On a Tuesday in early September 1912 readers of the Examiner were treated to a rare comment on the motion picture experience.
A day or two earlier a lover of the pictures had walked into the paper’s office at 419 George and submitted a lengthy poem “bearing on . . . the Picture Theatre license discussion” – presumably the issue of provincial government fees for motion picture theatres. The paper’s editor decided to print the poem, giving the writer’s name as “Maria Emma Liffert.” [The writer's name was actually "Marie Emma Lefferts."]
Casual readers might well have thought that the poem was local and concerned the Peterborough experience (although in a small city many might have puzzled, “Who is this Maria Emma Liffert? . . . never heard of her!”). They would have had no way of knowing that the work had appeared in that month’s edition of The Motion Picture Story Magazine, published out of Brooklyn, N.Y. At least one avid reader of that magazine must have lived in Peterborough.
Appearing under the newspaper headline “A Moving Picture Poem,” the piece, titled “TRY IT,” reveals the continuing concern around the reputation of motion pictures as a rather dubious, low-class amusement requiring considerable justification. After the first verse – beginning “As I sat last night ’mid the crowded throng . . .” – the poem continued:
I gazed at the faces – a gladsome smile
Was seen wherever I turned
Sorrow and pain were forgotten a while
In the happy hour they’d earned.
A weary mother was there with her child
Who had teased her, “Please to go
To see the cowboys and Indians wild
At the five-cent Picture Show!”
I watched her a moment with troubled eyes,
Till the band began to play;
Then I heard one or two contented sighs
As tho wafting care away.
And soon, like her child, she laughed with delight,
And I heard her whisper, “Joe,
We sure must get Daddy, tomorrow night
To come to the Picture Show!”
Oh, such a simple thing to bring content,
To those who have toiled all day;
A show for a nickel was surely meant
To cheer them on their way.
Now, you who sit home discouraged and sad,
Go see if it doesn’t pay!
Take your neighbour along, it will make her glad
At the Moving Picture Play!
– Maria Emma Liffert
Here was a clarion call for the uninitiated to go out and “try” the motion pictures – you might just find that you like them! The poem had probably been handed to the editor by a theatre owner or some fellow amusement industry collaborator. After all, someone of that ilk would have been among the most likely people in town to be subscribing to a motion picture magazine out of New York. As literature, Leffert's poem offered no competition to Longfellow or Pauline Johnson or even Mrs. Susanna Moodie, but its content had resonance enough for an Examiner editor to reprint it. It must surely have struck something of a local chord.
Most significantly – and despite, as the local record shows, a “crowded throng” of enthusiasts turning out day after day – the motion picture clearly needed defending from the likes of those who were still disparaging it as an unworthy pastime. The poem itself reveals the norm, whether in Peterborough or elsewhere: a “weary mother” was there to get some relaxation with her child – who, it seems, had persuaded her to go. Women and children made up a large part of the audience for the “motion picture play” (“Take your neighbour along, it will make her glad”). The films remained a cheap working-class entertainment (those who toiled hard all day could gain respite and relaxation at the five-cent theatre); and the experience was about both music (“Til the band began to play”) and excitement (“to see the cowboys and Indians wild”). And wouldn’t it be nice, the poem said, if more men went out to them – the flickers were not just for women and children, after all. In the early years of the second decade of the century, many people still had to be convinced to go to the motion pictures, and the quality of the presentations remained a distinct concern.
Around that same time, in advertising a supposedly big coming feature, Lucille (France, Aug. 27, 1912), the Red Mill asked:
Have you got the habit yet? If not, why not? Can’t you see that we are showing every feature on the market for the lowest possible price of admission. Big special attraction in 6 reels, 6000 feet for Monday and Tuesday only, the greatest and longest picture ever made.
People obviously took some persuading. The ad was typically misleading. Lucille, a “Deluxe adaptation of Owen Meredith’s poem,” was only two reels, and soon forgotten. Certainly not representing “the greatest and longest picture ever made,” the two reels (about 30 to 40 minutes in all) were now the norm for a “feature,” and perhaps the theatre was showing a total of six reels of film that evening. Nevertheless, as the poem delivered to the Examiner indicates, women and children in particular had already firmly acquired the habit, frequenting the theatres especially during the long afternoon hours. At one point the Royal had to notify the public: “By order of the Police and Fire Department, no baby carriages allowed in theatres.” And in the coming years the motion picture routine would become firmly established as the pictures themselves underwent a thorough transformation – and more and more members of the middle class (and possibly the upper or “leisure class”) began to attend them – though a foundational audience of the working class, and especially women and children, continued.
As a writer in Moving Picture World put it: “Theatregoers who had looked askance at the motion picture as an invention for the special benefit of unwashed boys and pronounced ‘lowbrows,’ date their change of heart from the moment of witnessing some great feature film in the big theatres.” Yet even with the growing popularity – and affordability – of the new motion picture houses, presenting their programs day after day to packed houses, hopes within the industry, according to one pundit, rested on “gaining the approval of the best classes in the country.”
To ensure that approval, the state stepped in on the action. Amidst constant worries about the need to protect the public from the exhibition of the supposedly ragged moral conduct that was so often on display – especially depictions of infidelity and seduction, and even a prolonged kiss – provincial governments across the country duly set up censor boards in the 1910s, with the first established in Ontario in 1911. Oddly enough, one of the prime concerns of the Ontario board, in an era in which English Canadians identified closely with the British Empire, was the cutting or banning of content containing “an unnecessary display of U.S. flags.” Not surprisingly, the industry itself did not take kindly to the prospects of official control or regulation. As an editorial in the trade journal joked:
We knew that the absurdities and perils of censorship would come like a train following folly and here is another striking proof. In Ontario a Catholic Archbishop has appointed a man to watch the motion picture for any features that might be objectionable from a Catholic point of view. The Orangemen of the district are up in arms over this appointment and now want a censor that will judge the pictures from the point of view of the Orangemen.
Still, soon enough an Ontario Censor Board chairman was expressing the hope that (with his office’s help) the moving picture shows would appeal to more and more “church people” on a regular basis (and “church people” were among those known to be hostile to the entertainment).
In the past in all cities those “best classes” and “church people” had gone to the more high-toned (and expensive) opera houses with their lavish live performances. But the “speaking stage” was now suffering through what became known as “dark nights” – evenings when the doors were closed and the lights were off.
“At first the theatrical managers and magnates contented themselves with predicting the coming downfall of the motion picture as a means of popular amusement,” said one report. “The motion picture steadfastly declined to live up to these gloomy prophesies. Dark nights became more numerous, and at last it dawned upon the theatrical interests that waiting for the wane of the moving picture was a cheerless and unproductive occupation.” Soon opera houses all over, including the Grand in Peterborough, would decide to keep their lights on night after night by shifting their attention more regularly to the entertainment upstart.