The first American novel to offer a detailed view of the movie industry may be a young-adult book written pseudonymously in a packaged series, and, for all its sub-literary simplifications, its virtues are of a sort that eludes many better novels. The book, “The Moving Picture Girls, or First Appearances in Photo Dramas,” from 1914, is by Laura Lee Hope, who’s identified on the title page as the author of many other books, including ones in the Bobbsey Twins series, and that’s so, in a manner of speaking—the name is one of the many pseudonyms used by the Stratemeyer Syndicate, which produced much of the most popular children’s literature in the first half of the twentieth century (including such series as Tom Swift, Nancy Drew, and the Hardy Boys). I stumbled on a copy at a local bookstore. The title alone seemed promising enough; the novel turns out to be fascinating.
“The Moving Picture Girls” is a vigorous and sentimental tale of family fortunes and innocent romance, centered on two sisters, the reasonable and cautious seventeen-year-old Ruth DeVere and the impulsive and idealistic Alice, who’s fifteen. (It is the first novel in a series, which ran for two years and featured seven volumes.) The girls live in a modest apartment in Manhattan’s West Sixties with their father, Hosmer DeVere, a dignified character actor of the New York stage. (The girls’ mother died years earlier.) Hosmer’s work has dried up; the family is short on food and evading the neighborhood merchants to whom they owe money. And when Hosmer finally gets a role in a new play, he suddenly suffers a strange malady that causes him to lose his voice. The family’s neighbor, the gallant and energetic Russ Dalwood, works as a projectionist for the Comet Film Company, which both produces and releases movies, and he has a solution to Hosmer’s troubles—acting in movies, which, of course, were silent at the time.
But the girls foresee the problem: a respected stage actor such as Hosmer DeVere would never consent to stoop to appearing in moving pictures, called, formally, “photoplays” and referred to in the slang of the day—set off in quotes in the book’s dialogue—as “movies.” When his daughters mention Russ’s plan, Hosmer thunders, “I would not so debase my profession—a profession honored by Shakespeare.” But the enterprising Russ has already laid the groundwork, telling the girls, “There’s nothing vulgar or low about the movies—except the price.” He cites the movie performances of the great Sarah Bernhardt, and the great expense and complexity of the most spectacular movies. He admits that there are some “poor films,” but contends that they’re being eliminated by “the board of censorship.” What’s more, Russ brings the girls for a visit to the studio—a single, plain-looking industrial building somewhere in the city. Its manager, Frank Pertell, who’s also the director of all of its movies, three or four of which are being filmed on side-by-side sets at any given moment (Alice calls it a “play-factory”), is interested in hiring them to act, too.
Needless to say, Hosmer eventually sets aside his high principles and takes a job acting for Pertell’s company, and makes a success of it. The girls also do well in their first on-camera performances, and the novel ends with the happy family’s plans to continue work with Pertell on ever more ambitious productions. There are melodramatic sidebars involving Russ’s invention of a device to stabilize projected images and his effort—with the help of derring-do by Ruth and Alice—to fend off patent thieves, as well as a runaway horse during a location shoot at Battery Park and a comic interlude involving a visiting farmer.
The characters are simplistic and the action strains belief, but the novel nonetheless offers revealing details of movie actors’ lives and the art and the business of movies, before the consolidation of mighty studios, when films were made by a teeming array of small and local companies. It shows that actors are better paid for their movie work, or, at least, are paid from the start of their employment, whereas in the theatre Hosmer and his colleagues weren’t being paid for their two weeks of rehearsal. (Actors’ Equity, never mentioned in the book, had just been founded, in 1913, and was still of little influence.) It also reveals the distinctive nature of acting for movies, as Hosmer explains to his daughters that he was learning to “register” emotions, explained by the narrator as “the word used in motion picture scenarios to indicate the showing of fear, hate, revenge, or other emotion . . . by facial expression or other gestures.” It even describes the exceptional use of phonograph records to create certain talking pictures, and offers a detailed sidebar on the rules and contracts of film distribution (explaining, for example, the concept of a “first run” release). An extraordinary four-page primer outlines the practical specifics of the industry, from the writing of the screenplay and the construction of sets (or search for locations), to the functioning of the camera and the projector and the developing of the negative and the making of prints.
The Stratemeyer Syndicate’s primordial study of the movie business reflects its peculiar, perhaps unconscious, similarity to it. The company’s industrialized approach to literature —the conception of a book series by a businessperson, the creation of story outlines by one writer, the supervised writing of it by another, all in the interest of a mass-marketed product that bears the stamp of a brand rather than the touch of an author—bears more than a little resemblance to the departmentalized processes of movie-making. (As Comet is a “play-factory,” the syndicate was a novel-factory.) “The Moving Picture Girls” is a reminder that grade-Z literature, like grade-Z movies, sometimes yields, clumsily but uninhibitedly, distinctive results that many more self-conscious and elegant works shrink from pursuing at all. At the same time, its formulaic and tossed-off blandness is a reminder that the subject of movies in their early days would have been prime terrain for the best and most probing writers of the time. (One wonders what might have been if Theodore Dreiser’s Sister Carrie had made her way from the stage to the screen.) “The Moving Picture Girls” gives Ruth and Alice short shrift, but it hints at their inner experience of nascent movie stardom. After their first roles, Russ takes them to a theatre where their movie is playing. “It was rather an uncanny experience at first,” the narrator tells us. Then the girls briefly speak for themselves: “ ‘I’d hardly know myself,’ whispered Alice. ‘Nor I,’ added her sister.” The self-revelation and self-alienation arising from moving images is one of the stories of the era; the syndicate wasn’t where it would be fully explored.
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