Glenn Uminowicz - February 2010
Comedy, Action, Fantasy and a Photoplay tonight
It’s an article of faith that 1939 was the pinnacle of American movies and it has all been downhill ever since. To say otherwise is, in certain circles, to risk having your Criterion DVDs revoked and be sentenced to eternally wander the multiplex in sackcloth and ashes.
Ty Burr in the Boston Globe, July 12, 2009
Writing in the Boston Globe last July, film critic Ty Burr insisted that 1939 marked the most celebrated year in American film history. After all, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was in the midst of running a film series entitled Hollywood’s Greatest Year: The Best Picture Nominees of 1939. Those films included Dark Victory, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Stagecoach, The Wizard of Oz and Wuthering Heights. During the course of the year, theaters afforded Eastern Shore moviegoers the opportunity to view all of these films.
Burr explained that 1939 trumps all other years in American filmmaking only partly based on the quality of the movies themselves. In fact, the year marked the pinnacle of the Hollywood studio system – a dream factory that massproduced an incredible 761 motion pictures in 1939. Because theaters offered double features to attract Depression-era patrons, much of this output was in the form of B-movies. During 1939, Eastern Shore theaters screened both eventual Academy Award nominees and films such as Panama Lady, The Dancing Co-Ed, Grand Jury Secrets and Naughty But Nice. The plot of the latter centered on a college professor who turned into
a “Jitterbug champion.” (No, his partner was not a dancing co-ed.)
By 1939, the studio system had evolved into a vertically integrated money machine controlled from one end to the other by five major studios. They produced, distributed and promoted their product, both their films themselves and their stars. Theater owners committed to block booking, agreeing to screen both first-rate films along with B-movies.
On the Eastern Shore, the Avalon Theatre in Easton was integrated It’s an article of faith that 1939 was the pinnacle of American movies and it has all been downhill ever since. To say otherwise is, in certain circles, to risk having your Criterion DVDs revoked and be sentenced to eternally wander the multiplex in sackcloth and ashes.
Ty Burr in the Boston Globe, July 12, 2009 into the studio system. Opened in 1922 as “The New Theatre,” it
qualified as a mini-movie palace.
“The New” was initially promoted as being run by “motion picture experts” who knew how to book the best pictures. In the 1920s and 30s, theaters were promoted with mottos. “The New,” its operators insisted, offered the “Pick O’ The Pictures.” In advertisements, patrons were admonished, “Remember: Cheap prices only mean there is junk on the screen.”
The New opened with the film The Inside of the Cup, based on the novel by Winston Churchill. The picture depicted “A Powerful Romance of Plain Worth and Gilded Hypocrisy.” In the early 1920s, theater owners often screened such morality tales. They wanted to assure patrons that movie-going was a respectable entertainment,
even if couples sat next to each other in the dark. The offerings at The New Theatre, for example, could be “Approved by Every Element in Any Community” including the clergy.
The film industry had already embraced the term “photoplay,” attempting to borrow some of the respectability of
the legitimate stage for movies. In 1921, for example, Bryant’s New Palace Theatre in Denton adopted the motto “The House of Refined Photo Productions.”
In the 1920s and ’30s, the photoplay-like plotlines of many films centered on how the jaded rich could be transformed by someone close to nature or engaged in honest hard work. In 1922, The New Theatre presented A Virgin Paradise. This was the absorbing tale of a girl who lived for eight years alone on an island with only wild
beasts for playmates. She is rescued and transplanted into big city society, where her primitive instincts clash with the “artificial and hypocritical circle to which she could not adjust herself.”
Filmed in Talbot County in 1928, The First Kiss clearly falls within the photoplay tradition. In the film, Gary Cooper plays Mulligan Talbot, a hard-working oysterman who forces his three dissolute brothers to get an education and make something of themselves. The Talbots were among Maryland’s first families, but Mulligan’s father became a “sodden drunk” whose mansion house had fallen into disrepair. Fay Wray plays the town’s richest girl, Anna Lee, who falls for the lowly oysterman. Mulligan steals “The First Kiss” aboard his oyster boat and Anna responds by calling him “white trash!” (Ironically, illustrations in promotional material do not show
Anna offering much resistance.) Of course, the true value of the honest working man is finally recognized and appreciated.
The Eastern Shore premier of The First Kiss at The New Theatre proved a mini-movie palace owner’s dream. Local oystermen had been recruited for the film to lend “atmosphere,” and people in St. Michaels recognized places for location shots. Moreover, real movie stars were in town. Not surprisingly, hundreds of Talbot Countians declared the film “A Very Attractive Presentation.”
