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1908 Movies and Other Media MATTHEW SOLOMON Asked what achievements history would remember from this year, a dozen leaders in different fields had difficulty reaching a consensus, although several agreed that recent advances in aviation, including the Wright brothers’ successful passenger flights and Count Ferdinand von Zeppelin’s sustained dirigible flights in Germany would prove significant. Others pointed to the Root-Takahira Agreement, which averted possible war with Japan by settling U.S. and Japanese colonial interests in East Asia (“Striking Events”). In retrospect, one could add the introduction of the Model T automobile by the Ford Motor Company and the discovery of oil in the Middle East by the British to this short list of decisive events for the year. In the arts, the group of eight artists who would form the core of the Ashcan School joined together in an independent show with paintings that depicted much grittier visions of modern life. In The Melting Pot, a hit play that opened in the nation’s capital during the fall, the United States is a crucible in which a diverse group of immigrants are amalgamated into a new nation. As playwright Israel Zangwill’s metaphor suggested, forging a unified national identity was proving to be a fiery process, for the country was fissured by heated racial, ethnic, and class differences. On 14 August, an angry mob in Springfield, Illinois, lynched two African American men during a violent race riot; several thousand more African Americans fled the city after their homes and businesses were burned. Racial enmity and anti-immigrant feelings were intensified by record levels of unemployment and fierce competition for jobs. Leading up to the November presidential election, the electorate was divided over a number of issues, including U.S. imperialism in the Philippines and limiting the power of big business or organized labor. The candidates of both major parties struggled to articulate viable solutions to the dire economic situation the country faced in the wake of the Panic of 1907. In The Financial Scare, a film released by the Selig Polyscope Company in January, a man reads of a bank failure in the newspaper while at work 202 and rushes home to tell his family and servants to withdraw their savings immediately. A chase ensues as the members of the household hurry to the bank, each hoping to arrive before the money is gone. Though they all succeed in withdrawing their money from the bank and hiding it throughout the home, all is lost to a passing thief who sees where the money is hidden, robs the house, and gets away. The Financial Scare was a fictional reminder of the financial panic that had gripped the country a few months earlier when a sharp drop in the stock market and an overextension of credit resulted in the failure of several banks and a run on deposits—a crisis exacerbated by the sensationalism of the yellow press and stemmed only by the intervention of the Treasury Department and large loans from several major financiers. While the film’s unhappy ending might have served as a cautionary tale for those who rashly pursued alternatives to the banking system, its comedy tended to elide the rather unpleasant fact that bank failures were but one aspect of a severe recession that threatened the livelihood of workers and the nation’s industries. In the film industry, the recession made things difficult for film exhibitors and spectators alike. As one theater owner emphasized in a letter to the trade journal Views and Film Index: The truth is that both the United States and Canada are passing through a period of exceptionally hard times. The people of the States have indisputable proof of this in the suspensions of banks and the closing of shops, factories, and mills. On the east side of New York City alone there are between 130,000 and 150,000 unemployed people. . . . When people declare that they have not sufficient means to secure food, clothing, and other necessaries of life, how can the store show expect to fill their seats, even if they have one of the most popular forms of entertainment of the age and charge only five cents admission? (Sawtkin 4–5) Although many people had less disposable income to spend, moving pictures were gaining an increasing share of the amusement market. New theaters opened in many locations. Many were nickelodeons or “store shows” set up in vacant storefronts with a...


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