Friday, June 10, 2005

A Night at the Movies

There was a time when going to the movies was an event. Today when one goes to see a movie, at most he or she might see a few commercials, a few trailers, and the feature film. The exception to this rule is only when a theatre is showing a double feature, in which cases one might see a few commercials, a few trailers, and two movies. This wasn't always the case. There was time, before I was born, when a night at the movies could include some trailers (then called "coming attractions"), a newsreel, an animated short, a live-action short, and the feature film. Often times there would be two films, a "B" picture followed by an "A" picture. In those days Saturday matinees almost always had at least one animated short and the latest chapter in a movie serial or "chapterplay." While today going to the movies might mean a stay as brief as 90 minutes in the theatre, in days of old a trip to the cinema could take up the better part of an evening.

To modern day audiences, the programmes of the cinema from the Twenties to the Fifties might seem a bit strange. Indeed, as strange as it might seem, there are people today who don't even want to see the movie previews (I always enjoyed them myself)! In those golden years, however, people were not in quite as much of a hurry as they are today and were more than willing to relax in a cinema for a night of entertainment and enjoyment. The cinema programmes of old were the direct descendent of Vaudeville, of which the cinema can be considered a stepchild. A typical Vaudeville programme might include a novelty act, some skits (both dramatic and comedic), a singing act, and the headliners (often a somewhat famous song and dance act). With the advent of motion pictures, Vaudeville theatres sometimes showed a movie as part of their bill. By the same token, the early cinemas often included live acts in addition to their motion pictures. For instance, a singer might preceed a newsreel, theatrical short, and the feature film. As the motion picture industry progressed, eventually the live acts would be phased out to be replaced by newsreels, animated shorts, live actions, chapters of serials, and, of course, more feature films.

As to the components of the typical night at the movies, they evolved over time. The newsreel was introduced in 1908 by French production company Pathé Freres. Newsreels were essentially short films reporting the news of the day. Nearly all of the major American studios produced their own newsreels or distributed newsreels produced by others. Twentieth Century Fox created the Fox Movietone News in 1929. It lasted a full fifty years, until 1979. MGM distributed News of the Day and William Randolph Hearst's Hearst Metrotone News. Perhaps the most famous newsreel series of all time was The March of Time. It was produced by Time Magazine and drew its inspiration from the successful radio show of the same name (also produced by Time and launched in 1931). The March of Time series began in 1935 and lasted until 1951. While popular with audiences and highly regarded, it never did make money. Each segment, of which one was released each month, cost $50,000. This made The March of Time a constant loser at the box office.

Animated shorts or cartoons would become a part of cinema programmes in the 1910s. The first animated short is generally considered "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces," made by cartoonist J. Stuart Blackton in 1906 (he would later co-found the Vitagraph Company). While Blackton may have made the first animated short, it was cartoonist Windsor McCay (creator of Little Nemo) who would really advanced the art. He produced his first animated short "Little Nemo in Slumberland (based on his famous cartoon character)" in 1911 and "How a Mosquito Operates" in 1912. Both were shown as part of McCay's Vaudeville act. In 1914 McCay produced what many consider to be the first fully animated film (although some claim "Humorous Phases of Funny Faces" holds that honour), "Gertie the Dinosaur." It was not only shown as part of McCay's Vaudeville act, but in cinemas as well. With "Gertie the Dinosaur," the floodgates opened for animation.

It was naturally only a matter of time before animated cartoons produced their first megastar. Felix the Cat debuted in "Feline Follies" and "Musical Mews" in 1919, then simply called "Master Tom." By his third animated short, "The Adventures of Felix," also released in 1919, he finally received his proper name. Felix proved to be a smash hit. The creation of Otto Messmer, Felix became the first character in any medium to be heavily merchandised, inspiring everything from Felix dolls to games to artwork. He would even be spun off into a comic strip (which lasted until 1966) and in 1928 jazz musician Paul Whiteman even recorded a song about the famous cat, "Felix! Felix! Felix the Cat!" In the end 175 Felix cartoons would be produced between 1919 and 1929. Perhaps due to Felix's success, many animation studios opened throughout the Twenties (among them one started by a young man with the last name "Disney"). Eventually, the major studios would either open their own animation units or simply buy out one of the animation studios. Regardless, by the Twenties, cartoons were a well established part of a night at the movies.

As to live action short subjects, prior to the advent of the feature film (the first being Richard III in 1912), most movies would be considered shorts by today's definition of the term. A short subject is basically any film less than 20 minutes in length. The term short subject came into use in the 1910s after the introduction of the feature film (generally, any film over an hour in length). Prior to rise of feature films, what would today be considered short subjects made up the bulk of cinema's programmes. Following the introduction of feature films, they would be shown before the feature. The most popular live action short subjects were usually the one and two reel comedies. In the 1910s, these comedies would produce their own superstars. Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd both came to fame in the comedy shorts of that decade. As the demand for comedy shorts increased, there rose a number of studios which specialised in their production. Actor and director Mack Sennett and his partner Adam Kessel founded Keystone Studios in 1912. Hal Roach started producing comedies in 1915. The demand for short sujbects would produce a large number of film series, among them those featuring Laurel and Hardy, The Three Stooges, and the kids of Our Gang.

By the Twenties, all of the elements of the typical cinema programme were in place. Movie goers in the Thirties and Forties could expect a full night of entertainment when going to the cinema--the "coming attractions," a newsreel, a cartoon, a live action short, and a feature film. Unfortunately, as the years progressed various factors would chip away at the cinema programme as people came to know it. Perhaps the first blow came in the late Twenties and early Thirties with the idea of the double feature. By 1934 many theatre owners had opted for showing two feature films (the "double feature"), usually dropping the comedy shorts in the process. This naturally decreased the demand for short subjects. As the Thirties and Forties progressed, many of the classic comedy short series came to an end.