In a movie program, several short attractions complimented a photoplay. At the AmuseU Theatre in Ridgely in 1921, the feature film The Devil was accompanied by the comedy You’ll Be S’Prised. The feature demonstrated “That truth can and will overcome evil.” The comedy starred Snooky, the “Humanzee,” who is the “ape who does
anything but talk to you.” The evening ended with the first episode of the serial Velvet Fingers.
Of course, within a photoplay, evil had to be illustrated before it could be overcome. This too proved an attraction for theater audiences. In 1922, The New Theatre offered a screening of The Sheik. Moviegoers received assurance that handsome Rudolph Valentino would unleash the “full torrent of Oriental tradition” at his love interest. After learning “The Sheik” is not really an Arab, she returns his affections. In making the film, science was brought to bear. Newspapers advised readers, “So determined were the directors and promoters of The Sheik
to produce a masterpiece that they used an emotion registering machine to determine by this gauge the amount of emotion Valentino could register for the big scenes.”
Clara Bow, the so-called “IT Girl,” proved the female counterpart to Valentino. In 1928, The New Theatre showed the Bow film actually called “IT.” Illustrations and text in advertisements parsed no words as to what the meaning of “IT” was, and audiences clearly enjoyed seeing some of it before witnessing the reigning in of “unbridled jazz age hedonism.”
The decade of the 1920s ended positively for both studios and theater owners with the introduction of sound. The Jazz Singer introduced “talkies” to the American public in 1927. Eastern Shore theater owners embraced the
new technology within just a few years.
With the onset of the Great Depression, however, theater attendance dropped precipitously. Beginning in 1933-34, the studios and theaters began to rebound. In addition to offering double features, theater owners inaugurated
Saturday “kiddie matinees” that became increasingly popular and lucrative in the 1940s and ’50s. Eastern Shore theater owners offered cash giveaways and opportunities to win free movie tickets. The variety of “shorts” accompanying a feature film became more varied and attractive. The showing of King Kong in Denton, for example, was bundled with a filmed Vaudeville act, a newsreel, and a Mickey Mouse cartoon.
Production values and subject matter in films also drew larger audiences. In 1934, It Happened One Night played in Denton. As with other so-called “Screwball Comedies,” the film depicted a romantic liaison between two people of vastly different social backgrounds. A spoiled heiress played by Claudette Colbert meets an unemployed newspaperman portrayed by Clark Gable. This leads to scenes such as the erection of the “Walls of Jericho” using a sheet when the mismatched couple must share a room for the night. By bringing divergent characters together, film historian Kay Sloan suggested that Screwball Comedies implied that class conflict
was not a given in hard times and that American democracy could survive.
A number of film historians point to the movies as a vehicle of escape for Americans during the Depression. Eastern Shore movie houses showed musicals like 52nd Street, comedies like the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup and innumerable westerns. As escapist fare, animated films were the most fantastic cinema of all. In 1937, moviegoers could travel to Harrington, Delaware, and see Walt Disney’s Snow White. Kay Sloan insisted that horror films featuring characters like King Kong and Frankenstein allowed for escape from the realities of the Depression
into “very different fantastic landscapes.” Sometimes these films took audiences to a dark place where scientific experimentation produced uncertain results for the human race.
Unfortunately, some divisions in American society could not be escaped in the dark of the movie theater. By 1939, the Avalon was part of a local chain of movie houses that included a second theater in Easton and another in St.
Michaels. This allowed for more flexibility in scheduling feature films and B-movies. It also permitted the Avalon to remain a whites-only theater, while the New Easton Theater offered “Midnight Shows for Colored Patrons.” Often
these films were African-American versions of popular movie genres. Two Gun Louis Jordan was a “Singin’ Shootin’ Lovin’” black version of Roy Rogers. The adventures of a group of “juvenile colored artists” named the Cabin Kids echoed those of the popular Dead End Kids. Ironically, the Cabin Kids came to Easton and appeared
at the Avalon, not the Easton.
In 1948, a Supreme Court decision broke up the studio system. According to Ty Burr, the decision effectively dismantled a “cultural juggernaut” with all its vertically integrated, trade-restricting cylinders. The studios understood that well-crafted, entertaining movies ensured success. However flawed, the studio system helped Americans endure the Depression and produced Hollywood’s Greatest Year.