nickelodeons start america’s movie craze -- 7/24/20

Today's selection -- from The Whole Equation by David Thomson. From the very outset, the movie business, which in the earliest days took the form of nickelodeons, took in almost as much money as today's movie business does, after adjusting for inflation. That created an almost instant, ravenous demand for fresh material:

"That heady salary progression [of major silent movie-era stars such as Charlie Chaplin were], ... but how dynamic a medium the cinema was becoming. The history books still ask who went to see the early movies, and they're no more certain of the answer than we know how much money slipped through the cracks. The records were so unreliable. The venues were changing so rapidly. A craze was on, and no one has time to keep proper records during a craze. Still, the best estimates are that in 1907-08, America had about eight thousand nickelodeon outlets -- places where films were projected, often converted kinetoscope arcades, as well as shops and theaters. There were still very few 'cinemas' or movie houses, places constructed specially for the new medium.

"The nickelodeons could seat between 200 and 500 people and they ran a ragbag of one-reel adventures and comedies, with primitive newsreels, sing-alongs (with the words projected on the screen) and live acts such as one might see in vaudeville. Suppose a 'show' ran two hours. Suppose a 'house' ran five shows a day. Suppose it enjoyed an average crowd of 250 per show. That would produce, very roughly, a box office gross of $500,000 a day across the nation-an annual gross figure of about $180 million.

"And, if you're interested in these sums of money, and so much supposing, if you allow a multiplication factor of twenty to approximate today's dollars, that's an annual box office gross of movies in America in 1907-08 of 3.6 billion. The population of the United States in 1907-08 was about 85 million. The annual box office gross for 2001 and 2002 was a little over $8 billion each year, with a population of, say, 280 million. ...

"Nickelodeons got their product from local exchanges, and there was a ravenous demand for fresh material. [Studio head] Louis B. Mayer knew the risk in having nothing new to show. The business was chronically unstable and vulnerable locally to gangsterism. The audience often had no idea what they were going to see, but they were disappointed at a familiar film coming back again. The equipment was far from reliable: projection and film perforation were inexact, and could ruin a show. The rooms were poorly ventilated (the bad air at a nickelodeon was proverbial; in some venues perfume was sprayed in the air and disinfectant applied to the scummy floor). The film could catch fire: the stock then was celluloid nitrate, highly inflammable and dangerous at any time if not stored properly. In many respectable households going to the flicks was deemed unhealthy and dangerous. There were several ruinous fires. Projection booths had a bolt on the outside of the door so that management might confine the blaze (and the projectionist).

"The old terms of abuse -- 'the bug hutch,' 'the fleapit' -- denoted how much of a class war hung over movies. The earliest films, those of the years before Grifflth, were for the poor, the uneducated, immigrants, and children. Everyone noted, and many were alarmed, how the venues were crammed with children who seemed to have nothing better to do. Social disapproval became tinged with ideas of academic outrage.

Meanwhile, if we are inclined to think that the movies might be an art, let's recall that in the period 1895-1915, they coincided with The Wings of the Dove, The Ambassadors, The Golden Bowl, Dubliners, Nostromo, Jude the Obscure, and Sister Carrie; with Picasso's cubist onslaught on docile, well-behaved appearance; with The Firebird, Petrouchka and The Rite of Spring by Stravinsky; with Bartoks Bluebeard's Castle; with some of the best plays of Wedekind and Strindberg; and with The Seagull, The Cherry Orchard, and The Three Sisters.



David Thomson


The Whole Equation


First Vintage Books


Copyright 2004 by David Thomson


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