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Policing Cinema

Policing Cinema: Movies and Censorship in Early-Twentieth-Century America

Copyright Date: 2004
Edition: 1
Pages: 361
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  • Book Info
    Policing Cinema
    Book Description:

    White slave films, dramas documenting sex scandals, filmed prize fights featuring the controversial African-American boxer Jack Johnson, D.W. Griffith'sThe Birth of a Nation-all became objects of public concern after 1906, when the proliferation of nickelodeons brought moving pictures to a broad mass public. Lee Grieveson draws on extensive original research to examine the controversies over these films and over cinema more generally. He situates these contestations in the context of regulatory concerns about populations and governance in an early-twentieth-century America grappling with the powerful forces of modernity, in particular, immigration, class formation and conflict, and changing gender roles. Tracing the discourses and practices of cultural and political elites and the responses of the nascent film industry, Grieveson reveals how these interactions had profound effects on the shaping of film content, form, and, more fundamentally, the proposed social function of cinema: how cinema should function in society, the uses to which it might be put, and thus what it could or would be.Policing Cinemadevelops new perspectives for the understanding of censorship and regulation and the complex relations between governance and culture. In this work, Grieveson offers a compelling analysis of the forces that shaped American cinema and its role in society.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93742-0
    Subjects: Film Studies

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xiv)
  5. Introduction
    (pp. 1-10)

    Essanay Film Company organized a competition in 1910 to coin a word both as a “substitute for the somewhat unwieldy term ‘motion picture theater’” and to describe “motion picture entertainments.”¹ Entries from the public, that collective of people beginning to be called “spectators,”² were judged by a committee made up of producer George Kleine, distributor F.C. Aiken, and exhibitor Aaron Jones, and a decision was announced in late 1910: “After careful consideration of the list of words . . . we have selected the word ‘Photoplay’ as being more closely descriptive and easily assimilated by the general public than any...

  6. 1 Policing Cinema
    (pp. 11-36)

    In the midst of its “crusade” against nickelodeons in early 1907, theChicago Tribunecarried a front-page report on a fire that had broken out in one of the city’s new nickelodeons.¹ Like “practically all the others,” the theater was without “adequate protection,” and in the “disorder” and “panic” that ensued one audience member was trampled on.² Lurking behind the concern about physical safety, and the call for governmental regulation of building codes, lay concerns about moral danger. In other theaters, the paper noted, “the fire panic was lacking but the continuous performance panic of cheap songs, tawdry singers, and...

  7. 2 Scandalous Cinema, 1906–1907
    (pp. 37-77)

    Looking to capitalize on the notoriety of a widely reported scandal and murder trial, the management of the Grand Opera House in Superior, Wisconsin, sought in April 1907 to showThe Unwritten Law:A Thrilling Drama Based on the Thaw-White Case(Lubin, 1907). A brief account in the “Motion Picture Notes” section ofMoving Picture Worldreported that the “house was packed with an audience two-thirds women” and that “as the first picture was thrown upon the screen . . . the interest was intense.”¹ The exhibition got no further, though, “for at this point the chief of police walked...

  8. 3 Reforming Cinema, 1907–1909
    (pp. 78-120)

    Legal questions about the Sunday opening of nickelodeons, alongside broader concerns about their safety and morality, prompted the mayor of New York City to call a public meeting to gain “light and leading” on the issues in late 1908.¹ Leading off the discussion in the packed aldermanic chamber, a loose coalition of clergy and members of child-saving organizations “condemned the nickel theatre as a moral sinkhole and a physical deathtrap.”² Singling out specific “suggestive” films, these critics of the nickelodeon business focused on the effects of filmgoing on young audiences. Leading “to the corruption of the minds of children,” filmgoing,...

  9. 4 Film Fights, 1910–1912
    (pp. 121-150)

    Looking for a way to sidestep a ban on the exhibition of films showing the African American boxer Jack Johnson’s 1910 world-title fight against the white boxer Jim Jeffries in the states of Arkansas and Tennessee, entrepreneurs devised a clever plan—to show the film on a barge midstream of the Mississippi River, literally in between states and so on “territory” claimed to be outside the jurisdiction of the two state governments.¹ In the event, police officers ignored the constitutionally correct claims that navigable streams were outside the jurisdiction of state authority and boarded the barge to stop the projection...

  10. 5 Judging Cinema, 1913–1914
    (pp. 151-192)

    Late in 1913 police in New York City raided the Park Theater while a screening of the feature filmThe Inside of the White Slave Traffic(Moral Feature Film Company, 1913) was in progress. Each of the five reels of the film was gathered up as they came off the projector by a police officer stationed in the projection booth in a literal enactment of a policing of the borders of the public sphere authorized by state “obscenity” legislation and by the penal code.¹ The producer of the film, Samuel H. London, challenged the actions of the police and argued...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 193-216)

    In Lexington, Kentucky, police officers were directed by the commissioner of public safety to sit among the audience to control “demonstrations” and “enthusiastic outbursts” whenThe Birth of a Nation(Epoch, 1915) played the city’s opera house in early 1915. The result marked a curious conjuncture of film, highbrow culture, and state authority.¹ Even though moving pictures were outgrowing the nickelodeon and could now be linked to opera, like those judges in the Essanay competition in 1910 had presciently imagined, the forces of state authority maintained their surveillance of cinema screens and audiences. Hence police in Boston sought to prevent...

  12. Notes
    (pp. 217-316)
  13. Bibliography
    (pp. 317-330)
  14. Acknowledgments of Permissions
    (pp. 331-332)
  15. Index
    (pp. 333-348)