- - Monday, January 4, 2016



By Richard Abel

University of California Press, $35, 419 pages, illustrated

This fascinating and original study of the symbiotic relationship between newspapers and movies when one was in its heyday and the other in its infancy is also one of those rare books that takes your breath away by reminding you just how much our world and its culture has changed in a century. Of course, we all know that 100 years is a fair slice of recorded history and that, for all the advances in medical science in that time, there are only a precious few people still alive today who can actually remember what it was like when the 20th century was in its mid-teens. They’d have to have been pretty precocious kids and blessed today with exceptional long-term memory to be able to tell us much.

Still, at a time when newspapers are struggling valiantly to survive and movies and their pictorial progeny bestride the economic and cultural landscape like some latter-day Colossus, it is heartening, albeit inevitably bittersweet, to hark back to a time when the print medium was the engine necessary to propel movies into the mainstream.

As Richard Abel, emeritus professor of international cinema and media studies at the University Of Michigan, informs us at the outset of his well-researched and informative book:

“In the early twentieth century, motion pictures and newspapers were prime examples of the ephemerality, the disposability, of modern industrial culture in the United States. As motion pictures became an increasingly popular ‘cheap amusement,’ the emerging industry slowly came to realize that it had to do more than promote the circulation of films through a national trade press that targeted exhibitors and rental exchanges — that it had to develop efficient, effective means to shape and sustain a mass public through local and regional newspapers. At the same time, newspapers found that ‘movie madness’ could be exploited to generate advertising revenue and increase circulation.”

Mr. Abel has a marvelous capacity to salt such worthy, if somewhat dry, analysis with zingers like the headline that appeared in the Chicago Sunday Tribune on March 22, 1914: “Zip!-Zam!-Zowie! That’s How They Stage a Movie Play.” The energy of these words still pulsate off the page more than a century after they were set in type: the sheer gusto was almost guaranteed to ignite the particular isotope of excitement that accompanies a burgeoning novelty.

Good old American ingenuity was alive and well back then, thriving in an economy so vibrant that a few pennies had the capacity to win bigger rewards for entrepreneur and publisher alike and reap something of value to the consumer. Nowhere is this more apparent than in this book’s reproduction of the Cleveland Sunday Leader photoplay page, featuring one hammer blow after another driving the point home:

“A Nickel That Grows Bigger Every Week. Never Before Did a 5 Cent Piece Buy So Much. See List of New Theaters Where Sunday Leader Coupon Is Good. It Means Shows Without Cost If You Get The Sunday Leader Every Sunday.”

Nothing subtle about this repetitive volley, but its effectiveness is manifest, its shared benefits apparent. Clearly, advertising was alive and kicking up its heels long before the postwar slickness television viewers have more recently been exposed to in “Mad Men,” a program and indeed a medium that would probably not have existed without the terrific jolt of ignition chronicled in this ever-timely book.

Nowhere is Mr. Abel’s genius for the personal touch more apparent than in his final chapter titled “Edna Vercoe’s ‘Romance with the Movies,” which draws upon six large, leather-bound scrapbooks, each consisting of 160 pages of heavy paper, kept by a 15-year-old Highland Park Illinois girl in the second half of 1914 and into the beginning of 1915. If you doubt the central thesis of this book, you have only to marvel at the wide spread of printed material she has crammed into these substantial volumes in so relatively short a time to realize the power that medium had given movies in the imagination — and actual lives — of Americans.

When the learned professor begins his afterword with, “This book argues that, from 1913 to 1916, newspapers were instrumental in establishing and sustaining an increasingly ravenous popular American film culture. The menus they offered whetted movie fans’ appetites through recurring weekend pages and sections as well as daily gossip columns and film reviews.” You not only feel that he has authoritatively proven his case, but come away with a much deeper sense of how our media culture — and its less admirable celebrity adjunct — came to exert such enormous power over the past century. And there is no reason to believe that the fire that newspapers lit back then is in any danger of extinction.

Martin Rubin is a writer and critic in Pasadena, Calif.

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