Class-Consciousness and the 'Movies'

"The line of demarcation between theatrical audiences and movie audiences will grow ever sharper, the one representing entirely the bourgeoisie and upper classes, and the other the proletariat"
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Motion pictures, or the 'movies' as they are popularly called, are a development of the twentieth century. We can all remember when they were unknown; then a considerable period when they were exhibited in the vaudeville houses, always at the end of the programme—the good-night act; then the time, scarcely more than a decade ago, when little theatres began to crop out devoted exclusively to motion pictures, and charging an admission fee of only five or ten cents. At the present time it is almost safe to say that there is not a town of over five thousand inhabitants in the country without its motion-picture theatre, and in many sections the films are exhibited at least once a week in towns as small as one thousand. Various calculations have been made to determine the number of people who daily attend the movies in the United States, the figures ranging from an inside estimate of four million, to an outside figure of ten million. Even the smaller estimate is sufficiently impressive, but probably, in prosperous times at least, the higher is more nearly correct. Ten per cent of our population, then, are patrons of the motion pictures.

These facts, I am aware, have been stated over and over, to the point of weariness, and various interpretations put upon them, or deductions drawn from them. It has been pointed out, with truth, that the motion pictures, owing to their cheap price of admission and their extreme mobility, have added an entirely new source of amusement for small communities, where in the old days regular, or even, sometimes, occasional, dramatic entertainment was out of the question. It has also been pointed out that in the larger communities an individual, and more especially a family, can secure an evening of relaxation and entertainment much more frequently than before, because the head of a household, for example, can take his wife and three children to the movies for the price of one gallery seat at a regular playhouse. It has been still further pointed out that not only is the outlay smaller, but the return is more certain, and the sense of disappointment less, also, if the entertainment does not please. At the motion-picture theatre more than one drama is presented—often four or five. At least one of them is bound to please. Paying five times as much admission even to the top gallery, the patron of the spoken drama, in any town except the few large centres, is generally taking chances with an unknown play and unknown players. The smallest town, however, sees the same motion-picture players as the largest—there are no second companies in the film world. John Bunny and Mary Pickford 'star' in a hundred towns at once.

The result has been, so the theatre managers themselves agree, not only the practical extinction of the cheaper melodramas which used to cater to 'the masses,' the 'ten-twent-thirts,' as they were called, plays which had no literary quality whatever, and were never so well done as film-players do the same sort of thing, but also the practical desertion of the gallery seats for dramas of the better sort. A generation ago it would have been almost inconceivable that a man would build a theatre without any gallery in it. Yet Mr. Ames's Little Theatre in New York has not only no gallery, but no balcony. It is simply a drawing-room with the floor tilted. A second theatre with no balcony is now being erected in New York, and several of the newest houses have no gallery. The day of the gods is over.

Now, just what does all this mean? It means, the optimists will tell you, that the masses of the people are getting at last cheap amusement, on the whole of a good grade. Better and better productions are being made by the motion-picture firms, better actors are appearing on the screens, the Pathé Frères are presenting interesting and truly educational pictures of current events all over the world, a board of censors sees to it that objectionable film-dramas are for the most part eliminated, and the spoken drama is learning to adapt itself successfully to the new conditions. There appear to be just as many regular theatres as ever, and an even greater interest among educated people in the art of the playhouse. Moreover, as the motion pictures improve in quality, these same optimists say, they will 'educate' many of their patrons to a desire for higher things. They will act as a school of appreciation for the spoken drama; they will breed new audiences for the legitimate playhouse.

This is a comforting—and a comfortable—view. It is a view we all wish we could hold. The present writer stuck to it as long as he could. But one does not need to be a Marxian Socialist, it seems to me, to detect, with a little thought and some observation of actual conditions, the economic basis of motion-picture popularity, and to feel that, so long as that economic basis exists, the breach between the film drama and the spoken drama will always exist also. You cannot, of course, draw any hard-and-fast line which will not be crossed at many points. In Atlanta, Georgia, for example, you may often see automobiles parked two deep along the curb in front of a motion-picture theatre, which hardly suggests an exclusively proletarian patronage. It does, however, suggest that Atlanta has a meagre supply of the higher type of dramatic entertainment. On the other hand, when Sothern and Marlowe used to play Shakespeare at the old Academy of Music or the Manhattan Opera House in New York, the galleries were always packed with a proletarian audience. Nevertheless it is perfectly safe to say that in the larger towns, where the higher-priced drama coexists with the motion-picture plays, the line of cleavage is sharply drawn in the character of the audience, and this line is the same line which marks the proletariat from the bourgeoisieand capitalist class.

