An archive of articles on the silent era of world cinema.
Copyright © 1999-2018 by Carl Bennett and the Silent Era Company.
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BY JOE DANNENBERG (“Danny”), publisher and editor of THE FILM DAILY
Great in importance is the outlook for 1923. Troublesome, perhaps, as well. For the problems confronting all phases of the industry are many, and the agitation, on the eve of the year, is replete with possibilities. Not the least of importance is the possibility of the development of a huge producing and distributing machine on the part of organized exhibitors. Officials of the Motion Picture Theater Owners of America are heading a movement which, during the year, may assume real proportions. If the movement develops, as many believe it will, it will assuredly urge material activity on the part of the present large distributing organizations. This activity may result in several definite moves, intended to offset the exhibitor-producing-distribution development. It may find a resumption of activity on the part of Famous Players in securing more houses for its product; it may find the Loew-Metro group active in developing further houses for the Loew chain ; it may find Associated First National sufficiently antagonistic to further develop the sub-franchise idea, and in addition, movements on the part of the individual distributing companies — to say nothing of what may happen among producers — in an effort to sustain their existing organizations.
Should the exhibitor movement fully develop it is a question at this moment, whether it could assume very definite form much before the Spring or perhaps the Fall season of 1924. Many cities have to be canvassed during the Spring; and assuming the capital of $5,000,000 is subscribed, or a sufficient amount to warrant going ahead actively, it will take time to secure productions, to build the necessary distribution machine and prepare the many cogs in the big wheel before it can turn. It is simple to discuss the idea of a production-distribution machine of this size; it is another matter to perfect it to the point of operating with a reasonable degree of perfection.
There is probably no other matter of such proportion facing 1923. There are many thoroughly experienced men in the producing and distributing end of the business who look with trepidation at the exhibitor movement. They fear the consequences, and do not hesitate to say so. Among other possible developments they fear the possibility of a national booking organization on the part of certain distributors, several of whom were interested a few years ago in the proposed national booking plan developed by Jules E. Mastbaum of the Stanley Company of America. They do not hesitate to say that unless such an organization was operated to the utmost degree of ethical efficiency that it would result in grave difficulties; but they point to the unlikelihood of such a possibility, and immediately present the thought of difficulty developing in the exhibitor organization from this very viewpoint. It is unfortunate that the ethical side of the industry has not been developed to a stronger point; unfortunate for all parties concerned.
There is nothing at the moment indicative of a better relationship existing between the exhibitor branch of the trade and the distribution and production end. All efforts to secure a better relationship between the Hays organization of producers and distributors, and the organized exhibitor body, have failed. The possibility of Roscoe Arbuckle returning to the screen furnished an opportunity for the officials and leaders of the M.P.T.O. of A. to vent their feelings towards the Hays organization in no uncertain terms, and the inability of these organizations to secure a standard form of contract, also demonstrated the existence of the wide gap which exists. No one with sane reasoning can figure why there should not be a better understanding between these pivotal branches of the industry. Indications, however, point to the continuance, if not a widening, of the existing breach. Unfortunate as this is, no one seems able to develop that degree of understanding which might change the situation. The politics of the exhibitor organization are largely responsible for this. But, in behalf of the exhibitor body, there is hardly a doubt but that they have grievances which should be satisfied. But the lack of confidence existing hardly warrants the belief that there will be a better understanding in 1923 than heretofore.
Production plans for the year are interesting. Probably nothing is of greater importance than the proposed working arrangement between Warner Brothers and David Belasco. If this works out as planned, and the master of the stage actively becomes interested in the screen production of his plays, a great step will have been made in bringing to the screen that artistry and charm which have always identified the Belasco successes on the stage. The ambitious program of the Warners is not a secondary phase of the outlook. Among the other “independent” producers whose plans are of importance are those of the Al Lichtman Corp., which secured an unusual start with the release of “Rich Men’s Wives.”
