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How Motion Picture Make you See Better

March 15, 2014

Eye Illustration Motion Picture Story Magazine 1914

Everybody goes to the “movies.” Not only are moving pictures theaters cheap, but the performances you see are as good if not better than you seen in the two-dollar houses. You have the pleasure, the music, the comfort, the entertainment and the instruction in a moving picture theatre to a greater certainty than in many so-called ‘legitimate houses,’ and at far less expense.
The other day I saw James K. Hackett and a Frohman company [of actors?] in a four-reel photo-play for five cents.

6-sheet poster for film in questions: The Prisoner of Zenda starring James K. Hackett, and directed by Daniel Frohman and Edwin S. Porter.

6-sheet poster for The Prisoner of Zenda; Image Source:

You may see “Les miserables,” Hamlet,” and a thousand other instructive plays intermingled with zoology, trips to foreign lands, humor and the like, in a motion picture playhouse. These motion picture plays are better acted and in every way more satisfying than a great many theatrical productions for which you would have to pay one or two dollars a seat.
What harm is there then, in visiting the “movies”? Are the eyes injured: Is the health of the patrons destroyed? Are the morals of the young corrupted by them?


Illustration from the original article: Leonard Keene Hirshberg, “How Motion Pictures Make You See Better” The times dispatch: Richmond, VA, March 15, 1914, Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

The answer to all of these quires is an emphatic, No! Just as the old-age playhouse gradually eliminated all taint of vice from its performances; just as the editors of magazines have come to understand that the reading public does not relish even a small dose of the wicked, so the photoplay producers have learned that their public will have none of the suggestive, the vicious, or the unpleasant.
Militant prudes and belligerent moralists who read vice into tea-drinking, and whose voices are for war against any pleasures whatsoever; who spit forth their crusading indignation against moderate tobacco smoking, Sunday walks, the stately minuet and the graceful Boston waltz, have already recognized the trend to censor or censure it. But certain amateur physiologists and opticians continue to attack this form of entertainment and instruction. In their ignorance they declare that defective vision, styes, granulated eyelids, eyestrain, pinkeye, inflamed lids, crossed eyes and other troubles may each and all develop from attendance at the moving pictures.

Dr. Herbert Harlan, Surgeon-General of Maryland, perhaps the best ophthalmologist in the South, and the envoy sent by the Government to study the dreadful eye malady trachoma in the wilds of West Virginia says these charges are nonsense. Dr. Harlan, with whom I feel upon this matter in hearty concord, asserts that the hour or so spent each day in watching the moving picture shows can result in no harm to the eyes. In fact, I go even farther and assert that two hours a day i the dark auditorium of a picture playhouse, watching the moving films, is actually a valuable tonic to tired eyes.

Experiments by Professor Knight Dunlap in the psychological laboratories of Johns Hopkins University have show that even the slight flicker which occasionally appear on motion pictures tones up the eyesight and makes it more acute.
It is unwise, perhaps, for some persons to sew, read or attempt to use their eyes at close range on a moving train, motor car, fast boat, or airplane. The flickering lights and shadows from this vibration are liable to do harm to your retina. Why? Because the peephole, muscles and lens for your eyes must be constantly changing focus.
This is not the case with moving pictures. At the ‘movies’ the spectator sits from twelve to several hundred feet away from the screen upon which the motion photographs are thrown.
At that distance the focus of the eye changes but little, not matter how much flicker there may be. In fact, a little flicker is beneficial, because it keeps the eye muscles from becoming sluggish, worn out and unadaptable to change.

[…] Undoubtedly children, and adults as well, have become more observant and better educated in many respects since motion pictures have acquired such a vogue. Recent psychological tests made upon children immediately after leaving a moving picture exhibition prove that they distinguish colors more acutely, recognize form and shape more sharply, and remember figures, size and other visual difference better than they did before they went in to see the pictures. They surpassed in all the tests children who had not visited the ‘movies,’ but who were, nevertheless subjected to the same kind of excitement by witnessing a melodrama performed by actual flesh-and-blood actors.

[…] In a large American city, where there are several hundred moving picture theaters and half as many eye specialists, it was soon made clear that not one true example of eye-twitching could be blamed upon motion pictures. Many of these chases were due only to the need of eye-glasses.

