Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Early Picture Shows at the Fulcrum of Modern and Parochial St. John's, Newfoundland

Academic journal article Newfoundland and Labrador Studies

Early Picture Shows at the Fulcrum of Modern and Parochial St. John's, Newfoundland

Article excerpt

THE RECEPTION OF CINEMA in Newfoundland encapsulates the parochial setting's confrontation with an emerging mass culture at the turn of the last century. As an electric amusement requiring imported technology and globally distributed films, cinema made explicit an unsettled duality in the role of St. John's in the colony: metropolitan nexus of commercial and secular modernization, and yet seat of religious and political authority sanctioned to uphold traditional cultural standards. Early picture shows transformed the social scene of leisure and public gathering, demonstrating how St. John's was squarely part of the continental mass market. The Roman Catholic archdiocese, and to a lesser extent colonial legislators, reacted to early cinema as a symbol of modernization, making efforts to regulate the public's interest in the novelty pastimes as much as showmen's provision of the entertainments. In Newfoundland--perhaps uniquely within North America--the new technology was not regulated by a secular, bureaucratic apparatus. Instead of matching the modern amusement with modern governance, the standards of local cinema-going were set parochially, that is to say outside of the transparent rule of law. This contrasted with all of Canada and most of the United States, where novel legislation was introduced specifically to address the novelty of cinema.

On 1 July 1907, an American-affiliated company opened the Nickel Theatre in St. Patrick's Hall directly across Military Road from the Roman Catholic Cathedral. By October 1907, three more "five-cent picture shows" were open in other association halls in St. John's. When the fourth opened, the Evening Herald noted wryly that every available hall except one was now devoted to five-cent shows, which appeared to have "a cinch" on entertainment in town. (1) Some shows boasted that they were locally run, but all relied entirely on a constant flow of moving pictures and illustrated popular songs shipped from New York, often after first playing at affiliated theatres in New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. In his Lenten Pastoral for 1908, the first since the shows opened, Roman Catholic Archbishop M.F. Howley amended Newfoundland's Regulations for Lent to specifically prohibit attending moving picture shows, and railed against the demoralizing effects on family and religious life, notably across all classes:

   During the past year some new forms of entertainments have been
   introduced here, under the name of Moving Pictures.... It is
   painful and shameful to see not only children but grown-up persons,
   fathers and mothers of families, constantly frequenting those
   places of amusement, wasting hours upon hours of time when they
   ought to be attending to their work or household duties ... not to
   speak of the example of frivolity and silliness given by persons
   whose responsible positions would lead us to expect something more
   sedate and prudent from them. (2)

While moral reformers in the biggest American cities and in Toronto had already cast moving pictures in similarly disparaging terms, they had called for formal and bureaucratic policing and censorship rather than sermonizing the public itself. Howley's focus on moving pictures was exceptional for a Catholic pastor, not echoed by the archbishops of Halifax or Saint John, although their parishioners were also entering their first Lent amidst the temptations of the five-cent show. (3)

The point is not that Newfoundland was any more or less moralistic, strict, or harsh. No jurisdiction was as moralistic in its response to the movies as Toronto, where Sunday shows were banned, censorship was a constant police duty, and careful standards governed theatres' construction, location, decoration, labour, attendance, and advertising. If anything St. John's--even within the purview of the church--had minimal, less moralistic interference with the daily operation of theatres. But every aspect policed and regulated in Ontario, Manitoba, British Columbia, and almost everywhere else in North America, was eventually written into laws, carefully made transparent and rationalized, distinctly and proudly part of the public record. …

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