- Menus for Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film Culture, 1913–1916 by Richard Abel
For those familiar with his extensive body of work, a new study by Richard Abel is cause for excitement. A master of early cinema culture in America, Abel is widely known as a meticulous archival researcher and writer of great clarity. His previous two books on the subject, The Red Rooster Scare (1999) and Americanizing the Movies and “Movie-Mad” Audiences (2006) focused largely on the content of films and their relationship with a burgeoning national film audience during the first two decades of the twentieth century. Menus for Movieland extends this work by examining the circulation of print news culture, the system of film distribution, and their mutually supporting roles in each other’s maintenance and expansion.
The book’s central concern is the mutual constitution of both a developing film culture and the increasing importance of newspapers in American life. Newspapers were much more than documents that made up the public record. Rather, local newspapers presented pieces about the range of authorized behaviors and thoughts and criticized their opposite, thus producing “menus” out of which ideological structures took hold. In this way, newspapers played a key role in integrating cinema culture into Americans’ lives by giving readers not only the slate of films and showtimes available but also pieces placed there by film production companies. Abel reaches wide, building his account from the archives of some 124 local publications nationwide. More than simply a discussion of films ads, Menus for Movieland looks at an [End Page 93] ecology of content, including gossip and question-and-answer pieces about early film stars, full-page features describing local film offerings but masquerading as news, and the earliest regular columns written about film entertainments, to name just a few. While the individual chapters are excellently illustrated by examinations of these various artifacts (including seventy-six archival illustrations), chapter-closing documents and “Entr’actes” that close-read individual film-news items drive the major points home, as well as explain the variety and preponderance of methods for popularizing film as a pastime. The manner in which “newspapers make picture-goers”—a notion stated bluntly by film producers at the time—clearly emerges as an historical process. Film-going was a consciously cooperative venture in the early days of the culture industry. Moreover, as hunger for movies became normalized, newspapers benefited from their complicity by being a conduit to information about films and their stars.
One of most important challenges filmmakers faced in generating interest was the irregularity of releases. Given the state of duplication technologies, limited numbers of copies circulated slowly around the country and appeared in many locales well after making debuts in major markets. Newspapers handily solved this problem by filling the gaps between the arrivals of new reels and generating “buzz” for films wending their way to movie houses. Many pieces in these outlying papers suggested snipping articles and ads and keeping them as a reminder of coming attractions. This circulation problem/solution opens up what is the most interesting discussion in the book, namely that newspapers became the source for individual film consumption practices. To this end, Abel turns in the final part of the book to a remarkable archival find: the movie scrapbooks of Edna Vercoe, from the Margaret Herrick Library of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. A Chicago teenager of the era, Vercoe collected clippings into books she called “Motion Picture Pictorials,” which focused heavily on photos of favored stars and ephemera that brought her into more personal connection with movie culture. Comprising 960 pages of material, these scrapbooks offer an extraordinary window into an individual’s responses to the moment’s film consumption in Verdoe’s collages, annotations, associated drawings, and marginalia. Abel rightly points out that her special interest in female stars suggests the extent to which Vercoe might have used the scrapbook as her own personal menu for...