Another blow to the typical cinema bill of the Thirties and Forties was a 1949 Supreme Court decision that ended the practice of block booking. Block booking was a practice whereby a theatre owner would have to buy an entire package of a set of films from a studio. These packages not only included feature films, but comedy shorts, newsreels, and cartoons. The practice of block booking was introduced by Paramount in the 1910s and quickly spread to the other major studios as well. Block booking made it very difficult for smaller, independent studios to compete with the Hollywood giants. It also forced exhibitors to show weaker, "B" movies alongside the "A" features. While some exhibitors actually favoured block booking, there were also many in the general public who were opposed to it as an unfair trade practice. The beginning of the end for block booking came in 1938 when the Roosevelt administration decided to take action against the major Hollywood studios. The pivotal case, the United States versus Paramount Pictures, Inc, began in 1939. It would be delayed many times during World War II, but finally made it to the Supreme Court in 1948. In 1949 the Court handed down their decison, which has become known as the "Paramount Consent Decree." This decision forced the major studios to make movies available on a film by film basis. One of the positive outcomes of this decision was that it allowed independent studios for the first time to truly compete with the major Hollywood studios. Another was that it allowed smaller theatres access to the first run of feature films. A negative outcome is that the comedy shorts and cartoons of old soon found themselves pushed out of cinema programmes.

The final nail in the coffin of the typical cinema programme of the Thirites and Forties was the advent of television. As more and more television stations opened across the nation and more and more homes had access to television, theatre attendance dwindled from what it once was. In the face of competition from television, many exhibitors simply chose to cut out the short subjects entirely, relying increasingy on double features. The impact of television would be especially deleterious on the newsreels. With the advent of television news, the newsreels soon became redundant. With viewers able to watch the news at home on their television sets, there was no need for them to go to their local theatre to watch a newsreel.

Essentially, the typical night at the movies as it was in the Thirties and Forties was then chipped away by various factors. It did not simply disappear all at once. The live action shorts were the first to go. With theatre owners increasingly deciding not to show comedy shorts in favour of double features, the demand for the shorts decreased. As a result, the studios started making fewer and fewer short subjects. By the Thirties and Forties, many of the classic short subject series were coming to an end. The Laurel and Hardy shorts came to an end in 1935 as the two moved into feature films. The Our Gang shorts would come to an end in 1944. The Three Stooges actually managed to continue making shorts until 1958. Newsreels were the next to go, with many of the newsreel series ending in the Fifties. The acclaimed March of Time series ended in 1951. Fox Movietone News actually made it to 1979. Animated cartoons actually persisted the longest. Cartoon shorts were still being shown in theatres as late as the Seventies. Still, as the years went by, the market for animated shorts dwindled. As a result, many of the animation studios closed their doors. Eventually, even the major studios would shut down their animation units. MGM closed their animation unit in 1956. Warner Brothers closed theirs in 1962, although it would be reopened for a few years in the late Sixties. As animated cartoons disappeared from theatres, so too did the last vestiges of the typical cinema programme of the Thirties and Forties.

By the time I was born, the typical cinema programme of the Thirties and Forties was a thing of the past. I have never seen a newsreel or a live action short in a movie theatre. I have seen a few animated cartoons. The first "grown up" movie I ever saw in a theatre was Logan's Run. My brother and I went to see it at 4th Street Cinema's Saturday matinee; they actually showed an old Chilly Willy cartoon before the movie. It would be the last time I would see an animated cartoon short before a feature film in a theatre until the various Pixar movies of the Nineties and Naughts. For people of my generation it seems there is little way that we can experience what it was like to go to the movies in the Thirties and Forties. For many years in the Eighties, PBS aired a show called Matinee at the Bijou, which simulated a typical Saturday matinee of the Thirties. They would usually show a serial, a live action short, a cartoon, and a feature film. Warner Brothers has also come out with a series of DVDs called Warner Night at the Movies. Each DVD simulates a typical night at the movies in a given year. For example, the DVD for 1931 features a newsreel, the comedy short "The Eyes Have It," the cartoon short "Smile, Darn Ya, Smile," and the feature film Public Enemy. Theatres specialising in classic films also ocassionally show programmes close to those of the Thirties and Forties.

Even though I have never experienced the cinema programmes of the Thirties and Forties, I have often longed for their return. Both the live action comedy shorts and the animated shorts saw new life on television after they left the theatres, so I have had ample opportunity to watch them. And I have loved them since childhood. And, unlike many, I actually do enjoy watching the previews of upcoming movies. To me a night at a movie theatre where I could see a live action comedy short, a cartoon, and a feature film would be a very, very pleasant experience. It would sure beat simply seeing a few commercials, a few trailers, and a feature film, as the typical cinema programme is today. Unfortunately, I doubt the cinema programme of the Thirties and Forties will ever make a comeback. People today are too much in a hurry to want to sit through comedy shorts and cartoons. Indeed, many theatre goers have complained because theatres do not publish the actual starting times of movies, wishing to skip the trailers entirely! In New York City the City Council's Consumer Affairs Committee is even now discussing a bill requiring theatres to post the actual start times of movies. The Lowes theatre chain has actually started doing so. It would seem, then, that the typical night at the movies of the Thirties and Forties will then remain a thing of the past.

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