Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films

Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films

by William Uricchio, Roberta E. Pearson


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Reframing Culture: The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films by William Uricchio, Roberta E. Pearson

The works of Shakespeare and Dante or the figures of George Washington and Moses do not often enter into popular conceptions of the silent cinema, yet, between 1907 and 1910, the Vitagraph Company frequently used such material in producing "quality" films that promulgated "respectable" culture. William Uricchio and Roberta Pearson situate these films in an era of immigration, labor unrest, and mainstream American xenophobia, in order to explore the cultural views promoted by the films and the ways the audiences--the middle classes as well as workers and immigrants--related to what they saw. The authors associate the production of quality films with a top-down forging of cultural consensus on issues such as patriotism and morality, and reveal the surprising bottom-up negotiations of these films' "meanings."Devoting chapters to the literary, historical, and biblical subjects used by Vitagraph, this book draws upon plays, pageants, school textbooks, and even product advertisements to illuminate the conditions of cinematic production and reception. It provides a detailed look at one aspect of the film industry's transformation from "despised cheap amusement" to the nation's dominant mass medium, while showing how cultural elites engaged in a struggle similar to that of today's American academy over the literary canon and national value systems.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691600277
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library Series
Pages: 266
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 9.30(h) x 0.70(d)

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Reframing Culture

The Case of the Vitagraph Quality Films

By William Uricchio, Roberta E. Pearson


Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-04774-4


Responses to Cultural Crisis: Political Domination and Hegemony

IN THE 1870s, the trauma of the Civil War barely behind it, the United States plunged into a cycle of economic boom and bust accompanied by acrimonious and violent labor disputes. Waves of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe and the pressures of rapid urbanization further exacerbated the tensions stemming from economic upheaval and earlier Irish and German immigration. Native-born Americans, ranging from the inhabitants of Fifth Avenue mansions to the farmers of the Great Plains, began to fear the unruly and alien mob, perceiving a threat not only to the very fabric of a capitalist society but to its fundamental cultural values as well. Organized working men sought to redress the balance of power between labor and capital, while socialists and anarchists advocated not ameliorating the social situation but revolutionizing it. Perhaps even more dangerous, however, was the profound cultural reconfiguration of the period. Newcomers brought with them the "foreign" values of their native lands, while the concentration of immigrants and workers in the cities permitted the flounshing of an urban popular culture, the growing prominence of whICh challenged established values. The emergence of a mass consumer culture that cut across all social formations further subverted the vested cultural authority of traditional tastemakers.

The supporters of the status quo responded to these pressures in two ways: first, by employing state agents (the army, the police, the militia) in an attempt to establish political domination; and second, by employing nonviolent means to secure assent to the existing distribution of power, in other words, to establish a hegemonic order As we have pointed out, however, this hegemonic order was not a static entity but changed constantly as a result of both its defense and its contestation. Hence, the broad bifurcation between the advocates of political domination, whom we term the repressives, and the advocates of hegemonic incorporation, whom we term the assimilationists, masks underlying complexities to which we shall allude throughout the book

Fears of imminent social dissolution initiated by the first general strike in United States history, the railway strike of 1877, crystallized around the Chicago Haymarket incident of 1886. At an anarchist-sponsored strike rally a bomb hurled by a still unknown assailant killed a policeman His enraged comrades retaliated, killing four demonstrators and wounding many—and shooting several of their fellow officers in the process. In the aftermath eight anarchists were tried and convicted for inciting to not through their publications Although some from the left side of the political spectrum rallied to the defendants' cause, the mainstream press coverage of the Haymarket "not" and the subsequent trial invoked the frightening spectres of anarchy and revolution stalking the land.

The depression of 1893–97, entailing hundreds of bank failures and more than a hundred railroad receiverships, saw further violent encounters between labor and the henchmen of capital The 1892 Homestead strike against Andrew Carnegie's steel corporation and the 1894 Pullman strike against the manufacturer of the railroad cars resulted in more labor deaths as well as federal government intervention through both court injunction and the United States Army Anarchists remained in the public eye, one attempting to assassinate Carnegie's deputy, Henry Frick, another succeeding in his attempt against the president, William McKinley

Some native-born Americans mounted virulent attacks upon the "foreigners," whom they associated with the decline of the nation. An official of the Grand Army of the Republic spoke of "foreign born rotten banana sellers, thieving rag dealers, Italian organ grinders, Chinese washmen and Bohemian coal miners, whose aspirations would make a dog vomit." The clergyman Josiah Strong, author of the best-seller Our Country, believed that immigration, connected with many of the forces disrupting the status quo, was at the root of the nations ills. "Immigration ... has fed fat the liquor power. Immigration is the strength of the Catholic Church.... Immigration is the mother and nurse of American socialism. Immigration tends strongly to the cities, and gives them their political complexion And there is no more serious menace to our civilization than our rabble-ruled citizens [in the cities]"

Indeed, immigrants were intimately linked in the public mind with the myriad evils threatening consensual values: criminality, prostitution, intemperance, striking, violating the Sabbath, and so on These, in turn, became inseparable from the problems of overcrowding, lack of sanitation, and moral decay attendant upon the growth of the cities And of all cities, New York, the headquarters of the film industry, most resonantly symbolized what many feared might be the coming order of culture and society, for nowhere was the perceived link between immigration and the imminent collapse of the American way of life more "obvious" than in America's Gotham.

