Art of the Moving Picture, The



This is a special commentary on chapter five, The Picture of Crowd Splendor. It refers as well to every other type of moving picture that gets into the slum. But the masses have an extraordinary affinity for the Crowd Photoplay. As has been said before, the mob comes nightly to behold its natural face in the glass. Politicians on the platform have swayed the mass below them. But now, to speak in an Irish way, the crowd takes the platform, and looking down, sees itself swaying. The slums are an astonishing assembly of cave-men crawling out of their shelters to exhibit for the first time in history a common interest on a tremendous scale in an art form. Below the cliff caves were bar rooms in endless lines. There are almost as many bar rooms to-day, yet this new thing breaks the lines as nothing else ever did. Often when a moving picture house is set up, the saloon on the right hand or the left declares bankruptcy.

Why do men prefer the photoplay to the drinking place? For no pious reason, surely. Now they have fire pouring into their eyes instead of into their bellies. Blood is drawn from the guts to the brain. Though the picture be the veriest mess, the light and movement cause the beholder to do a little reptilian thinking. After a day's work a street-sweeper enters the place, heavy as King Log. A ditch-digger goes in, sick and surly. It is the state of the body when many men drink themselves into insensibility. But here the light is as strong in the eye as whiskey in the throat. Along with the flare, shadow, and mystery, they face the existence of people, places, costumes, utterly novel. Immigrants are prodded by these swords of darkness and light to guess at the meaning of the catch-phrases and headlines that punctuate the play. They strain to hear their neighbors whisper or spell them out.

The photoplays have done something to reunite the lower-class families. No longer is the fire-escape the only summer resort for big and little folks. Here is more fancy and whim than ever before blessed a hot night. Here, under the wind of an electric fan, they witness everything, from a burial in Westminster to the birthday parade of the ruler of the land of Swat.

The usual saloon equipment to delight the eye is one so-called "leg" picture of a woman, a photograph of a prize-fighter, and some colored portraits of goats to advertise various brands of beer. Many times, no doubt, these boys and young men have found visions of a sordid kind while gazing on the actress, the fighter, or the goats. But what poor material they had in the wardrobes of memory for the trimmings and habiliments of vision, to make this lady into Freya, this prize-fighter into Thor, these goats into the harnessed steeds that drew his chariot! Man's dreams are rearranged and glorified memories. How could these people reconstruct the torn carpets and tin cans and waste-paper of their lives into mythology? How could memories of Ladies' Entrance squalor be made into Castles in Granada or Carcassonne? The things they drank to see, and saw but grotesquely, and paid for terribly, now roll before them with no after pain or punishment. The mumbled conversation, the sociability for which they leaned over the tables, they have here in the same manner with far more to talk about. They come, they go home, men and women together, as casually and impulsively as the men alone ever entered a drinking-place, but discoursing now of far-off mountains and star-crossed lovers. As Padraic Colum says in his poem on the herdsman:—

"With thoughts on white ships
And the King of Spain's Daughter."

This is why the saloon on the right hand and on the left in the slum is apt to move out when the photoplay moves in.

But let us go to the other end of the temperance argument. I beg to be allowed to relate a personal matter. For some time I was a field-worker for the Anti-Saloon League of Illinois, being sent every Sunday to a new region to make the yearly visit on behalf of the league. Such a visitor is apt to speak to one church in a village, and two in the country, on each excursion, being met at the station by some leading farmer-citizen of the section, and driven to these points by him. The talk with this man was worth it all to me.

The agricultural territory of the United States is naturally dry. This is because the cross-roads church is the only communal institution, and the voice of the cross-roads pastor is for teetotalism. The routine of the farm-hand, while by no means ideal in other respects, keeps him from craving drink as intensely as other toilers do. A day's work in the open air fills his veins at nightfall with an opiate of weariness instead of a high-strung nervousness. The strong men of the community are church elders, not through fanaticism, but by right of leadership. Through their office they are committed to prohibition. So opposition to the temperance movement is scattering. The Anti-Saloon League has organized these leaders into a nation-wide machine. It sees that they get their weekly paper, instructing them in the tactics whereby local fights have been won. A subscription financing the State League is taken once a year. It counts on the regular list of church benevolences. The state officers come in to help on the critical local fights. Any country politician fears their non-partisan denunciation as he does political death. The local machines thus backed are incurable mugwumps, hold the balance of power, work in both parties, and have voted dry the agricultural territory of the United States everywhere, by the township, county, or state unit.

