Blog . CinemaTalk, July-August 2018
By John Ewing, Cinematheque Director
When I first heard about Gary D. Rhodes’ book The Perils of Moviegoing in America, 1896-1950 (Continuum, 2012), I had to find a copy because, well, moviegoing doesn’t exactly seem like a perilous activity—at least not these days. Sure, there was the horrendous movie theater shooting in Aurora, CO, in 2012. And the freak accident in England this past March that saw a moviegoer die from cardiac arrest after his head got trapped in a reclining seat while he was retrieving his cell phone. At the Cinematheque, ceiling plaster once fell on some unlucky patrons sitting in our old Russell B. Aitken Auditorium. Another time, a cockroach dropped onto a filmgoer from an overhead air vent. (That shabby space that served us well for 29 years is slated for demolition this summer.) But for most of us, the greatest perils of moviegoing seem to be sticky floors and the occasional nearby argument or threatened fight provoked by loud talking or cell phone use in the theater.
Not so in the early days of watching motion pictures. Rhodes, in his thoroughly researched tome, groups the major “perils” facing early moviegoers into various categories. The first is fires. The number of movie theater fires recounted by Rhodes is staggering, as is the number of patrons who died in these conflagrations. Of course, projecting movies in flammable nitrate prints did not help matters much; films on “safety stock” did not arrive until around 1950.
Rhodes’ second category is robberies (of patrons, box office employees, even individuals outside the theater), which were rampant. (Some thieves were emboldened by criminal activities glamorized in the movies.) Bombings comprise another category. Movie houses were bombed by shady operators trying to cash in on insurance policies, or as part of contentious labor disputes between theater owners and union projectionists, or for sundry other reasons.
Another peril of early moviegoing was the spread of contagions such as influenza, smallpox, polio, and scarlet fever in poorly ventilated auditoriums. Also dangerous were headaches, dizziness, eye strain, and even blindness (!?)—all caused, it was believed, by the rapid barrage of images before eyes not made for such assaults. The flicker caused by revolving projector shutters blocking the light beam for split seconds caused further aggravation. This heretofore unheard-of movie-watching malady was given numerous names: “picturitis,” “moving picture eye,” “eyescopitis,” “Americanitis.” And weakened eyes, according to many doctors of the day, could lower the body’s resistance to more serious health concerns: indigestion, diabetes, tuberculosis, even premature aging!
Then as now, moral rectitude, both on screen and inside the theater itself, was a major concern among those pledged to protect public health and safety. The widely held perception that movies were immoral, promoting sex and other sinful behaviors, led to the closure of many movie theaters on Sundays through the enactment or enforcement of local Blue Laws. It was also believed that the darkness inside screening rooms was a breeding ground for vice. To combat this, some theater owners left the house lights onduring their movies! But in those dim caverns that didn’t, women’s virtue was constantly in jeopardy—the target of “mashers” who lurked in the dark. What constituted a masher in those days seems vague, ranging from guys who merely ogled, talked to, or flirted with females (some men were actually fined or locked up for these transgressions) to bona fide molesters and sexual predators who touched, pinched, or accosted women. In time, women took matters into their own hands (this was decades before the #MeToo movement), uniting and pledging to “smash the mashers.” Smashing the mashers consisted of striking or beating up nuisance men (Rhodes recounts various instances), with no assault charges filed and no due process for the masher, some of whom were falsely accused.
Rhodes’ litany of moral transgressions inside movie theaters also includes a few actual murders. One of the most sensational took place in Nashville in 1923. An irate female moviegoer used a razor blade to slit the throat of the woman sitting next to her when she wouldn’t stop reading the film’s intertitles out loud. This might seem an over-reaction until one learns that the victim was also mispronouncing some of the words. Cinematheque patrons attending silent and subtitled films should take heed.
Rhodes’ final category of perils consists of theater giveaways—Bank Night, Screeno (a kind of movie theater bingo), and other lotteries—through which penurious moviegoers in the Great Depression had chances to win cash and prizes before the show started. Bank Night, which began in the early 1930s, spread like a nitrate fire to other movie theaters, attracting thousands of participants. But critics condemned these schemes as illicit gambling that frayed society’s moral fabric and opened the door for other types of vices. They crusaded against something-for-nothing promotions, and courts closed some of them down. All of this makes me wonder about our pre-movie prize drawings. I don’t want to launch any Cinematheque patron on a downward path to sin and moral turpitude all because we handed them a $5 gift certificate for the Coffee House at University Circle.
A special welcome to any out-of-town visitors coming to this summer’s Front Triennial who also find their way to the Cinematheque. We’d like you to know that we show contemporary art every weekend—in the form of new works by major international film artists. And you won’t see these movies anyplace else around here.