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The Little Theatre Movement: The Institutionalization of the European Art Film in America

From: Film History: An International Journal
Volume 17, Number 2/3, 2005
pp. 261-284 | 10.1353/fih.2005.0020

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Film History: An International Journal 17.2/3 (2005) 261-284

The Institutionalization of the European Art Film in America

Tony Guzman

The late 1920s was arguably the most important period in the history of the exhibition of foreign films in the United States. European films were being exhibited in large numbers from nearly every major film producing country in Europe. The Europeans, or at least the German and Soviet cinemas, were enjoying unparalleled artistic prestige in the United States. Of course European films had been imported to America in large numbers prior to World War I and there have been many periods when European films have been influential. What made this period unique was that these imports in the late 1920s gave birth to the foundation of American independent film culture, the little theatre movement.

From almost the beginning of its existence, various groups had opposed the commercial American film industry on moral or social grounds; however, the little theatre movement was the first organized opposition to Hollywood on the basis of aesthetic principles. The supporters of the little theatre movement rejected Hollywood's formula of a disposable, mass produced and impersonal cinema of entertainment designed to appeal to the broadest possible audience in favor of a personal cinema that sought to explore the boundaries of film art. The little theatre movement strove to elevate the cinema to a position of equality among the fine arts.

Inspired by the little theatres of the stage, the little theatre movement sought to establish an alternative exhibition system that was not solely based on commercial considerations. These smaller theatres would present films that could not draw a large enough audience to attract the interest of the major commercial exhibitors and distributors but which still contained elements of artistic, political or historical significance. The theatres catered to an educated, often wealthy audience comprised of the cultural and intellectual elite as well as the radical left that was alienated by Hollywood. This audience was less passive than the commercial audience. Many little theatres required their audience to become members of the theatre and encouraged discussion of the films they screened.

The problem for the little theatre exhibitors was finding artistic films to exhibit. If one rejected the films coming out of the major Hollywood studios, there were not a lot of alternatives in the United States. Almost all the American independent film producers worked within the same parameters as the big studios only on a smaller budget. The crude genre films they churned out were even less artistic than the mainstream studio films. The handful of pioneers making artistic or experimental films in America in the late 1920s were insufficient to program even a single theatre. The little theatres were forced to look abroad to Europe for their films.

The period of 1926 to 1929 saw remarkable growth in the number of little theatres that specialized in exhibiting European films. These films were primarily chosen on the basis of their perceived artistic superiority to Hollywood films, thus institutionalizing the concept of the European art film. The parameters of the art film were nebulous in the 1920s. At the onset of the movement, only a few imports seemed to warrant the term 'art film', but by the end of the decade the hunger for product saw virtually any European import being screened in little theatres, as if simply being outside the Hollywood system constituted 'art'. The process through which the concept of film art was defined shaped critical thinking on film in America. The little theatre movement influenced a generation of film critics and paved the way for the golden age of the international art film in the 1950s and 1960s, when directors such as Ingmar Bergman, Jean-Luc Godard and Michelangelo Antonioni achieved heroic status on campuses and big cities across the United States.

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Figure 1
Madame Dubarry (Ernst Lubitsch, 1919). Pola Negri, as Dubarry, is displayed to the mob next to the guillotine before she is beheaded (a shot missing from the American release print). Lubitsch's classic film was a surprise success in America and introduced the mainstream film audience to the celebrated artistry of the German cinema...

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