The day of the “show” came. The courts adjourned. Stores closed, the blacksmith dropped his tongs, and school “let out” at noon. The people went in droves, even the ministers and their wives…The opera house was packed, with an eager, expectant and mystified audience. The house was darkened, and suddenly a glimmering light began to play on a canvas dropped like a curtain across the stage. And the first moving scene “thrown” was one of a lazy policeman trying to hurry an old man and a crippled mare across a street. The town wag let out a whoop, everybody caught the spirit–the moving pictures were a go!
–Reminisces about an 1897 small town motion picture show,
Conestoga Magazine, 1907.
Could cinema have been invented at a more fortunate time? Once an impressive novelty viewed for a few cents a pop, it also inadvertently documented intriguing glimpses of the “old,” traditional way of life. And those glimpses were something more than the general, exciting changeover from horse-drawn buggies to automobiles, or how the cities slowly lit up with electric lights. It was the passing of using those horses to plow fields, the end of drawing water by hand from a well, the dwindling away of kerosene lamps and flickering candles. It all happened in the mere span of a generation or two.
1920 marked the first year that the majority of Americans lived in cities (by a slim margin). Throughout the 19th century, the vast majority of Americans had lived in rural areas–including vast swathes of territory that took decades to be formerly broken into states. Generations struggled to slowly build up little towns and family farms, brick building by brick building, and barn by hand-raised barn. Hard labor and battles with weather and other vagaries were supplemented by simple, easily attainable joys: visiting folks at stores and churches, attending socials and prayer meetings, forming clubs and societies, and maybe taking in a travelling show when it happened to come to town.
By the early 20th century, the tide had begun to change. Farms were now well established, and comfortable houses replaced the original shanties the fathers and grandfathers had built. Young folks began looking beyond the horizon of the family farm to the exciting cities, dreaming of going there to “make good.” Perhaps some of their interest was piqued by what they saw in moving pictures. The migration to urban areas was growing–but the nostalgia for what was left behind seemed to stay strong.
Going to the “Picture Shows”
Films first reached rural areas much like circuses or stock companies–in the form of travelling shows. The precursor to nickelodeons, travelling shows would set up shop in a local church, schoolhouse, opera house, or vacant store and provide an evening’s worth of moving picture entertainment. Films were interspersed with lectures and picture slides, lending respectability as well as keeping people’s eyes from getting tired–a common concern about motion pictures. Some shows simply used a large, black canvas tent, which no doubt added a bit of eerie mystery to the proceedings. The films themselves, usually just a few minutes long, had a vast variety of subjects ranging from travel scenes to short comedies to brief fairytales to stately Passion Plays. After a day or two, the show would pack up move on to the next town’s church or little schoolhouse.
Rural settings cropped up in many early moving pictures too, especially in “comic” films. These must’ve been well received, for pranks around potbellied stoves in country stores and hijinks “down on the farm” would become staples of silent comedy. By 1908 travelling shows were quickly giving way to nickelodeons, which cropped up in almost every small town with a population of at least 5,000. History books are often preoccupied with the popularity of films in urban markets, but small towns made up an equally huge portion of motion picture rentals. After all, for a mere nickel anyone could pop into one of these little storefronts, staying for as long or as little as they liked.
By the 1910s nickelodeons were giving way to movie houses, where part of the draw was usually a dazzling display of electric lights on the building’s facade, rare to see outside the bigger cities (in 1919, only 2% of U.S. farms had electricity, and many homes and businesses wouldn’t have it until well into the 1920s). Many of these local theaters were cleaner and better run than their big city counterparts, although to exhibitors’ chagrin film reels tended to get scratched and battered by the time they filtered down from the urban areas. But even scratchy prints couldn’t keep small town audiences from falling for America’s Sweetheart Mary Pickford, or being awed by the athletic exploits of Douglas Fairbanks. Even battered prints could inspire and stir the imagination.
