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11 As Cinema Becomes Mass Entertainment, Porter Resists: 1907-1908
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"Talking Pictures"

The technique of giving live dialogue to screen characters has a long history. In the mid 1890s Alexander Black changed his voice when he endowed the characters in his picture plays with speech. Starting as early as 1898, Lyman Howe's success was "largely due to his well trained assistants who render the dialogue behind the screen."[99] Having become familiar with this procedure at the Eden Musee while projecting The Opera of Martha , Porter photographed a minstrel performance, Spook Minstrels , late in 1904. Spook Minstrels opened on a vaudeville bill at Harry Davis's Grand Opera House in Pittsburgh on January 9, 1905.[100] A month later, it reached New York City's Circle Theater, where it was reviewed:

A distinct novelty on the bill was the first appearance of Havez and Youngson's Spook Minstrels , in which moving pictures are used in a novel way. The pictures show a minstrel company going through a performance, and as the various numbers are presented the songs, jokes and dances are given by men who stand behind the screen and follow the motions of the men in the picture very accurately. The act is original and novel and was highly appreciated. The performers who do the work and who later on appeared before the curtain and sang some additional songs are G. Dey O'Hara, Charles Bates, Leon Parmet, Parvin Witte and Charles Smith.[101]


Songs included "Will You Love Me in December as You Do in May," "In Dear Old Georgia," and "My Octoroon Lady."[102] The act continued to appear at such vaudeville houses as Keith's Union Square Theater, where "the singing of the quartette won unbounded acclaim."[103] The film remained popular for many years. In the fall of 1908, it was being shown as a special at the Bijou Theater in Providence, Rhode Island, along with a regular motion picture program.[104]

The same principle was used when Porter filmed a version of Waiting at the Church for the Novelty Song Film Company in January 1907. Vesta Victoria was brought to Edison's Twenty-first Street studio and photographed as she sang "Waiting at the Church" in a wedding gown that was part of her smash vaudeville act. Afterwards, in another costume, she sang "Poor John," a song that was to be that season's hit. At least some of the prints were tinted. According to one announcement, "In 'Poor John' she wears for a costume a bright red satin dress with trimmings of green satin ruffles, a short box coat of imitation ermine with a small cap and tiny muff of the same."[105] In the company's theaters a singer stood behind the screen and sang synchronously with the picture, leaving the audience with the impression of having witnessed an amazingly lifelike performance from Vesta Victoria.

After playing the films in their theaters for several months, the Novelty Song Film Company sold copies to fellow exhibitors:


We have a proposition in films that we believe will interest you. We are ourselves operating several five and ten cent theatres, and found that there was a great demand for novelties, particularly films to be used in connection with the singer. We posed Vesta Victoria (probably the highest salaried and best known performer in America to-day), singing her two most successful songs, "Waiting at the Church" and her latest hit "Poor John." This film is about 400 feet long and is unusually clear and lifelike.[106]

Even prior to this announcement, purchases were made by Waters' Kinetograph Company.[107] Keith's organization was headlining Vesta Victoria in its vaudeville theaters and wanted the films shown in its film houses too. When they reached Keith's Nickel Theater in Manchester, New Hampshire, promotional blurbs claimed that the films had been taken at its Boston vaudeville house the previous week. While the singer behind the screen usually imitated Vesta Victoria as closely as possible, in some instances the comedic songs were further burlesqued. At Keith's Nickel Theater in Lewiston, Maine, "Poor John" and "Waiting at the Church" were sung alternately by Mr. and Mrs. Harriman Frost.[108] A male voice in combination with Victoria's diminutive figure simply added to the song's hilarity.

Thomas Edison's expressed wish to preserve operatic performance from the passage of time with a combination phonograph/kinetoscope was implemented


A company of performers who delivered dialogue 
behind the screen for Uncle Tom's Cabin.

in a more practical and profit-oriented form. Audiences could be given the illusion of seeing Vesta Victoria, while management only had to pay an unknown performer to sing. Likewise a quartet could give the illusion of being a large troupe. In both cases, cost efficiency plus the novelty of the illusion was the secret of success.