New York—with its corrupt, inept administration, with Ellis Island, the main point of entry for "the huddled masses yearning to breath free," with the appalling slums south of Fourteenth Street—epitomized all the problems of the newly industrialized, urbanized nation Daniel Coit Gilman, president of the Johns Hopkins University, said that "New York is an example to all this land—a colossal object lesson ... a sort of teachers' college where other cities may learn both what to do and what not to do." The Buffalo members of the New York State Tenement House Commission took a less temperate view. "After several days of silent amazement, they exclaimed: 'New York should be abolished.'"

Demographic data from the period document the magnitude of the "alien" presence in New York City. According to the 1910 census, the foreign-born constituted 47.9 percent of the population in the borough of Manhattan. More important than the statistics were perceptions of New York as "the second largest German city in the world, the second largest Italian city, the largest Irish city, and by far the largest Jewish city in the world." The period's discourse emphasized the magnitude of the alien presence, treating the Germans, Italians, Irish, and Jews as an undifferentiated block and often overlooking the fact that the various ethnicities exhibited profound dissimilarities in terms of their motives for emigration, attitudes toward religion, family structures, cultural exposures and expectations, and countless other factors. These differences among ethnicities were further compounded by differences within the ethnic communities with regard to class, education, prior occupations, and so forth.

Although a few astute social workers were sensitive to these complexities, for the majority of native New Yorkers the inescapable presence of the newly arrived foreigners served as a constant reminder of the profound upheaval in their familiar social and cultural order For Henry James, returning from a lengthy sojourn in the United Kingdom, the city's foreign populace produced culture shock. The writer characterized the influx of immigrants as an assault upon the body politic exceeding the self-imposed trauma of the circus sword-or fire-swallower. James lamented being forced "to share the sanctity of his American consciousness, the intimacy of his American patriotism, with the inconceivable alien." For several days after a visit to Ellis Island, James wandered the streets of Manhattan profoundly conscious of the "ghost in his supposedly safe old house." James felt constrained to accommodate his conceptions of patriotism and national identity to "their monstrous, presumptuous interest" powerfully manifested in "that loud primary stage of alienism which New York most offers to sight."

James might have been even more appalled had he visited the slums south of Fourteenth Street rather than the relatively salubrious Ellis Island. In fact, the observations of a missionary on a midnight tour of New York's tenement districts would have confirmed his worst fears about the dissolution of his familiar society

A few steps out of Broadway, we came to the vilest dens of infamy In one room, not more than ten by twelve, we came upon eighteen human beings, men and women, black and white, American and foreign-born, who there ate, slept, and lived In that room we found a women of the highest refinement and culture with the faded dress of a courtesan upon her dishonored body, a former leader in the Salvation Army, a woman of sweet song, half drunk, a snoring, disgusting Negro wench, an opium-eating licentious Italian, et al

The horror here stemmed not so much from the wretched lot of these human beings but rather from the fact that their intermingling transgressed the rigid boundaries of gender, ethnicity, and class necessary for the maintenance of the social order Note that two of the occupants of this tenement room, the woman of "highest refinement and culture" and "a former leader in the Salvation Army," were members of that class and gender often associated with the maintenance of traditional cultural values. If this promiscuous intermingling of bodies and value systems could bring these women to such a sorry pass, what might be the effects on a national scale? This small space epitomized the corrosive and corrupting potential of the urban condition.

How, then, were the dominant social formations to respond to this social and cultural upheaval? The very words "Haymarket," "Homestead," and "Pullman" came to symbolize for some a nation teetering on the brink of a revolution that only forceful repression could avert Many of the editorials appearing in the press verged on the hysterical in their calls for extreme measures. One of the nation's Christian journals urged most un-Christian violence. The Independent recommended employing the full arsenal of the modern military against the railroad strikers of f 877 "If the club of the policeman, knocking out the brains of the rioter will answer, then well and good; but if it does not promptly meet the exigency, then bullets and bayonets, cannister and grape ... constitute the one remedy and the one duty of the hour ... Napoleon was right when he said that the way to deal with the mob was to exterminate it." A prominent American, soon to be police commissioner of New York City, also gave his advice on handling such situations. Said Theodore Roosevelt, "My men [his ranchhands] ... are Americans through and through I believe nothing would give them greater pleasure than a chance with rifles at one of the mobs ... I wish I had them with me and a fair show at ten times our number of rioters. My men shoot well and fear very little."

