“You’re Doing it Wrong!” Moviegoer Complaints About Cliches, Mistakes and Inconsistencies from December of 1919

It’s no secret that silent era filmgoers were enthusiastic, smart consumers of their modern pop culture. And this meant that they detected patterns, ferreted out cliches and were generally literate and observant audiences.

Photoplay Magazine had a regular feature that published reader complaints about the movies so let’s see what they had to say!

Where There’s Smoke There Must Be a Fireman.

I just saw “Elmo the Mighty” — 7th episode. Elmo was tied to a flat car, the engineer was knocked unconscious, nobody aboard but Elmo and he was rope-tied. But at the same time there came black smoke out of the engine showing that somebody was firing the engine.
Jepthas, Canton, 0.

The silent era, when the name “Elmo” made one think of Elmo Lincoln, the beefy star of Tarzan and not a small red puppet. This one amused me because our hero was tied to a train… car. (The myth that silent films were full of women tied to the tracks is still floating around and it is exhausting.) Alas, this serial is missing and presumed lost.

Even the Word “Tarantula” Frightens is.

I protest the criticism of “The Tiger”s Trail” in October Photoplay, signed L. V Barlament, Green Bay, Wis. He — or she — explains that Noah Webster rates the dreaded tarantula as being non-poisonous and that its sting is no more painful than that of a wasp. This critic therefore concludes that as a “thrill,” the spectacle of a tarantula on Ruth Roland’s arm didn’t “get over.”

I maintain that such a sight is sufficient to rouse the horror in any genuine movie-goer who does not permit his responsiveness to be suppressed by cold, picayunish analysis. A tarantula may not be poisonous but he is certainly a thrilling animal.

This reminds me somewhat disconnectedly of the retort of the Irishman, in replying to the contention that a “barking dog doesn’t bite.” “You know it,” said Pat, “and I know it, but bedivvle does the dog know it?”
Pittypat Van D., St. Louis.

Much though I love the pseudonym of Pittypat Van D., this letter is full of hot air. If a creature is known not to be poisonous, it doesn’t matter how unsuppressed one’s responsiveness is, the creature is not scary. Plus, I have had to deal with my share of people attacking tarantulas, gopher snakes and other harmless critters because they “look” scary. So Pittypat Van D. can take a long walk off a short arch.

Louise Glaum was a famous vamp and the film survives in the Netherlands!

Anticipation, Etc.

In a recent Harry Carey picture a gang of raiders discovered a room full of whisky, and one of the raiders in the foreground actually began to stagger before he had even tasted any of the liquor.

W. Clifton Justice, Cincinnati

Okay, that’s pretty hilarious.

Mebbe Brightville Started It

In D. W. Griffith’s “True Heart Susie” a member of Brightville’s fast set is seen dancing the “shimmie” although the time of the play is 1909.
D.I. Day, St. Louis

The “shimmie” in the western pop culture sense does indeed seem to be a late-1910s dance. If you want to see the shimmie for yourself, the film is on DVD from Flicker Alley.

Portions of this serial survive in archives and collections. Let me know if you saw the table flip!

You can look up lots of swell clippings like these at the Media History Digital Library.

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6 Replies to ““You’re Doing it Wrong!” Moviegoer Complaints About Cliches, Mistakes and Inconsistencies from December of 1919”

  1. I understand that Pearl White was known for playing very physical action hero roles. Indeed, in the Lightning Raider film, she IS the Lightning Raider! I suppose flipping heavy tables effortlessly would have been well within her powers.
    But sure, E.T. Milford: a title card reading “Drop your spoons!” might have been almost as exciting…

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