An Influence for Good
On the Public Mind
July 14, 1913 — Lunchtime meeting, Los Angeles Woman’s Club, Los Angeles CA
I have hoped for some years to see the indifferent and often condemning attitude held by refined and cultured people toward motion pictures give place to the same unbiased inquiry which they extend to other public matters of equal and sometimes less importance.
It comes as a pleasant and grateful surprise that the representative women of Los Angeles are the first to give me encouragement.
During two years of Church Army work, I had ample opportunity to regret the limited field any individual worker could embrace even by a life of strenuous endeavor. And meeting with many in that field who spoke strange tongues, I came suddenly to realize the blessing a voiceless language would be to them.
To carry out the idea of missionary pictures was difficult. To raise the standard was a different matter, but the better class of producers were prompt in trying to do this when they were brought to a realization of defects by censorship. It took years to interest the best actors and to bring back refined audiences, but even this has been accomplished. We need thoughtful men and women to send us real criticisms and serious communications regarding our efforts.
Naturally, the first things to appeal to me where motion pictures were concerned were the vast area one picture could cover and the millions of people who would understand its language.
It seemed to me that there was a medium for object lessons (and also for entertainment) which was unsurpassed. I hailed motion pictures as the open sesame to rapid progress all over the world.
With the usual exaggeration of the enthusiast, I saw ignorance melt in miraculous fashion before this new sweeping method of reaching all classes in a manner wholly agreeable to them.
Even now the theory still sounds reasonable to me. Here is one charity which a philanthropist could make pay financially.
Unfortunately the first motion pictures were necessarily only experiments, crude and common or uninteresting. Also their projection was imperfect and altogether the result could not interest an intelligent audience. The tone of any entertainment depends upon the interest taken in it by thinking people.
Had the pictures been experimented upon the perfection in private before being presented to the public, my dream might be nearer realization.
Unfortunately there was too much money to be made through the pictures, crude as they then were, for manufacturers to hold back until they could offer their wares on a higher plane.
That vast public called the “common people,” the public, I had hoped would benefit through this great invention; the public requires, and therefore will support, any form of varied entertainment, provided it is cheap enough.
Shut out from houses of high-class amusement, the pictures rapidly deteriorated into beer garden attractions, seashore sideshows, and slum nickelette offerings.
As a river rises no higher than its source, so the reputation of the picture show sank to the level of its use.
Under such unfavorable circumstances, it is small wonder that intelligent people failed to see its possibilities.
Even I recognized that only through time, patience, and experience could pictures evolve into wholly uplifting influences.
But that they eventually would evolve seemed a certainty to me, especially when I saw with pleasure and some amazement how quickly the manufacturers endeavored to cooperate with the board of censors when that public-spirited body began to be interested, even though the board was self-appointed and in most states not legalized.
I say “with amazement” because fortunes had been made from the uncensored pictures and manufacturers were frankly in the business to make money. To raise or change the standard of their productions meant a greater expenditure of money, with as far as they knew no increase in profit and possibly a falling off of the only audience they had been able to interest.
And yet, to the credit of the much-maligned manufacturers, be it said, most of them grasped the public-spirited point of view and strove to rise to it and there was no falling off of the old audience.
However, motion pictures were by that time held in such contempt that educated people neither believed in nor cared about their advancement.
That contempt extended even to the successful people of the legitimate stage, none of whom could have been tempted to enter the picture field.
Personally, I have suffered more martyrdom socially and professionally through my connection with that industry than I ever did as a mission worker for the reform of fallen women.
But we are coming out to the light. Today the stars of the theatrical profession are pleased to be seen in their best work in films. The rulers of the world see and use its possibilities. Beautiful theaters are going up for refined audiences and objectionable features are fast being eliminated.
That same refined audience so newly acquired and so necessary to improvement is in danger of being a stumbling block to the realization of my hope. With the memory of the motion pictures’ old reputation still green, the dignity of the intelligent public demands a feature picture such as the Kinemacolor Durbar, or one of travel or educational value shown in a a high-priced theatre, if their presence is desired.
The result is that those pictures are made especially for that audience, which is in no need of education, and as they are too long and expensive to be shown in chap houses of varied programs, the five-cent audience gets no benefit from them and is no better off than if the high-class audience had never lent its support.
The person who applauds loudest at an entertainment is not necessary the best judge of its merits, but applause is the only criterion the management has of the success of his offering, and so the program that is most loudly applauded either by attendance or public notice is the one the manufacturer is going to conclude is most popular.
Unfortunately few people of superior minds lean toward noise, and the manufacturer’s pinion is left at the mercy of those who do. Still, I must not make this statement general. There is one company which is struggling for and achieving the highest aim possible for a manufacturer to have. While, perhaps, some few of their pictures are still made to appeal to the rabble — that part of the rabble who temporarily refuse the higher brand — most of their pictures are aimed to appeal to and educate the best tastes of the public. That company is the Universal Film Manufacturing Company.
