Main Street Movies: The History of Local Film in the United States

Main Street Movies: The History of Local Film in the United States

by Martin L. Johnson


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Main Street Movies: The History of Local Film in the United States by Martin L. Johnson

"See yourself in the movies!"

Prior to the advent of the home movie camera and the ubiquitousness of the camera phone, there was the local film. This cultural phenomenon, produced across the country from the 1890s to the 1950s, gave ordinary people a chance to be on the silver screen without leaving their hometowns. Through these movies, residents could see themselves in the same theaters where they saw major Hollywood motion pictures. Traveling filmmakers plied their trade in small towns and cities, where these films were received by locals as being part of the larger cinema experience. With access to the rare film clips under discussion, Main Street Movies documents the diversity and longevity of local film production and examines how itinerant filmmakers responded to industry changes to keep sponsors and audiences satisfied. From town pride films in the 1910s to Hollywood knockoffs in the 1930s, local films captured not just images of local people and places but also ideas about the function and meaning of cinema that continue to resonate today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780253032539
Publisher: Indiana University Press
Publication date: 01/23/2018
Series: Cinema and the American Experience Series
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x (d)

About the Author

Martin L. Johnson is Assistant Professor in Media and Communication Studies at The Catholic University of America.

Read an Excerpt



Municipal Booster Films

Quite recently a moving picture company sent its photographers to Springfield, Illinois, and produced a story with our city for a background, using our social set for actors. Backed by the local commercial association for whose benefit the thing was made, the resources of the place were at the command of routine producers. Springfield dressed its best, and acted with fair skill. The heroine was a charming débutante, the hero the son of Governor Dunne. The Mine Owner's Daughter was at best a mediocre photoplay. But this type of social-artistic event, that happened once, may be attempted a hundred times, each time slowly improving. Which brings us to something that is in the end very far from The Mine Owner's Daughter. By what scenario method the following film or series of films is to be produced I will not venture to say. No doubt the way will come if once the dream has a sufficient hold.

— Vachel Lindsay, The Art of the Moving Picture (1915)

Anyone can have a film made to his order. Several films have been made in this city, for some of them, not very big ones either, as much as $500 has been paid. But what good are they. They were shown at the local theatre. That was all. Now they are tucked away in a trunk perhaps. So it would be with county fair scenes. Distributors will not distribute such films free of charge, nor exhibitors exhibit them. They are regarded by them as advertising and charged as such.

— "Educational Movies," Oxnard (Calif.) Daily Courier, August 26, 1922

WHEN VACHEL LINDSAY, THE SELF-MADE — and self-appointed — poet and cultural critic of the Midwest, turned his attentions to the cinema in 1915, he saw in the new medium an opportunity for what Garth Jowett later called a "democratic art." In The Art of the Moving Picture, Lindsay presented a theory of film form and genre that locates the cinema in a specifically American context. In one chapter, Lindsay described a film first exhibited in his hometown of Springfield, Illinois, in the summer of 1915, just a few months before the book's publication. In this passage, Lindsay observed that the motion picture titled The Mine Owner's Daughter, which was made at the behest of local businesses, was a "mediocre photoplay" but brought about a "social-artistic event" in his hometown. Although he neglected to name the production company or describe the film's plot, Lindsay speculated that such local films would be made again and again, until one day they reached the level of capital-A "Art," using the cinema to produce local spectacles. Lindsay then summarized his own scenario for a local film in Springfield, one that would feature the goddess of the city emerging from the hills and telling the city fathers how to prepare for the future.

Lindsay's hopes for the local film were quickly dashed, as structural changes in the film industry make it difficult for independent producers to distribute their work, a state of affairs that turned many would-be local film sponsors into skeptics. However, Lindsay failed to realize that The Mine Owner's Daughter, a film he almost certainly saw in July 1915 in his hometown, was not made for Springfield audiences alone. Instead, the Commercial Association that sponsored the film expected it "to be placed on show in 182 different cities throughout the United States." By the time the Paragon Feature Film Company of Omaha, Nebraska, arrived in Springfield to produce The Mine Owner's Daughter, the company had made dozens of similar films in cities such as Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and Montgomery, Alabama. While Lindsay thought The Mine Owner's Daughter was on the leading edge of the cinema to come, its production company had in fact started several years earlier, and would make its last film in 1916.

Between 1910 and 1916, when the American cinema was itself undergoing what historians have identified, in retrospect, as the transition to the classical Hollywood era, there was a wave of production and theatrical exhibition of movies like The Mine Owner's Daughter. Called booster or town advertising films, these pictures were sponsored by business organizations interested in promoting the attractions of their town to potential residents and manufacturers, and exhibited both in the town or city where they were made and, if their producers are to be believed, other towns and cities throughout the United States. While early booster films were merely collections of local views, by 1914 motion picture companies began producing narrative, semi-fictional films. These industrial romances blended the tropes of historical pageantry and transitional cinema melodrama. Most often, they used a wedding plot to build a story that advertised local manufacturing plants and resources. Over time, booster films began to incorporate elements of common narrative film plots, including daring rescues of damsels in distress, explosions, and automobile crashes.

