Entertainment Magazine

Hollywood Is Making the Decision for the Theaters. In 1918, The Cities Did That.

Posted on the 13 March 2020 by Weminoredinfilm.com @WeMinoredInFilm
Hollywood Is Making the Decision for the Theaters. In 1918, The Cities Did That.

In 1918, Charlie Chaplin completed work on his Sunset Boulevard film studio and released the first two movies - A Dog's Life and Shoulder Arms - of his eight-picture, one-million-dollar deal with First National. A Dog's Life, a 33-minute short about The Tramp first befriending a dog and then falling in love with a cabaret singer, was released in April. Shoulder Arms - a feature-length romp about The Tramp fighting for the French during WWI and capturing both the Kaiser and the Crown Prince - was released in October.

Why in the world am I talking about Charlie Chaplin!?! Who gives a lick about old silent films or when and where they were released? It's 2020 and COVID-19 is turning the world upside down! I mean, what am I even doing here?

The World Is Upside Down

Hollywood Is Making the Decision for the Theaters. In 1918, The Cities Did That.

Here in America, Wall Street is partying like it's 1987, and not in the fun way either. All major sports, conventions, Broadway musicals, and concerts have been canceled or delayed and just about every new movie between now and the end of April has been pushed back indefinitely. Colleges and grade schools are gradually following suit. Italy, China, France, and other countries instituting similar and - in most cases - even more draconian lockdown measures merely sigh, "Welcome to the club, Yanks. What took you so long?"

Yet, as public gatherings of several hundred people or more are banned in county after county, city after city, and state after state, the movie theaters remain open, in some cases on a pure technicality. After all, if California says it's outlawing any public gatherings of 250 or more people your average AMC is within its rights to point out that none of its theaters feature rooms with that many seats. Hastily written industry trade reports about when or if the movie theaters will close feature quotes like: "This is an unprecedented situation."

That came from an unidentified industry veteran presumably speaking on background to The Hollywood Reporter' s Pamela McClintock.

This, actually, isn't entirely unprecedented. Movie theaters have closed before due to disease. It happened as recently as a decade ago in Mexico when the nation's theaters closed their doors in response to the H1N1 swine flu. America, however, has enjoyed a relatively blessed century of watching epidemics sweep through other countries before stopping at its doorsteps and making a minimal impact. (HIV/AIDS is an obvious exception.) A pandemic, though? What, like the one from 1918?

Which brings us back to Charlie Chaplin.

Hollywood Is Making the Decision for the Theaters. In 1918, The Cities Did That.

Ah, 1918 - a big year for Chaplin. Truly. In addition to the aforementioned movies, he also rather quietly married a 16-year-old actress who faked a pregnancy, later got pregnant for real, and bore him a son who died after a couple of days. Seriously, someone should make a biopic about this man.

Hollywood Is Making the Decision for the Theaters. In 1918, The Cities Did That.
Oh, wait. They already did.

But 1918 was also quite the horror show for millions around the world.

The forgotten carnage

1918 witnessed the start of one of if not the worst pandemics in human history. The Spanish flu - so nicknamed despite most likely not actually originating in Spain - ultimately infected one in three people on Earth. Between the first recorded case on March 4, 1918 and the final case sometime in March 1920, Spanish flu killed 50-100 million people or 2.5-5% of the world's population. That we still don't have a more precise estimation over a century later speaks to how widespread the disease really was. It killed more people than World War I (17 million), possibly more than World War II (60 million), and maybe even more than both combined.

Yet, until COVID-19 nobody outside of the public health and history worlds ever really talked about the Spanish flu. There are no Spanish flu monuments in major cities around the world. It existed as a history book anecdote and the great bogeyman of world health, the "it could happen again" warning that always seemed to fall on deaf ears, possibly due to the boy who cried wolf syndrome. As someone who worked in public health research in 2009, I saw firsthand how easily people fell into this line of thought:

Fear H1N1 because of that one time a long ass time ago when a lot of people died? Heard that one before with SARS. These things always go away. Modern medicine is too advanced to let a would-be pandemic get out of hand in the advanced world. Dustin Hoffman gonna kill that damn monkey!

It's also a matter of timing and the way we tell our stories about history. The Spanish flu was at its absolute worst right as WWI was ending and ultimately couldn't stand up to the more easily digestible historical story of an assassinated Archduke with a funny name, trench warfare, and four long years of hell.

"WWI had a geographical focus (European and Middle Eastern theatres) and narrative that unfolded in time," Laura Spinney argues in her recent book Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed The World. "The Spanish flu, in contrast, engulfed the entire globe in the blink of an eye. Most of the death occurred in the thirteen weeks between mid-September and mid-December 1918. It was broad in space and narrow in time, compared to narrow, deep war."

Back to Chaplin again

Hollywood Is Making the Decision for the Theaters. In 1918, The Cities Did That.

So, when A Dog's Life came out America already had its first recorded case of Spanish flu. A soldier on a Kansas military base tested positive on March 11, 1918, but the news of the flu was censored in Allied and Central Powers nations so as not to depress wartime morale. Beyond that, the first wave of the Spanish flu was actually quite mild; it was the second wave - August-November - that proved to be the real killer. That means Shoulder Arms was released into a very different kind of world than A Dog's Life.

