In America, the movies began during a period of social reform and quickly emerged as a way to reach millions, regardless of their class, education, or language. During the “Progressive Era” before World War I, virtually no socially significant issue was too controversial to bring to the big screen—abortion, anarchism, unions, the vote for women, child labor, drug addiction, organized crime, “white slave” trafficking, loan sharking, juvenile justice, homelessness, police corruption, workplace discrimination, immigration. Controversy fueled public debate—and the box office. Film was entertainment with the power to persuade.
Reformers—and their opponents—sensed that the new medium made issues palpable in a way not possible with the printed word. As one reviewer wrote, in comparing Upton Sinclair’s muckraking novel The Jungle with the now-lost 1914 movie version, “It is possible to read the book and then merely register a vow never to eat tinned goods again. But after seeing the picture we begin to have burned in us that Packingtown made enormous profits not simply out of tainted food but out of the ruined lives of men and women.”
Gritty urban problems mattered to the working-class audiences that filled movie houses in the early 1900s, but as movie-going expanded to the American middle class in the teens, the way in which motion pictures treated social issues changed, as did the subjects themselves. Moral crusaders demanded films suitable for “respectable” viewers. Film producers answered the first censorship boards by expurgating intertitles and steering clear of nudity and provocative content. They soon learned, however, that even such hot-button topics as racial discrimination and capital punishment could be brought to the screen if the transgressors got their just deserts by the picture’s end.
Given the growing popularity of movie-going in America during the silent era, it is not surprising that a wide range of competing groups turned to film to advance their social agendas. Unions, businesses, religious organizations, advocacy groups, charities, and government units experimented with film to explain their work and influence public opinion. Initially organizations partnered with established film companies and commissioned works like The Cost of Carelessness (1913), the traffic safety film included here that was made for schools by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company and produced by Universal. But as motion picture equipment became more common, groups began producing their own films. The Ford Motor Company, for example, made public service documentaries as a well as political cartoons, such as Uncle Sam Donates for Liberty Loans (1919), espousing the views of industrialist Henry Ford. Whether commissioned or made in-house, such “sponsored films” were shown in theaters as well as in clubs, churches, and schools. Labor’s Reward (1925), the union film also showcased in this series, was shown at free screenings in 36 states and Canada. (A more varied selection of sponsored films will be included in the program curated by Rick Prelinger.)
The National Film Preservation Foundation’s Treasures III: Social Issues in American Film, 1900-1934 explores the interplay of movies and social change during this formative period. The third in the NFPF’s Treasures DVD series, the new four disc box set with program notes presents four features and 44 shorter narratives, documentaries, public service announcements, charitable pleas, newsreel stories, and cartoons preserved by George Eastman House, the Library of Congress, the Museum of Modern Art, the National Archives, and the UCLA Film & Television Archive. None of the films has previously been available on good-quality video. To the consortium’s project, twenty scholars contributed audio commentary. More than 65 composers and musicians created new music and several generous technical facilities provided services. Our goal is to use these little known films as a window into the social issues they present. Through movies, history can come alive.
We are honored that the Giornate is showcasing a selection from Treasures III through two screenings: William Desmond Taylor’s The Soul of Youth, a feature in which the real-life reformer Judge Ben Lindsey reclaims a wayward orphan for society through his celebrated juvenile court, and a medley of five shorts surveying issues from organized crime to unionism. This program, like the Treasures III project itself, celebrates decades of preservation work by the contributing institutions and offers a reminder that America’s archives hold many more such astonishing, and historically revealing films that will be seen only with further support.—Annette Melville
Prog. 1 (82’)
Uncle Sam Donates for Liberty Bonds (Ford Motor Co., US, 1919)
35mm, 110 ft. 75 sec (24 fps); preserved by the National Archives.
The first problem faced by President Wilson after America’s entry into World War I was how to pay for it. This animated plea, issued by the Ford Motor Company as a public service, illustrates his solution. During the war years, annual federal spending had increased twentyfold, from $800 million to $19 billion. The war itself cost the United States around $26 billion. While small compared to the sacrifices borne by Europe, the magnitude of these figures ruled out Wilson’s initial plan to pay for the war through income tax. After studying flaws in Civil War financing (when bonds were sold to the wealthy through private firms), his treasury secretary came up with “Liberty Loans.” Purchased directly by the public in denominations as low as 25¢, the innovative program led average Americans to buy into the war, literally.
