Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Against Illustrated Songs

This article appeared as an editorial in Moving Picture World and made a strong argument against the illustrated song. Criticisms on the illustrated song had been relatively common even in the nickelodeon days, when the illustrated song was generally considered an integral part of the moving picture show. By 1913, however, the practice was in decided decline. Though new illustrated song sets continued to be advertised weekly (the notice on the right dates from 5 April 1913), the illustrators were feeling under attack, as can be seen from Alfed L. Simpson's response to this article, which is also reprinted below. (You can see in the notice on the right that Simpson was one of the regular slide advertisers.)
We believe that with certain exceptions the moving picture audience of today has outgrown the illustrated song. The exception in the main is the small and generally rural community, where “everybody knows everybody else” and where interest in local talent is always keen. In the larger theaters in such cities as New York, Chicago, Boston and Philadelphia, the illustrated song elicits but a very weak response from the audience. We have in many electric theaters in the big cities fine and intelligent audiences, consisting of mostly grown people in commercial and even professional walks of life. Audiences of this kind ought not be asked to join some callow youth with untamed vocal cords in a chorus, wherein the singer assures an imaginary sweetheart that he will love her until “the sands of the desert grow cold” [a 1911 song by Ernest R. Ball]. Nor is this the worst. There are some very nasty and vulgar songs which are simply obnoxious to the men who go to such theaters with their wives and daughters. When the manager of a metropolitan moving picture theater on Broadway can find no lesson in the profound silence that greets the showing of the chorus slide on the screen he casts a serious cloud on the title to his salary. There was a manager of a large house who, when multiple reels became numerous, would sandwich cheap vaudeville in between the different parts of a feature. This sort of nonsense has been stopped. To persist in asking a thousand sane and intelligent adults to burst into “song” at the end of each show shows either a cruel disposition or an approach to idiocy. There are other and less drastic means of emptying a house.


Moving picture theater must not be made responsible for the spreading of bad songs. One sure way of avoiding such a reproach is their total elimination from the electric theater. A prominent Western daily after deploring the many obscene and disgusting “popular songs” holds the motion picture theater responsible for their [441] wide circulation. The paper goes on to say: “The demand for ‘popular’ songs is greater than ever before because such songs are heard in public a hundred times to-day where they were heard once a dozen years ago. This is due to the cheap motion picture and vaudeville houses. Unfortunately these places are too often run by people who mistake noise for applause. It takes only a very few to make a great noise.” The paper might have gone further and pointed out that the noisy element is a distinct detriment to any reputable motion picture house. They make order impossible and a theater given over to rowdyism of any kind will not last long.
Source: “Facts and Comments,” Moving Picture World 1 February 1913, 440-41.

As mentioned above, this article prompted a quick response from Simpson—though it would not be published until 22 March.

New York, Feb. 8th, 1913.
Editor of the Moving Picture World,
New York City.

Dear Sir:—Have read with much interest your article on page 440, Moving Picture World of February 1st, 1913, in reference to illustrated songs, and think that same is very much to the point and well put, and certainly the principal cause of the general lack of interest taken in illustrated songs of today.

As you state, this very beautiful form of amusement is so horribly misgiven, both in rendering of obscene and disgusting songs, and also from the fact to expect an intelligent audience to join in the chorus and make themselves ridiculous, would be enough in itself to kill the whole proceeding. Would also state that the cheap music publishers of today or a certain class have tried to use this excellent form of amusement for the purpose of cheap advertising for their miserable musical publications which are unfit in many cases to ever see the light of day. They employ a lot of cheap, irrepressible, ineffective and utterly unmusical boosters, as they are called, to render these musical compositions, which are truly an insult to any clean-minded audience, as most of these individuals would be much better adapted behind a push cart, or assisting the well-known gun men of today with their labors. When these factors can be eliminated the illustrated song properly done will again be restored to its proper place as a much desirable and beautiful diversion to the picture theater of today, as there is nothing more beautiful than good music and song poems properly rendered musically and pictorially.

I can well remember the time when a refined theatrical audience would show more appreciation to a well-rendered act of this kind than to any headliner on a program.

As I have been the principal one to develop this beautiful feature of amusement, it seems a pity to allow it to do down in dust without some word of remonstrance. Trust that you publish this letter, and hope it will have some effect. I remain
Sincerely yours,
Alfred L. Simpson,
Manufacturer of Simpson’s Celebrated Slides, and formerly
of Maxwell & Simpson, Kings of Illustrated Song.
Source: Alfred Simpson, “Letters to the Editor: Concerning Illustrated Songs,” Moving Picture World 22 March 1913, 1224.