What I call the "municipal booster film" is a local film that was sponsored by a business organization, such as a board of trade, chamber of commerce, or commercial club, of a city or town for the express intent of advertising that municipality's virtues to its own residents as well as potential settlers and investors. The municipal booster film was not a genre but rather a mode of production that incorporated generic cues from industrial romances and melodramas. These films were distinct from the local views of early cinema in three ways. First, unlike the local view, the municipal view was not defined exclusively by the pleasure of self-recognition, that is, audiences seeing themselves on film. Instead, the films were often noted for their presentation of local places, first as attractions for businesses or people wishing to relocate and later as locations for fictionalized movie scenes. Second, in contrast to local views, which tended to be very short (one-hundred-foot reels were common) and rapidly processed and exhibited, municipal boosting films were both longer (at least a thousand feet) and more likely to be produced over a series of days or weeks. With the luxury of time to produce their film, sponsors were able to exercise much greater control over who and what appeared, and did not appear, in their production. Third, sponsors believed their motion pictures would be seen elsewhere, in neighboring cities, throughout the state, and even nationally and internationally. Although the historical evidence suggests that very few municipal booster films were exhibited so widely, sponsors were led to expect national distribution of their films, which in turn affected their production decisions.

The municipal booster film can therefore be located within ongoing debates about the possibilities for a moviegoing audience to constitute itself as a public. Miriam Hansen has argued that the classical Hollywood cinema that emerged in the late 1910s eliminated the "conditions around which local, ethnic, class, and gender-related experience might crystallize," thus ending the potential for the cinema to serve as an alternative public sphere. While Hansen is interested in an urban, multiethnic, working-class, and gendered milieu, the phenomenon of the municipal booster film suggests that local experiences of spectatorship in more homogenous communities also thrived during the transition. As Robert C. Allen has argued, rural encounters with the cinema during the transitional era were of a markedly different character than its urban counterparts. Rather than viewing films in class-segregated and neighborhood-based nickelodeons, rural and small-town inhabitants viewed movies downtown, in theaters that were once dedicated exclusively to live entertainment. Even after the construction of purpose-built movie theaters commenced in the early 1910s, the picture show remained a venue for live performances and civic functions, serving as a cultural center in many small towns. While histories of the movies and traveling mass amusements, such as circuses and vaudeville acts, are usually told in a national framework, Gregory A. Waller argues that by ignoring the "local configuration of sites, sponsors, and occasions" necessary for these amusements to occur, we miss much of what made them significant in the first place.

The shift in emphasis from national to local histories of the cinema is not made out of a desire to fully represent the kaleidoscope of movie experiences in the early twentieth century, nor to suggest that, for the sake of historical accuracy, we need to substitute studies of bejeweled metropolises like New York and Chicago for more ordinary places like Lexington, Kentucky, and Wilmington, North Carolina. Instead, work by Allen, Waller, Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley, Paul S. Moore, and many others suggest that differences between and among locales of moviegoing augurs for a reconsideration of how and why the cinema developed as a mass amusement. Instead of a center-periphery model, in which all that is noteworthy about motion pictures passed through New York and, later, Los Angeles, these studies reveal multinodal networks of cinema cultures, with pathways extending in all directions. Rather than serving as prima facie evidence of the rise of national, mass culture in the early decades of the twentieth century, the cinema becomes a site where we can investigate these claims. Local studies open up new horizons of inquest, enabling a reexamination of old assumptions and revealing new fields of research.

For example, scholars have long argued for the historical significance of the cinema because of its close association with the advent of urban industrial modernity, which allowed working-class moviegoers to influence the direction the cinema would take. Operating under the assumption that films such as What Happened on Twenty-Third Street, New York City (Edwin S. Porter, 1901) was emblematic of both the kinds of movies audiences saw and their everyday experiences, scholars conflated the production and reception of such films. The longstanding debate between Tom Gunning and Charles Musser over whether early cinema is best understood as a medium that delivered "attractions" that shocked audiences, or one in which audiences "contemplated" the complex operations of the cinema, assumes that modernity was essentially an urban phenomena. Although Joe Kember supports the so-called modernity thesis in its broadest strokes, he suggests that scholars have missed the most salient quality of modernity for early cinema audiences: the fact that "individuals had become adept at objectifying others and detaching themselves from the responsibilities of genuine intimacy and empathy." Kember argues that early film institutions, such as fairgrounds and theaters, "not only reproduced some of the most widely disseminated perspectives on modernity ... but also allowed them to be registered, deliberated, and worked through." Applying Anthony Giddens's theorization of modernity to the cinema, Kember argues that exhibition reveals in the cinema what Giddens calls the "duality of structure," in which the "screening of a film participates in the creation of the spectator at the same time as the conventions for film exhibition and styles of filmmaking are reassessed and reproduced by the spectator." In this way, Kember suggests, "institutions successfully connect local contexts of action with distant imperatives, often across large spans of time and space." Urban sophisticates and country rubes were equally encouraged to see the cinema not just as a reflection of modern life but also as an opportunity to see in the cinema a capacity for empathy and intimacy that was elsewhere under threat.

