- Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900–1934
“The United States is a nation composed of people who would love America, respect its government, and desire to become Americans,” wrote Tully C. Knoles in 1917, the exact midpoint of the period that Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film 1900–1934.1 Indeed, the beginning of the twentieth century witnessed a nationwide “Americanization” movement by middle-class Americans. In 1907, the North American Citizens League started using the term “Americanization” for their activities to help new immigrants understand American ideas in their daily lives. In 1915, the National Americanization Committee was organized and on July 4 that same year, Chambers of Commerce and Industry, churches, organizations of mutual aid in immigrant communities in more than hundred cities across the United States celebrated “Americanization Day.”
As a result of rapid industrialization, urbanization, and the increase of immigrants by the early twentieth century, reorganization of the social order became debated especially among middle-class Americans. More Americans began to feel that the nation required a higher level of cohesion, homogeneity, and solidarity—and that closer conformity to the cultural majority in language, religion, and manners together with a more active policy of Americanization, or forceful assimilation, was necessary. Even if the widespread expression “melting pot” may imply America’s cosmopolitan nationality based on diversity or pluralism (at least among Europeans), the fact was that immigrants were expected to merge into the national community by being willing to identify themselves with a middle-class sense of values, that is, to learn English and the American concepts of law and order and work ethic.
As the early Hollywood film industry pursued the legitimatization and institutionalization of cinema, it also needed to respond to this middle-class movement that stressed Americanization. Motion pictures became a medium that institutionally supported the Americanization movement by excluding inassimilable immigrants both on and off screen. On screen, “bad” immigrants were punished in opposition to “good” immigrants. For instance, The Black Hand: True Story of a Recent Occurrence in the Italian Quarter of New York (1906; photographed by G. W. Bitzer) on disc 1 of Treasures III, “the earliest surviving Mafia film,” certainly preceded classical Hollywood race melodramas in its depiction of two types of new immigrants: those who could assimilate and those who could not, i.e., good and bad. In The Honorable Friend (1916), a Hollywood race melodrama starring Sessue Hayakawa, immigrant images are clearly divided between ideally assimilated immigrants who Americanize themselves by learning American laws and ways of life and such inassimilable villains as greedy merchants with slanted eyes, catfish-like whiskers, and buckteeth, who often engaged in such illegal practices as “picture marriage.”
Treasures III reveals just how heterogeneous and diverse the film practices in the United States between 1900 and 1934 were despite the general socio-political tendencies of the time. Scott Simmon, curator of the Treasures series, writes in the introductory essay to the booklet for the second DVD box-set More Treasures from American Film Archives (2004), “It can sometimes seem, because of the titles available on video, as if the silent era [End Page 105] produced little more than comic shorts and dramatic features. However, audiences of the era spent more time watching other parts of the show than they did the main feature. Pioneering filmmakers experimented with virtually every kind of film still in use today—newsreels, animation, product and political ads, avant-garde experiments, social advocacy films, and others, as well as experiments in color, sound, special effects.” As Simmon notes in the Treasures III booklet, “nothing [seems] too controversial to bring to screen: abortion, anarchism, unionization, the vote for women, child labor, organized crime, prostitution, loan sharking, juvenile justice, homelessness, police corruption, workplace discrimination, immigration, and more.”
Surprisingly, many of these films were sponsored by or produced for corporations, trade associations, advocacy groups, and charitable organizations to explain programs and promote products. For instance, one of the most shocking films in Treasures III, aside from Helen Holmes’ dangerously daring stunts in “The Escape on the Fast Freight” episode 13 of...