Going to the Movies: Hollywood and the Social Experience of the Cinema

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A nickelodeon screening a Charlie Chaplin silent classic, the downtown arthouse cinemas that made Antonioni and Cassavetes household names, the modern suburban megaplex and its sold-out Friday night blockbuster: how American and global audiences have viewed movies is as rich a part of cinematic history as what we’ve seen on the silver screen. Going to the Movies considers the implications of this social and cultural history through an analysis of the diverse historical and geographical circumstances in which audiences have viewed American cinema. Featuring a distinguished group of film scholars—including Richard Abel, Annette Kuhn, Jane Gaines, and Thomas Doherty—whose interests range broadly across time and place, this volume analyzes the role of movie theatres in local communities, the links between film and other entertainment media, non-theatrical exhibition, and trends arising from the globalization of audiences. Emphasizing moviegoing outside of the northeastern United States, as well as the complexities of race in relation to cinema attendance, Going to the Movies appeals to the global citizen of cinema—locating the moviegoing experience in its appeal to the heart and mind of the audience, whether it’s located in a South African shanty town or the screening room of a Hollywood production lot.

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Meet the Author

Richard Maltby is professor of screen studies at Flinders University, South Australia and series editor for Exeter Studies in Film History. Melvyn Stokes teaches at University College, London. Robert C. Allen is professor of American studies, history, and communications at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

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Going to the Movies

Hollywood and the Social Experience of Cinema

By Richard Maltby, Melvyn Stokes, Robert C. Allen

University of Exeter Press

Copyright © 2007 Richard Maltby, Melvyn Stokes and Robert C. Allen
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-85989-812-6


Race, Region, and Rusticity

Relocating U.S. Film History

Robert C. Allen

Before I see a movie it is necessary for me to learn something about the theater or the people who operate it, to touch base before going inside ... If I did not talk to the theater owner or the ticket seller, I should be lost, cut loose metaphysically speaking. I should be seeing one copy of a film which might be shown anywhere and at any time. There is a danger of slipping clean out of space and time. It is possible to become a ghost and not know whether one is in downtown Loews in Denver or suburban Bijou in Jacksonville. So it was with me.

Binx Bolling, protagonist and narrator of Walker Percy's 1961 novel The Moviegoer.

In 2004, an issue of Cinema Journal featured a special colloquium entitled 'Film History, or a Baedeker Guide to the Historical Turn.' In the introduction to this section, Sumiko Higashi asks whether the field of film studies has experienced a '"historical turn" based on empirical research' over the past twenty years or so. The title of her essay would seem to anticipate an affirmative answer to this question. In fact, however, she argues that the historical turn in film studies has led not to an intellectual turnpike but a narrow country lane, and a road less taken particularly by younger scholars. Why is it that a quarter of a century after scholars began revising the existing unscholarly, schematic, and largely undocumented histories of movies in America, historical research today still represents only a 'slowly accelerating movement in film studies?' Higashi's explanation is that most academics who train students in film studies have not themselves been trained to do empirical research.'

The terminological slip from historical to empirical might be confusing to some, who could be forgiven for expecting the operative term to be 'historical' or 'historiographic' rather than empirical. Although Higashi does not actually explain the relationship between what she calls 'empirical' and 'historical,' I take it to mean anything existing or posited to exist outside of the cinematic text and the inferred conditions of its reception as they are understood by the analyst. Higashi is right to locate the realm of the empirical as being at the center of the problem of film history, but the glacial momentum of the historical 'turn' today is not the result of an entire generation of film scholars all sleeping late on the day in 1985 when empirical methods were discussed in their first-year graduate course. The ambivalence toward the historical that is manifest in Higashi's analysis of the 'historical turn' is, rather, symptomatic of an even more pervasive uncertainty that has hovered over film studies since its academic institutionalization in the 1970s: what place does anything outside of the film 'itself and its analysis by the film scholar have in film studies? What constitutes the universe of the non-textual empirical relevant to film studies? How would this realm be investigated and to what end?

