Monday, January 18, 2016

Motion Pictures as a Phase of Commercialized Amusement in Toledo, Ohio

J.J. Phelan - Motion Pictures as a Phase of Commercialized Amusement in Toledo, Ohio (1919)

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A fascinating snapshot of the local film exhibition business.  For instance, the author counts 66 motion pictures "houses" in 1914 (around the time of the first feature-length films) dropping to 42 operating ones at the end of 1918.  Furthermore he notes how many are in the middle of the block (82.7%) and the rest on street corners (17.3%).  Apparently there were no free-standing ones.  He then goes on to find their proximity to saloons, dance halls and rooming houses. (Phelan was a reverend.)  There's also detailed accounting for costs of equipment, musicians, employees, advertising and so on - even if this isn't entirely reliable it's interesting to see.

Section two covers "Mental Effects and Educational Significance".  There's breakdowns of viewing among children.  One survey came up with the improbable (well let's just say clearly biased) result that children preferred "educational" films above all others (with nearly 300 children listing that above the second place Westerns).  A later poll has a different result.  One young enthusiast noted (p52) that their preference was "I like pictures that show a fellar with three children on his hands, because another fellow can come along and take his wife away from him".  (The varying spellings are in the original.)  What film could that possibly have been?

There's some information on censorship activity in Ohio and then a letter from the book's author to the chairman of the board complaining about "the portrayal of vampire life" and nudity.  (I suspect for this author in 1919 "vampire" didn't mean the supernatural creature as much as unruly women.)  The reply is about as reasonable as you could expect a censor to be but Phelan still isn't happy.  At the close of this section is a list of educational films and where they can be rented.  Titles include "Public and Private Care of Infants", "Mayors Organize to Prevent Great Fire Losses", "Weeds, What They Are and How to Get Rid of Them", "Dangers of Unclean Milk" and "Ready for Anything from Air Raids to Riots".

Phelan then gets to what he considers the advantages and disadvantages of film.  Most of the advantages are basically inexpensive entertainment and the kind of uplift that people who believe themselves high minded have always promoted (though not many would phrase it exactly as "counteraction against the influence of the brothel, saloon, public dance hall and other questionable forms of amusement").  The disadvantages are mostly the same as brought earlier against the novel and later against TV then the Internet - less exercise, lost of "true art", mental degradation, "sickly sentimentalism", desire to imitate bad examples, and so forth.

Nearly a third of the book are various appendices including a bibliography, legal overviews, questionaires, lists of movies and business information.