The shock of the old
The camp classic Reefer Madness is just the best-known example of the social-conscience film which flourished in the early years of Hollywood. Risible now. at the time they were regarded as so risque that censorship soon followed. as Kevin Brownlow. author ofa new study of the genre. explains to Kathleen Morgan.
To the contemporary film-goer. whose head is buffeted by the sounds ofwar. sex and gore. silence is golden. The era ofthe silent movie is popularly perceived as one of innocence. reflecting a society where things were gentler and altogether more civilised than they are now. What we see today. however. is only a fraction of the vast amount of films produced during a period of fierce reform. from the turn ofthe century to the advent ofthe Jazz Age in the 1920s. Thousands of others depicting gangsters. prostitution and political corruption have been lost or destroyed. and it is these social-conscience films which challenge the picture of American society as sentimentalist froth which has survived.
Behind The Mask ()flmzocence is cinema historian Kevin Brownlow‘s joyous expose ofa world forgotten: a journey into the packed houses of the sweaty nickelodeons where startling images of sex. drugs and syphilis flickered over the heads of an almost entirely working-class audience. in the name ofsocial reform.
‘The majority of releases were melodramas.‘ explains Brownlow.
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who encountered significant problems in researching the historical jewels ofthe social-conscience films. finding so few surviving. 'Most films depicted that cinematic world ofinnocence which we all know and love: a totally
different one from the one we experience. A lot ofthem had to use what was commercially successful at the time. which was the form of melodrama — the daughter ofthe boss marries the recalcitrant worker and all ends happily. that kind of
Corporal punishment exposed in Cecil B. DeMilIe‘s The Godless Girl
Due to a massive turnover of films in American picture houses. there i was room for the grubby details of real life to be imposed upon the silver screen. whether in the form of the genuine reform moyics. or the J
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