Judging from the caliber of most of the criticisms received from the noise makers in a motion picture audience, no superior mind ever troubles to voice any.
Letters arrive by the bushel, of the extremely helpful kind that praises dimples or wants to know if their female actor is married.
Mr. Smalley and I have counted the days red letter ones when such people as the editor of the Philadelphia Enquirer, the editor of the Ohio State Journal and the exhibitors and exchange men of Los Angeles have written a word of appreciation of our efforts and proven that some thoughtful people are taking note of our endeavor to raise the picture standard.
The big feature producers have already the cooperation of people worth while, but I am presenting the cause of the one reel picture seen in five and ten cent houses. There is not reason why those programs cannot be both artistic and educational, if an audience can be interested that will appreciate and demand it.
Even without that incentive I have not seen an American picture in many months that could give offense, and many of them were worthy of the most cultured audience.
Some of us working in the field do not see the justice of greater restriction for the motion picture than is placed upon the legitimate stage or current literature.
If we were to attempt to put on some plays that have met with great success on the legitimate stage, or to picturize some of the most popular books of the day, we would first have to weed out all objectionable features and that would not be so difficult if the different nations had one standard of objectionable features. But what is meat in one country is poison in another.
In some of the foreign countries the sexual problem and marital infidelities may be portrayed freely without offense. But those subjects are tabooed in America. Again many foreign countries refuse to permit the garb of any religious order to be used in story films, while some of the most successful pictures in America have dealt with those subjects. In Detroit kisses are timed by the watch and in Chicago objection was taken to a scene in which a legally married woman sewed on baby clothes to indicate approaching motherhood. Miss Helen Gardener portrayed Cleopatra in a big feature film of that name. Months were spent in an endeavor to get costumers and customs absolutely correct for that period, and yet Canada put a ban on the production on the score that Cleopatra’s costumes were voluptuous.
And as the pictures must find a sale all over the world, to make them pay, the directors and authors are sorely taxed to meet all requirements and yet turn out an entertaining picture, or even point a moral convincingly.
I have had to give up my whole time, including many night hours, Sundays and holidays, under the pressure of writing a new story every week, portraying the leading role in it, and supervising the direction of the production.
If I sometimes fall short of my standard it is not from lack of earnest effort, but because the brain has limits of endurance.
Another point of interest is that we endeavor to give more realistic settings in the pictures than you will see in legitimate houses where two dollars is charged for a seat.
There an effort is seldom made to create the illusion of a real room, or even keep the walls from shaking violently when a door is closed.
That is not tolerated in pictures where five cents is charged.
On the stage it is often possible to see behind the scenes on either side or over the sky line. If that happened in a picture, the picture would be made over.
In these and in all our endeavors to seek flaws and correct them, we need the public’s help and support.
We need intelligent criticism and helpful suggestion. We would welcome one standard of censorship.
We need to have you thoughtful people bother with us for a time if only from a sense of duty to the vast army of picture goers.
The name of each manufacturer is on every film, and the manufacturer is grateful for serious communications and regards them seriously. The manager of the theatre would benefit by the same interest and can usually be reached with ease.
So much has been said about the glamour and danger of the motion picture work that I must touch briefly upon that subject.
In the first place, I now of no more healthy life than the motion picture people live out of doors. I also know of none that induces greater physical weariness. And as health is one of the first steps toward right living, so is legitimate exhaustion one of the greatest foes to vice.
Undesirable character are to be found everywhere, but few of such characters could stand reporting to work every morning at eight o’clock, working all day in the blazing sun, or the cold, or whatever weather exists without comforts, and enduring minor hardships in out-of-the-way places, such as poor food or none, many changes of costume, bumping over rough roads, and paying, at all times, strict attention to business.
That routine soon weeds out the undesirables, as is evidenced by the delightful people who have succeeded in this business, most of whom welcome it as a longed-for opportunity to be with their families in a permanent home.
Source: “The Making of Picture Plays That Will Have an Influence for Good on the Public Mind,” in Lois Weber: Interviews, ed. Martin F. Norden, (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi) 2019, pp. 15-19.
Also: Martin F. Norden, “We Are Coming Out to the Light”: A Reconstruction of Lois Weber’s 1913 Speech to the Los Angeles Woman’s Club, Feminist Media Histories 3.4 (Fall 2017): 195-203 (University of California Press).
Also: “Raising the Standard of Moving Pictures,” by Mrs. Phillips Smalley, The California Outlook: A Progressive Weekly, Vol. XV. No. 3, July 19, 1913, pp. 9-10.