Friday, October 15, 2010

Abel - The Red Rooster Scare

Abel, Richard. The Red Rooster Scare: Making Cinema American, 1900-1910. Berkeley, Calif: University of California Press, 1999.

Abel traces the rise and decline of Pathé Films, a French company notable for its red rooster brand. He argues that after 1907 Pathé began to lose it's strong market share in America as theater owners were persuaded by the calls of progressive reformers (as well as American film makers) that the best films in terms of moral quality were those that promoted American ideals. It is no coincidence that Pathé's decline occurred after 1907 when immigration hit a peak of almost one million. Critics believed European-made films would have an adverse effect on the process of assimilation for new Americans. While Pathé attempted to respond to these pressures through marketing efforts and by adding to the emerging "American" genre of westerns, it nonetheless relinquished its market share in America and soon turned its attention to maintaining its supremacy in Europe.

Things that Made Pathé Such a Successful Brand in the First Place
  • Color: Pathé films were widely considered the best in terms of colorization (40-47). Pathé developed a stencil technique (similar to Méliès) "by which 'colorists' (all women) could apply up to three different colors within a single film frame, with greater precision and uniformity." (p.43)
  • Branding: The red rooster logo (itself notable for its red color) helped Pathé counter an early problem it had as it entered the American market: its films were being ripped off and shown under competing brands. Pathé was eventually able to develop a few ways to protect its films, and in the process elevated its brand as a signal of quality to theatre owners and viewers.
  • Viewer comprehension: Because the films were made by the French for viewers in America who didn't speak French, Pathé films tended to have storylines that were comprehensible through the visual action as opposed to through added text. This was critical in making the films appeal to new immigrants... a fact that would be used against Pathé by critics concerned over its relative failure to serve as an Americanizing agent.
  • Overall quality: With less reliance on added text, the acting had to be better. Plus, Pathé just made good films. Furthermore, at the turn of the century France was considered a leading nation in terms of technology, on par with, if not ahead of the United States.
Other Points
Who went to the cinema
- Women and children, who Progressive reformers were particularly preoccupied with.
- New immigrants
What was the cinema like - Blend of vaudeville with films gradually becoming the feature presentation. This was the peak of nickelodeons, which allowed a long stretch of various entertainment for five cents. The cinema was a place of congregation, where people would meet and chat and pass their free time.

This case study fits early film history neatly into the history of the Progressive Era. It feels more like a long essay than a book. The final chapter on the rise of the western genre as an American genre is somewhat disjointed from the Pathé story. Intriguingly, Abel presents his work in the style of a vaudeville variety show; each short chapter ends with 1-3 short primary source documents as well as an "Entra Acte" (written by Abel) which goes into more detail on a tangential topic. I was concerned the documents would be a distraction but I was pleasantly surprised at the end result. Much like a variety show, the presentation worked to keep my interest from one item to the next. It's an interesting way to write history.

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