In this cartoon Uncle Sam gives nearly everything he’s got into the “U.S. WAR CHEST,” starting with the first Liberty Loan campaign of April 1917. After the final campaign, he has peeled off all he can without violating decency. On the other side of the war chest is a female figure embodying the nation’s honor. She can’t be expected to match his strip act, even for so noble a cause.
Liberty Loans deftly combined financial incentive with social pressure. Purchasing bonds was patriotic, and the campaigns sought to shame those who didn’t buy. Together the five campaigns raised almost $20 billion.—Scott Simmon
THE SOUL OF YOUTH (Realart Picture Corp., US, 1920)
Dir.:William Desmond Taylor; Writer: Julia Crawford Ivers; Photographer: James Van Trees; Art Director: Wilfred Buckland; cast: Lewis Sargent (Ed Simpson), Ernest Butterworth (Mike), Judge Ben B. Lindsey (himself), Clyde Fillmore (Robert Hamilton), Claude Peyton (Pete Morano), Lila Lee (Vera Hamilton), William Collier, Jr. (Dick Armstrong), Betty Schade (Maggie); 35mm, 5778 ft., 6 reels, 80 min. (19 fps); preserved by the Library of Congress.
Of the four features in the Treasures III DVD set, The Soul of Youth is the most completely forgotten—and the most undeservedly so. Its director, William Desmond Taylor, is now remembered largely for his murder—a February 1922 crime still unsolved. This 1920 feature stands as a testament that Hollywood lost a distinctive talent in his prime. The Soul of Youth takes on a series of social issues through one boy’s story, beginning with unwanted newborns and going on to loveless orphanages and homeless street youths before finding a solution through the relatively new juvenile court movement.
At the time Taylor was known for three adaptations of Mark Twain—Tom Sawyer (1917), Huck and Tom (1918), and Huckleberry Finn (1920)—all scripted by Julia Crawford Ivers, a director of early features and the mother of The Soul of Youth’s inventive cinematographer, James Van Trees. Her story for The Soul of Youth was called by Moving Picture World “practically the first recognition of a demand for original juvenile fiction in the movies.” Returning from his title role in Huckleberry Finn was 16-year-old Lewis Sargent, who holds this film together without straining for hyperactive charm.
The most celebrated of the performers came from outside Hollywood. “The big wallop of the picture,” as Variety put it, “is the fact that Judge Lindsey of Denver, who is known throughout the country for his work for the youth of the nation, appears and acts in several scenes.” Judge Ben B. Lindsey (1869–1943), the key advocate for juvenile courts in America, is introduced, playing himself, two-thirds into the film to resolve the criminal charges against our hero. Juvenile courts had begun in 1899 in Chicago and, thanks to Lindsey, in Denver in 1901. Previously, juveniles were tried in the United States under the same laws and in the same courts as adults—with the result that children were either treated harshly or freed even if guilty by courts unwilling to send them to jail. Juvenile courts became one of the Progressive Era’s most successful policy innovations and by 1917 all but three states had them.
Lindsey looked for ways to “dramatize” issues and The Soul of Youth follows the many published accounts about the judge. Before dealing with our hero, Lindsey handles two cases in ways to illustrate the gentler courtroom methods he advocated in The Problem of Children (1904): “I do not believe in the doctrine of fear” but in persuading the accused to “make it in his interest to tell the truth.” Juvenile crime arising from “the poverty of hopeless homes,” Lindsey argued, paled before the crimes of “political machines and bosses.” Stymied from further reform by Colorado legislators, Lindsey made his other mark—and further enemies—as chair of the Direct Legislation League. In an irony Lindsey appreciated, the league succeeded in passing a 1912 referendum that allowed for the recall of public officials—thus enabling opponents to force him into a special recall election the following year. Lindsey credited his narrow victory to women voters (women had voted in Colorado since 1893) and to the newsboys who hawked the judge’s open letters about political graft. Thus, in this era, sentimental stories about mere “kids” became a way to remake the democratic political system.—Scott Simmon
Prog. 2 (76’)
THE BLACK HAND: TRUE STORY OF A RECENT OCCURRENCE IN THE ITALIAN QUARTER OF NEW YORK (American Mutoscope & Biograph Co, US, 1906)
Dir.: Wallace McCutcheon, Jr. (?);Producer: Francis J. Marion; Photographer: G.W. Bitzer; Cast: Robert Vignola, Anthony O’Sullivan (“Black Hand” gangsters); 35mm, 645 ft., 11 min. (16 fps); preserved by the Museum of Modern Art.