The older companies present an interesting program. Famous Players will bank heavily on “The Covered Wagon” as one of their outstanding productions. At the moment there is no indication that the breach between Valentino and Famous will be straightened out. Valentino quickly became a tremendous box office asset following his appearance in “The Sheik.” Associated First National will continue to bank on the Talmadge sisters as their outstanding bet. Chaplin goes to United Artists during 1923. Goldwyn, practically reorganized, will depend largely on “The Christian” and possibly “Ben Hur” in addition to the Marshall Neilan productions for the coming year. The United Artists, with Fairbanks, Pickford and Chaplin on the program, in addition to the Griffith output, and with the Allied Artists co-related, promises to prove an important factor again. There has been considerable criticism of the policy inaugurated by Fairbanks and Pickford, of only having one or two pictures a year, big though they may be, and costly. Exhibitors contend that they would be far more helpful to the industry as a whole if they appeared oftener. As an instance to prove their contention they cite the rapid growth of Harold Lloyd, who stepped out vigorously during 1922 and established a prominence as a comedian which promises to give Chaplin much difficulty to maintain his standing as the premier comedian of the screen. Lloyd developed into a comedian of feature length pictures and the first few of his productions quickly gave him a forward place. Much will be expected of him during 1923. In his behalf Pathe promises much.
Probably no other organization in the business developed such headway during 1922 as Metro. Only the tremendous success of “The Four Horsemen” prevented this organization from disintegrating. The success of the Ibanez production not only gave Rex Ingram a foremost position as a producer-director, but incidentally set Metro along the path of “big” pictures. In this they proved remarkably successful. All the Ingram pictures proved very successful at the box office, the Mae Murray productions proved an unusual success — and an unexpected one — and what with these and their “specials” Metro forged forward and became recognized as one of the companies from which much is to be expected during this year. The Selznick organization expects “Rupert of Hentzau” to set them well up during the year as an important production organization.
Practically every executive of importance has expressed the belief that “only big pictures pay.” To this end producers generally directed their endeavors. There were, however, during the past year a number of successes which prove the desirability of good pictures at a price to the exhibitor whereby he could establish a profit and yet at the same time satisfy his clientele.
Universal Film, with “The Storm,” demonstrated this most satisfactorily. This same organization has in contemplation for 1923 several productions which they think will meet with the same result, notably Booth Tarkington’s “The Flirt,” made by Hobart Henley. In addition there is a strong possibility of Universal’s big production of “The Hunchback of Notre Dame” being released during the coming year. For some time past Lon Chaney has keenly desired to make this.
While the “big” specials of Fox Film failed in a way to prove the box office sensation comparable with those of 1921, there is no indication that Fox will step aside from the big special program for the coming year.
The Film Booking Offices of America — the reorganized Robertson-Cole Corporation — has some ambitious plans including “The Third Alarm,” a fireman's picture somewhat on the order of “In the Name of the Law,” a policeman’s picture, and it is understood that they are going into the railroads, the life of a postman and other such human subjects as part of their program. This type of picture invariably meets with success because of its common appeal.
Vitagraph plans more important productions. The likelihood of Samuel Goldwyn’s return to the industry as a producer is imminent at this writing. The development of Jackie Coogan is also fraught with interest. The success of “Oliver Twist” was unusual and established him definitely as a star.
A long sustained and continuous wail was heard throughout the year and promises to continue relative to rentals on important and so-called big pictures. Many exhibitors feel that the prices asked are ruinous, but despite this they seem to continue to pay these prices. Naturally, they continue to go up. On the other hand, producers maintain that while prices are high they are still below the level of what they should be to secure from these large productions the natural profit which the investment should produce. As an instance of this a prominent producer cited that it would take Fairbanks at least eighteen months or two vears to secure the return of the actual investment of “Robin Hood” before “he made a nickle [sic].” This despite that “Robin Hood” is being sold at unusually high prices by United Artists.
With the closing of the German branch of Famous Players late in the year much of the talk in opposition to foreign pictures faded away. Little is feared today of what threatened to be “the foreign invasion.” It is interesting to note, however, that the development of British production reached a point unusually worth while and interesting pictures reached this country from England, notably “A Bill of Divorcement.” scheduled for spring release by Associated Exhibitors. Information at hand as to the plans of several important English companies are indicative of large productions made with stars well-known in America to arrive during the spring and summer. Among these are the Tom Terriss specials from Ideal Films and the Gaumont Company of London. Stoll’s picture, “The Prodigal Son,” a well-known Hall Caine story, is anticipated with interest and there are others in the making. At this writing England, rather than Germany, seems to be the only possible rival of American production.
What John Milton did in the fight for freedom of the press; what Benjamin Franklin did; what was done by Horace Greeley, Charles A. Dana, Joseph Pulitzer, Colonel Nelson, General Harrison Gray Otis, and by Henry Watterson, and what is being done by Cyrus Curtis and by other heroic figures in the long pull for finer and better service, and for constitutional protection of freedom of the press from the aggressions of political control — all those things must be done in the motion picture industry here and now.
