, or modern dance marked a major step in the acceptance of film as serious business by the more fashionable elements of eastern society. Other journals were far less ambitious, as in the case of Bernarr MacFadden’s Movie Weekly (1921–1925), which, as Anthony Slide notes, operated more like a modern fan magazine, eliminating serious criticism and concentrating on sensational scandals and exposés. 5

For the most part, fan magazines in this period served a highly educative function, rather than simply providing readers with data on the latest releases or the private lives of movie stars. While critical standards were generally diffuse, these magazines did suggest various aesthetic bases for differentiating “good” from “bad” and supplied their readers with enough technical, social, and economic background to help inform their decisions. The interviews and features were often quite detailed and contain material of considerable value to scholars and historians. Unfortunately, even the best of these magazines are only sporadically indexed today.

Trade Papers

For those within the industry, information and opinion were shaped by a number of aggressive trade papers, each competing for the same limited number of subscribers. The film business had first been discussed in general entertainment-industry papers such as the New York Clipper or Variety, which began covering short films as acts in 1907. Most important was the New York Dramatic Mirror, whose film reviewer, Frank Woods, is often cited as the first significant American film critic. But by 1915 Woods was writing for D. W. Griffith, the Dramatic Mirror’s film section was in decline, and even Variety had been surpassed by newer papers devoted solely to the motion-picture industry. 6

Chief among these was the Moving Picture World (1907–1927), which, setting a standard for the broadest possible coverage, reviewed current releases and published news, features, and interviews relating to all aspects of the industry. The vast quantity of advertisements published each week was by itself enough to make the World a veritable industry encyclopedia. An exhibitor-oriented paper whose genesis coincided with the original nickelodeon boom, it also carried regular columns on projection, advertising, and theater music. At its height in 1915, when the annual pagination reached 8,930, the World was a significant industry force and remains of great value to this day, although more for the raw data it provides than for its reviews. 7

Very similar in format was the Motion Picture News, edited by William A. Johnston (1913–1929), which supplanted the World in importance after about 1920. The appeal to the theater owner was even stronger here, with extensive exploitation tips appended to reviews (often by the perceptive Peter Milne), much coverage of theater design and operation, and a continuing “Check Up” column in which the box-office performance of every feature in release could be tracked via exhibitors’ reports.

The same general format was also employed by the Exhibitor’s Trade Review (1916–1926) and the Exhibitor’s Herald (founded in 1915); the Herald contained the classic “What the Picture Did for Me” column, where theater owners from across the country described with relish their experiences with every release. For example, there was this warning, submitted by W. S. Feezor of Badin, North Carolina:

If there ever was a flop this is the climax. What is Famous Players trying to do? It seems as if they are trying to discourage the exhibitors and trying to keep them from using their product. Wet Paint was sold to me for a comedy, and there was not a laugh in it. I am still looking for the laugh. Brother Exhibitors, beware of Wet Paint, as it is the third piece of cheese from Raymond Griffith (Exhibitor’s Herald, 28 August 1926, pp. 67–68).

The Exhibitor’s Herald combined with the Moving Picture World in 1927, then merged with the Motion Picture News in 1931 to create the Motion Picture Herald, which united all the major weeklies under the editorship of Exhibitor’s Herald publisher Martin Quigley. 8

Less encyclopedic (if more idiosyncratic) were a variety of smaller papers intended to fill gaps in the big weeklies’ coverage. In 1915 Wid Gunning published Wid’s Films and Film Folks, which became Wid’s Daily in 1918. Carrying no advertising, the paper sold itself on the strength of Gunning’s enthusiastic and purportedly unbiased reviews. “Tell ’ em this is Bill’s latest and oil up the ticket machine” was Wid’s characteristic way of approving the latest William S. Hart release. 9 The paper took on a more sober air under the editorship of Joe Dannenberg, who changed its name to the Film Daily in 1922. From 1918 it published the standard industry reference annual, Wid’s Yearbook (later the Film Daily Yearbook of Motion Pictures ).