The only institutions that touch the same territory in a similar way are the Chautauquas in the prosperous agricultural centres. These, too, by the same sign are emphatically anti-saloon in their propaganda, serving to intellectualize and secularize the dry sentiment without taking it out of the agricultural caste.

There is a definite line between our farm-civilization and the rest. When a county goes dry, it is generally in spite of the county-seat. Such temperance people as are in the court-house town represent the church-vote, which is even then in goodly proportion a retired-farmer vote. The larger the county-seat, the larger the non-church-going population and the more stubborn the fight. The majority of miners and factory workers are on the wet side everywhere. The irritation caused by the gases in the mines, by the dirty work in the blackness, by the squalor in which the company houses are built, turns men to drink for reaction and lamplight and comradeship. The similar fevers and exasperations of factory life lead the workers to unstring their tense nerves with liquor. The habit of snuggling up close in factories, conversing often, bench by bench, machine by machine, inclines them to get together for their pleasures at the bar. In industrial America there is an anti-saloon minority in moral sympathy with the temperance wave brought in by the farmers. But they are outstanding groups. Their leadership seldom dries up a factory town or a mining region, with all the help the Anti-Saloon League can give.

In the big cities the temperance movement is scarcely understood. The choice residential districts are voted dry for real estate reasons. The men who do this, drink freely at their own clubs or parties. The temperance question would be fruitlessly argued to the end of time were it not for the massive agricultural vote rolling and roaring round each metropolis, reawakening the town churches whose vote is a pitiful minority but whose spokesmen are occasionally strident.

There is a prophecy abroad that prohibition will be the issue of a national election. If the question is squarely put, there are enough farmers and church-people to drive the saloon out of legal existence. The women's vote, a little more puritanical than the men's vote, will make the result sure. As one anxious for this victory, I have often speculated on the situation when all America is nominally dry, at the behest of the American farmer, the American preacher, and the American woman. When the use of alcohol is treason, what will become of those all but unbroken lines of slum saloons? No lesser force than regular troops could dislodge them, with yesterday's intrenchment.

The entrance of the motion picture house into the arena is indeed striking, the first enemy of King Alcohol with real power where that king has deepest hold. If every one of those saloon doors is nailed up by the Chautauqua orators, the photoplay archway will remain open. The people will have a shelter where they can readjust themselves, that offers a substitute for many of the lines of pleasure in the groggery. And a whole evening costs but a dime apiece. Several rounds of drinks are expensive, but the people can sit through as many repetitions of this programme as they desire, for one entrance fee. The dominant genius of the moving picture place is not a gentleman with a red nose and an eye like a dead fish, but some producer who, with all his faults, has given every person in the audience a seven-leagued angel-and-demon telescope.

Since I have announced myself a farmer and a puritan, let me here list the saloon evils not yet recorded in this chapter. They are separate from the catalogue of the individualistic woes of the drunkard that are given in the Scripture. The shame of the American drinking place is the bar-tender who dominates its thinking. His cynical and hardened soul wipes out a portion of the influence of the public school, the library, the self-respecting newspaper. A stream rises no higher than its source, and through his dead-fish eye and dead-fish brain the group of tired men look upon all the statesmen and wise ones of the land. Though he says worse than nothing, his furry tongue, by endless reiteration, is the American slum oracle. At the present the bar-tender handles the neighborhood group, the ultimate unit in city politics.

So, good citizen, welcome the coming of the moving picture man as a local social force. Whatever his private character, the mere formula of his activities makes him a better type. He may not at first sway his group in a directly political way, but he will make himself the centre of more social ideals than the bar-tender ever entertained. And he is beginning to have as intimate a relation to his public as the bar-tender. In many cases he stands under his arch in the sheltered lobby and is on conversing terms with his habitual customers, the length of the afternoon and evening.

Voting the saloon out of the slums by voting America dry, does not, as of old, promise to be a successful operation that kills the patient. In the past some of the photoplay magazines have contained denunciations of the temperance people for refusing to say anything in behalf of the greatest practical enemy of the saloon. But it is not too late for the dry forces to repent. The Anti-Saloon League officers and the photoplay men should ask each other to dinner. More moving picture theatres in doubtful territory will help make dry voters. And wet territory voted dry will bring about a greatly accelerated patronage of the photoplay houses. There is every strategic reason why these two forces should patch up a truce.

Meanwhile, the cave-man, reader of picture-writing, is given a chance to admit light into his mind, whatever he puts to his lips. Let us look for the day, be it a puritan triumph or not, when the sons and the daughters of the slums shall prophesy, the young men shall see visions, the old men dream dreams.

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