Pioneers Are Still in Business
Nothing can be taken from the past. The men who first took up this new thing are still alive. The pioneers of our industry are the men who are still in the business. We are at this moment in the very midst of achieving a new set of high standards in our relations to each other and to the public and in our responsibilities to the world. The difficulties are being worked out, and so great an agency for good will the motion picture soon become, if sincere efforts count and sincere cooperation is given by thinking Americans — that before long criticism will die away and the present critics will be sounding the praise of this new art, based always on its demonstrated integrity, quality and usefulness.
One way to help make good pictures is easy, and that is to support the good pictures. If one were to start a vegetarian hotel, and day by day the guests were to storm into the dining room demanding roast beef cooked rare, this hotel keeper, though the most enthusiastic of vegetarians, would experience substantial difficulty in putting over a bill of fare consisting of asparagus.
I am not suggesting an alibi for the motion picture business, for the motion picture business is coming through on the highway which leads to better pictures. I am only emphasizing that this is not a one man job, nor the job of one group; it is the multitude’s job and in doing it there is work for all.
I refer for a moment to the question of censorship, which is an incident in the matter. The American public, of course, is the real censor for the motion picture just as it is for the press and the pulpit. The people of this country are against censorship fundamentally, against censorship of press, against censorship of pulpit, and against censorship of pictures. But just as certainly, my friends, is this country against wrong doing, and the demand for censorship will fail when the reason for the demand is removed. As we move toward the consummation of the objects of our Association just in like degree will recede all demands for censorship.
An interesting thing happened in Massachusetts at the last election. In 1921 a bill was passed by the Massachusetts legislature providing for the censorship of motion pictures. Under the provisions of a Massachusetts statute so providing, a petition was filed by the necessary number for a referendum, so at this election the people of the Bay State had a direct vote as to whether or not there should be a political censorship of this method of expression.
When the Act was originally passed there was a very generous support of the measure, and resolutions were actually passed by some 400 civic and religious organizations favoring the enactment of a law, and other great influences seemed to favor it. This summer, however, a citizens’ committee was formed of some 300 splendid Massachusetts men and women, who made it their own fight. The Press of Massachusetts took it up and were practically a unit in declaring for the defeat of the measure. They too, made it their fight, with a full appreciation of the fact that it is not so much the length of the step as the direction of the step that is important in anything. It is a well known fact that the vote on any referendum question or consttutional amendment is usually but a small part of the total vote cast for the political offices.
With this in mind, the result of this Massachusetts election was most remarkable. The total vote against censorship was 545,919, the total vote for censorship 207,476; a majority against censorship of 338,443. The largest number of votes cast for any candidate for any office on any ticket was that cast for the successful candidate for Governor, 468,277, which was 77,000 less than the “No” vote on censorship. I rather think this is an unprecedented performance. It certainly shows the deep interest the people have in pictures.
This result is a splendid response to the appeal of the press and the citizens of Massachusetts against this undue political aggression, but just as certainly is it a challenge to the motion picture industry to work out successfully its own program for its own betterment, and that responsibility is accepted by the industry and will be discharged.
I am against political censorship, of course, because political censorship will not do what is hoped for it in the last analysis. Now and then some one might ask: “If the motion picture producers really mean to make better pictures, why do they object to political censorship?” The chief answer to this question was written when human nature was formed; at least that part of human nature which is doing business under the stars and stripes, and that answer consists chiefly of one word — Liberty.
The motion picture business objects to political censorship for one great reason, because the motion picture business is an American. Political censorship drove the Pilgrims to Plymouth Rock; political censorship faced the Minute Men at Concord; political censorship caused the Boston Tea Party; in this new effort to control politically this great method of expression Massachusetts took a characteristically splendid American position.
There is one place and one place only where any evils in motion pictures can be eliminated and the good and great advantages retained, and that is at the point where and the time when the pictures are made, by the men who make them.
Raising the Standards
With the raising of the moral and artistic standard comes with greater ease the development of the educational value of the motion picture. It must be and is the earnest purpose of the industry to strive with renewed effort continually to make presentations historically correct and to give authentic portrayals of customs, costumes, and habits.
