Showmanship, scandal, and spectacle

The era also saw the rise of the movie palace, as marble nickelodeons became splendid pleasure domes dedicated to public entertainment, such as Radio City Music Hall in New York and the Roxy in Los Angeles. Paramount began an aggressive policy of theater ownership to make sure that their films would find an appreciative audience, and instituted the policies of block booking (in which a theater owner had to take an entire slate of films from a studio, including lesser ones, in order to get the hit films) and blind bidding (in which theater owners were forced to bid on a hot film sight unseen, and play it no matter what it eventually turned out to be). Although block booking and blind bidding were eventually outlawed, the practice continues today in a subterranean fashion; theater chains that don’t regularly play a studio’s minor films are sometimes denied a shot at more lucrative titles.

And yet, in the midst of all this production and prosperity, a storm was brewing. It would

not fully come to a boil until 1934, the early sound era, but the 1920s saw the beginning of a phenomenon that the studios both feared and ultimately capitulated to: organized censorship. A series of scandals erupted, including the murder of director William Desmond Taylor in 1922, who left behind love letters naming the popular stars Mabel Normand and Mary Miles Minter as two of his better-known paramours. Also in 1922, Fatty Arbuckle was indicted in the death of young star Virginia Rappe; it was said that Arbuckle had raped her at a party that had turned into an orgy, although Arbuckle was eventually acquitted of the charge. Arbuckle, Minter, and Normand were all forced to leave the screen as a result of the ensuing bad publicity; pathetically, Arbuckle tried to make a comeback several years later under the name Will B. Good, but to no avail. At the same time, one of the silent era’s most popular stars, Wallace Reid, died in 1923 as a result of morphine addiction and alcoholism at the age of thirty-one, and mainstream America demanded that the motion picture industry clean house.

In late 1922, the motion picture

studios chose Will H. Hays, then the postmaster general in the Harding administration, to head the newly formed Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America, or the Director Dorothy Davenport Reid (left) and scenarist Adela Rogers St. Johns, who wrote many screenplays during her long career as a writer, and often worked with Reid, seen here in the early 1920s.

MPPDA. Soon known informally as the Hays Office, the MPPDA set about to police the private lives of the stars, inserting morality clauses in the contracts of all studio personnel that subjected them to immediate dismissal if they failed to live up to a stringent code of personal conduct. Not coincidentally, Wallace Reid’s wife, actress Dorothy Davenport Reid, became a director in 1923 with her production of Human Wreckage (in which she also starred), about the evils of narcotics-made with the approval and assistance of the Hays Office.

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Showmanship, scandal, and spectacle