As with COVID-19 now, public gatherings around the country were being canceled by the order of governors, majors, and city health commissioners, never by the federal government. President Woodrow Wilson and his administration mostly pretended the whole thing wasn't happening, right up until the moment he got the Spanish flu himself while negotiating the Treaty of Versailles in 1919.

Lacking a top-down approach to mitigation, cities, and states had to fend for themselves. The result: wild inconsistencies across the board, with some cities closing movie theaters but not department stores, restaurants, or saloons, and other cities closing schools while others kept them open. In Arizona, one movie theater owner got so fed up he went into work and opened his doors to customers in defiance of local restrictions. He was promptly arrested, and when he challenged the case to the state Supreme Court - arguing the state didn't have the Constitutional authority to order the closure of his business - he lost. Similar legal cases played out in Wichita, Kansas, Tarra Haute, Indiana, and Roanoke, Virginia.

A decimated industry

Hollywood Is Making the Decision for the Theaters. In 1918, The Cities Did That.

As with now, the notion of closing all public gatherings was hotly debated, but closures ultimately became widespread. Photoplay estimated that "ten thousand picture theatres - 80% of the total in the United States and Canada - closed for a period varying from one week to two months." By mid-October, Variety reported that 90% of all American motion picture houses and live performances theaters had gone dark. An estimated 60% of all production activity in California ceased while virtually all of it ground to a halt on the East Coast. The loss in gross receipts due to closings was estimated at $40 million, or over $690 million in today's dollar.

Unlike now, however, Broadway stayed open. On top of that, New York declined to close its schools or movie theaters. These decisions were not uncontroversial. New York City Health Commissioner Royal S. Copeland - an eye surgeon by trade who'd only been commissioner since April of the year - proved especially amenable to business concerns.

The Spanish flu's second wave came to the US from the East Coast, through towns like Boston and Philadelphia, and their leaders eventually favored full lock-down measures. Copeland, however, preferred to stagger opening and closing times for businesses to minimize the number of people on the street at any one time, and partnered with the New York movie theaters to produce instructional slides about the flu and precede each showing with a speaker educating the public about how to avoid getting the flu and what to do should they show symptoms.

(Other major cities that followed a similar strategy include Chicago, Detroit, Buffalo.)

Quietly, though, Copeland did close "hole-in-the-wall moving picture shows" deemed unsanitary. The new movie palaces which had only recently risen to replace the old nickelodeons, however, stayed open since they not only seemed sanitary but were viewed as perfect venues for public health messaging. (Remember, this was way, way before TV or the internet.)

Chaplin, one last time

Hollywood Is Making the Decision for the Theaters. In 1918, The Cities Did That.

With those qualifications met, Manhattan's Strand Theatre kept chugging along. It was even named in thew NY Times review of Chaplin's S houlder Arms: "'The fool's funny,' was the chuckling observation of one of those who saw Charlie Chaplin's new film. Shoulder Arms, at the Strand yesterday-and, apparently, that's the way everybody felt."

One of them paid for it though.

Hollywood Is Making the Decision for the Theaters. In 1918, The Cities Did That.

When Shoulder Arms was released on October 20, the manager of the Strand Theatre, Harold Edel, was quoted as saying: "We think it a most wonderful appreciation of Shoulder Arms that people should veritably take their lives in their hands to see it." Except that quote actually came from an interview he'd given week prior to the film's premiere. According to Pale Rider, once October 20th arrived, Edel wasn't in the theater. He'd died of the Spanish flu.

AMC, Regal, Alamo Drafthouse, and the rest - don't let that happen to any of your employees. At this point, Hollywood is making the decision for you. It's pulling its movies from the release calendar, one by one, to the point that as of this writing there are only a couple of films still ticketed for wide release over the next 6 weeks. What's the point in staying open much longer if there won't be any new movies to show?

Some words of caution

COVID-19 and The Spanish Flu, it should be said, are not the same. Their mortality rates - or at least the best mortality rates we can come up with for them - differ, with the former currently thought to be somewhere around 1% and the Spanish Flu closer to 3%. Beyond that, COVID-19 is especially dangerous to the elderly and immuno-compromised whereas more than half of the people killed by the Spanish Flu were in the prime of their lives.

So, despite some of the historical similarities I've highlighted the two situations aren't on the same severity level. Still, a century ago the decision making was mostly left to cities and states and businesses had to comply. That much is repeating itself again, and as movie theaters remain open even in some of the hardest-hit cities you wonder if the industry isn't about to start self-regulating itself at this point. No one is yet telling the theaters to close, but with Hollywood pulling just about everything off the release calendar the theater chains might be content-starved into closing.

Sources: Public Health Reports, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television, THR, American Pandemic: The Lost Worlds of the 1918 Influenza Epidemic, Pale Rider: The Spanish Flu of 1918 and How It Changed the World

Back to Featured Articles on Logo Paperblog