In addition to the general educational value of entertainment pictures we are concerned, of course, with two additional phases; first, the pedagogic pictures, and then the picture which is semi-educational and semi-entertaining. I am very sure that soon there will be series of motion pictures adopted by boards of education just as new series of text books are adopted. They must be, of course, scientifically, psychologically and pedagogically sound.
It has been my hope that we might immediately make some progress in this direction and we have been working to that end. At the annual convention of the National Education Association this summer in Boston, I suggested on behalf of our Association to some 3,000 teachers who were there representing a membership in their organization alone of more than 115,000, that we jointly study the demand for pedagogic pictures, and that we turn over to them all of our facilities to aid in the experimentation. I suggested that a committee be appointed by their association made up of the very best educators in the country, and that they meet with the great producers and together study the whole problem of the use of the motion picture as a direct pedagogic instrument and together find the means of making classroom pictures which would be scientifically, psychologically and pedagogically sound, thereby being able to take care of the demand which now obtains, but also of the great demand which is imminent and which will certainly come and which must be met, and met by the producers with a supply that measures up to the ideas of the educators of the country. This offer was accepted by that convention, a committee was ordered appointed, a committee has been appointed, consisting in addition to Dr. Wm. B. Owen, President of the National Education Association, of the following: Dr. Charles H. Judd, University of Chicago, Chairman; Col. Leonard P. Ayres, Cleveland Trust Company, Cleveland, Ohio; Elizabeth Breckinridge, Principal, Louisville Normal School, Louisville, Kentucky; Ernest L. Crandall, (Director of Visual Education, N.Y. Board of Education), New York City; Susan M. Dorsay, Superintendent of Schools, Los Angeles, California; Elizabeth Hall, Assistant Superintendent of Schools, Minneapolis, Minnesota; Payson Smith, Commissioner of Education, Massachusetts.
Affiliated with this committee will be the Commissioner of Education, Dr. J.J. Tigert and Dr. J.D. Creeden, President of Georgetown University. The preliminary meetings have already been held with the Commissioner of Education and Dr. Owen, surveys are now being made and preliminary organization perfected, and a joint meeting will be held soon.
Non-Theatrical Field His Hobby
The non-theatrical demand and supply is one of the big questions. Personally, it is a hobby with me, and from the time this work was first brought to my attention until now I have urged constantly, both in public and in private, that there will be films in churches and schools everywhere. I believe this, and very much, indeed, has been done in the last six months toward developing a demand in this field. As I said in a speech at Boston before the National Education Association:
“The problem which faces all of us is to provide some plan of cooperation which will provide film material for instructional use in schools and colleges, and suitable films for churches and welfare organizations — some plan which will secure the active cooperation of theater owners and public leaders, and which will safeguard against harmful competition between non-theatrical and theatrical groups. These matters, which are merely incident to the youth and tremendous expansion of the business, can be worked out satisfactorily without question.”
The problem of semi-religious and semi-educational films is not so extensive as that of pedagogic films, but is much more difficult. Every one is for pedagogic films in the classroom and, of course, there is no objection to purely religious films in the churches. The matter, therefore, of pedagogic films and purely religious films presents no problem save only the problem of providing an organized demand and an organized supply. However, in developing the industry as regards an organized demand and an organized supply of semi-religious and semi-educational films there are definite economical duties and limitations that have to be recognized; there are also certain ethical and moral duties and limitations, and while we are continually encouraging the development of those phases of the industry and finding ways for the supply of the proper demand in that regard, we always predicate this interest and activity on the assumption that in such plans as are developed it will always be recognized that the theater owner has certain real rights in the premises, which rights would naturally be recognized first of all by those who are interested in seeing religious films.
The fact is, of course, that the theater owner pays a national and state tax on his theater, a license fee, an extra insurance premium and other special levies in order to run his business and provide for the essential amusement of the people, and it would be obviously unfair to him to create a competition to draw the same audience, with or without charge, to see the same attraction into places which have no such burdens. Such a thing would neither be morally nor economically sound.
Churches Need Pictures
While this is true it is just as certain that there is an actual and potential need for pictures in churches, of the type which are thoroughly proper from every standpoint and which will do great good, and which need must be met. All the demand there is and the demand of tomorrow, which in my opinion is inestimable, can and will be taken care of in a way that will not be an injustice to the theater owner in any way whatever.