This ambivalence is apparent in the realm of film studies most associated with the 'historical turn': what is variously called historical spectatorship, the audience, reception, or the social experience of moviegoing. Higashi's overview of the 'historical turn' overlooks important work being done on the history of moviegoing, but that very elision reflects the extent to which the impact of this work has been vitiated by a complex of factors peculiar to film study, among them the conventionalism of film study's theoretical heritage, its suspicion of the empirical and tendency to confuse intellectual engagement with the empirical world outside the film text with empiricism, the academic and intellectual alignment of film studies with the study of literary texts, and the concomitant distancing of film studies from the work of our colleagues in cultural and social history.

Despite a number of very important recent studies of the role of movie culture in local communities, our national road map of the history of the social experience of moviegoing is schematic, conceptually primitive, geographically distorted, not drawn to historical scale, and hence, and of limited epistemological utility. Both geographically and diachronically, this map still bears an uncomfortable resemblance to the New Yorker map of the U.S.: with New York, Chicago, and Hollywood looming over and barely separated by mostly ill-defined intervening terrain, and with the foregrounded satellite dishes of post-classical cinema thrown into relief by the vast flat plateau of bourgeois cinema, and not quite obscuring the charmingly picturesque working-class nickelodeons along the far historical horizon. There are very interesting and ambitious research projects underway in the U.K., the Netherlands, Germany, and Australia to document patterns of movie exhibition, audiences, and moviegoing. These will no doubt lead to much more detailed maps of the history of moviegoing in those countries, and the example of this work may spur the development of comparative and transnational historical studies of moviegoing. My hope for the future of the historical study of moviegoing is, however, tempered by my apprehension that when these local, regional, national, and transnational maps are compared, the ones that scholars around the world have to rely upon for the U.S. will remain seriously misleading.

At a pre-conference symposium held in conjunction with the 2003 Commonwealth Fund Conference on the history of moviegoing, I suggested that it might be productive to shift our historiographic and geographic perspective on the social experience of moviegoing in the U.S. in order to foreground regions, spaces, communities, audiences, and historical periods that, despite pioneering work by some resourceful scholars, remain marginalized, unintegrated, or simply unexamined. I also suggested that, as part of this project, we pay attention not only to avid movie fans and communities in which moviegoing was embraced, but also to social groups that resisted the incorporation of moviegoing into everyday life and groups whose access to moviegoing was limited or denied.

In pursuit of this goal, this chapter considers the history of moviegoing in the American South, particularly in the decades of film history which have received the most attention from the 'historical turn' in film studies: roughly, the period between the advent of commercial cinema in the U.S. in 1896 to the full industrialization of film production, distribution, and exhibition in the 1920s. The history of moviegoing in the American South troubles and complicates our assumptions about the role of movies and moviegoing in American life in the early decades of the century more generally. In what follows, I am drawing on the published work of other scholars and on research that my graduate students at the University of North Carolina have done over the years. My remarks also reflect my own reengagement with this area of research, particularly the history of the social experience of moviegoing in North Carolina, the state in which I was born and raised and where I have lived and worked for the past twenty-six years. Although I have only just begun to explore the history of moviegoing in N.C., I would propose as a working hypothesis that three interlocking factors help to explain the particular character of the experience of moviegoing in North Carolina, and in the South more generally, and to differentiate this experience from that which has achieved premature historical normative status in American film historiography: region, race, and what we might call rurality or rusticity.

One of the most enduring and striking features of American film historiography is its assumption of a particular and in some accounts determinative connection between the experience of metropolitan urbanity and the experience of cinema. To the empirical fascination with early moviegoing in New York City, which began in the late 1970s and revived in the 1990s, has been added a theoretical justification: that the experience of early cinema is inextricably tied to the social, sensory, physical, and psychological experience—what Ben Singer refers to as the 'hyperstimulus' of metropolitan modernity.

Although the early audience for the movies in the U.S. might have been disproportionately centered in large urban areas, and moviegoing there certainly received a great deal of contemporaneous public notice, most people living in the U.S. in 1910 did not encounter the movies in anything resembling such metropolitan settings. About two-thirds of Americans lived in towns, villages, or settlements smaller than 2,500 inhabitants, or on farms in the countryside. There were only nineteen 'metropolitan' centers in the U.S. in 1910 (cities of at least 100,000 and their suburbs). About a quarter of the U.S. population, then, were 'metropolites,' and less than 10 per cent lived in cities of one million or more.

