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Terry Ramsaye

Related: film theory - early film


Terry Ramsaye was a film historian and author of A Million and One Nights (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1926)

Terry Ramsaye was born in Tonganoxie, Kansas in 1885. He started his professional career as an engineer but switched to journalism when he joined the staff of the Kansas City Star and Times in 1905. In the following decade, he worked on newspapers in Leavenworth, Kansas, and in Omaha, St. Paul and Chicago. The motion picture industry was in its infancy when he joined Mutual Film Corporation in 1915. While at Mutual he produced some Charlie Chaplin comedies and founded Screen Telegram, which achieved conspicuous success during World War I. Subsequently he was associated with Samuel L. Rothafel in the management of Broadway's Rialto and Rivoli theaters. He also launched and edited the newsreel Kinograms. After producing and editing numerous adventure films including "Grass" and "Martin Johnson's African Hunt," he became editor-in-chief of "Pathe News" and "Audio Review." In 1931, Mr. Ramsaye joined the Quigley Publishing Company as editor of "The Motion Picture Herald," a post he held until 1941. Subsequently, he lectured on motion pictures and contributed articles to various encyclopedias and year books. He continued his association with the Quigley Publishing Company as consulting editor and author of a weekly column for the Herald until his death in 1954.--http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Terry Ramsaye

A Million and One Nights (1925) - Terry Ramsaye

“Most history is autopsy. This one is vivisection.”

Terry Ramsaye’s “A Million and One Nights,” written in 1925, captures the early days of film and the popular sentiments and common held convictions of the day concerning the developing artistic medium. The piece features commentary on the rapid development and emergence of film, stating that “For the first time in the history of the world, an art has sprouted, grown up and blossomed in so brief a time that one person might stand by and see it happen.”

Ramsaye discloses his belief that the motion picture is a “genuine art,” defining genuine as “strictly popular.” His central argument stems from the understanding that the motion picture, like all art forms, appeals to the basic human desires of sex and combat, and that the eye is the principle mechanism of understanding the art form and the art’s intent. The motion picture is described as the “great common denominator” of the arts as a whole, as it appeals to childhood, adolescence, hopes and dreams.

Ramsaye’s argument that all art is childish and adolescent, appealing to youth and the experience of youth in the human race is illustrated in his brief examples of classical history to the modern era. He discusses the process of cultivating art as constantly re-evaluating, through trial and error, the process of popular mediums.

Discussion of the Post-World War I condition is featured prominently in the reading selection. At the time the piece was written, America dominated the film market: of the 50,000 theatres in the world, 21,000 were located in the US. Between 1914-1925, American films represented 80% of the world market, helped by extend by the limitation of exportation of films during the war. Ramsaye discloses three consequences of the war: the rivalries between America and other countries in film distribution and exploitation overseas, the expansion of tastes in American-made films to appeal to international filmgoers, and the encouragement of foreign markets to create film empires of their own that would negatively affect the American monopoly.

Ramsaye discusses his perception concerning the role of race and ethnicity, citing that the Jewish population, referred to as “facile internationalists” acted as prime industry administrators, and creates a psychological link between the garment and motion picture industries. According to the author, the rise of the American motion picture market developed out of the “confusion of tongues and races in Babel centers of concentration for imported labor,” namely Chicago, New York, Cincinnati, St. Louis and Milwaukee, where the ideals of opulence, opportunity, and optimism thrived.

The international market was becoming more and more of a threat to the American dominated motion picture industry at the end of 1924, largely due in part to Germany’s “Kontingent” law, which forbade the importation of non- Germanic films following the First World War The international market expanded from a mere 20% in 1914 of the economic market in the industry to nearly 40% in 1925, with France, England, Berlin, Italy and Russia opening their own film production companies.

The industry was experiencing other changes as well. Chain theater companies in the US had become increasingly more common, first initiated by Greek ownership of theaters, where nearly 10% of all theaters in the US were owned by those of Greek nationality, followed by the economic pursuits of Adolph Zukor and the Players-Lasky Corporation, which both owned theatres and a production company. When accused of forming a monopoly by the Federal Trade Commission in 1925, the group separated its interests, and the 200 theatres owned by the corporation were sold to Balaban and Katz of Chicago. The new company, renamed the Public Theatre Company, owned roughly 800 theatres.

