Film-Philosophy

International Salon-Journal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 9 No. 20, April 2005

 

 

 

 

 

 

Richard Schellhammer

 

An Early Cinema Textbook:

On Popple and Kember's _Early Cinema_

 

 

Simon Popple and Joe Kember

_Early Cinema: From Factory Gate to Dream Factory_

London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2004

ISBN 1-903364-58-2

136 pp.

 

Simon Popple and Joe Kember, two very fine authorities on early British cinema, have created a potentially valuable textbook for the study of early cinema. As with all first textbooks, this work has both strengths and weaknesses. Like early films themselves, this textbook is filled with deeply embedded cultural assumptions. One of the obvious strengths of _Early Cinema: From Factory Gate to Dream Factory_ is the cogent and succinct definition by the authors that 'early cinema' covers the period from 1895 to 1914 (24). This period was marked by the development of purpose-built movie theatres and feature-length films. As the authors clearly demonstrate, these were two significant developments in the history of film. By limiting their study to this time period, they don't have to discuss the development of the 'classical cinema' that began during the First World War, nor do they have to discuss the pre-cinematic period (a term for which they do not care). Thus they create a textbook that is more clearly focused on a specific time frame with easily delineated developments.

 

A second strength of the textbook is the authors' efforts to write from a thematic approach rather than a chronological approach. This is a very good method to discuss this topic, because all too often histories of cinema imply a certain inevitability of the development of film. A thematic approach would help reduce this ahistorical 'inevitability'. However, since this is a textbook, the authors rightly recognize that students will have varying backgrounds when they come to the study of early cinema. Therefore, the first chapter of the book is a reasonable chronological sketch. Each year, from 1895 to 1914, has a one- or two-paragraph discussion of important events or individuals and a discussion of 'Industry developments' and 'Technological developments'.

 

Unfortunately, despite their protestations to the contrary, the authors, already in the first chapter, begin reading back into history -- finding the roots of 'inevitable' developments. There is far too much emphasis on the development of different methods to reproduce synchronized sound along with the motion picture. There is no indication that every one of these sound technologies failed -- some failed miserably. A student who did not know any better would thus get the impression that not only was there multiple, successful attempts to create synchronized sound, but also that this was an inevitable development. Likewise, the failed attempts at creating color film are similarly presented in this first chapter. This is all the more puzzling, because the authors make a powerful argument against this insidious practice of forcing current ideas into the past at the beginning of the second chapter of the book (45).

 

Nevertheless, there are frequent attempts to read history backwards, or, in other words, to force the past to conform to our ideas of what the past 'should' have been. Thus, in the Introduction, after correctly noting that cinema was part of a growing escapist popular leisure industry (without, regrettably, addressing this notion in detail), the authors go on to argue that film helped middle-class women challenge their gender roles (particularly in working outside the home). The reality is that the overwhelming majority of women who attended movies prior to 1914 were working-class, who, not incidentally, had achieved the great goal of working outside the home -- although they might have questioned the modern-day assumption that sweated labor was both fulfilling and liberating. [1]

 

Another glaring example of reading current issues into the past comes when the authors attempt a close reading of a synopsis of the film _Milling The Militants_ in an issue of _Kino Weekly_ from 1913. The film tells a short story of a woman who leaves the home to do 'man's work' while the husband stays home to do 'women's work'. The wife returns home to find her husband asleep, dreaming of himself as prime minister restoring the 'normal' gender roles. The irate working wife dumps a bucket of water over the sleeping husband's head. The textbook's authors interpret this as a success for the suffragettes (51). In reality, the film, if the student reads it in the context of the time in which it was made rather than in contemporary terms, is a warning to husbands to control their wives lest they loose control over them. The film does represent an ongoing negotiation over gender roles, but, in the end, the victor is tradition.

