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Reframing Culture

Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films

William Uricchio
Roberta E. Pearson
Copyright Date: 1993
Pages: 266
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  • Book Info
    Reframing Culture
    Book Description:

    The works of Shakespeare and Dante or the figures of George Washington and Moses do not often enter into popular conceptions of the silent cinema, yet, between 1907 and 1910, the Vitagraph Company frequently used such material in producing "quality" films that promulgated "respectable" culture. William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson situate these films in an era of immigration, labor unrest, and mainstream American xenophobia, in order to explore the cultural views promoted by the films and the ways the audiences--the middle classes as well as workers and immigrants--related to what they saw. The authors associate the production of quality films with a top-down forging of cultural consensus on issues such as patriotism and morality, and reveal the surprising bottom-up negotiations of these films' "meanings.".

    Devoting chapters to the literary, historical, and biblical subjects used by Vitagraph, this book draws upon plays, pageants, school textbooks, and even product advertisements to illuminate the conditions of cinematic production and reception. It provides a detailed look at one aspect of the film industry's transformation from "despised cheap amusement" to the nation's dominant mass medium, while showing how cultural elites engaged in a struggle similar to that of today's American academy over the literary canon and national value systems.

    Originally published in 1993.

    ThePrinceton Legacy Libraryuses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These paperback editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-6363-1
    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-xii)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xiii-2)
    (pp. 3-16)

    “It was, to put it mildly, literary sabotage to boil Shakespeare down to thirty minutes.”¹ So said Albert E. Smith, who together with James Stuart Blackton cofounded the Vitagraph Company of America, the largest film studio of the pre-Hollywood era and the most profilic producer of “high-art” subjects, that is, films based on literary, biblical, and historical texts. Smith, writing his memoirs in the early 1950s, recalled his partner’s productions of numerous Shakespearean films between 1908 and 1912. Literary sabotage or no, Smith humorously speculated that these films may have bolstered the Bard’s popularity.

    Shakespeare can and perhaps by now...

  6. CHAPTER 1 Responses to Cultural Crisis: Political Domination and Hegemony
    (pp. 17-40)

    IN THE 1870s, the trauma of the Civil War barely behind it, the United States plunged into a cycle of economic boom and bust accompanied by acrimonious and violent labor disputes. Waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and the pressures of rapid urbanization further exacerbated the tensions stemming from economic upheaval and earlier Irish and German immigration. Native-born Americans, ranging from the inhabitants of Fifth Avenue mansions to the farmers of the Great Plains, began to fear the unruly and alien mob, perceiving a threat not only to the very fabric of a capitalist society but to its...

  7. CHAPTER 2 The Film Industry’s Drive for Respectability
    (pp. 41-64)

    AS LATE AS 1912Motographystill perceived the need to counter the various accusations against the film medium, even though the industry had constantly proven its bonafides.

    It seems absurd that we must go on fighting these charges over and over again. . . . Acquittal of the charge, and conversion of the complainant, seems but a signal for new Quixotes to rise and fight the windmills they imagine they see whirling about our heads. Does a clergyman but express approval of a picture, and a hundred other churchmen are instantly up in arms, ready to prove a condition they...

  8. CHAPTER 3 Literary Qualities: Shakespeare and Dante
    (pp. 65-110)

    ON DECEMBER 1, 1908, the Vitagraph Company releasedJulius Caesar. Three weeks later, on December 23, New York’s Mayor McClellan held his hearings on the moving picture shows. Surprisingly, given the Vitagraph film’s eminently respectable derivation, some of the industry’s critics denounced this film as emblematic of the evils of the medium. J. Stuart Blackton served as the motion picture industry’s spokesman at McClellan’s hearings, where he defended his film from further charges of immorality “The sweeping assertion that lewd, lacivious and immodest pictures were shown seems to simmer down . . . to the fact that poor old Julius...

  9. CHAPTER 4 Historical Qualities: Washington and Napoleon
    (pp. 111-159)

    THIS POEM appeared in theNew York American, one of the city’s two most popular working-class newspapers. Its presence there attests to the cultural pervasiveness of George Washington and Napoleon Bonaparte and the familiarity of potential nickelodeon viewers with these figures. During the period under consideration, American and European studios produced numerous films featuring these two characters.² In 1909 the Vitagraph Company released four films—Washington under the British Flag, Washington under the American Flag, The Life Drama of Napoleon Bonaparte and the Empress Josephine of France, andNapoleon, The Man of Destiny—that offered nickelodeon audiences abbreviated biographies of...

  10. CHAPTER 5 Biblical Qualities: Moses
    (pp. 160-194)

    ALMOST TWO YEARS after the release of the final reel of Vitagraph’s five-reelLife of Moses, Motographyreported that

    in Minneapolis there is a theatre, the Milo, that shows nothing but Biblical films It shows all of them it can get, it shows them every night, and its patrons won’t have anything else A majority of the patrons of the Milo are Jews, many of them Russian immigrants It is remarkable how proud the older ones are—how loyal to their race history The very appearance of Moses on the canvas is the signal for wild applause that often continues...

    (pp. 195-200)

    IN 1912 the Vitagraph Company staged a motion picture exhibition for President Taft and several members of his cabinet.Vitagraph Life Portrayalsreported that “for the first time in the history of the United States moving pictures were exhibited in the White House. The Senatorial room was transformed into an exhibition parlor and the Vitagraph Company of America gave an exhibition lasting thirty five minutes . . . The pictures shown wereThe Battle Hymn of the RepublicandThe Signing of the Bill for the Admission of the Territory of Arizona as One of the States of the Union.”...

  12. APPENDIX Vitagraph’s Description of the Washington and Napoleon Films
    (pp. 201-204)
  13. Notes
    (pp. 205-244)
  14. Index
    (pp. 245-252)