Thursday, August 20, 2009

The Value of a Lecture

In this article from early in 1908, Van C. Lee advocates for adding a lecturer to the program. Interestingly, his initial line of argument is that a lecturer "adds much to the realism of a moving picture." Evidently, this impression of realism rests on comprehensibility, as he immediately pivots after this statement, asking at the beginning of the next paragraph: “Of what interest is a picture at all if it is not understood?” He then makes the strong claim that few films are understood without the intervention of a lecturer to describe the action. For Lee at least, moving pictures evidently are not a universal language; the pictures do not, in fact, speak for themselves.

In the remainder of the article, there are hints that the nickelodeon craze is dying down and that many theaters are having difficulty drawing a sufficient number of patrons. Lee thinks films have lost much of their novelty and so it is no longer enough for films simply to show moving pictures; people now attend motion picture theaters for the content of the shows and audiences expect the film portion of the program to make sense. He is also seemingly dubious of fiction film, arguing that those subjects are generally better suited to the stage. "Let the picture theater, therefore, keep in its place; not show what is being shown every day on the stage." Lee seems to envision film as most suitable for a lyceum-type entertainment and, like many other writers at the time, Lee points to the practices of Lyman H. Howe, who combined lecturing with elaborate sound effects, as a model for exhibitors to emulate.

The following paragraph appeared in a recent issue of a theatrical magazine:

“Many moving picture theaters are adding a lecturer to their theater. The explanation of the pictures by an efficient talker adds much to their realism.”

It is indeed surprising that the managers are just awakening to the fact that a lecture adds much to the realism of a moving picture.

We might ask: “Of what interest is a picture at all if it is not understood?” And it may correctly be stated that the story of not more than one out of every fifty feature films is properly understood by the audience to whom it is shown unless it is adequately described.

In former articles, I have repeatedly urged, perhaps I should say suggested, that the managers of picture theaters demand of their renters a class of pictures which draw the crowds. The present-day subjects of drama, melodrama and tragedies, etc., are not a drawing card.

The demand of the public is now for the picture machine to bring to them its immense possibilities. Show to the patrons what they cannot see or realize in any other way except by attending these theaters.

Only a limited number can enjoy the advantage of having unlimited means with which to fully enjoy the pleasure of traveling, while unlimited is the vast majority who would like to see and realize what other parts of the world are like, if the opportunity was only theirs.

But it is theirs, and the picture machine is the instrument which makes it such, and which only a miraculous invention can ever put out of existence. Unlimited are the possibilities of this machine, and it can bring before the public what they cannot possibly see otherwise.

The majority will still go to the theater to see the stage enactments, but the stage cannot show what the picture machine is capable of producing.

Let the picture theater, therefore, keep in its place; not show what is being shown every day on the stage, but entertain its patrons with pictures which will hold their interest from the time they enter until they leave. But also, let them understand what they see; let them fully comprehend the meaning of every link of the film as it is being shown, and this can only be accomplished by the aid of a lecture.

Look, for instance, at Lyman H. Howe and other traveling moving picture exhibitors of note. Did you ever stop to think and wonder why it is that they can fill a large hall at high prices, right in cities and towns crowded with picture theaters, while these same theaters are almost begging for patrons at five cents admission?

There is only one answer. They show the kind of pictures people want to see, and those assembled are satisfied because they fully understand the subjects they are looking at.

Think of such subjects as “A Trip Through Switzerland,” “Daniel Boone,” or even “The Passion Play,” being thrown on the screen with not one word of explanation. Might just as well imagine that the public was invited to pay nickels to see merely an “invention” via a machine that can throw upon a sheet pictures which can actually move with life-like motion, as certainly the majority would not, any further than that, understand what they see.

Some time ago, in a theater in which I was employed, the subject of the pictures was “Napoleon Bonaparte.” Getting the printed description a few days in advance, I studied it out, changed it around to where I thought it would best suit the picture, and during the three nights it was shown described the life and history of Bonaparte as it was being portrayed upon the screen. And my lecture was quite lengthy, starting with an introduction preceding the exposure of the first scene and continuing throughout the length of the entire film.

On the second night, the management had invited the entire high school to attend in a body, free. The superintendent paid a visit to the management and he stated that the lecture, combined with the pictures, accomplished more by way of impressing upon the minds of his students the important phases in the life and history of Bonaparte than the best books on the subject in the library contained. The same may be said of a lecture combined with any moving picture.

Managers will do well to give it a trial. Note the difference in the interests shown by the audience. Watch, for example, some well-known peanut fiend, and notice how quick he forgets his peanuts as he watches the pictures with an interest never before shown.

[94] When managers will have awakened to the fact that they must first meet the demand of the people in the kind of pictures shown, and, secondly, interest their audiences by seeing to it that they fully understand what they see, they will have taken a decided step in advance, because the value of a lecture is incomparable and even though the speaker may not be a fluent talker, it is just as much of a necessity to show the pictures so that they are understood as it is to print a book for Americans to read in the English language.
Van C. Lee, “The Value of a Lecture,” Moving Picture World 8 February 1908, 93-94.