The Black Hand, probably the earliest surviving Mafia film, ripped its story from the headlines. Newspapers on February 17, 1906, told of detectives staking out Italian American “Black Hand” gangsters in the meat locker of a butcher named Pietro Miano. (“THEY COOLLY WATCHED. Detectives Stayed in the Icebox to Capture Black Hand Man” read the New York Times.) The extortionists had demanded $700 from the butcher, who, unintimidated, had gone to the police. In the early 1900s Manhattan’s “Little Italy” was so plagued by such criminals that the police set up a squad of Italian American detectives to fight them.
The Black Hand was shot less than a month after the events and released on March 29. Its two starkly contrasting styles are typical of the time: The exteriors have a documentary realism; the interiors could hardly be more artificial. The plotline of a child imperiled, always popular at Biograph, was added from other recent Black Hand kidnappings.
In the first five years of the century, more than a million Italians came to the United States. The several hundred thousand residing in Manhattan in 1906 were both a subject of movies and their audience. The Black Hand thus has reasons to counterbalance its portrayal of the Italian criminals. The kidnappers, comic in their traditional garb, inebriation, and broken grammar, cut a poor contrast to the assimilated family, whose butcher shop is depicted as an ethnic business solidly contributing to its new community.—Scott Simmon
THE COST OF CARELESSNESS (Universal Film Mfg. Co., US, 1913)
Sponsors: The Brooklyn Rapid Transit Co. & the Brooklyn Institution for Safety;
Writer: Eugene C. Clarke; 35mm, 919 ft., 13' (18fps), b/w, English intertitles. Preserved by George Eastman House from a 28mm print through funds from a 2006 Save America’s Treasures Grant provided by the National Parks Service and the National Endowment for the Humanities.
The Cost of Carelessness is a precursor to those infamous traffic-safety films that traumatized generations of American students. It was commissioned by the Brooklyn Rapid Transit Company as part of a campaign to reduce accidents involving trolley cars. As urban densities increased (Brooklyn’s population had doubled since 1890 to almost 1.7 million), there was a growing sense that city streets were fraught with perils. Such fears were not without reason. In 1913, Brooklyn had on average 30 violent accidents each day involving trolleys. The transit company responded with a “Safety Crusade” which brought lecturers—and films—to schools. The Cost of Carelessness may be the earliest film to depict a film being shown in a classroom.
The innovative use of movies merited coverage in the January 25, 1914, New York Times: “While there is an element of horror in the scenes as shown, the effect on the children was manifestly for their own good.” What engages viewers today are still these lively reenactments of the dangers of everyday carelessness. The trolley’s safety wheel guard is demonstrated by simply having the vehicle run over a boy!
The next year data were collected on traffic accidents serious enough to require children to be taken to three major hospitals: 16 children were run over by trolleys, 82 injured by automobiles, but 105 had been injured by a type of conveyance glimpsed only in the film’s background: horse-drawn vehicles. This remarkably early traffic safety film looks ahead to the motorized age even before greater New York City had a single traffic light.—Scott Simmon
THE HAZARDS OF HELEN: Episode 13, “The Escape on the Fast Freight” (Kalem Co., US, 1915)
Directors:Helen Holmes & Leo Maloney; Producer: Paul C. Hurst; Writer: Edward Matlack; Cast:Helen Holmes (Helen Holmes), Leo Maloney & James Davis (tramps), G.A. Williams (constable), Paul C. Hurst & Ben Jones (train workers); 35mm, 925 ft., 13 min (19 fps); preserved by the Library of Congress, with additional source materials from the British Film Institute.
