As a would-be democrat, I should like to believe passionately in the movies. I am told constantly of their great educational possibilities. By the innocent and ubiquitous movies we are to be made over, insensibly led to higher things. Buoyed by such hopes, I go with ever-renewed courage. But into that democrat that I long to be I shall never be made by such exhibitions as "The White Terror," "an educational feature film in four reels," sponsored by the National Association for the Prevention of Tuberculosis. Experience it seems has proved that the public does not take kindly to pure "education" in the movies. The "education" has had to be smeared on in the spots where was thought it would best stick. The first object of the deviser of this film had been to tell a dramatic story, and from the meticulous care with which it was presented one could not doubt that every detail had been ingeniously arranged to meet some deep public hunger.
It was exciting. Love, crime, political corruption, industrial exploitation, social service, redemption, pathos and personal hygiene were woven into an unforgettable work of art. The climax came when, after a long and blissful kiss between the happily healed and reconciled daughter of the ruthless but reformed patent-medicine magnate and her valiant lover, this hopeful quotation from Pasteur was thrown upon our gaze: "It is possible to banish from the earth all such parasitic germ diseases within a generation." Although our sophisticated social-worker group burst into unanimous glee, there lingered the horrible suspicion that that fifty per cent of the public who would see it were not supposed to laugh.
But when my mirth had flowed away from me I realized that I could not put the thing down to the low intelligence of a dear deluded public. This is what comes of being a democrat. You have to take a great many things seriously that your fathers would have been quite serene about. I wanted to find this drama natural and moving, shot through with personal and social motives that represented for me, as they must for my "fifty per cent of the people" my interpretations of life. And to find it not only not harmless but all crooked and unreal, was to fall into a very unpleasant embarrassment. My conscience would have been appeased, I think, if the acting had been good. I seem to recall Italian melodramas in Rome that were done with such verve on the cinema as to be quite passionately convincing. But these Americans were quite wooden. Only the little children were appealing as they ran to their mother, lying dead from too much devotion to "Sacc-Ozone, Nature's Only Cure for Consumption." Otherwise emotion such as Brand's, whom the daughter of the masterful president will not marry until he has performed some good deed which will render him worthy of her, is expressed by rolling the eyeballs. The good deed is to buy up the newspaper which is exposing the rotten labor conditions in the mills and the poisonous shams of "Nature's Only Cure." A war of masterful men ensues, done through much stalking about with high hats and long cigars, much sticking of powerful jaws into one another's faces, and a final realistic dynamiting scene in which the faithful partner of the president blows up the newspaper office and himself with it.
Swift upon the crime follows nemesis. The lovely daughter contracts the dread disease. I hope the movies don't see many such scenes of bathos as this in which the father comes with a touching smile and presents his daughter with a bottle of his interesting compound of opium and arsenic. Fortunately the doctor intervenes. Enter "education," with its sanatoriums and open-air schools and all the proper ways to cure consumption. The father falls upon his desk, a broken man, while lines of skeletons poring over his advertisements pass before his eyes, and serried rows of gravestones haunt him, each marking the effect of a bottle of his poison. But presto! all is redeemed. A sumptuous banquet is given the reconciled pair, the father announces a gift of a tuberculosis sanatorium to the city, the bad man is redeemed into a philanthropist, the daughter is healed, the lover rewarded, and excellent moral and hygienic lessons are implanted in the heart of the American people.
After "The White Terror," I begin to feel like an esoteric little bubble on a great stream of the common life. What makes me laugh or blush doesn't make my fifty per cent of the people laugh or blush. But I do not like to have my democracy thus assailed. I should like to dismiss it all as mere old-fashioned melodrama in a modern setting. But "The White Terror" didn't seem to have even the virtues of melodrama. Melodrama was essentially the heroism of the child's Big-Injun age, tainted with calf-love, but at least untainted with current moral and social issues. It had an element of the timeless. And it was passionately believed in. It represented a genuine stage in the development of the soul. Melodrama was not quackery, but this current rubbish is. It catches the social cant of the day. It crudely parodies ideals. See how our fifty per cent interprets graft. The still unredeemed magnate and his lieutenant stride into the mayor's office with their hats on and say, "We have decided to make you mayor next year. But you will have to do what we tell you!" Out goes at once to the local tuberculosis committee a very ungrammatical letter announcing that the city's funds forbid the erection of the proposed municipal sanatorium. No time can be lost in the movies or in the movie interpretation of life.
I have to take "The White Terror" seriously, because it is as scientific a record as a statistical graph. Like the popular novel, it marks the norm of what happy and hearty America is attending to. Melodrama used to be bad form, but the movies are good form for almost all classes. This is the great public of a generation which has had universal common school education, free libraries, museums, cheap journals, and books, on a scale known to no generation in history. This is what we get out of it all.
I don't mean that it would have been any better if they had all chosen Renaissance pictures or Ibsen plays or Dante. I feel even a certain unholy glee at this wholesale rejection of what our fathers reverenced as culture. But I don't feel any glee about what is substituted for it. We seem to be witnessing a lowbrow snobbery. In a thousand ways it is as tyrannical and arrogant as the other culture of universities and millionaires and museums. I don't know which ought to be more offensive to a true democrat—this or the cheapness of the current life that so sadly lacks any raciness or characteristic savor. It looks as if we should have to resist the stale culture of the masses as we resist the stale culture of the aristocrat. It is very easy to be lenient and pseudo-human, and call it democracy. Perhaps there is no third alternative. But if there is if there are moods and values in our current life which are at once native and significant—we can scarcely pursue them too avidly or express them too loudly. Such an enterprise of thought would be the democratic thing that the current popularities are emphatically not.
This article originally ran in the July 3, 1915, issue of the magazine.