Although Lyman Howe used sound imitators behind the screen in the 1890s, this only became a heavily promoted part of his exhibitions in August 1907, when his "Moving Pictures That Talk" played at Ford's Opera House in Baltimore for four weeks. Trained assistants "yelled orders when the marines attacked the land force, made noises like the popping of guns and the booming of cannon, and helped the figures on the canvas to carry out the proper amount of conversations at suitable times."[109] The exhibitions attracted immense crowds despite adult admission fees of between 25¢ and 50¢. Lubin, who found it expedient to close and refurbish his Baltimore film theater during Howe's run, soon placed actors behind the screen in his Philadelphia theaters. It was reported that Lubin's manager "has a well-known dramatist that writes plays around the pictures and then as they are thrown on the screen a company of actors play the


parts, speaking the lines to suit the action of the pictures. This is one of the most novel ideas ever sprung in this section and is making an enormous hit."[110]

By spring "talking pictures" had become a hit in New York, playing at Charles E. Blaney's Third Avenue Theater. Each Saturday Blaney's "dramatist" selected films from the manufacturer's latest productions and wrote the lines.[111] That May talking pictures were presented on Marcus Loew's People's Vaudeville Circuit "using the best dramatic talent available."[112] A large studio was set up in Loew's offices on University Place. Out of this may have come the Humanovo Producing Company, owned by Adolph Zukor and Marcus Loew and run by Will H. Stevens.[113] In a mid-1908 interview Stevens explained how he worked:

"I have to scratch through a great many films," said he, "to find those that will stand interpretation by speaking actors behind the curtains. I started with Adolph Zukor, who is the proprietor of the companies. We now have twenty-two Humanovo troupes on the road, each consisting of three people. Each company stays at a theatre one week and then moves on to the next stand, traveling like a vaudeville act and producing the same reel of pictures all the time. They travel in wheels, so that a theatre has a change of pictures and company each week. It requires about four days to rehearse a company. First I select a suitable picture; then I write a play for it, putting appropriate speeches in the mouths of the characters. I write off the parts, just as is done in regular plays, and rehearse the people carefully, introducing all possible effects and requiring the actors to move about the stage exactly as is represented in the films, so as to have the voices properly located to carry out the illusion.[114]

New York-based Len Spenser, a "pioneer" in supplying singers and operators to moving picture managers on a systematic basis, added a department in his agency that furnished trained, competent actors to do the talking behind the screen.[115] The Actologue Company, owned by the National Film Company of Detroit and the Lake Shore Film and Supply Company of Cleveland, had eight groups of actors on the road in July and fifteen in September.[116] The Toledo Film Exchange also had four companies for its "Talk-o-Photo" enterprise.[117] William Swanson had ten traveling through Texas and another eight in the Denver area during November.[118] O. T. Crawford's Ta-Mo-Pics (Ta lking Mov ing Pic tures) were playing in his theaters to immense audiences in November. Most actors, however, wanted to be more than a disembodied voice and saw these jobs as a stopgap. In late August many of the skilled performers left the Humanovo Company in preparation for the new theatrical season. Stevens was forced to hire amateurs and dramatic students.[119]

Many five-cent theaters improvised their own form of talking pictures, with inevitable variation in exhibition quality and effectiveness. "The possibilities of this sort of thing with trained actors and painstaking rehearsals are admitted," remarked the Dramatic Mirror , "but the manner in which the idea was carried out in the houses visited by THE MIRROR representative was grotesque and a


Most of College Chums was ideally suited for use of actors behind the screen

drawback to the pictures themselves. The odd effect of the voice of a 'barker' trying to represent several voices, some of them women and children, and in one case a dog, may be amusing as a freak exhibition, but can hardly add to the drawing power of the house."[120] Such makeshift efforts remained popular throughout the summer and fall.