More than any other series the 119-episode Hazards of Helen (1914–17) was an adventure of the workplace, conveying a no‑nonsense feminism amid action stories about a woman’s capacity to do her job—and then some! It consisted of relatively self-contained episodes unified by Helen’s role as a railroad telegraph operator at a remote western depot, where she was usually the only woman in a man’s world. As if caught in some Sisyphean time warp, Helen began each episode with the men around her presuming that she was too weak and incompetent to do her job, and then proving herself the company’s fearless savior. A week later, she would take up her post again, all previous heroism forgotten.
In America women had worked as telegraph operators from the 1840s. In 1915, there were about 12,000 female telegraphers—about 20 percent of the total—but fewer than 3 percent of railroad operators were women. These served largely at remote locations not desired by male employees.
Helen is played by 22-year-old Helen Holmes. About the expectation to perform dangerous stunts, she said, “If we do not go ahead and do them, what would the pictures be like?” She also co-directed this episode and Moving Picture World added,“Miss Holmes is managing the company…. She writes scripts and does most of the work.” In a revealing parallel with the way that her character’s abilities were forgotten weekly, Helen Holmes’s production roles go unacknowledged in the credits.—Scott Simmon
BUD’S RECRUIT (Boy City Film Co., distributed by General Film Co., US, 1918)
Director: King Vidor; Producer/writer: Judge Willis Brown; Cast: Wallis Brennan (Bud Gilbert), Robert Gordon (Reggie Gilbert), Ruth Hampton (Edith), Mildred Davis (Edith’s sister); 35mm, 1865 ft., 2 reels, 26 min(18 fps); preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
This two-reel home-front story, the earliest surviving film from King Vidor, is a pointed World War I tale about a boy who sets a patriotic example for his family. It is also the first film from the Boy City Film Company of Judge Willis Brown, former Utah juvenile court justice and founder of “Boy Cities” for the homeless. The goal of the company, which ran a studio and homeless shelter in Culver City, California, was to make “clean, wholesome, and highly entertaining stories in which the captivating humor of boy life plays a prominent part.” The films were rapidly produced, with the Vidor directing at least ten in early 1918. Except for this one, all included the judge. (On the title card he is seen writing scenarios.)
Although Bud has molded neighborhood kids into a fighting unit, he must struggle bring his family into line. His effete draft-age brother shirks military duty. His mother is annoyed by Bud’s disruption of her “Peace Society” meeting and refusal of dinner on “a meatless day.” Voluntary “Meatless Mondays” were a way around wartime rationing and promoted self-sacrifice through posters like the ones displayed in the film.
(Vidor’s World War I masterpiece, The Big Parade (1925), opens with a similar doting mother and her initially slacker son. But seven years had given Vidor, and America, time to come to a darker understanding of the price exacted for patriotism.) Of the Judge Brown series, Vidor wrote, “I deeply believed in these films and I put my heart and soul into making them.”—Scott Simmon
Surviving reel of LABOR’S REWARD (Rothacker Film Manufacturing Co., US, 1925)
Producer: American Federation of Labor, Union Label Trades Dept.; Production Supervisor:John J. Manning; 35mm, 975 ft., 13 min. (20 fps); preserved by the UCLA Film and Television Archive.
Produced by the American Federation of Labor, Labor’s Reward is probably the earliest surviving film sponsored by an American labor union. Although only the third of five reels survives (along with a shorter fragment), the reel makes for a relatively self-contained story. In the lost earlier reels a father is injured at a nonunion machine shop. Receiving no workers’ compensation, his family must rely on the wages of the elder daughter, Mary, who toils at a nonunion bookbindery. As reel 3 begins, friend Tom finds Mary bedridden from overwork.
When Labor’s Reward was made in 1925, the American labor movement was struggling after the suppression of more militant unions. Labor’s Reward was intended to turn the situation around by demonstrating the AFL’s “constructive methods” and by appealing to “the purchasing public” to buy union-made products. With its female focus, the film also addressed the AFL’s history of regarding women workers as low-paid competitors. It is women who here show Tom the importance of buying a hat with a union label. Widely advertised, Labor’s Reward was screened for free. The AFL-affiliated American Federation of Musicians provided the live accompaniment.
Reel 3 ends as the women vote to form a union. In the lost conclusion, the bookbindery owner eventually accepts a union agreement. Mary must decide whether to continue working or to quit and marry Tom. (The possibility of doing both doesn’t seem to arise.) She chooses Tom and presumably lives happily ever after, consuming union goods.—Scott Simmon