By shifting emphasis away from experiences of shock and alienation, and toward a focus on immediacy and connection, Kember suggests that we take seriously those who made claims for the medium's educational and socially uplifting aspects. Audiences everywhere, even in small towns, were primed to see the cinema as an expression of modernity, and yet they were also continually reminded of its association with the lecturers, showmen, and theater managers who brought them in contact with distant people and places. As he notes, exhibitors produced and sponsored local views in the early cinema period in order to "foster varied bonds of recognition and empathy with their audiences, and to generate relationships that were characterized by intimacy as well as exhibitionism." And while the local views of the early cinema period were never intended to be screened to other communities, these feelings of intimacy and exhibitionism continued to resonate in the early 1910s. The local view did not lose popularity in the transitional era, as some have suggested, but was rather transformed into new modes of local picture production that responded to the changing form and industry structure of the cinema.

In the transition, movie audiences began to think of themselves as a public, participating in the regulation and production of the cinema. One could shape the cinema by joining a censor board, by sending one's scenario off to a production company, or by appearing in a local film. Michael Warner argues that the salient quality of a public is the "reflexive circulation of discourse," which in a cinema context would mean the capacity for audiences to critically participate in film culture. In contrast to Hansen's more grounded, tangible alternative public sphere, one in which audiences felt their "collective presence" in the movie theater, Warner's notion of a public relies on a social imaginary to serve as the audiences' interlocutor. In this way, the public that was constituted and reproduced in print discourse, particularly newspapers, became visible through the production, exhibition, and, imagined distribution of local films. Municipal booster films were produced in large numbers for a time because their sponsors believed their films could be circulated to other towns, thus constituting themselves as member of a moviemaking public that consisted of individuals from all factions of society.

The decline of the municipal booster film in the late 1910s was not due to a lack of interest in local filmmaking. Rather, it was, as an Oxnard, California, newspaper observed in 1922, a decline in interest in making local films to be exhibited elsewhere. While there is scant evidence that booster films were exhibited theatrically, there is substantially more evidence of their nontheatrical exhibition in sites such as regional conventions, trade tours, and, more prominently, at the 1915 Panama-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco. Many of the films produced by Paragon and other municipal film companies were exhibited at the Panama-Pacific Expo, supplementing the more elaborate displays states and cities usually sent to expositions. Reviews of the exposition note that motion pictures were shown at all the state halls, but very few visitors were interested in watching films like Fifty Thousand Feet of Kansas (1915), produced by Paragon and featuring no less than 50,000 feet of film, taken in 200 towns, of a state with a population of just 1.5 million.

By promising that their films would be circulated, booster film producers encouraged sponsors to invest more time and money in these pictures than they might have done otherwise. As a result, the municipal films of the 1910s were far more ambitious than any other mode of local film production of this or any other decade. At the same time, the transformation of the municipal booster film from a longer, carefully selected series of local views into a semi-fictional narrative film that turned a city's attractions into key plot elements was essential, as it allowed the local film to become a mode that was primarily concerned about the production and reproduction of place. In effect, the emergence of the municipal booster film, and its subsequent decline after 1916, reveals the potential, and the limits, of local film production and exhibition in the United States.


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Copyright © 2018 Martin L. Johnson.
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Table of Contents

Accessing Moving Images
Introduction: Defining the Local Film
1. The Silent Pageant: Municipal Booster Films
2. The Home Talent Film and the Origins of Itinerancy
3. "How Movies Are Made": Hollywood and the Local Film
4. Itinerants Adopt a Baby : The Local Hollywood Film and the Operational Aesthetic
5. Kidnapping the Movie Queen : Amateur Aesthetics as Cultural Critique
6. The Cameraman Has Visited Your Town: The Local Film and the Politics of Recognition
7. Every Town has its Main Street: The Banal Localism of the Civic Film
8. Reclaiming the Local Film: Artifacts, Archives, and Audiences
Conclusion: See Your Town Disappear: The Historicity of the Local Film

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"A significant contribution to the study of the history of American film practice [and] reception."

author of At the Picture Show: Small Town Audiences and the Creation of Movie Fan Culture - Kathryn H. Fuller-Seeley

...a significant contribution to the study of the history of American film practice [and] reception.

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"The continuous power of the moving image as both self-reflection and time machine is analyzed, dissected, and painstakingly pieced back together to present a narrative of the local film that becomes national and global in its interpretation. Martin L. Johnson presents a thousand faces as a movement of film history. … He has taken a footnote in the early days of the movies in the United States and given it the platform this scholarship deserves."

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