- Introduction: Footnotes to Film History
This issue of Film History avoids, for the most part, the two structuring narratives that have driven most work in this field for the past thirty years.
No one examines the development of production or exhibition during the cinema’s first two decades, and no one investigates the how and why of the vertically integrated industrial system that defines the so-called “classical Hollywood studio” era.
There are good reasons to keep going back to these subjects, of course, and those reasons hardly need to be spelled out here. And even though the essays that follow pursue a number of different leads, they can still be understood as supplementing our conventional understanding of the medium, not supplanting it with some other agenda. So how should we characterize these inquiries into the cinema’s byways? Are they footnotes to film history? Appendices? Sidebars? Detours?
Arthur Lennig’s account of D.W. Griffith’s problems with his first talking film, Abraham Lincoln, is the closest to a conventional production history. But the production of this film was unlike anything then happening at Paramount or MGM. United Artists was not a conventional studio operation in 1930, but neither could it be confused with a modern Hollywood major. To Griffith’s chagrin, it seems to have incorporated the worst elements of both systems, and his disgust with the way it functioned signals a longing for a kind of independent cinema that was still decades in the future.
Sometimes a film that we think we know very well turns out to be something else entirely. Victor Sjöström’s Ingeborg Holm is just the most recent example of the need to revisit the canon with fresh eyes. Jan Olsson not only reveals the differences between the film we see today (a 1915 reissue) and the 1913 original, but illustrates how Sjöström’s project was itself influenced by a range of previously unconsidered factors, including Paul Garbagni’s recently discovered I lifvets vår (1912).
As many historians have demonstrated, non-fiction film represents the path not taken once the power of narrative demonstrated its hold over film audiences. Accordingly, the history of non-fiction film has itself been either marginalized (a footnote) or segregated into separate histories of its own. Beginning with thirty-three reels of nitrate film which shuttled between the National Archives and the Library of Congress during the 1980s, Cooper Graham reconstructs the history of Wilbur Durborough’s On the Firing Line with the German Army, a unique account of action on the eastern front during the First World War. Establishing the connection between those cans of nitrate and the film that Durborough screened (to largely German-American audiences) in 1915 proves to be an adventure of a very different sort.
The enormous scale of America’s non-fiction film industry is still not fully recognized. One of the largest of these producers, the Jam Handy Organization, operated out of Detroit for almost forty years, rising and falling with the fortunes of America’s heartland industries. The Jam Handy story is so complex, and primary materials are so scarce, that it may never be adequately understood. Brian Oakes looks at only one part of it – the animation department – and finds a mirror image of Hollywood’s own production history.
As demonstrated by the research of Victor Fan, a similar situation can be said to have existed in regard to non-traditional exhibition circuits. Underneath the Manhattan Bridge in New York’s Chinatown, local residents could find the Sun Sing Theatre, part of a national chain that introduced its audiences to everything from Hong Kong musicals to John Woo thrillers. Theatres like the Sun Sing confronted many of the same issues facing every other independent exhibitor, although their solutions were dictated by [End Page 3] cultural, political, and economic considerations far different than those affecting the competition further uptown.
Judging by most histories, the Federal Income Tax was not an especially significant factor in Hollywood history. But Eric Hoyt reveals several surprising ways in which the movies did play an important role in America’s ongoing relationship with the Internal Revenue Service. It...