Big films, little theaters – 1926

June 26, 2008 § Leave a comment

This looks like quite a program :

New York Times, 21 mars 1926 

According to David Bordwell (On The History of Film Style, p. 23), the “International Film Arts Guild” was linked to the magazine Close Up and was one of the institutions disseminating the idea of cinema as art because it did more than record reality (or what Bordwell calls the Basic Story). That program conforms to the dedication of those small theaters and groups to build an understanding of cinema as an art through showing old films along with more recent ones, and international “art” films along with more original American fare. But as the program shows they were not adverse to showing good ol’ blockbusters (Robin Hood!) either: cinema as an art did not exclude Hollywood filmmaking. (Bordwell indeed provides many other examples of inclusion, in the Basic Story, of Hollywood giants).

Surprise, surprise: most (all?) of the films shown are now recognized classics. Is the Basic Story so much with us still ? And isn’t it ironic that modern viewing conditions of silent films look more like minority practices of 1920s art-film exhibition ? 

Tony Guzman has all the details on “The Little Theater Movement” in the US and the Cameo Theater:

The Shadowbox did not remain New York’s only art theatre for long. The first film theatre to adopt art film programming was the Cameo Theatre on 42nd Street near Broadway in New York. The Cameo had been programming first run Hollywood films, but with only 549 seats it was much smaller than the nearby film palaces in the Broadway area and was thus hopelessly outmatched in attracting desirable product. However, its prestigious and lucrative location made it a tempting target for the International Film Arts Guild, an organization formed by Symon Gould in early 1926. The Guild was modeled after New York’s 16,000 member Theatre Guild, the largest little theatre organization in the United States.

The Guild sought to provide a sanctuary for artistic films as well as the history of cinema as the Guild ‘dedicated itself to the task of reviving and keeping alive the classics of the cinema’.  Gould believed ‘that the cinema has an art-destiny of its own, unrelated to any other existing art, and that a little theatre movement of the cinema is essential at this time to keep the flame of its artistic ambitions burning brightly and shielded from the miasmatic vapors of commercial animosities’. There was nothing in Gould’s statements suggesting that the Guild would concentrate on European films, and in fact the Guild’s most cherished ambition was to present the complete version of Greed (1924) on a series of successive evenings similar to the way the Theatre Guild had staged George Bernard Shaw’sBack to Methuselah on three evenings in February 1922.

When the Guild leased the Cameo in February 1926 dubbing it ‘The Salon of the Cinema’, most of its early presentations were revivals of American films like A Woman of Paris (1923),The Miracle Man (1919), Broken Blossoms (1919), Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1920), Why Worry?(1923), Merry-Go-Round (1923), Tol’able David (1921), A Connecticut Yankee at King Arthur’s Court (1921), Outside The Law (1921), and Doctor Jack (1922). Interspersed within these ‘repertoire weeks’ were a few revived European films like Othello (1922), Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh, 1924) and Crainquebille (1922) as well as two weeks of ‘repertoire’ devoted to the American and German films of Ernst Lubitsch from 7 March to 20 March billed as ‘a challenge to “movie-scoffers” and a feast for film-lovers!’ The Guild invited audience participation by sponsoring contests such as essays arguing ‘which is the greater screen characterization – Emil Jannings in “The Last Laugh” or Maurice de Féraudy in “Crainquebille”‘ as well as soliciting requests for future ‘repertoire weeks’. 

Can I just interject here that solliciting audience participation is not limited to art film practices ? This 1927 ad for The Big Parade, with its $50,000 cash prize for anyone who can answer six questions about the film, published in Motion Picture Magazine (Nov. issue), is a good illustration of an mainstream Hollywood seeking an active audience — and an audience engaged both in reading narrative clues (questions 2 or 4) and in searching for documentary, real-life clues (question 5):

Vidor\'s Six Questions

But to continue with our Cameo:

These ‘repertoire weeks’ produced grosses consistent with and sometimes better than the house average for first run films which, with the lower film rental costs, made them profitable to the Guild.

The Cameo’s programming would soon become more adventurous:

The Guild soon found that among their most successful evenings were the nights when they sponsored screenings of European films that had not been widely seen or shown at all in New York. These were shown on special evenings for Guild subscribers. The usual ticket prices at the Cameo ranged from $.50 to .85 but these special screenings featured prices as high as $2.75, well above the highest film ticket price on Broadway which was $1.65. Nonetheless, these screening were often sellouts. The first such evening was on 18 March 1926 when the Guild presented the American premiere of Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (The Three Wax Works, 1924) at the Cameo preceded by The Pilgrim (1923), Prismatic Polychrome(an experimental abstract color short film by Eastman Kodak) and Ballet Mécanique (1924). This was followed on 29 April 1926 with the second American screening of Shatteredsupplemented by Ce Cochon de Morin (Red Hot Papa, 1924) from France and the pioneering American experimental short Manhatta (1921). On 3 June 1926 the Guild presented the American premiere of Hintertreppe (Backstairs, 1921) with a revival of Universal’s Driven(1922), Edison’s The Kiss (1896), The Great Train Robbery (1903), Going Straight (The Better Way, 1911) with Mary Pickford and The Fatal Mallet (1914) with Charles Chaplin. The Guild turned to France for its subscription night on 29 June 1926 with the double premieres ofVisages d’Enfants (Faces of Children, 1925) and Paris qui Dort (Paris Endormi/The Crazy Ray, 1924) in addition to two experimental shorts, Film Without Pictures and Knee Deep in Love, plus a revival of A Feud in the Kentucky Hills (1912).

These screenings demonstrated the three interests of the Guild at this point: film history, experimental films and European films. The Cameo continued its ‘repertoire’ policy until 28 November 1926 when it gave Ufa’s Manon Lescaut (1926) its first New York run. Ufa had failed to place it with a major distributor because of the impending release of Warner Bros.’ version of the Prévost novel retitled When A Man Loves (1927) with John Barrymore, so the Guild picked it up and it enjoyed considerable success during its two week run.

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