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May 1, 2000

Women audiences influenced early film in surprising ways, says UCSC professor

By Barbara McKenna

"Ladies, if you spare us one evening and make use of the enclosed tickets, we will consider it a favor."

In the 1910s, promoters in the fledgling film industry began actively courting women audiences. Most filmgoers up to that point had been largely male and mostly working class or immigrants. Promoters hoped, by drawing more women into their theaters, the entire industry would gain respectability.

The promotional outreach did succeed in attracting more women to the theaters, but the aim to create more of a highbrow tone was not always successful, according to UCSC film historian Shelley Stamp.

Stamp, an assistant professor of film and digital media, explains why in a new book, released in April by Princeton University Press. The book, Movie-Struck Girls: Women and Motion Picture Culture after the Nickelodeon, contradicts the long-held belief that the presence of women in the theaters in the 1910s toned up the cinema. Through careful and wide-ranging research, Stamp comes to a very different conclusion.

"This is a period of real transformation in the film industry. The industry at this point is 15 to 20 years old and is starting to become more sophisticated as a visual and narrative medium, but still lacks wide cultural acceptability," Stamp says. "When female audiences are targeted, you see new forms of cinema emerge, but they are not the sophisticated type of entertainment that promoters envisioned."

In fact, of the three more popular genres among women--serials, white slave films, and suffragist films--the latter two were actually considered quite scandalous by many people at that time.

"The so-called 'white slave films' were made to capitalize on a panic that was raging at the time," Stamp explains. "The fear was that innocent young women could be captured off the streets and be sold into prostitution." Ironically, Stamp says, three of the sites that films warned women to stay away from were amusement parks, dance halls, and movie theaters.

"There is evidence that most of the audiences for these films were women. The films were, by the standards of the day, quite frank about sexual matters and there was a lot of concern about why women were getting enjoyment out of these films."

Stamp also looked at serial films--ongoing adventures featuring young heroines--the most famous of which is probably The Perils of Pauline. Each film ended with a cliff-hanger so that audiences would come back for the next feature to see what happened. Unlike the white slave films, the serials were specifically designed for young women.

Many of the films were advertised with sweeping promotional campaigns. In the same way fans can buy Jar Jar Binks underwear or Lion King cereal bowls, movie fans in the 'teens could buy pillows and spoons and paper dolls featuring their favorite heroines. Many serials also sponsored promotional contests. Although enormously popular, the serials were not highly regarded as an art form.

The third genre Stamp examines are women's suffrage films. "The two major national suffrage organizations of the time get involved, figuring, 'If The Perils of Pauline can rake in all these viewers, why can't we?' " Stamp says. The organizations produced feature-length films. The films were fictional, usually featuring young likable heroines who get involved in the suffrage movement. Sometimes the fictional characters would meet actual leaders of the suffragist movement in films. Among the real-life women to make cameo appearances in films were Harriot Stanton Blatch, Jane Addams, and famed British radical Emmeline Pankhurst.

"The suffragists really grasped the idea that you could use cinema to promote your cause. Again, it was interesting from my point of view because you would think this would be a perfect marriage of women and respectability and movies. But there was a lot of concern expressed about these films and the speeches that accompanied them in the theaters. Here we have women going to the movies, which is what the industry wanted, but they're going to feminist movies and shouting and cheering at the speeches."

Stamp conducted her research over a period of ten years, drawing on a wide range of sources. Many of the films she reviewed are no longer circulating but are housed at the Library of Congress and the UCLA Film and Television Archive. She also studies trade journals, fan magazines, ephemera, and a variety of official documents and records at the National Board of Censorship Archives in New York City, the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, and the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences' Margaret Herrick Library in Los Angeles.

The book has already received critical approval. Leading early-cinema expert Tom Gunning of the University of Chicago notes, "Stamp provides a model film history, keenly aware of the images on the screen, women's political activism in relation to film, and the practices of everyday life in moviegoing. This is the book to read on women and American silent film as it established itself as an aesthetic, social, and political practice."

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