Another effort which we are making is the development of the full usefulness of the motion picture as an instrument of international amity. Do not forget that just as there is developed between individuals a better relationship based on a better understanding, so is it between nations.
Members of our association have taken — I say have taken — definite steps to make certain that every film that goes from this country abroad, wherever it shall be sent, shall correctly portray to the world, the purposes, the ideals, the accomplishments, the opportunities, and the life of America. We are going to sell America to the world with American motion pictures. I do not have to suggest to you the value of this in improving our international relationships. The possibilities are as great as all the tomorrows. Immediate understandings with many of the foreign countries have to be worked out to protect us against the exploitation abroad of stolen films, and in all these matters our own State Department is cooperating splendidly.
Work of Committee on Public Relations
I would not fail to refer to the work of the Committee on Public Relations, which consists of the heads of 80 nationally organized associations for better things, such as Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Y.M.C.A., Camp Fire Girls, Parent-Teachers Association, etc., etc. Chambers of Commerce, American Federation of Labor, etc., etc. This is a most interesting and, I am sure, profitable arrangement. Following a meeting last summer of the heads of these associations with me at which a committee of three was elected to aid in the selection of an executive committee of twenty, such committee of twenty has been formed with their own executive secretary, who is in our office as the point of contact. This executive committee of twenty, meeting frequently, are actually pre-viewing pictures and are making suggestions to our producers, bringing to the industry an inestimable value of brain and heart that could not be hired at any price, telling the producers what in their opinion are the needs, as well as the wants, of the members of the great organization which they represent, and they represent a total membership of over 12,000,000 — constructively suggesting betterments in the pictures and giving sympathetic encouragement and advice to the producers that reaches right back to the studio with a measurable influence on the productions as they shall come out. And then as the good pictures are produced these representatives send the word to their organizations which will bring the support to which such better pictures are entitled. Think of the value of this influence which is constantly exerted, quietly and constructively, and how effective must be the association which these men and women are establishing with the control of the production in this country.
Working With Exhibitors
Our organization of producers and distributors has had many conferences with exhibitors, bringing a closer cooperation and confidence and has had splendid help from them, without which our whole effort would fail. Just as other phases of the industry, in the rapidity of its development, have not been worked out in the fullest way, so has it been necessary to give attention to a better relationship with the exhibitor, who is the buyer of the product which the manufacturer, the producer, makes — a practical improvement, but definitely necessary to bring the maximum functioning of the industry’s whole eflfort, because without the cooperation of all branches the largest success is not possible.
In addition to these efforts for new usefulness, we should not be unmindful of such things as have been accomplished in connection with better amusement pictures. At the end of the six months period since the organization of the Association, it has been of some interest to the members themselves to review what has been attempted and to invite the attention of the public to the accounting. It was an earnest action indeed last May when the producers sent orders to the studios as to the pictures to be made this summer and to be made in the future, directing that above all things else the purposes of the Association be foremost. It means very much for the general good when these men who had the vision, the industry, the nerve, if you will, to have made this thing what it is in twenty years, now make it their chief business to establish and maintain the highest moral and artistic standards.
Beginning a new drive this year for the best possible pictures, measuring up toward what the standard should be and which many pictures already had achieved, earnestly asking the public’s cooperation and hoping, of course, from every possible standpoint, selfish and unselfish, to move in the right direction, they have brought out, and are bringing out, a series of pictures which we are hoping will attract the public’s attention, as the evidence both of their good faith and their ability to accomplish, and as an augury for still better things to which their every effort shall be directed. The maintaining of the highest standard is quite as essential as its attainment and there can be and will be no slipping backward, nor loss of any improvement that may be accomplished. These pictures are being received in appreciation, and the public will not be unmindful either of the impossibility of pleasing every one with every picture or the necessity of different types of pictures for the various types of taste and interest.
What Pictures Can Do
I have come to visualize this great new thing as my attachment to it becomes deeper — I have come to know it as a great, unbelievably great, three fold instrument for good. It can do three great things and it will do these three things as no other instrument that I know of can do them.
In the first place it can and will fill a necessity — the necessity for entertainment.
In the second place, it can and will instruct — which is indeed a most precious power.
In the third place, and I am sure that my enthusiasm does not warp my judgment, it will do more than any other existing agency to unite the peoples of the world — to bring understanding between men and women, and between nation and nation, than which no greater thing can be done.
This article originally appeared in The Film Daily Year Book 1922-1923 (1923), pages viii-9.