In the smaller towns, of course, the line is much less sharply drawn, and in the villages, where 'regular plays' never come, it is hardly drawn at all. But it is just in these villages, also, we must note, where modern industrialism has its least hold, that elder American institutions and social conditions most persist. In the average American village of a few thousand souls, even today, you will not find class-consciousness developed. The proletariat is not aware of itself. The larger the town, the greater the degree of class-consciousness—and the sharper the line of cleavage between the audiences at the spoken drama and at the movies. Indeed, in a certain New England city of thirty-five thousand people, a concerted attempt was made two years ago by several wealthy men to provide good theatrical fare. They purchased the best theatre in the town and installed an excellent stock company. The gallery seats sold for as low as ten cents, thus competing with the movies. But the theatre was on the 'fashionable' side of town, it was looked upon by the six thousand mill operatives and their families (constituting a proletariat which numbered more than fifty per cent of the population) as something that belonged to the other class—and they would not go near it. Consequently the well-meant attempt was a failure, while the movies continued to flourish as the green bay tree.

That is, perhaps, in the present state of things, an extreme example, showing rather how matters are going to be than how they generally are. At present, it is certainly not necessary to find any definite state of feeling to explain the cleavage between the two audiences. The economic explanation is quite sufficient.

Testifying recently before the United States Commission on Industrial Relations, Scott Nearing, of the Economics Department of the University of Pennsylvania, said, 'I believe that half of the adult wage-earners of the United States get less than $500 a year; I believe that three fourths get less than $750 a year; and I believe that nine tenths get less than $1000. A careful survey of all the wage-literature published shows that the wage-worker who gets $1500 is an extraordinary, a unique, exception.'

Bearing these facts in mind,—and they are hardly to be disputed in their larger aspects, though there may be some exaggeration in the figures, or at any rate some mitigating circumstances which Mr. Nearing does not take into account,—how ridiculous it is to expect the wage-worker in New York, Boston, or Chicago, where even gallery seats (good gallery seats, at any rate) are fifty cents each, and where some theatres have no galleries, to take his wife and family to enjoy the art of Mrs. Fiske or Forbes-Robertson, to see the productions of Frohman and Belasco, to be uplifted by Shakespeare or cheered by Cohan or made thoughtful by Galsworthy or tickled and provoked by Shaw! If fifty per cent of the wage-workers of these cities receive but $500 a year, you can figure for yourself, gentle reader, what proportion of a week's pay it would require for the father in this class to take his wife and two children to the theatre. Even supposing that his yearly wages reach the enormous figure of $1000 a year, so that he is earning $20 a week, the father of a family would probably think twice before he invested two dollars in seats to 'Hamlet' or 'The Follies of 1914.'

Out on the road, to be sure, the prices are frequently scaled down, and it becomes possible to see a play for twenty-five cents instead of fifty; but even at that rate a wage-earner will think a long time before investing. Moreover, the motion-picture theatre, where he does go for his evening's relaxation, is almost always much nearer to his home, possibly saving him an additional expense in carfare. If he has children, he can take three of them as well as his wife for the price of one gallery seat at the regular theatre—and, what is an important point to consider, he will not be segregated from the rest of the audience, the 'shirt-front' contingent below stairs, the class which employs him by day. He will sit on the ground floor, with his own kind, feeling as it were a kind of proprietorship in the playhouse. Here he is apart from his daytime distinctions of class; he is in an atmosphere of independence. He is paying as much as anybody else, and getting as good a seat. It will require a tremendous deal of 'educating' before you can persuade such a man to invest a dollar and a quarter instead of twenty-five cents, out of a yearly wage of $500, on a single evening's entertainment, and to invest it in a theatre where he enters by the back stairs.

No, so long as the economic structure of our society remains as it is, and so long as our theatres are conducted as they are at present, the movies will not be to any appreciable extent a training school for audiences, fitting them for an appreciation of the spoken drama; nor will the movies grow any fewer in the land. Instead, the line of demarcation between theatrical audiences and movie audiences will grow ever sharper, the one representing entirely the bourgeoisie and upper classes, and the other the proletariat. The movies will become ever more powerfully a factor in the growth of class-consciousness. Already, as I have indicated, this result may be seen in the legitimate theatres as well as in the movie houses.

When theatres are built without galleries or balconies, when they are decorated like drawing-rooms and no seat is sold for less than two dollars, or even two dollars and a half, what chance is there of a democratic audience? More and more our playhouses are shrinking in size. There has not been a theatre built to house dramas in New York in recent years which could not almost be placed on the stage of the old Boston Theatre. This is said to be a result of the changed conditions of the drama itself, modern realism having dictated an intimate type of playhouse. In part that is true—but only in part. It is almost equally true that in recent years the managers (who would not care a snap about the proper presentation of intimate drama if they could fill the Metropolitan Opera House with it improperly presented, or with something else) found that they could not fill the larger houses. The upper galleries were just so much waste space. Their support came from what they call 'the two-dollar crowd.' Therefore they built for the two-dollar crowd—they built gilded drawing-rooms. That development continues to-day. So does the development of the movies. Already the spoken drama and the silent drama are far apart. Each is the amusement, the pastime, of a separate and antagonistic class.

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