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In many ways, a film historian's greatest fantasy would be to somehow glimpse the audiences who originally viewed the historical films we study. Films are made to be watched, and without a sense of the original audience our grasp on films as historical documents remains incomplete. Even when films have survived, their audiences have mostly vanished beyond our reach. One way to bring these elusive watchers in the dark back into focus is by going beyond the films and looking for other documents. Film catalogues, which advertised films to exhibitors, convey what the producers thought audiences would enjoy. Likewise, film trade magazines began appearing around 1907 to advise exhibitors (supposedly with less bias than the producers) on what films would be profitable, and local theater managers often printed reports that reveal audiences' tastes and assumptions in these trade journals. Around 1912, newspapers began to review films, again with an eye on what their readers might enjoy. All of these sources provide some ideas of early audiences and the sort of films they liked.

More individual responses, especially by people unconnected to the film industry, are harder to find. Traditional sources -- such as letters, diaries, newsletters for religious or labor organizations, and memoirs -- yield some insights. A few oral history surveys, such as one by North East Historic Film, asked older community members to describe their early film viewing experiences. Similar surveys were made in the 1930s by social workers and social scientists. There is not as much material of this sort as we would wish.

With cautious viewing, however, films themselves can tell something about their audiences. Recurrent patterns in films from one era tell what genres were popular; what behavior was seen as heroic or villainous; and what sorts of scenes were considered visually beautiful, hilarious, or endearing. Although one must keep in mind how attitudes have changed, films do seem to preserve not only images and events but also experiences and attitudes implicit in the films themselves. It is hard when laughing over a bit of slapstick 95 years old not to feel a connection with the experience of the original audiences who first enjoyed it. Yet in the moments when our responses do not match those the film seems designed to trigger -- when the film presents something as amusing that we find distasteful or disturbing -- we also learn something about audiences of the time through our difference from them.

In addition, early audiences were far from uniform. Immigrant audiences in New York City reacted very differently to scenes of urban life than did rural audiences in Iowa. African-American audiences undoubtedly had a different reaction to racial humor than did the white audiences for whom these films were primarily made. Class, gender, and ethnicity differentiated audiences during this period as they do today, and the actual conditions of screening reflected this as well.

Furthermore, film audiences changed radically during the cinema's first two decades. During the first decade of film exhibition (1896-1906), films appeared in a variety of venues rather than in special theaters. Most people saw them as one attraction among the variety of acts that made up a vaudeville program -- between a comic monologue and a trained dog act, for example -- and vaudeville attracted a primarily middle-class and lower-middle-class audience. Fairs, church socials, and traveling film exhibitors also provided opportunities to see films, often with prices more in the budget of people without much money for entertainment.

Around 1905-1907, nickel theaters (or nickelodeons) generated a new audience and a new role for film. Nickel theaters, which primarily showed motion pictures, attracted working-class viewers. Most workers could afford a nickel ticket, and the theater's casual atmosphere and relatively short programs (30-45 minutes) suited workers with little leisure time. Nickelodeons exploded onto the scene in major cities in these years; there were probably more nickelodeons then than movie theaters today. Critics and supporters alike referred to the nickelodeon as the "poor man's theater" or "the poor man's club." The latter term was especially appropriate since these small theaters provided the occasion not only for film viewing but for socializing. Early audiences displayed a community spirit fostered in part by attractions such as the "Illustrated Song," in which audiences joined performers by following the lyrics projected on the screen.

Many nickel theaters also featured "lecturers" or "explainers." They supplied a running verbal commentary on the films, often of an educational nature, but also of a dramatic or even humorous sort. These lecturers might even re-interpret the film for particular audiences, such as the Yiddish language explainers on the Lower East Side of New York City who drew moral and political lessons from the films or explained strange American customs. All of these practices demonstrate how exhibitors influenced the way audiences viewed films.

This new form of mass entertainment alarmed reformers who were suspicious of the pleasures that working-class patrons had discovered without any guidance from self-appointed middle-class guardians of culture. Around 1912, reformers made a concerted effort to "uplift" the nickelodeon. Theater owners made (or were forced to make) their theaters safer and more sanitary, local censorship boards insured that films did not offend middle-class tastes, and theater seats and decorations became more pretentious. New theaters seated several hundred or even a thousand patrons and offered architectural details such as grand staircases, ornate lobbies, plush seats, and elaborate orchestra accompaniments. These "Movie Palaces" targeted a different audience than the nickelodeons, as middle-class patrons began to attend the movies in droves and disciplined armies of uniformed ushers enforced audience behavior and decorum. The theaters' large size often kept prices low, however, at least during the day, so many working-class patrons may still have attended. Smaller, less elaborate neighborhood theaters in this era kept the flavor of the nickelodeon, if generally cleaner and safer.

By the eve of World War I, movie audiences had undergone several transformations: from the predominately middle-class audiences for the first vaudeville house projections to the influx of largely working-class audiences during the beginning of the nickelodeon period to, finally, the gradual winning over of a middle-class audience that was well in place by 1914 but did not necessarily displace the working-class audience. During the heyday of Hollywood (1917 to 1960), movies were described as the entertainment of all classes. This was probably true, and the American cinema did aim to please a broad audience, but some differences remained: between rural audiences and urban ones, between luxurious picture palaces and neighborhood theaters.

What did early movies mean to the people who watched them? This question, which interests us in retrospect, was also a matter of passionate concern for contemporaries. Many middle-class reformers and social scientists feared that this new mass medium was having a negative effect on the nation's youth, just as later generations of reformers and crusaders would worry about the effects of television, comic books, video games, and rock and rap music. These fears led a group called the Motion Picture Research Council to get a grant in 1929 from the Payne Study and Experiment Fund, a private foundation, for a scholarly investigation of the impact of movies on youth. This research project, which brought together nineteen social scientists and resulted in eleven published reports, looked at the movies' impact on youthful attitudes, values, emotions, and behavior regarding sex, romance, and crime, among other things. For a report titled Movies and Conduct, sociologist Herbert Blumer asked more than fifteen hundred high school students to write "autobiographies" of their experiences going to the movies.

Read this excerpt from the "autobiography" of one white male college student who remembers the 1926 film Love 'Em and Leave 'Em then watch the clip he describes. What does this tell us about the way audiences understood popular films?

Love 'Em and Leave 'Em
Click play to watch clip