Talking picture companies used an unusual number of Edison films. When the Humanovo played for two weeks at the Maryland Theater in Baltimore, three of their four films were made by Porter: College Chums (November 1907), A Suburbanite's Ingenious Alarm (December 1907), and Fireside Reminiscences (January 1908).[121] Half of the Actologue Company's films appear to have been Edison products, including College Chums, The Gentleman Burglar (May 1908), and Curious Mr. Curio (May 1908).[122] Porter's filmed version of Ferenc Molnár's The Devil was particularly suited for this mode of exhibition. As the Dramatic Mirror observed, "films of this kind may often serve as excellent vehicles for talking companies behind the curtain, and in this respect The Devil, as produced by the Edison people, offers unusual advantages."[123] In fact, the theatrical paper felt that the absence of such aids placed the film's accessibility in jeopardy. Talking pictures not only added "verisimilitude to the scene to an almost incredible degree" but made the story more intelligible.[124] "The dialogue helps the less intelligent to fully understand the plot, for no matter how skillfully worked out, there are always passages which require something more than mere


pantomime to fully explain the situation."[125] Porter's films, in particular, benefited from such treatment. The filmmaker did not so much abandon his reliance on the audience's prior knowledge as accommodate these pictures to the exhibitor's intervention. As with The Devil , unaccompanied screenings of Porter's films could often be appreciated by those who knew the necessary referents.

These "talking pictures" reached their peak by the end of 1908, when the practice, then widespread, began to lose some of its popularity in houses relying on untrained personnel.[126] In January, Stephen Bush, an earlier supporter of the practice, criticized it as "unnatural"—but only to endorse his favorite use of voice, the lecture.[127] Although his criticisms were immediately disputed by others, talking pictures gradually declined as a box-office attraction. Lyman Howe, however, kept impersonators behind the screen until his road shows closed in 1919.

Talking pictures were not a part of cinema's new mass communication system. They suffered from lack of standardization, and since the practice of adding behind-the-screen dialogue was never universally adopted, producers had to assume that actors would not be behind the canvas and seldom made films specifically for this purpose. As the new, more self-sufficient representational system developed, ancillary dialogue became less and less necessary. Moreover, the nickelodeons' customary daily change of program precluded sufficient time for rehearsal. Nor were many people up to performing twenty or more times a day. With specialty services, the additional expense of hiring and transporting actors had to be compensated for by a higher admission price. Although middle-class audiences could afford to pay for the increased enjoyment offered, the practice was never a realistic option for storefront theaters that charged a nickel and depended on working-class patrons.

Talking pictures were part of an emphasis on greater illusionism that, although common in the history of the screen, was particularly intense during the early nickelodeon era. Hale's Tours was first introduced in the spring of 1905 and became a fad by the following year. (Adolph Zukor's capitalization on talking pictures was not so coincidental, given that his initial involvement in cinema had been through Hale's Tours.) Pathé's coloring processes using stencils and the slightly later Smith/Urban Kinemacolor process, with its first public showings in late 1908, achieved startlingly naturalistic effects. Earlier uses of hand coloring, in contrast, had customarily heightened the fantastic elements of fairy-tale films like Jack and the Beanstalk and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves . These attempts to expand the perceptual range to include sound, color, and bodily sensation further heightened the illusion of film as a transparent medium. The popular conception of film was shifting from cinema as a special kind of magic lantern to cinema as a special kind of theater.

Illusionism and theatricality were parallel currents in cinema that converged with "pictures that talk." As one enthusiast wrote, "The illusion of life which it is the mission of moving pictures to present to the best of its ability, must


always be incomplete, from the impossibility of adequately combining sound with sight, but there is no reason why the complete illusion should not be sought after, to a much greater degree than at present, by the means of stage effects."[128] The rise of talking pictures reveals much about the changes occurring within the institution of the screen during this period. It coincided with a new influx of theatrical directors like J. Searle Dawley, D. W. Griffith, and Sidney Olcott (who worked for the Kalem Company). It occurred at a time when cinema was taking over vaudeville and legitimate theaters and when a theatrical newspaper like the Dramatic Mirror had begun to review films. It was one of several converging elements in 1907-9 that defined film as a kind of theater—superior to the traditional stage in some respects (diversity of locale) though deficient in others (sound, color, and three-dimensional limitations). The move toward heightened realism in cinema, however, remained subservient to the narrative requirements of entertainment and the need for an efficient mode of exhibition that kept down the showman's expenses. Strategies to achieve a superrealism were abandoned or remained a specialty service because they either limited the filmmaker's freedom to tell a story or increased admission fees—or both. Intertitles were an extremely artificial representational strategy, but because they were an inexpensive and extremely effective way to clarify a narrative—whatever the exhibition circumstances—they quickly became standard industry practice.

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