Over the coming decade or so, large chunks of early film history are going to be rewritten. Information we always thought of as “facts” are going to be revealed to not be facts at all. And the reason for this? Well, that’s all down to a wonderful resource which went online a couple of years back called the Media History Digital Library, which is a collection currently totalling around 800,000 pages of film, radio and TV fan magazines and trade journals which is now searchable.
Anyone who has carried out research that centres on this type of material will know how thankless the task has been up until now – sitting in a dark, airless room staring at a microfiche on screen and literally moving from page to page hoping you will catch sight of a mention of the person or film you are researching. It is a thankless task, not least because, after an hour or so, your brain seems to forget what it is looking for anyway and you miss half of the articles you were hoping to find! To be able to now go online, type in a search term and be presented with pages of hits within seconds is a huge step forward. Just as much of a step forward is the range of material now available to us. Whereas we might, in the past, have centred research on magazines such as Photoplay or Picturegoer because they were the ones available in the archives near to us, the world is now our oyster, and we have access to magazines and trade journals we would have had to fly halfway around the world to examine.
I realise that some people will say that this has taken some of the fun out of research, and that there is enjoyment to be had from that dark, airless room and a long search to find what you are looking for. And I can see their point. I feel the same way about what the internet has done to record collecting. In the past we would search the second-hand shops and record fairs for years for those elusive items, whereas now we can go on Ebay and buy a copy from some far-flung corner of the world whenever we want. But surely the good far outweighs the bad and, most importantly, cuts research costs dramatically.
However, having this type of material available to us is causing problems. We no longer have to rely on what others have told us about these magazines, for we can look at themselves ourselves – and find out that what we have been told in the past is often incorrect or wrongly interpreted. As an example, Kirsten Drotner wrote in 1998 that “internationally, The Abyss became by far the most popular of Danish films prior to the First World War”. This would suggest that the film was a success all over the world. Drotner’s source is from a 1957 article. However, an examination of the magazines and trade journals in the Media History Digital Library show that The Abyss (retitled as Woman Always Pays) was not a huge success in America at all, and the star of the film, Asta Nielsen, never became a big star in America either. While both film and star might have been international sensations, that didn’t extend to the USA.
Despite this, no-one could ever suggest that the distributors of Nielsen’s films didn’t try their hardest to sell her films. The pages of Moving Picture News, Motion Picture World, The Implet and other publications were filled with advertisements for Nielsen films and encouragement for cinema owners to show them. Advertisements for the aforementioned Woman Always Pays included one which told exhibitors that “you will see some of the most wonderful acting of your life, for the leading roll (sic) is assumed by Asta Nielsen, now regarded as the greatest Moving Picture actress in the world, barring none” (Moving Picture World, March 30, 1912, p.1197). Another advertisement tells us that “Asta Nielsen’s name in German and Danish speaking countries means as much as the name of Mrs Patrick Campbell means to English theatre-goers”. Of the film, well “nothing like it has been seen in America. It is sensationally strong in plot, acting and staging” (Moving Picture World, April 6, 1912, p.4). In a review of the film, we are told that “the services of this lady are so much in request as a moving picture actress that she recently turned down a lucrative offer from this country to come and pose in American-made pictures” (Moving Picture World, April 13, 1912, p.146). Presumably she would have had to act as well as pose, but let’s not split hairs. While all of these glowing comments may appear to show Nielsen doing well in America, we need to remember that Moving Picture World was a trade journal for exhibitors and cinema managers, and not a fan magazine. The distributors went further in trying to kick-start Nielsen’s American career. Throughout 1912, editions of the Cinema News and Property Gazette carried small adverts at the bottom of its pages advertising her films and encouraging exhibitors to show them.
So, during 1912, Nielsen was not only advertised as a big film star about to conquer America, but there is also the sense that she was being promoted in a way that would somehow legitimise cinema itself. Advertisements were comparing her to great stage actresses (and stage was, after all, a far more respectable a medium in 1912 than cinema). She wasn’t just a film star, she was a “supreme dramatic artiste”. However, by 1914, we see clear signs that this attempt to push Nielsen as the next big thing to American audiences had not worked. It’s almost as if the 1912 campaign had exhausted the distributors, and by 1914 she was simply “the German talented actress” in an advert for Behind Comedy’s Mask, and “the most artistic woman in filmdom” in another advert which couldn’t even spell her name correctly. In 1917, Nielsen visited America in person, but by this time Motography, a trade journal, had to explain just who Nielsen was, writing “she is as well known in Europe as Charlie Chaplin is here” (October 13, 1917, p.789). In 1922, Variety reviewed her film Miss Julia and wrote that “Asta Nielsen in the title role has her good moments, but at times, especially as the young girl, is almost repulsively ugly” (March 31, 1922, p.42).
By this point I realise you might be feeling a little bit sorry for poor old Asta who had gone from “supreme dramatic artiste” to “repulsively ugly” in a mere ten years. Even Kevin Costner’s career didn’t fall quite that far. However, there is some good news, folks. For a brief time, the New York Times took Asta to heart. The review in the newspaper of Hamlet (1921), in which Nielsen plays a female Hamlet disguised as a man, was positively glowing, with the anonymous writer declaring: “The Woman can act. She acts. That’s the thing. She does not just pose before the camera, nor does she rant and tear around violently. She impersonates a character, she makes it live and have a meaning, a hundred meanings” (November 9, 1921). However, a few months later, the newspaper was asking why just one of her films (Hamlet) had been shown in the United States (August 6, 1922). This, in turn, is why the digital library is such a great resource. Anyone researching just the New York Times would assume that no previous Nielsen films had been shown in America, whereas we now know this was far from the truth, and a long line of them reached American shores from 1912 to around 1915 or 1916.
So, are there any clues as to why Nielsen’s popularity in America never really took off? Well, a 1912 article in The Implet does provide us at least with a starting point. It reads: “Asta Nielsen, the greatest motion-picture actress in the world, has excited great interest all over the United States. It has been reserved for Denmark to produce an actress of commanding excellence, whose methods are peculiarly adapted to the needs of the moving-picture screen. The film is unique, in so far as American audiences are concerned; unique as regards the settings, which show the characteristic beauties of urban and rural Denmark, which brings the manners and customs of life there vividly before one” (April 13, 1912, p.6). Perhaps Nielsen’s films were just too different in 1912 for American audiences used to one-reel Griffith films and Mabel Normand. OK, I admit that’s a gross simplification, but these imported films were much longer in length and far different in tone than anything being produced and/or shown in America at that time. While the article in The Implet emphasises the uniqueness of these films within the American market, it may well be that they were just that bit too unique for cinema audiences of the time to warm to.
(This post is adapted from a paper given at the Northern Studies Virtual Conference, August 28, 2013)