Article body

Now Playing looks at the normalization of movie-going as an ordinary part of everyday urban experience, bringing together an impressive amount of research from a variety of sources including government documents, trade periodicals, religious literature, and newspapers. The intense local focus on Toronto belies the transnational context of this study, where Paul Moore argues that film had to be integrated into the local culture of particular cities before it could become a national or global mass practice. Toronto, he claims, is “an ideal bridge between the U.S. and its global markets” (p. 3) because it was treated as part of the U.S. domestic market, but generated uniquely Canadian responses to Hollywood production. The study begins in 1906, the year the first theatoriums opened in Toronto, and ends in 1918 when Moore asserts that movie-going was established as an ordinary way for the public to participate in the war effort.

Approaching movie-going through its urban social history shows how the city responded to being used, surveyed, and policed in new, modern ways. Movie-going presented municipal bureaucrats and civic groups with unprecedented safety issues and moral questions, while ordinary people adapted to expanding options and increased regulation over their leisure time. Moore establishes the local context of movie-going and contends that integrating and regulating films in Toronto was largely unproblematic due to the homogeneity of Toronto’s “British-born” population, the strict, moralistic policing of “Toronto the Good,” and striking a balance between commercial shows for pleasure, and uplifting scientific, educational or religious films. Ontario’s fire-safety law of 1908, the first piece of provincial legislation to focus on film specifically, called attention to the need for defining the parameters of socially and physically safe movie-going. The flammability of celluloid, coupled with the perceived “social combustibility” of movie audiences prompted swift and decisive action on the part of legislators and politicians. Rather than making movie-going innocuous, the fire-safety law laid a foundation for the further regulation of film.

The balance between local practice and transnational distribution, and local regulation versus centralized bureaucracy is a major theme of this study. Entrepreneurs were challenged by the need to respond to both local concerns and the rhythms of the U.S. film production and distribution industry during a period of flux. Moore details the shift from local showmanship to large outside chains dedicated to promoting a universal form of cinema. The standardization of film showmanship further defined movie-going as both a local and transnational industry. The emergence of a centralized bureaucracy of film regulation produced standardized forms of licensing, censorship and theatre inspection, expediting efficient police and government surveillance of movie-going.

Moore emphasizes the daily press and its role in engendering a sense of global spectatorship. This is the most theoretically grounded portion of this study, with a foundation in the sociological works produced by Robert E. Park and his Chicago School colleagues. Moore argues that the introduction of a “rhetoric of commonality” through the press bonded temporally and spatially separate movie-goers into a mass audience. Integrating films with serial fiction in women’s magazines and weekend newspaper editions, for example, signalled the arrival of movie-going’s mass appeal and movie-goers became increasingly aware that they were part of a transnational audience. This awareness took on new significance during WWI when Canadians attended movies as an active form of citizenship. Despite the relative absence of nationally produced films Moore argues that movie-going took on a patriotic air. Showmen promoted movie-going as an ordinary way for city dwellers to participate in the homefront war effort through fund-raising and recruiting. The state sanctioned mass movie-going through its wartime amusement tax, funnelling audience’s pocket-money into government coffers.

Moore differentiates his study from other histories of film, bypassing a discussion of developing film technology and focussing instead on the social processes and practices that shaped modern movie-going. While Moore acknowledges that location, cost, class, race and even theatre architecture are important distinctions that underlie this history, his conclusion that they “were successfully rendered subordinate to institutionalized moviegoing as a common practice of entire publics” (p. 224) will not satisfy readers interested in its social context. This book is full of interesting facts, useful information, is meticulously researched, but remains theoretically murky. Moore’s arguments, while compelling, are not supported by a clearly recognizable framework. Now Playing shows how local urban experience is relevant to the transnational history of film, but how this accounts for the rise of movie-going as a global mass practice remains unsettled.