By the early 1920s the moviegoing experience was evolving yet again, as the great movie palaces were being built in the cities. These vast, opulant, gilt-and-statue-festooned buildings drew enormous crowds, and plenty of curious young people from out of town motored in to experience them. The contrast with the humbler neighborhood movie house must’ve been striking.
It’s thought that movies contributed to the growth of urban areas, as their portrayal of excitement and glamour in the “big city” proved very potent to the restless “flaming youth” of the ’20s–and indeed to anyone seeking other jobs than labor on a farm. Yet the quieter pace of country life was still alive and well for many folks, and was remembered nostalgically by many others. This wouldn’t go unnoticed by the film industry. In a review of The Better Man in 1915, Moving Picture World said: “There is no denying the fact that there is always something charming about a rural story that appeals to all classes, whether they be city folks or rural citizens.”
“Country Life” In The Movies
Rural themes would, in a sense, evolve into their own genre. General stores, one room schoolhouses, boarding houses, and little farms abounded in silent comedy, peppered with exaggerated “yokel” characters. Actresses dug up old-fashioned gingham dresses and quaint hats, and actors added ill-fitting coats and dusty overalls. There was an undercurrent of affection to these “rube” portrayals, especially since more than a few actors had small town backgrounds themselves. No less a comedy giant than Mack Sennett himself reveled in appealing to these regular folks, once saying: “There were no dukes on the Mayflower.”
But most affectionate of all were the rural melodramas, lovingly photographed and abounding with homey details. A distinct sense of “Americana” was emerging, and a desire to pay tribute to its unique charm. Perhaps there was also an awareness of what was being lost amid the heady excitement of automobiles and airplanes. The early feature York State Folks (1915) was advertised as “a story teeming with humor and pathos,” and the similarly-named Homespun Folks (1920) was promised to “drawn them in on its title…Bring out the charming atmosphere in your advertising.”
The biggest stars and directors were happy to take on rural themes. Pickford’s famous “little girl” screen characters were often from a blue collar background, and one of Mabel Normand’s biggest successes was Mickey (1918), the tale of a “backwoods” girl sent to live with her New Yorker aunt. Buster Keaton stunted around haystacks in The Scarecrow (1920), and Harold Lloyd portrayed country boys in his features Grandma’s Boy (1922) and The Kid Brother (1927).
After filming mighty epics like Intolerance (1916) and Hearts of the World (1918), D.W. Griffith turned his attention to “little” pictures like A Romance of Happy Valley (1919) and True Heart Susie (1919), with their exceptionally loving portrayals of country life. Naturally, Griffith gave even country life an epic spin in his megahit Way Down East (1920), which had the lofty goal of elevating an overly-familiar old stage melodrama.
Towards the tail end of the silent era the theme of “city vs. country” would be explored by F.W. Murnau in his artistic masterpiece Sunrise (1927) and the wistful City Girl (1930). The growing awareness of Americana throughout the 1910s had become introspective.
There have been many other films with country settings since the 1920s–take Technicolor musicals like Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954), or thoughtful works like Days of Heaven (1978). Yet there is something unique about the nostalgic dramas from the silent era, made at a time when so many folks had been born in the 19th century. Many filmmakers were drawing on their own bucolic memories, and weren’t afraid to blend realism with touches of sentiment. They left us some truly marvelous time capsules, preserving not just the “look,” but the feel of early Americana.
Fuller, Kathryn Helgesen. “‘You Can Have the Strand in Your Own Town’: The Marginalization of Small Town Film Exhibition in the Silent Film Era.” Film History 6, no. 2 (1994): 166-77. http://www.jstor.org/stable/3814963.
Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema: 1907-1915. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1990.
Everson, William K. American Silent Film. New York: Da Capo Press, 1998.
Ross, Stephen K. Working-Class Hollywood: Silent Film and the Shaping of Class in America. Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 1998.
Walker, Brent E. Mack Sennett’s Fun Factory. Jefferson, North Carolina: McFarland & Company, Inc., 2010.