Harrison’s Reports, published from 1919 by P. S. Harrison, was a slim tip sheet that combined extremely opinionated (and cold-blooded) reviews with insider information on “real” picture grosses and distributor-exhibitor relations. Harrison’s Reports had the most contentious producer relations of all the trades and was capable of calling a film like G REED “the filthiest, vilest, most putrid picture in the history of the motion picture business.” 10

Similiar to Harrison’s Reports in their personal approach, but far more thoughtful in their critical policies, were the Film Mercury (1924–1933), edited by Tamar Lane, and the Hollywood Spectator (1926–931), edited by Welford Beaton. Both men were interested enough in the art of the film to have written serious books on the subject, and they tried to infuse this feeling into their analyses of the weekly releases. What Stanley Kaufmann has said about Beaton’s work might just as well be applied to the best writing in the other trades: “There was a great consciousness that the trade critic’s best way to help the industry was to write the most vigorous, informed criticism that he could, emphasizing expertness about films and studios and picture people without slavishness to business criteria.” The late silent period would prove the heyday of such papers, as industry economics in the early Depression years forced many journals to merge and drove the more personal publications out of business. 11


The industry’s problems with censorship reached a peak in 1921. The proliferation of state and local censor boards, each with its own set of standards, created an unmanageable problem for the expanding producer-distributor-exhibitor combines. The recent burst of theater construction had been torpedoed by the postwar recession, and box-office receipts were down. Fierce competition for the remaining customers forced producers to resort to a reliable theatrical remedy: releases for the 1920–1921 season included such titles as THE AFFAIRS OF A NATOLE , BLIND WIVES , THE BLUSHING BRIDE , THE BRANDED WOMAN , THE CHILD THOUG AVEST ME , DISCONTENTED WIVES , A DIVORCE OF CONVENIENCE , DON’T CHANGE YOUR HUSBAND , EVER SINCE EVE , FORBIDDEN FRUIT , GODLESS MEN , THE GOOD BAD WIFE , THE INFAMOUS MISS REVELLE , THE LEOPARD WOMAN , LURING LIPS , NO MAN’S WOMAN , PASSION’S PLAYGROUND , THE PLAYTHING OF BROADWAY , THE RESTLESS SEX , SHAME , SHORT SKIRTS , SILK HOSIERY , THE INS OF ROSANNE , SQUANDERED LIVES , THE TRUTH ABOUT HUSBANDS , WHAT’S YOUR REPUTATION WORTH ?, WHY G IRLS LEAVE HOME , and WITHOUT BENEFIT OF CLERGY . 28

There was also a growing connection in the public mind between the content of films like these and the life-styles of the men and women who created them. In the spring of 1920 a brief press flurry surrounded the Reno divorce of Mary Pickford, and her husband Owen Moore’s charges of fraud, collusion, and “insufficient residence” in the state of Nevada. Pickford had married Douglas Fairbanks only four weeks after her initial decree had been granted, but the Nevada courts ultimately ruled against Moore. 29

Support for the National Board of Censorship had all but evaporated. Since 1919 the major producers, operating through the National Association of the Motion Picture Industry (NAMPI), had begun organizing for self-regulation, calling for a boycott of noncomplying exhibitors and avoiding the Board altogether. In a series of muckraking exposés early in 1921, the Brooklyn Eagle showed how industry money was used to pay the salaries of Board commissioners, who would then steer trouble-some films to the more lenient of the “volunteer” reviewing committees. It also revealed specific financial interests in the motion-picture business on the part of several Board members. Hearings in the Albany legislature that followed quickly led to the passage of the Clayton-Lusk Bill, which established a state censorship board in the nation’s most important market. Virginia would establish its board the following year. 30

Pressure for federal censorship was mounting, led once again by Dr. Wilbur Crafts. At a meeting with NAMPI representatives in March 1921, he forced the industry to admit the need for censorship and, rejecting their plea for internal controls, insisted on an official federal body instead. On 2 August, Senator Myers of Montana, focusing on NAMPI’s avowed lobbying activities and its public support of various state and local candidates, called for an investigation of the motion-picture industry by the Senate judiciary committee. 31

The industry tried to coopt these efforts in several ways. Straightforward political pressure was the most direct method, but Carl Laemmle’s invitation for all censors to meet with filmmakers at Universal City was perhaps the most imaginative. The reason given was for the censors to view a rough cut of Universal’s million-dollar production FOOLISH WIVES , to offer their advice on refinements of the editing, and to learn something of filmmaking from the producers’ perspective. Members of the Pennsylvania, Maryland, Kansas, Chicago, and Boston boards took advantage of the junket, as did several Canadian censors and a representative of the National Board. They were shown a lengthy cut of FOOLISH WIVES (variously given as 24 reels or 17,000 feet) and issued a statement that allowed Laemmle to headline, months before the film’s official release, "Censors Approve ‘Foolish Wives.’ " But as the studio house organ indicated, the group had little time in their schedule for such official duties: “Surf bathing in the opalescent spray of the Pacific, meeting with other producers at elaborate luncheons, intimate contact with Universal stars at work and at play, a day on Harry Carey’s ranch, a magnificent banquet at the famous Sunset Inn, and a week-end at Catalina Island” left them exhausted as they checked out of their Beverly Hills Hotel suites a week later. 32 The members were back in their Page 206  offices by Labor Day, just in time to read all about the worst Hollywood scandal of the decade.

Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, one of the most popular and highly paid of all Hollywood stars, was being held in San Francisco on murder charges. At a wild party thrown by Arbuckle at the St. Francis Hotel, a would-be starlet, Virginia Rappe, was taken violently ill and died soon after in a local sanatorium. Her associates brought charges against Arbuckle for the death. The evidence against Arbuckle was clearly suspect, but the ambitious San Francisco district attorney, Matthew Brady, decided to pursue the Hollywood star in the courts with a case based on sensationalism and innuendo. 33

The press went wild. Fed by rumors, lies, and half-truths, they condemned Arbuckle as a rapist and murderer. While most of Arbuckle’s friends and employers had originally supported him, the tide began to turn when his first trial (on manslaughter charges) resulted in a hung jury. By the time Arbuckle’s second trial began, on 11 January 1922, industry leaders had already announced that Will Hays, President Harding’s postmaster general, was leaving the cabinet to supervise the cleanup of Hollywood. 34

Hays’s vehicle for this campaign would be a new organization, the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America (MPPDA). Far from limiting his powers to the scandal and to censorship problems, Hays would serve as front man for the industry on a range of issues. But he needed to quell these disturbances before he could deal with matters of industry finance, competition, and antitrust investigation. On 2 February 1922 director William Desmond Taylor was found shot to death in his Los Angeles home; rumors of sex and drugs reached the press, and both Mary Miles Minter and Mabel Normand were implicated. The following day, the second Arbuckle jury reported itself hopelessly deadlocked. 35 By this time FOOLISH WIVES had finally opened, and the state censors did a double take. After first approving the film, the New York board ordered it withdrawn from exhibition for further cutting. Universal hastily complied. 36

Not until 12 August was there a final verdict in the Arbuckle case: an acquittal, complete with an apology to Arbuckle on the part of the jurors. Unfortunately, it had come too late. Women’s groups across the country, stirred by the press campaign, had been agitating for months to remove Arbuckle’s films from the theaters. To his employers at Paramount, their one-time star was now a significant liability. Hays exercised his new authority for the first time, six days after the acquittal, and banned Arbuckle from the screen. This unconscionable act succeeded in making Arbuckle the scapegoat for all the industry’s moral shortcomings. Hays established his bona fides by taking action against Arbuckle, a move that lent credibility to the informal industry censorship he was about to establish. Whereas reformers had previously rejected all industry pleas for self-regulation, they now accepted the notion from Hays. After 1922 no more states established censorship boards, and the MPPDA successfully lobbied against all bills for federal regulation.

To complete his cleanup, Hays promoted a “gentlemen’s agreement” within the industry involving the so-called thirteen points, which were intended to eliminate pictures that:

  1. dealt with sex in an improper manner
  2. were based on white slavery
  3. made vice attractive
  4. exhibited nakedness
  5. had prolonged passionate love scenes
  6. were predominantly concerned with the underworld
  7. made gambling and drunkenness attractive
  8. might instruct the weak in methods of committing crime
  9. ridiculed public officials
  10. offended religious beliefs
  11. emphasized violence
  12. portrayed vulgar postures and gestures, and
  13. used salacious subtitles or advertising

This agreement lacked any means of interpretation or enforcement, and in February 1924 the MPPDA adopted a “formula” that gave the thirteen points some organizational credibility. Story departments were requested to submit to the MPPDA office readers’ reports on all preexisting story material under consideration (original scripts were excepted), along with readers’ opinions on any “questionable theme or treatment.” That year, sixty-seven stories were rejected by the MPPDA, but submission of reports and adherence to MPPDA judgments was still voluntary. 37

Hays’s lobbying skills succeeded in fending off new legislation, but the existing state boards were not mollified by this lenient form of self-regulation, and reformist agitation continued. In 1927 the “formula” was considerably strengthened by the adoption of a series of “Don’ts and Be Carefuls” based on the original thirteen points.

Members now specifically agreed to avoid eleven objectionable topics and to treat twenty-six others with care and good taste. There was still no penalty for failing to abide by these restrictions, but for the first time, producers had agreed among themselves on a codified set of standards. It would be the basis of the Production Code, which followed in 1930. 38

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