The metropolitan focus of U.S. film historiography is sometimes supported by the claim that American society was urbanizing at a furious pace in the early decades of the century. By the 1920 census, it is pointed out, a majority of all Americans lived in cities. But the Census Bureau rather generously set the threshold for 'city' and 'urban' at any town of at least 2,500 people. In 1920 a majority of Americans still lived in places with fewer than 5,000 people, and in 1930 and 1940, most people were still living in places with fewer than 25,000 people. A majority of the U.S. population did not become metropolitan until the 1950 census, and this did not occur in the South for another twenty years. Even this still does not mean that most people experienced the movies as a part of everyday life amidst the 'hyperstimulation' of big city life: most of the metropolitan growth in the U.S. over the twentieth century actually occurred in the suburbs and not the central city. In fact, the percentage of the total population living in cities of over one million remained relatively constant between 1910 and 1940.

There were huge regional disparities in urban density and contiguity and huge differences in historical patterns of urban development in the U.S. Roughly half the population of the Northeast was metropolitan in 1910; fewer than one in ten Southerners lived in or around big cities. And urban growth—whether in towns of 3,000 or 300,000—did not result in the hollowing out of rural America. There were 50 per cent more potential rural moviegoers when Gone with the Wind was released than when Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show was made. Keeping the metropolitan experience of moviegoing at the center of our historical map of American cinema squashes a complex and dynamic cultural and social geography into a simplistic binary grid of city/country. It also reproduces Hollywood's hierarchical ordering of movie audiences, movie theaters, and theater locations, with 'metropolites,' 'deluxers,' and 'big keys' at the top and 'hicks' 'dime houses,' and the 'Silo Belt' on the bottom.

Film history's obsession not just with the urban experience of cinema but the metropolitan experience bespeaks a more general exaggeration of the role of the metropolis and a concomitant devaluation of the rural in contemporary historical and cultural inquiry. In his 1998 review of the field, Timothy Gilfoyle complains that American urban historiography remains stubbornly 'Gothamcentric.' Steven Hahn and Jonathan Prude note that 'the whole swath of varied and methodologically innovative enquiries whose appearance marked the authentic coming of age of "the new social history" ... have found urban settings most congenial.... Many of the most sophisticated, intelligent, and energetic forays into American social history during recent decades have tended to bypass the countryside.'

Although there is certainly much that we do not know about whether, how, where, and to what extent movies were a part of the lives of people who lived in the American countryside, writing the 'rural' experience of moviegoing into American film history is not merely an exercise in empiricist comprehensiveness. Rather it is necessary if we are to adequately conceptualize the relationship, past and present, between cinema and place more generally. Barbara Ching and Gerald Creed draw a productive distinction between rurality and rusticity. While the former might be assayed in terms of population density and geography, rusticity is a social and a cultural construction describing the lived experience of place in the modern world in relational terms. One's relationship to any given social and cultural place is conditioned by the relationship of that place to other social and cultural places which it is understood not to be. Here Ching and Creed are not reproducing the tired structuralist binary: country/city. Rather, they are calling attention to the cultural hierarchies and social distinctions that inform the relationship between identity and place: to my stepfather growing up on a farm in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains in the 1920s going 'into town' meant experiencing the decidedly urbane place that was Rutherfordton, North Carolina. Ching and Creed argue that not only has contemporary cultural studies largely ignored the rural, but also that the difficulty of imagining a culturally productive rusticity prevents the field from adequately theorizing place in relation to other modes of social identity.

What is required, I think, is a much more nuanced understanding of the relationship between the experience of urbanity, rurality, and rusticity, and the spatial and social emplacement of movies and moviegoing across the country and throughout film history. For example, the pace of urbanization was more rapid in the South at the turn of the century than in some other regions. But the nature of that process; the scale, character, diversity, and density (human, phenomenal, semiotic) of urban life; and the relationship between any given urban space and what lay beyond its political and social boundaries varied from one region of the country to another and within a given state.

