- Menus For Movieland: Newspapers and the Emergence of American Film Culture 1913-1916 by Richard Abel
Richard Abel is arguably the foremost expert on film culture during the early 1900s. Abel has previously explored the topic in works such as Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910 and Americanizing the Movies and "Movie-Mad" Audiences 1910-1914. During these years, movies were very much an experimental medium that hinged on trial and error. While movies were finding their footing, audiences were also helping formulate what it meant to be a filmgoer.
In Menus for Movieland, Abel looks specifically at how newspapers played a role in creating what we now call film culture in America. During this time, newspapers worked quite literally as "menus" for daily life. Newspapers helped readers make many decisions ranging from what restaurant to try, which stores to patronize, what political party to favor, and what movies to watch. In other words, newspapers helped readers translate the world around them.
Abel looks at the years 1913-1916 through two primary lenses: first, the newspapers that were working as cultural gatekeepers and, second, the women who wrote and edited much of their content. Abel sources examples from many newspapers throughout the United States that go well beyond the major city presses to those in numerous small towns around the country. The scope of this study's research helps provide a more complete version of national film culture that isn't focused on a few major cultural hubs like New York City and Los Angeles.
This era saw a rise in newspaper advertising for movies, which certainly increased awareness of this blossoming medium. In addition, these ads paved the way for artistic ways to showcase a new film. As movie culture grew during this period so did the familiarity with key "players" that would soon become what we now call movie stars.
Another national personality that was born during this era was the film critic. Abel notes that many of these figures were female, such as Mae Tinee (the pen name for critics at the New York Times) along with others like Kitty Kelly, Dorothy Day, and Louella Parsons. These critics collectively created a national following for weekly film commentary–a tradition that continues to this day.
Movie studios like Universal, then run by founder Carl Laemmle, began to push not only films but company logos as a way to make the newly minted production facilities widely-known. Universal began selling itself in 1914 as a state-of-the-art production facility in Southern California. It wasn't long before companies like Famous Players (eventually to become Paramount) followed Laemmle's lead and began branding their films to sell the product and the company.
Abel also notes how the rise of movies greatly increased the dependence of their audience on newspapers. Therefore, as movies grew in popularity, the desire to follow movie news in the papers increased as well. This created a symbiotic relationship that would help both mediums flourish across the entire country, especially in the Midwest (where Laemmle himself spent a lot of time before creating Universal).
Abel's research is exhaustive and extensively notated, and as there is no question that the author is an authority on turn of the century film culture, this a useful read for anyone looking to fully understand an essential moment in early film history. [End Page 90]