[…] Finally, it may be said that if the motion picture habit has nothing else than remind people of their eye troubles and send them post-haste to an oculist, it has accomplished an incalculable among of good for the human eye.

- Leonard Keene Hirshberg, “How Motion Pictures Make You See Better” The times dispatch: Richmond, VA, March 15, 1914,

See also, a reprint (or the original?) of this article published in The Motion Picture Story Magazine, which is accessible here:

Martin E. Johnson’s Travelogues

March 1, 2014

If you were in Salt Lake City 100 years ago today, you could attend a multi-media spectacle at the Orpheum Theater, in which the penultimate attraction was footage from Martin E. Johnson’s trip with Jack London in the South Sea Islands, which he had embarked on five years prior. I posted about this same film last year, and as you can see from this advertisement, the travelogue continued to circulate through the 1910s.

GOODWIN’S WEEKLY (Salt Lake City, Utah) 28 February 1914

In my previous post I mentioned that Fatimah Tobing Rony discusses the Johnsons in her excellent book The third eye: race, cinema, and ethnographic spectacle.

I’ve since discovered Laura Horak’s excellent introduction to Osa Johnson at the Women Film Pioneers Project 

Absinthe, dir. Herbert Brenon and George Edwardes-Hall

February 3, 2014

On January 24, 1914, “the Chicago censor board revoked the license” for the film Absinthe, a new feature film directed by Herbert Brenon and George Edwardes-Hall and starring King Baggot and Leah Baird (Moving Picture World, vol 19, page 661).

AbsintheNotSensational1914 copy

Poster advertisement, The Moving Picture World, Vol 19, page 249.

sensational poster for Absinthe, 1914 from MPW

Poster advertisement, The Moving Picture World, Vol 19, page 248.

That didn’t stop Salt Lake City’s Rex Theater from showing the film continuously (on a loop) 100 years ago today.

They even placed a special advertisement for the film in the local newspaper:

Scene from Absinthe at the Rex

Newspaper advertisement for Absinthe in The Salt Lake Tribune, 3 Feb, 1914. 

The caption reads “King Baggot has the greatest role of his career in the four-part Universal film playing at the Rex theater today and tomorrow. It is a powerful story, working [indecipherable] the results of an intimate, personal study of the curse the drink has brought France.”

According to wikipedia, absinthe was banned in the United States from 1915 to 2007. I wonder if we can thank this film (and the many others of the era that demonstrated the evils of the drink) for swaying public opinion in favor of the ban (and perhaps the prohibition of all alcohol a few years later?)

Some evidence for this theory comes to us from The Moving Picture World, which reported that one enterprising exhibitor–D. M. Hughes of the Majestic in Lockport Illinois–decided to show the film as part of a special “Temperance night” along with a lecture by a local minister, the Reverend Walter MacPherson of Joliet. (Moving Picture World, vol 19, page 1404).

Those interested in the history of film advertising will likely enjoy this advertisement announcing the supremacy of Absinthe‘s advertisements. I especially like the part about how the posters are available in “sensational” and “not sensational”

The Moving Picture World, Vol 19, pages 248-249.

The Moving Picture World, Vol 19, pages 248-249.

Newman Travelogues: “London Today”

January 18, 2014

E. M. Newman was a photographer for National Geographic, world-traveler, and according to this article, a showman. His presented his travelogue on “London Today” 100 years ago today and tomorrow to audiences at the Columbia Theater in Washington, DC. You can peruse many of his photographs at the photo licensing company, Corbis’s website.

The Washington herald. (Washington, D.C.), 18 Jan. 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress. <>

The Washington herald. (Washington, D.C.), 18 Jan. 1914. Chronicling America: Historic American Newspapers. Lib. of Congress.

Christmas Eve (Noch pered Rozhdestvom, dir Wladyslaw Starewicz)

December 26, 2013

This film about the devil and a female consort, based on a Gogol story, premiered in Russia 100 years ago today.

The Gusher (Keystone)

December 15, 2013

This is not the full movie, and the titles appear to have been replaced with digital text, but it’s the highest quality version I found online.

Cohen Saves the Flag (dir. Mack Sennett)

November 27, 2013

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