The Female Spectator and Early Cinema's Public Sphere


"An Unexpected Feast for Havana
Reconcentrados" Indianapolis News
(c/o New York Journal)
Cuban Refugees Waiting For Rations
On the front page of the March 19, 1898 Indianapolis News appears a large illustration titled "An Unexpected Feast for Havana Reconcentrados," replete with vultures, and emaciated men, women, and children. Courtesy of Hearst's New York Journal syndicate service, the caption to the drawing explains: "Occasionally some of the cattle which are being taken to Cuba for the Spanish soldiers die on board ship, and the carcasses, thrown overboard, are washed up on the beach near Havana. This sketch, made by a Journal staff artist in Cuba, shows how gladly the starving reconcentrados take advantage of such windfalls."

This illustration is instructive for the way it illuminates how the syndicated New York news services can work inter- and intratextually with other Spanish-American War discourses and other media, including film. Indeed, this intertext no doubt provided a powerful impetus for exhibitors to purchase (and Americans to consume) the film Cuban Refugees Waiting for Rations, which the Edison "war extra" catalog described as showing "[a] group of escaped reconcentrados, saved from the fate of starvation imposed by the Butcher, Weyler." At the same time, however, there appears in the same newspaper on the same day an advertisement for the Veriscope presentation "reproducing the [1897] Corbett and Fitzsimmons Contest at Carson City, Nev." at the Grand Opera House, stressing that the 14 rounds of fighting will be "Especially Attractive To the Ladies."

The Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight film has been the subject of good deal of scholarship since Charles Musser noted that Chicago reviewers of the film were amazed that 60% of the audience for the film were women. Following Musser, Miriam Hansen begins her excellent study of silent cinema by claiming that the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight is a cinematic prototype for her more detailed consideration of the later Rudolph Valentino phenomenon. For Hansen, "The cinematic mediation of the [Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight] gave women access to a spectacle from which they traditionally had been excluded. . . . At one remove, however, it afforded women the forbidden sight of male bodies in seminudity, engaged in intimate and intense physical action." (1). Hansen thus argues that the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight provided women with a space in which they could become active voyeurs enjoying the pleasures unafforded them elsewhere in late nineteenth century U.S. culture. Although she is ambivalent and even "ambiguous" (to borrow Sklar's term) about the radical or oppositional potential of what she presents as early cinema's alternative public sphere, she does privilege the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight as an important historical "vignette" of cultural resistance.

"Especially Attractive to the Ladies"
Indianapolis News March 19, 1898
"Handsome Souvenir Pictures of the Maine. . . given to all ladies
on lower level."
Indianapolis News, March 18, 1898.

The day before the advertisement for the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight at the Grand Opera was published in the Indianapolis News, however, there also appeared an advertisement "for biograph pictures of the battleship Maine [and]. . .the Spanish Warship Viscaya at the Park Theater, both of which had been much discussed in other sections of the paper. The Park advertisement announces that "Large souvenir pictures of the Maine [will be] presented to all ladies on the lower floor during this engagement," thus echoing the explicit appeal to the female spectator and wartime woman consumer found in the advertisement for the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight. The Park management also included an advertisement in the African American newspaper the Indianapolis Freeman for Vogel's 'Darkest America" during the war--"The Biggest, Best, and Most Expensive Afro-American Amusement. . .Extravaganza Combining the Better Elements on Minstrelsy, Drama, Vaudeville, Farce Comedy, and Comic Opera with a Chorus of 50 Voices"--suggesting that the Park's logo "Everybody's comes to the Park" might refer to the fact that its management explicitly targeted not only white women consumers in its advertisements, but African American men and women as well. This was due in part to the fact that, in the late 1890s, African Americans comprised almost 10% of the Indianapolis population--a substantially larger percentage than the less than 1% of the Milwaukee and Worcester populations--and were consequently of economic and demographic significance.

The March 18, 1898, Indianapolis News article on "High Class Vaudeville at the Park" offers a rare description of the audience's reaction to the Spanish-American War films:

The biograph, so-called, with its moving pictures on canvas, gives beautiful illustrations of a number of notable scenes--army drills, the battleship Maine as she moved out of New York harbor, the magnificent war vessel Iowa, the Spanish war vessel Viscaya, etc. The Maine was cheered lustily while the Spanish Viscaya was as roundly hissed . . . Last night every seat was taken and there was a great house at the matinee.
The April 2, 1898 edition of the New York Clipper would later report "big business" for the Park Theater, while "[t]he veriscope pictures of the Corbett Fitzsimmons contest [at the Grand Opera House]. . .had very light business." This specific appeal to women in the advertisements for war pictures (which apparently generated a large audience) highlights an important difference between the public experience of, say, newspaper bulletin boards and the theatrical experience of the movies. Indeed, the illustration and photograph of Spanish-American War newspaper crowds demonstrates the total exclusion of women from this public sphere and reflects important differences between the masculine print media and news journalism in contrast to film and vaudeville at the turn of the century.

It seems to me that the immediate context of the exhibition of Spanish-American War films concurrently with the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight complicates the politics of early cinema's private sphere. Dan Streible has already shown that "the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight remains in many ways an atypical example of early cinema. . . [since its] format, fame, controversy, longevity, and profitability stood out from the increasing traffic of motion pictures. . ." (47). Having said that, Streible does conclude that "[e]ven though the female clientele that may have taken an unintended pleasure in seeing the Veriscope pictures did so only during a brief moment in the early history of cinema, the fact remains that it was a significant rupture in the expected course of events." One could argue, perhaps, that the ability of women to view scenes of military life and combat, like their ability to see the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight, was progressive since in social reality women were excluded from military institutions. We could even see these women filmgoers as "G.I. Jane" spectators living out fantasies of military empowerment, or we might cast these historical female spectators as nineteenth century "Rosie the Riveters," filling in the empty seats left by the male population at war seeking other attractions. Even so, I would argue that women's participation in the particular experience of viewing Spanish-American war films and the entrance of women into the hypermasculine sphere of the military--albeit "once removed"--came at a considerable ideological price. I am not arguing, of course, that the inclusion of women in cinema's public sphere should be viewed pejoratively, but arguing instead that "opposition" does not inhere in this new collective experience and that it thus becomes necessary to examine what Hansen describes as specific "empirical constellations" of reception and representation in order to begin to construct a fuller historical (and political) picture of the earliest cinema.

In the end, the spectatorial cheers described in the Indianapolis News differ in important ways from the voyeuristic pleasures experienced by women at the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fight described by Hansen, and the exhibition of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons Fightand Spanish-American War films in Indianapolis demonstrates that regional accounts of Spanish-American War film exhibition can help us to advance existing theoretical models of historical spectatorship.

[About This Article] [Film Studies and the Spanish-American War] [Media Culture and Representations of War] [Early Cinema and the Spanish-American War ] [Receptions of War] [The War at Home] [Resisting Spectators] [Notes] [Works Cited] [Resources]
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