The histories of several prominent executives of the age, including Sam Katz, owner of the Public Theatre Company, Sidney Kent and Marcus Loew, who controlled Metro Goldwyn- Mayer and William Fox, are chronicled, as well as corporate histories of Universal and Warner Brothers. These histories reflect the growing need to capitalize on a swiftly evolving emerging industry of motion picture production and distribution.

The narration, which at times feels disorganized, also follows the rise of film star Gloria Swanson. The strict history of the actor's evolution from unknown to star is a typical tale, but interesting insights into early film culture fandom are illustrated. The cultivation of back histories of stars by the fans, largely spread by gossip, are certainly evidence of a unique phenomenon that would become more complex in subsequent years.

The reading concludes with an argument that American theatre evolves from a “soil to nuts” system of a vertical trust. Despite the insular ideal of the motion picture industry, partnerships between apparently unrelated industries, such as the use of the Yellow Cab Company for the delivery of film materials became options to increase economic opportunity and industry diversity. While Ramsaye convincingly portrays the industry as under a centralized control system, individual creativity and management skills were of prime importance to the overall success of individual theatres. He further suggests that as theatres and production houses grow in size and economic dominance, the theatre must consider the growing demands of the audience and must strive toward constant improvement. The author is optimistic that the industry will not disappoint over time. Ramsaye closes his work by creating and extending the metaphor between “A Thousand and One Nights” and the history film, illustrating parallels in romantic, poetic language. He concludes with the suggestion, once again, that film history is not exclusive; it is the history of the world. --http://mtsu32.mtsu.edu:11072/Courses/Film_Studies/Reading_about_Film/Ramsaye.pdf [Nov 2005]

Table of Contents
The art and its audience; the prehistory of the screen; from Aristotle to Philadelphia; Muybridge in myth and murder; in the house of the wizard; it moves -October 6, 1889; $150 saved - an empire lost; wonders of the world's fair; Black's pre-film pictureplay; two gallants from Virginia; dancing butterflies - intrigue; Major Latham challenges; Armat attains the screen; Paul and "the time machine"; Lumiere's sixteen-a-second; romances of the Lathams; the legend of Richmond; biograph starts with a punch; a trade secret of 1896; first night on Broadway; the invasion of London; first psalm of the cinema; a dance from Cairo and a kiss; vaudeville adopts the films; recruiting the pioneers; when Corbett fought Ruby Robert; the Latham star declines; Chicago - Spoor and Selig; the lawless film frontier; McKinley - biograph's first night; Barnum's grandson entertains; "Edison, Jr." on the Spanish main; the charity bazaar fire; Marshall Field and a book agent; the saga of calvary; and then the fight started; Blackton, Smith and Rock; Melies magic and the pirates; Alaska, war and Tammany; bright lights and dark deeds; the story picture is born; the screen theatre arrives; Roosevelt and Dockstader; when actors scorned the screen; Carl Laemmle takes a chance; enter D.W. Griffith with Mss; Kalem and the first "Ben Hur"; Jeremiah J. Kennedy, hardboiled; and now comes censorship; the trust war begins; introducing Mary Pickford; Griffith evolves screen syntax; T.R. gets nature-faked again; imp kidnaps trust star; the discovery of California; a cowboy, and undertaker, et al; the Latham's last day; adventures in Kinemacolor; Tom Ince raises a moustache; herring, diamonds and Selznick; Adolph Zukor and Sarah Bernhardt; the Gishes, "pink" and "blue"; the screen discovers sex; Lasky rents a barn; "the birth of a nation"; "Charlie Chapman" gets an offer; the screen and press conspire; Panchito Villa sells a war; "Roxy" comes to Broadway; Washington, London and the Taj Mahal; Jack Johnson's film knockout; Bara and the vampire; "104,000" for little Mary; Triangle, Fairbanks and Riesenfeld; Henry Ford answers a war cry; $670,000 for Chaplin; Mary, quite contrary, takes a million; two millions on Belshazzar; Zukored and Selznicked; Wilson, Hearst and Creel; Mary, McAdoo and Monte Carlo; Will Hays goes to lunch; today; appendix. --Sourced here. [Nov 2005]

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