 

A third strength of the textbook is a historiographic discussion of early film studies. Unfortunately, the discussion is tainted by contemporary concerns. The authors argue that the correct way to interpret early film is the 'contemporary revisionist programme', which they see as part of the general trend 'towards the development of more inclusive forms of historical enquiry' (24). What makes this any more 'inclusive' than any other framework for the historical study of film is unclear, however, 'inclusiveness' is all that is important. Therefore, any other form of inquiry is bad -- as in the case of 'Technological determinism', these other forms are 'privileged'. The authors contend that this technological approach creates a sense of the inevitability of film development. Of course, their first chapter is rife with this ahistoricism which they now criticize. [2] Likewise, after demonstrating the 'privileged' (bad) nature of the 'Great man theory', the authors argue that the 'inclusiveness' of early cinema studies is helped by 'micro' studies of, among other categories, producers and exhibitors -- great men (42).

 

Thus, 'inclusive' is good and 'privileged' is mutus mutandis bad. There are many good points the authors make in their discussion of the historiography of film studies without polluting that discussion with academia's pathological concern with 'inclusiveness', which, like all cliches, has lost all relevance. For example, when the authors discount the use of the history of technology to understand the development of film out of hand, they are excluding something: thus, by definition, they are positing a 'privileged' method to the understanding of the past. The authors conclude the first chapter by calling on students to read widely across various disciplines to understand early cinema. The same could be said for all areas of historical inquiry. If the student can accomplish this noble goal, she or he will have a truly inclusive approach to the study of history and an appreciation of the past rather than a mindlessly fashionable 'inclusiveness' that creates its own exclusive canon.

 

Despite the necessity to pay some kind of homage to postmodernist historians, the historiographic discussion contains some cogent points of which students should be aware. For example, the so-called 'Great man theory' does lead to nationalist debates about 'firsts' which detracts from studying the interplay across national lines of early cinema. The authors point out that the popular opinion in the US that Thomas Edison invented the cinema reflects much about the way Americans view themselves (28-9). Amusingly, the authors prove their own point by accepting William Fries-Greene's contributions to cinema despite evidence to the contrary (16).

 

A fourth strength of the textbook is the authors' use of 'case studies'. These case studies are usually close readings of films or primary documents that help prove their point. Thus, in the second chapter, they have a close reading of a review of Lumieres' first film in Edinburgh in June 1896, to prove that the appearance of the 'moving picture' was more important to the first filmgoers than the actual material of the film itself (35-6). However, the second case study in this chapter is a bit more problematical. This case study attempts to situate a discussion of the representation of the Boers in different media at the time of the Boer War. However, there is only the briefest discussion of the impact of the war on advertising and cinema. A much richer and more useful discussion would have elaborated on these areas as well as including treatment of the Boers in music halls and the press.

 

The third chapter is perhaps the most difficult one in the book in terms of leaps of logic taken by the authors. For example, the section entitled, 'Cinema, state, propaganda and censorship: an ordered society?' is disingenuous, because there is no evidence of state-sponsored censorship as the title implies. The first government restrictions on cinema were safety regulations (46). Also, as in the US, the British film industry self-censored itself in response to non-governmental organizations (47-9). Thus, although the authors argue that the state had a strong interest in censoring or regulating the cinema, their only proof uses non-governmental organizations as examples.

 

Another section of this chapter, entitled 'Worlds Within Worlds: News and Globalization', is a mixture of faulty assumptions and ahistoricisms. For example, the authors state: 'The hierarchical characteristics of visual representation, particularly those predicated on class, gender and ethnicity were transferred from the convention of photographic practice into cinematographic forms . . .' (55), without once proving this or explaining why this is such an obviously positive aspect of cinema. Instead, the complex negotiation of working-class and middle-class culture in film is simplistically reduced to: 'Yet somehow the sheer scale and nature of consumption altered their [the 'hierarchical characteristics of visual representation'] potential to engage a new mass audience' (55). There are other similar leaps of logic in this chapter.