But physical force alone would not suffice, for the danger stemmed not only from strikers and rioters but from the even more insidious influence of contesting social and cultural values. The New York Times, editorializing about the "problem of vice in the tenement houses," suggested that "the present danger is from moral, not physical infection, and it requires a system of moral disinfection." The moral infection which the Times identified, using a prevalent period metaphor of disease and contagion, could not be combatted by the police and militia. Many in the dominant social formations, taking their cue from Matthew Arnold, believed that the social and cultural crisis would be solved not through force but through the incorporation of the newcomers and the discontented into a shared value system that would link together all the members of an increasingly disparate society.

Faced with the political turmoil in England that had resulted from demands for working class suffrage, Matthew Arnold, in his influential Culture and Anarchy, first published in 1869, proposed a means of combatting moral infection through culture, which he defined as "a pursuit of our total perfection by means of getting to know, on all the matters which most concern us, the best which has been thought and said in the world." This Arnoldian definition delimited the cultural to the realm of expressive forms traditionally identified with arts and letters and thus excluded the broader anthropological sense of culture as lived experience. Arnold argued that this delimited sense of culture could constitute a set of shared values that would encourage reasonable—namely, nonviolent and nonrevolutionary—behavior. "The very principle of the authority which we are seeking as a defence against anarchy is right reason, ideas, light." Arnold argued that the incorporation of all into culture as defined by the dominant social formations would ameliorate class divisions and thus civil strife. Culture "seeks to do away with classes; to make the best that has been thought and known in the world current everywhere; to make all men live in an atmosphere of sweetness and light."

Although Arnold firmly grounded his analysis in the English political situation, discursive parallels indicate that his solution seems to have been taken up by many in the dominant social formations of the United States, who attempted to forge a cultural consensus that would incorporate rather than repress disruptive forces such as workers and immigrants by extending a vision of sweetness and light across the boundaries of race, gender, ethnicity, and class. For the purposes of this project, we work from the periods own sense of Arnoldian culture, defining the dominant culture as the expressive forms valorized and circulated by the dominant social formations. But this dominant culture was by no means monolithic, the fin-de-siècle upheaval described above rendering it particularly fractured and unstable. Various educational, economic, and social elites, all members of dominant social formations, nonetheless contested among themselves the definition of the culture that was to be extended. And, in practice, this extension did not result in cultural egalitarianism, since even those seeking to forge cultural consensus did not intend to create a seamless monolith in which all citizens had precisely the same cultural exposures Rather, as Pierre Bourdieu suggests, restrictions on the circulation of some cultural expressions resulted in the creation of hierarchies, which preserved necessary distinctions among social formations by enhancing the value of some kinds of cultural capital relative to other kinds. While some of these hierarchies were created de novo, others resulted from a reconfiguration of the existing cultural landscape, as dominant social formations appropriated expressive forms that had once belonged to popular culture.

To exemplify the process whereby the dominant culture was constructed, we look briefly at two of the most important of the institutions of cultural reproduction during this period, public schools and libraries. Mandatory public education, regulated on a statewide level, became widespread in the United States around the turn of the century just as immigration from southern and eastern Europe swelled In urban centers such as New York City the public schools constituted the first line of defense against the "alien invasion," charged with the responsibility for teaching immigrant children the language of their new country as well as its manners and morals. The rhetoric of key figures in education confirms that many perceived the schools as agents of assimilation that would help to avert the collapse of the dominant social and cultural order by building consensual values John Dewey, the philosopher and educational theorist, saw the schools as instilling the virtues necessary for social harmony. "When the school introduces and trains each child of society into membership within such a little community saturating him with the spirit of service, and providing him with the instruments of effective self-direction, we shall have the deepest and best guaranty of a larger society which is worthy, lovely, and harmonious."

Many considered that literature and history, embodying as they did the "best that has been thought and said," were the subjects best suited to the purposes of moral inoculation New York City's Department of Education told its teachers that "every school study has a specific moral value Literature and history embody in concrete form moral facts and principles ... furnishing him [the child] with ideals and incentives, and molding his moral judgment" McGujjey's Fifth Reader, a textbook widely adopted on the national level, also spoke of moral education as occurring through the teaching of literature and history "Care has been taken to maintain the same high literary and ethical standard that has hitherto so distinctly characterized these books Lessons inculcating kindness, courage, obedience, industry, thrift, true manliness, patriotism, and other duties and obligations form no small portion of the contents."


Excerpted from Reframing Culture by William Uricchio, Roberta E. Pearson. Copyright © 1993 Princeton University Press. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations



Ch. 1 Responses to Cultural Crisis: Political Domination and Hegemony

Ch. 2 The Film Industry's Drive for Respectability

Ch. 3 Literary Qualities: Shakespeare and Dante

Ch. 4 Historical Qualities: Washington and Napoleon

Ch. 5 Biblical Qualities: Moses


Appendix: Vitagraph's Description of the Washington and Napoleon Films



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