Thursday, July 16, 2009

Problems with Illustrated Songs

In this week's column, Martin takes issue with the illustrated song, which he says is too often smutty. It's a bit odd that he should go after the illustrated song in quite so forceful a manner given that illustrated song manufacturers had been faithful advertisers in the paper since at least the beginning of the 1909. (The illustration to the right comes from Film Index 9 January 1909, 12.) Film Index also had as one of its regular features a list of recent slide sets released by various slide companies. In general, Martin appears much less aware of the wider industry needs than does Sinn, who is writing for Moving Picture World.

Toward the end of his column this week, Martin also mentions that pianos in theaters need to be worked on (and tuned) at least once every six weeks. He also recommends not placing a piano in a pit but, if at all possible, to put it on a stage, as this will allow the music to sound best.

You may say it is none of my business, when I dwell on the illustrated song question, but, as I told you before, when the audience leaves your theatre, having heard some of the trash that is printed in music form and offered by some of the best-known publishers, they say, “The pictures were fine, but the music was disgusting.” This throws as much blame on the piano player as it does the singer, and no matter what efforts the piano player has made to “play the pictures,” the music has been condemned.

I can safely say, that the song question in the motion picture theatres has had a great deal to do with the trouble that has been raised by the censorship boards in the different cities. I believe the songs that have been used in the picture houses have given the police and authorities more room for the action they have taken in their crusade against the picture business, than any picture that has ever been thrown on a screen. It is very gratifying indeed, to know that Chief of Police LeRoy T. Steward, of Chicago, has outlawed a number of these questionable songs, and I believe this has been brought about by the untiring efforts of C. P. McDonald, the Music Editor of The Show World. A censorship board has also been appointed by the city council of Springfield, Ill., for the purpose of barring from that city such suggestive songs.

Some of the songs that have been condemned by the Chicago Chief of Police are, “When I Get That Loving Feeling,” “Oh, You Devil Rag,” “Do Your Duty, Doctor,” “The Dance of the Grizzly Bear,” “Casey Jones” and “Her Name was Mary Wood, but Mary Wouldn’t.” The daily papers of Chicago have taken up the fight with the Chief of Police and I believe the time is near when the authorities of the different cities will see their mistake in condemning the motion picture theatre; they will find it is the songs and not the pictures that need to be censored. It seems that the police authorities have hit the nail on the head when they have started at the bottom of the evil, the publisher, and the first complaints were filed last Wednesday in the Municipal Court of Chicago against H. S. Talbot, a publisher, at 184 Dearborn street, charging him with distributing a song that has failed to come up to the standard of decency established by the police department under the city ordinances. It is the aim of Sergt. O’Donnell, of Chicago, to make the rounds of the cheap theatres and listen to the songs, and any he finds beyond the limits of decency, he will arrest the singer. I believe C. P. O’Donnell, of The Show World staff, should have the glad hand out for anyone that will make a crusade against the late popular songs that the writers have to resort to smut to make them popular.

Have you ever noticed, when one of these “smut” songs are used in a picture house, they always get a hand? And have you noticed the hand comes from the “rough necks?” If you are catering to the low element of your city I can think of no better drawing card than such songs as “I Love It,” “Company in the Parlor,” “‘Tis Hard to be a Lady in a Case Like That” or “That Lovin’ Melody Rubenstein Wrote.”

Has the time come that the publishers have to resort to such low, degrading stuff, in order to stay in business? It is a cinch the better class of people, the ones you are catering to, are not demanding this kind of “music.”

There is no way possible for the general public to get a wrong conception of the publisher’s meaning in these titles and words. The publishers are making every effort to make it clear that they mean just what they say, for some of their advertising matter is lower (if possible) than the songs. For instance, in some of the advertising matter for the late song “I Love It,” published by the Harry Von Tilzer Publishing Company, of New York, they say, “It is a little word, but can mean many big things.” Now wouldn’t this advertising look good on a three-sheet in front of your picture house? so the children could figure “it” out?

No, don’t put me down as a crank, I write this because I know what is good for the picture industry, and what is not. If you are obliged to put on this trash in your picture house, if you cannot find decent music, don’t cater to a family business, change your location, move to the slums and you will soon have a fat bank account.

Have you ever noticed, when the illustrated song comes on, the people either leave the theatre or start up a conversation with those around them? and then as soon as the pictures start the house is quiet again. I think this would be enough to prove to the exhibitors that the majority of the people come for the pictures and not the songs.

On the other hand, if you can get a god singer, one that can handle good ballads and classic music you will find your audience will greatly appreciate the music, and it provides a good relief for your program. I believe the songs in the picture theatre would have a better standing to-day if the managers and singers would have used better judgment in their selections.

If this keeps up, the illustrated song will be greatly injured and only spot light songs will be used. The fault is the carelessness of the slide rental agencies. They put me in mind of the fly-by-night film exchanges. I mean those that have not bought a reel of film for a year and are working on their original investment. The average slide renter is working on the same plan, when their customer has used their entire stock they give him repeaters until he gets next to himself and tries another. I recently saw a shipment of three sets of song slides from a house making a specialty of th rental business, with twenty-one slides, out of forty, cracked, and two of the chorus slides missing. Good combination is it not? first run film service and five year slide service.

Well, to get back to “Playing the Pictures” there is another great point that is sadly neglected, and that is, the care of the piano. I have found in visiting different picture houses, that nine out of every ten pianos are in need of tuning. I will say that the wear and rough use that some of them get, it would be well for the manager to have a piano tuner on his salary list with the average use a piano gets in a picture theatre, it should be gone over at least every six weeks but an expert, not a “dub.”

A great mistake that is made by many exhibitors is, placing the piano in a pit. When you place a piano in a pit, it deadens the tone, and no matter how hard the piano player works, his music seems to have a dull finish. It is much better, if possible, to elevate the piano, so that the tones carry over the entire house and it makes the work much lighter for the musician. If you have room to place the piano on the stage next to the picture screen, you will find it will give great results. Another inexpensive improvement is to remove the rollers from the piano and place a heavy glass insulator under each corner, by raising the instrument from the floor it will add greatly to the tone quality.

In next week’s article I will offer some suggestions of appropriate music for some of the notable releases of the last two weeks, such as “Sunshine Sue,” Biograph, “Woman of Samaria,” Pathe, and “Fransesca Da Rimini,” Vitagraph.

Source: Clyde Martin, “Playing the Pictures,” Film Index 3 December 1910, 9.

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