 

The authors also make one of those mistakes that graduate students are constantly warned against: if you know something is absolutely true, look it up, you're probably wrong. The authors categorically state that 'adult literacy rates, even in industrial centres, were still very low' (56). However, the truth of the matter was that government educational policies had, in fact, created a reasonably literate population. [3]

 

The fourth chapter, 'Exhibition and Reception', is, as the authors note, an important area of research in early cinema. It was in the various venues from fair grounds, to music halls, to church halls, to purpose built movie theatres that much of the negotiation between working-class and middle-class attitudes to film were worked out. The authors also point out that, with musical accompaniment and lecturers (a holdover from the magic lantern exhibitions), silent films were anything but silent. Also, most of the early filmgoers frequently engaged the films in raucous conversation (as they mention on page 38). In addition, the authors demonstrate that early films were projected within the traditional framework established by magic shows and magic lanterns. Thus, although they might not like the term 'pre-cinema', they certainly recognize earlier forms of image projection on the development of moving pictures (69-72). However, one serious drawback to this chapter is an overly long block quote detailing the first turn at the Egyptian Hall in 1901, which included, among several other acts, a showing of some films intercut with a magic lantern show (69-72). In a brief text, where space is at a premium, this section should have been paraphrased down to a few paragraphs.

 

The most interesting argument in this chapter is the notion that purpose-built cinemas created a demonstrable shift in film spectatorship around 1908. These 'picture houses' encouraged longer programs of films, longer films, and spectators to return every week for a new programme (82 and 108-12). They then argue that production became more important than 'institutions of exhibition in their influence over spectatorship' (82). However, this would only be true if the spectators were passive and simply sat quietly and watched the films. The authors have already proved that this assumption is false. Also, logically, the spectators vote with their money. If they are not provided with something they value, they take their limited leisure funds elsewhere. Thus, to discount the influence of the spectators on early cinema is a big mistake -- this is particularly puzzling, because the authors explicitly state that the spectators were important to the development of early cinema (5, 24). The great thing about studying early cinema from a historical standpoint is the ability to demonstrate the serious negotiations that went on between the working-class and the middle-class as virtual equals during the time period 1896 to 1914. Far from simply being dictated to, the working-class was able to impose some of its own cultural idioms on film. Thus, when the authors point out the interest of the working-class filmgoers in the so-called factory films, they mistakenly believe that the workers were somehow exhibiting a raised social or class consciousness about others in foreign lands (56, 60-1). This is not an example of class consciousness or internationalism, rather it is purely an example of something of interest to the working-class audiences. Likewise, the working-class audiences found the films of the Boer War and other imperial exploits of Britain interesting. They did not feel solidarity with the Boers, nor did they feel pity or remorse for Britain's imperial subjects (apparently the working-class hadn't yet read Lenin). Instead, they received a vicarious thrill from these films and then went to see them. The producers (entrepreneurs) supplied the consumer with what he or she demanded. If these films were not popular, the producers would not make them -- it is pure capitalism. [4]

 

In the final chapter, 'Film Form: Genre and Narrative', the authors provide a number of good case studies to help demonstrate not only the concepts of genre, but also (more importantly) to help students develop effective methods to analyze these early films. The first two case studies, 'Herbert Campbell as 'Little Bobbie'' and '_Buy your own Cherries_', demonstrate the influence of earlier traditions, especially music halls and magic lantern shows, on early cinema (90-97). The authors introduce an interesting framework for the study of early cinema based on the theorist Andre Gaudreault. Following Gaudreault, they argue that initial film audiences 'were simply *shown* the action onscreen', as in the theatre, but, as the novelistic influence increased by the time of 1910, the audience was '*told* about significant actions within the storyline' (99). To demonstrate this point, the authors compare and contrast _He and She_ made in 1899 with _Rescued by Rover_ made in 1905. The first film shows the story with most of the action taking place on a stage in one shot. The latter film, however, is a series of shots with a nascent notion of editing that tells the story. This is one of the authors' finer uses of case studies to demonstrate their point. Unfortunately, this chapter also contains some serious leaps of logic and unsubstantiated conjecture. For example, it is unclear how the specialization of roles in the creation and production of film created different genres (109-12). Nor how film producers/directors, developing unique characters to defend their intellectual property rights, therefore, formed different genres (111-12). Perhaps the authors might develop these ideas in more detail to more clearly prove their points.

