Academic journal article CineAction

Joywheels and Gyrations: Amusement Park Sequences in Late Silent-Era Films

Academic journal article CineAction

Joywheels and Gyrations: Amusement Park Sequences in Late Silent-Era Films

Article excerpt

In the late 1920s, a number of Hollywood filmmakers took their cameras to the amusement park. Given the robust, intertwined threads that tie the amusement park to the cinema, this act of filming the ferris wheel constitutes a kind of self-reflexive gesture, one that harkens back to the birth of cinema. These aforementioned threads are far too numerous to fully account here, but, most obviously, cinema and the amusement park were born within one or two years of each other--1894 to 1896--and early films were often exhibited at the fairground. Movies, according to Lauren Rabinovitz, figured prominently in over 75 percent of the nation's amusement parks by the turn of the twentieth century. (1) Tom Gunning's notion of the "cinema of attractions" reminds us that early cinema was--like the thrill ride--an attraction in and of itself, with the lure being to "see machines demonstrated (the newest technological wonder) ... rather than to view films." (2) Gunning also links early cinema aesthetics to those of the fairground through what he calls "shock aesthetics" and "aesthetics of astonishment." Through aesthetics of outward or inward motion and display, this cinema worked to create "the particularly modern entertainment form of the thrill, embodied elsewhere in recently appearing attractions of the amusement parks (such as the roller coaster), which combined sensations of acceleration and falling with a security guaranteed by modern industrial technology." (3) This desire to thrill and astonish led to an intimate interplay--one which still exists--between cinema and the amusement park. In the early 1900s, for instance, Hale's Tours and Scenes of the World utilized a "phantom ride" perspective--achieved by placing the camera at the front of a moving vehicle--to mimic the experience of being aboard a moving train. Audiences or "passengers" viewed these moving images on moving platforms that were furnished as railway cars.

In her book Electric Dreamland: Amusement Parks, Movies and American Modernity, Rabinovitz makes another set of interesting connections between the two entertainment forms:

   More than other types of available contemporary commercial leisure,
   amusement parks and movies represented new kinds of energized
   relaxation that also functioned to calm fears about new
   technologies and living conditions of an industrialized society ...
   They [both] represented uniquely modern mechanized responses to
   turn-of-the-century American culture. (4)

Here, Rabinovitz's emphasis is twofold. First, both early cinema and the amusement park constituted a controlled shock, one that ultimately soothed anxieties amidst a rapid technological modernity. Second, they both provided new perceptions of movement through electric, mechanical means. This combination of rapid movement--either of the image or of the body--and mechanization inspired many early filmmakers to treat the amusement park as their subject. Rabinovitz observes that films such as Rube and Mandy at Coney Island (1903), Shooting the Chutes (1903), and Bamboo Slide (1904) are simple studies of motion and the human body--movement as attraction. Lucy Fischer also notes the high number of early films that present electricity as an attraction (Panoramic View of Electric Tower From a Balloon (1901), Electrocuting an Elephant (1903), The Electric Hotel (1905), among others). Electricity, she writes, was the "crucial tie to both the birth of the modern city and to the cinematic medium"--and, of course, to the possibilities of the amusement park as well. (5) Cinema and the amusement park, then, were able to present new perceptual experiences of movement and light, features which have placed them in larger conversations about urban and technological modernity.

While these connections between early cinema and the fairground are indeed crucial to our understanding of American history, culture and modernity, I'd like to call attention to a number of amusement park sequences in late-silent films--It (1927), Sunrise (1927), The Crowd (1928), Lonesome (1928), and Speedy (1928)--because I feel they have an equally important voice in these conversations. …

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