[We had a lot of fun with the audio half of this presentation, in which many stereotypes were dismantled and just as many new ones, um, mantled. Now it’s time to turn away from our ears and start listening with our eyes, as we explore the visual media.]
Before the advent of motion pictures, there was live theater. Performed live by live actors and actresses (but more frequently by actors in wigs), live theater enthralled thousands with its over-emoted lines, bellowed by all manner of waiters, maitre’ds and pool boys.
While kings and queens encouraged young playwrights to sell out, the general public was amused by bawdy puppet shows and other lowbrow works, including the bawdiest of puppet shows: finger puppets. (You know what I’m talking about.) [Ed. – No one knows what you’re talking about. Ever.] It had something for everybody and this “something” was usually expositionary songs and minimal sets.
Live theater flourished for centuries, becoming the common man’s escape from crushing reality and taking him to places previously only glimpsed in his fevered (and Black Plagued) imagination. Whether it came in the form of Greek dramedy or Shakespearean sitcom, theater was the only game in town.
The lively art expanded and mutated, bringing forth several new artistic forms, both legitimate (opera, musical, kabuki) and illegitimate (off-Broadway, mime, pro wrestling). Others operated at the fringe, trafficking in dubious artistic merit and collecting money no one else would touch (LARPing, cosplay, Samuel Beckett).
Just when it appeared that nothing would loosen theater’s stranglehold on the public’s entertainment dollar, something loosened theater’s stranglehold on the public’s entertainment dollar.
Little did Lumiere realize when he debuted his first “moving picture” that his new invention would revolutionize the entertainment industry, mainly by killing off most of it and homogenizing the rest.
Proponents of the established live entertainment industry noted that the proliferation of “movie” houses would adversely affect their business, what with better entertainment being provided at half the price. They staged protests at major theaters, waving placards bearing slogans like “Motion Pictures Are Killing the Theater Industry” and (once the first concession stand was in place) “They’re Also Killing Dinner Theater.” Their battle was also carried to citizens of developing nations via propaganda stating that the “motion picture camera” was capable of “stealing over 30 souls per second.”
The first movies were a spectacle of sight and sound, though most of the sound was nothing more than the projector running or a drunken former cabaret piano player banging away lustily at his instrument and most of the spectacle was of, like, a horse running or something.
With the advent of sound, motion pictures were now on par with live theater’s use of voices, sound effects and coughing audiences. The sky was the limit! With Al Jolson’s game-changing, blackfaced The Jazz Singer, Hollywood knew it had a hit on its hands. An audible hit. With racist overtones.
Soon every Tom Screenwriter, Dick Producer and Harry Director were jamming their movies full of chattering heads, cramming every free space in the film with nonstop, fast-paced talking. Even the dames got into the act, see? No wisecrack was left uncracked. No song was left unsung. No woman ever walked sultrily into a detective’s poorly lit office unnarrated.
This addition of sound proved to be a deathblow for the theater. With the live-r of the lively arts effectively bleeding out (except for pockets of resistance both on and off-Broadway) movie going became America’s favorite pastime, supplanting the wireless, baseball and beating Irishmen.
A new breed of heart-throb rose from Hollywood and spread throughout the nation, taking advantage of swooning women and non-existent paternity laws. The motion picture industry rushed through its Bronze and Silver Ages, riding the crest of fast-paced dialogue and cries of “What a dame!” But no sooner had the triumphant industry kicked up its feet and rested it head on its laurels, then disaster struck.
A disaster called television.
Coming up next:
Volume 2: A Disaster Called Television