March 30, 2010
A massive, invaluable resource has just dropped from the internet heavens. The historian and curator David Pierce (once head of the BFI’s National Film and Television Archive) is spearheading the Media History Digital Library project. It is a privately funded effort to digitize 300,000 journal pages, including volumes of Moving Picture World and Photoplay, all to be made available for free. These scans are slowly being uploaded to the Internet Archive, where multiple volumes are available for perusal and download. There are revelations, curiosities, and surprises on every page of these glossies and trade journals, currently ranging from 1916 – 1930. I’ve been delving into their pages for a few days now, and below are some of the more intriguing nuggets I dug up.
The earliest issues are of the MOVING PICTURE WORLD, from April to June of 1913. It’s a trade publication for exhibitors, filled with studio ads for films, news from around the country, reviews, advertising notes, and the latest in projection technology. It’s a publication for insiders, so there’s a wealth of unmediated information here, including complaints about censorship, meddling clergymen, and the scourge of in-theater advertising. In the front of the issue there’s a “Facts and Comments” section, a grab-bag of incensed opinion and human interest stories. April 5, 1913:
Aldermanic statesmanship has put forth another effort to “regulate” motion pictures in the city of New York. It is proposed to create a local board of censor ship consisting of representatives of various civic and religious bodies. This is a good exhibition of that ancient pastime known as “whipping the devil around the stump.” It stands to reason that the Board of Aldermen has no legal authority to create such a board. If, as Mayor Gaynor clearly pointed out in his recent veto, the Aldermen have no authority whatever to establish censorship of any kind, this new ordinance is practically a still-born child.
It is said that there are two influences behind all this hostility to the motion picture, one is supposed to be the vaudeville and theatrical interests and the other influence is believed to be Canon Chase of Brooklyn. It is easy to understand the opposition of the vaudeville and theatrical interests, but the antagonism of the clergyman is beyond our powers of comprehension.
…the motion picture is thoroughly amenable to public sentiment and that official censorship of any kind is not needed, even if it were legally possible.
Later in the issue, they held a combative interview with John Collier, then the General Secretary of the National Board of Censorship, asking, “What arguments can you give me to show that the work of the Censor Board is adequate?” On April 19th, they rail against Pittsburgh ministers who protested against a Sunday screening to raise money for charity, calling their complaints the “ravings of these antediluvian fanatics.”
With their business interests at stake, the censors are the repeated targets of the exhibitors’ ire, a situation that changed once the power of how the films were presented shifted from their hand to the studios.
On a lighter note, the April 19th “Facts and Comments” applauds “The telephone girls of Boston [who] have protested through the press against being shown in motion pictures in the act of constantly chewing gum.” The MPW editors bemoan “the cheap sort of wit to which they are subjected”, and go on to celebrate the “Acts of heroism in times of distress and emergency often credited to telephone girls.” The MPW has a heart.
Currently the Library contains far more Photoplay, ranging from 1925 – 1930. It’s a gossipy fan magazine with glossy head shots of the stars and puff-pieces about their fashion advice and hardscrabble upbringing. It’s a rather agreeable kind of tabloid that was targeted at women, as the reams of face cream ads attests. But they reviewed movies both highbrow and low, including a pocket appreciation of F.W. Murnau’s FAUST in the Jan. 1927 issue, calling it “one of the really fine things of the screen”, and noting its similarity to D.W. Griffith’s “Sorrows of Satan”.
Photoplay is most valuable, though, for its coverage of the star system, which was “on its deathbed” in 1930 according to a bit of hyperbole. It’s easy to chart an actor’s popularity by their treatment in the mag. For example, in July, 1930, Marlene Dietrich was given space for a head shot and a brief paragraph (below, click to enlarge), which stated:
“Two portraits of quite a batch of ladies. The girl on the left is a lot like the late lamented Jeanne Eagels, about the nose and brow, and there’s a hint of Phyllis Haver. The lady on the right is very much Garbo. Both are Marlene Dietrich, new Paramount player from Germany. Now if she can act like her features…
Then, in December 1930 (below), the publicists unleashed the buzz close to the release of Morocco, and Photoplay published a long (for them) article entitled: “She Threatens Garbo’s Throne”. What a difference a few months and the efforts of the Paramount marketing team make.
There are innumerable other arcs that can be traced in the pages contained therein. One of them is the shift to talkies, which Photoplay devoted most of an issue to in July of 1929, with an expose on the “Truth About Voice Doubling”, where they profile and unveil the voice actors behind stars like Paul Lukas and Richard Barthelmess. They also mine the slapstick like travails of early recording in the piece “Trials of the Talkies”:
“Now kisses are faked, for real ones sound like a horse pulling his hoofs out of a muddy road.”