 

Another glaringly faulty conjecture is their notion that the development of films based on classical novels and plays was evidence of the 'high-cultural aspirations of film' (112). First, film producers had always made films based on familiar literary sources. It was just that by 1909 they had longer to tell the story than earlier, one-shot representations. Secondly, the working-class audiences knew their classics. For example, American settlers in the West frequented traveling Shakespeare productions and could be rather raucous if the actors forgot their lines. Thirdly, the authors erroneously believe that efforts to introduce 'high class film subjects' over 'rubbish sold as comics' meant that they were catering to a middle-class audience. However, as C. W. Ceram (Kurt W. Marek) noted, early filmmakers produced films for a mass audience nourished on 'trashy novels'. These films were, for them, 'just as 'cultural' as the demand of the higher classes for stage plays'. [5] More bluntly, the British director Herbert Wilcox stated: 'Let us start off by doing away with the meandering epic with its obscure message of social uplift or enlightenment and stick to our own job -- mass entertainment for mass audiences'. [6] Finally, as Nicholas Hiley reports, 'one middle-class film manufacturer in 1914, [said] 'we do not go to them [cinemas]; the poor people go to them'. [7]

 

The textbook contains an extremely useful and detailed list of 'Sources and Resources' and a detailed 'Bibliography'. These are quite extensive and will prove invaluable to any student of early cinema. But all textbooks should also include an index for students to look up particular ideas, persons, concepts, and (in the case of a film textbook) film titles. Also, accepting the fact that the textbook focuses primarily on Britain, an area that sorely needs a good text, it is unclear why the authors feel so compelled to denigrate the important contributions to the development of cinema by Edwin Porter and D. W. Griffith (15 and 115-17). Otherwise, this is a useful textbook for early film studies. However, it is not the kind of book the teacher simply hands to the student and tells her or him to read it. The student must be guided through this book by somebody who already has a firm knowledge of the topic. There are many fruitful areas for discussion, both good and bad. From a historian's standpoint, the most useful aspect of studying early cinema is discerning cultural assumptions embedded in the movies themselves. Perhaps the same can be said for our contemporary discussions of early cinema -- they reveal much about current cultural assumptions.

 

University of West Alabama

Livingston, Alabama, USA

 

 

Notes

 

1. On the overwhelming working-class audiences see, for example: James Park, _British Cinema: The Lights that Failed_ (London: B. T. Batsford, 1990), pp. 20-2; Gilbert Adair and Nick Rodrick, _A Night at the Pictures: Ten Decades of British Film_ (Bromley: Columbus Books, 1985), pp. 19-20; Nicholas Hiley, 'The British Cinema Auditorium', in Karel Dibbits and Bert Hogenkamp, eds, _Film and the First World War_ (Amsterdam: University of Amsterdam Press, 1995), pp. 160-65; and Charles Barr, ed., _All Our Yesterdays: 90 Years of British Cinema_ (London: British Film Institute, 1986), p. 170

 

2. For a good discussion of the technological development of cinema that avoids the trap of 'inevitability', see Laurent Mannoni, _The Great Art of Light and Shadow: Archaeology of the Cinema_ (Exeter, England: University of Exeter Press, 2000). [_Film-Philosophy_ review here]

 

3. See the seminal work on popular newspapers and literacy by Oron James Hale: _Publicity and Diplomacy: With Special Reference to England and Germany, 1890-1914_ (University of Virginia Institute for Research in the Social Sciences, 1940).

 

4. See Richard Schellhammer, ''Celluloid Heroes Never Die in Vain': British Cinema and the Depiction of War on the Eve of the First World War, A Textual Analysis', in _Film and History Annual_ (1999).

 

5. C. W. Ceram, _Archaeology of the Cinema_ (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc., n.d.), p. 245.

 

6. Quoted in Gilbert Adair and Nick Roderick, _A Night at the Pictures_, pp. 19-20.

 

7. Nicholas Hiley, 'The British Cinema Auditorium', p. 161.

 

 

Copyright Film-Philosophy 2005

 

 

Richard Schellhammer, 'An Early Cinema Textbook: On Popple and Kember's _Early Cinema_', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 9 no. 20, April 2005 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol9-2005/n20schellhammer>.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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