Flashback: The Feature Film`s Coming of Age

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By Subir Ghosh
In the early years of film production, cinema as a medium did not threaten the cultural status quo. Non-fiction films had dominated and films were always exhibited in “respectable” venues like vaideville and opera houses, churches, anc lecture halls. Films started making an impact on the cultural landscape with the story films becoming gradually popular, and exhibition of films gradually shifting to the nickelodeons.

Film historian Roberta Pearson writes of the early critics, “The industry’s critics asserted that the dark, dirty and unsafe nickelodeons showed unsuitable fare, were ofte located in tenement districts, and were patronised by the most unstable elements of American society who were all to vulnerable to the physical and moral hazards posed by the picture shows. There were demands that state authorities censor films and regulate exhibition sites. the industry responded with several strategies designed to placate its critics; the emulation of respectable literature and drama; the production of literary, historical, and biblical films; self-censorship and cooperation with government officials in making exhibition sites safe and sanitary.”

What Pearson writes here is about an American scenario, but one worth looking at a bit closely.

The nickelodeon was a multi-purpose theatre that grew in popularity in the early years of the 20th century. Usually situated in converted storefronts, the nickelodeons featured motion pictures, illustrated songs, slideshows and even lectures. These were one of the two main exhibition sites for films, besides the vaudeville theatres.

The term “Nickelodeon” was first used in 1888 by Austin’s Nickelodeon, a dime museum in Boston, US. It became popular when Harry Davis and John P. Harris opened their small, storefront theatre with that name in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania on June 19, 1905. Although it was not the first to show films, it was the first theatre in the world “devoted exclusively to exhibition of moving picture spectacles.” The idea caught on. Louis B Mayer converted a theatre into a nickelodeon, and announced that it would be “the home of refined entertainment devoted to Miles Brothers moving pictures and illustrated songs”.

The nickelodeons usually exhibited films that were typically 10-15 minutes in duration, and in a variety of styles and subjects, such as short narratives, “scenics” (views of the world from moving trains), “actualities” (precursors of later documentary films), illustrated songs, local or touring song and dance acts, comedies, melodramas, problem plays, stop action sequences, sporting events, and other features which allowed them to compete with vaudeville houses. In 1910, there were an estimated 10,000 nickelodeons in the US.

Slowly cities grew, as did the audience sizes. Films also grew considerably longer in duration, resulting in the ticket prices being doubled from five cents to ten cents. Conventional film theatres grew in number, and the nickelodeons receded into history.

There were many in the American film industry who were finding it increasingly difficult to tell a story in the 15-minute constraint. The one who broke away from the norm was Vitagraph which produced the first major multi-reel film, a biblical blockbuster called The Life of Moses in 1909/10. The five-reel film encouraged others to follow suit.

The ones who threw a fit over this conversion were the existing distributors and exhibitors. The limited seating arrangements at the nickelodeons required shorter programmes. The studios initially played ball. They treated each reel of a multi-reel film as a separate identity, and released them to the exchanges according to the agreed schedule. Nickelodeons were free to show only one reel as and when they wanted. The transition to feature films, therefore, was severely restricted. Ironically, the impetus came from European films that were being imported into the United States. Italian films specifically were all multi-reelers and hugely popular.

In 1911, three Italian films treated American audiences to a pictorial splendour that they were sorely missing in domestic productions. These were the five-reel Dante’s Inferno (Milano Films, 1909), the two-reel Fall of Troy (1910, Giovanni Pastrone), and the four-reel The Crusaders or Jerusalem Delivered (1911). In the spring of 1913, the nine-reel Quo Vadis? (Enrico Guazzoni, Cines, 1913) landed on American shores. The film ran over two hours and was a spectacle that featured over 5,000 extras, a chariot race, and real lions. It had the audiences in thral. The 12-reel Cabiria (Giovanni Pastrone, Italia) would change things forever. The depiction of the Second Punic War featured visually stimulating scenes of the burning of the Roman fleet and Hannibal’s crossing of the Alps. Italian blockbusters were to change the US film industry for good. And in the bargain, had a far-reaching impact on world cinema as well.
Feature films were finally here.

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