In 1938, the Motion Picture Herald found 365 theaters in 196 towns in North Carolina, 40 per cent of them in towns of fewer than 2,500 people and two-thirds of them with fewer than 500 seats. In all but twenty-four of these nearly 200 towns, there was but a single movie theater. One of those 24 towns with two movie houses was my hometown, Gastonia, N.C. It was in some key respects typical of hundreds if not thousands of towns which sprang up around the turn of the century as a part of the massive industrialization and urbanization of the South. Like many other cotton mill towns from Virginia to Alabama, Gastonia was a collection of separate mill villages connected by a central business district. Hacked out of pine forests or thrown up over cotton fields, these villages consisted of the mill surrounded by rows of cheap, quickly built shotgun houses, built and owned by the mill and rented to the families who worked in them: each room had to have at least one worker living in it for the family to qualify for residence in the mill village. In many cases, including that of my own great-grandfather, the families had been driven off surrounding farms and recruited into what they called 'public work' by periodic crashes in commodity prices As cultural historian Jacquelyn Hall has noted, 'urban' life in the mill village was produced through the dynamic tension between fundamentally rural social structures and values and the demands of first paternal and then corporate industrial capitalism, not by the elimination of the former by the latter.


Excerpted from Going to the Movies by Richard Maltby, Melvyn Stokes, Robert C. Allen. Copyright © 2007 Richard Maltby, Melvyn Stokes and Robert C. Allen. Excerpted by permission of University of Exeter Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Notes on Contributors



Richard Maltby and Melvyn Stokes

Part I: Studies of Local Cinema Exhibition

1. Race, Region, and Rusticity: Relocating U.S. Film History

Robert C. Allen

2. Tri-racial Theaters in Robeson County, North Carolina, 1896-1940

Christopher J. McKenna

3. The White in the Race Movie Audience

Jane M. Gaines

4. Sundays in Norfolk: Toward a Protestant Utopia Through Film Exhibition in Norfolk, Virginia, 1910-1920

Terry Lindvall

5. Patchwork Maps of Moviegoing, 1911-1913

Richard Abel

6. Next Year at the Moving Pictures: Cinema and Social Change in the Jewish Immigrant Community

Judith Thissen

7. ‘Four Hours of Hootin’ and Hollerin’’: Moviegoing and Everyday Life Outside of the Movie Palace

Jeffrey Klenotic

8. Cinemagoing in the United States in the mid-1930s: A Study Based on the Variety Dataset

Mark Glancy and John Sedgwick

9. Race Houses, Jim Crow Roosts, and Lily White Palaces: Desegregating the Motion Picture Theater

Thomas Doherty

Part II: Other Cinema: Alternatives to Theatrical Exhibition

10. The Reel of the Month Club: 16mm Projectors, Home Theaters and Film Libraries in the 1920s

Haidee Wasson

11.  Early Art Cinema in the U.S.: Symon Gould and the Little Cinema Movement of the 1920s

Anne Morey

12. Free Talking Picture—Every Farmer is Welcome: Non-theatrical Film and Everyday Life in Rural America during the 1930s

Gregory A. Waller

13. Cinema’s Shadow: Reconsidering Non-theatrical Exhibition

Barbara Klinger

Part III: Hollywood Movies in Broader Perspective: Audiences at Home and Abroad

14. Changing Images of Movie Audiences

Richard Butsch

15. ‘Healthy Films from America’: The Emergence of a Catholic Film Mass Movement in Belgium and the Realm of Hollywood, 1928-1939

Daniel Biltereyst

16. The Child Audience and the ‘Horrific’ Film in the 1930s Britain

Annette Kuhn

17. Hollywood in Vernacular: Translation and Cross-cultural Reception of American Films in Turkey

Ahmet Gürata

18. Cowboy Modern: African Audiences, Hollywood Films and Visions of the West

Charles Ambler

19. ‘Opening Everywhere’: Multiplexes and the Speed of Cinema Culture

Charles R. Acland

20. ‘Cinema Come to Life at the Cornerhouse, Nottingham’: ‘American’ Exhibition, Local Politics and Global Culture in the Construction of the Urban Entertainment Centre

Mark Jancovich



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