Silent Cinema


As much as the star scandals of the early 1920s may have outraged sectors of the American populace, the negative publicity did little to dampen the general enthusiasm for motion pictures. During the mature silent period, movies acquired the status of a mass commercial entertainment, with audience levels climbing throughout the 1920s, especially in the latter part of the decade. Weekly paid admissions in the United States jumped from 40 million in 1922 to 65 million in 1928. In fact, it was film's very popularity that prompted ongoing concern about its effects on select audience members, children and youth in particular. Various studies into filmgoing conducted throughout the late 1910s and 1920s found that young people constituted a sizable portion of the total audience for motion pictures. The question of whether movie-going had an adverse effect on the behavior of young people was not easily answered; for every study that denied the negative influence of the movies on children, such as the chapter devoted to the topic in Phyllis Blanchard's The Child and Society (1928), another found statistical correlations between juvenile delinquency and high rates of movie attendance, such as Alice Miller Mitchell's Children and Movies (1929).

Data on the composition of movie audiences during this period remain scattered and questionable, but some studies indicated that a significant percentage of adult members were female. The film scholar Gaylyn Studlar has pointed out that, whether or not we accept as true the figures putting the proportion of female movie patrons as high as 80 percent, women were indeed seen as highly desirable audience members precisely because of their status as consumers. Fan magazines were pitched to female readers, and the rapturous star-gazing fan was imagined to be female, even if the reality was more complicated. (For example, though press reports describing the hysterical reaction to Rudolph Valentino's (1895–1926) death emphasized the behavior of female fans, newsreel footage shows just as many men in attendance outside the funeral service as women.) On another level, however, the steady evolution of movie culture that accelerated throughout the mature silent era worked to eliminate any distinctions among fans, suggesting that all patrons had equal access to the grand fantasy represented by Hollywood films and the stars who populated them. Nowhere was this clearer than in the moving picture palace, which came to define the era's aspirations and set a standard for exhibition that would never be surpassed.

The picture palace, renowned for its architectural flights of fancy and sumptuous decor, encapsulated the spirit of fantasy that moviegoing was designed to engender. The opulence of these theaters alluded to the high cultural realm of opera houses; architects consciously emulated antiquated styles as well, mixing traditions in a manner that intensified the idea that the ticket holder was entering a realm free of constraints, either of expense or history. In atmospheric theaters, stars might twinkle in a cloud-bedecked ceiling; exoticism announced itself through ersatz Mayan statuary or an elaborate staircase modeled after French Renaissance originals. Oversized lobbies were designed to engulf the senses (while also solving the more prosaic problem of crowd flow), with the amassed details of murals, lush drapery and carpeting, chandeliers, and excessive displays of marble and bronze announcing that patrons had stepped into a world distinct from their normal, workaday lives. The epic that might be shown onscreen would merely be an extension of the spectacle already mounted within the theater itself.

If the films shown in picture palaces were dwarfed by their surroundings, many viewers seemed not to mind. Questionnaires designed to identify patrons' preferences determined that the moviegoing experience often rated more highly for audience members than the film on view. Music in particular, but also comfort and beauty, out-ranked the movies shown as the most appealing features a theater had to offer. The grandest theaters offered musical entertainment on a scale commensurate with the decor: in addition to featured singers, and even a stage show of sorts, one could count on an orchestra, responsible for overtures as well as accompaniment for the entirety of the program presented, which might include a newsreel, a scenic, and a comedy short, all preceding the main feature. Admission prices at picture palaces were certainly higher than those charged at more conventional theaters, topping out at over one dollar; but patrons were gaining entry to an experience, replete with a full array of service personnel, from doormen to pages to ushers to nursemaids. If the movies transported their viewers to another world, the picture palace aimed to sustain that sensation until patrons had left the confines of the theater.

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