Fight Pictures: A History of Boxing and Early Cinema

By Dan Streible | Go to book overview

Foreword

If one wanted to make a case for American exceptionalism, there would be no more compelling instance than the arrival of cinema in the United States. Its impact on every day life in the 1890s and 1900s was immediate, powerful and multifaceted, lacking equivalents in other Western nations. From the outset, cinema transformed American theater, religion, print journalism, photography, politics, visual arts, and sports. Culturally, socially, and (eventually) economically, motion pictures were a powerful disruptive force that played with fundamental contractions in the cultural gestalt. In the fall of 1896, presidential candidate William McKinley insisted on conducting his electoral campaign from his front porch but his virtual self appeared in many American theaters, where his lifelike appearance rallied the Republican faithful. Baptists and other Protestant groups forbade their congregations to attend the theater—but they often brought in traveling showmen who screened filmed extracts of forbidden theatrical performances in their churches as a way to raise money. Live performances of the Passion play were systematically banned in the United States, but Protestant clergy quickly endorsed Passion play films and soon used them as a tool for proselytizing.

And, of course, film had an impact outside the church as well. It benefited John C. Rice, a balding comedian with a supporting role in the musical comedy The Widow Jones, which starred May Irwin. As the 1895–96 theatrical season came to an end, Irwin’s management, feeling he made her seem old, announced a more youthful replacement. Two weeks later, a short film made of the musical’s final scene, in which Rice kissed Miss Irwin, was screened for the first time. Soon the scene was playing in theaters across the country, and Picture of a Kiss (also known as The John C. Rice–May Irwin Kiss) quickly turned Rice into a kissing star—an American Don Juan. Irwin’s

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