A still from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari from “The Movies Come From America.”
Update: A reader on the film site, Nitrateville, pointed out that novelist Upton Sinclair wrote about the protest at “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” in his short story/novel, “They Call Me Carpenter: Tale of the Second Coming,” for Hearst International in 1922.
As with most of his writing, he points out the political and social aspects of the protest, that it was not so much about German propaganda, as it was protesting imports that might hurt American business if they were better products. An early dig at the film industry working to try and stop foreign competition might have come back to hurt him when he ran for Governor of California in the 1930s, and the industry worked to smear him and his reputation.
Sinclair describes the scene as his character decides to go to Western City’s Excelsior Theatre on Broadway with his friend, German professor, Dr. Henner, to see a German film that Henner recommended.
They see a large crowd out front, and realize they’re dressed in military uniforms, pushing and yelling at patrons attempting to enter the theatre. Dr. Henner decides to hang back, but the protagonist asks a bystander why the crowd is doing this, and he replies, “Because it’s Hun propaganda.” He breaks through the crowd to get in and asks the man at the door of the theatre if the film is propaganda. The theatre worker replies, “They say they won’t let us show German pictures, because they’re so much cheaper; they’ll put American-made pictures out of business, and it’s unfair competition.”
After watching the film, he realizes how different it is from American films, with the futuristic sets taking him into the dreams and mind of a mad man. He thought it was very interesting and contained fine acting.
Exiting the theatre, he hears the protesters shouting that watchers are sending money to the Germans watching the film, sending their cash to the enemy rather than helping starving Americans. He describes the scene as a mad scene, almost like something out of the movie. He tries to get away, but they start beating and kicking at him, calling him a traitor as he runs for cover.
In effect, he describes how the film industry helped manipulate Anti-German opinion to their own benefit in banning “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” from playing in Los Angeles’ Miller’s Theatre in his fictional account.
Over the last few weeks, news of Sony Studios pulling “The Interview” from film theaters after threats by the Guardians of Peace (GOP), who may or may not be North Korea, flooded the internet. After suggestions of possible 9-11 style attacks on cinemas that might show the film, exhibitors quickly cancelled tit, and it appeared “The Interview” might possibly never be seen. The artistic community scoffed at Sony’s abandoning freedom of speech. It appears as of Tuesday, December 23, 2014, that independent exhibitors approached Sony (or vice versa) and now the film will open in perhaps 200 theaters on Christmas Day.
In May 1921, however, Los Angeles residents caused such a ruckus that the German Expressionist film, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari,” was pulled from Miller’s Theatre, never seen in the city until six years later. This time, creative organizations worked to try and ban all German films from the United States, which would have been a terrible blow to freedom of speech and expression.
May 8, 1921: Protests by the American Legion halt showing of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
‘The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” was praised virtually everywhere it played in the United States that year. Exhibitors’ Trade Review’s January 21, 1922 issue recognized it as one of the Exceptional Photoplays of 1921. Major cities like New York, San Francisco, Seattle, and Philadelphia loved it. In fact, “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” played for months in Philadelphia. Newspapers in such diverse cities as Bisbee, Arizona, Topeka, Kansas, Cleveland, Pittsburgh, and Newberry, South Carolina, praised the film in reviews, calling it sensational, spectacular, or fantastic. Many Americans were flocking to theaters curious to see new artistic foreign films, and came away impressed by the many excellent movies filling cinemas after the long drought during and after World War I.
Unfortunately, American producers, who had long flooded foreign markets with American films, suggested banning or limiting foreign films, German in particular from theaters, stating they were crammed with propaganda. Of course, they also feared competing against such well made films.
May 8, 1921: “Caligari” is canceled.
On April 21, 1921, Wid’s Daily ran an ad from New York’s Capitol Theatre, reporting its second best Sunday ever with over 20,000 paid admissions, their best Monday receipts ever, the best Tuesday receipts ever, and finally the best Wednesday receipts ever, with 10,314 paid admissions, from screenings of “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari.”
While Edwin Schallert of the Los Angeles Times wrote of his desire to see it, and the uncredited May 8 Times review called it “a screen masterpiece,” conservatives railed against Miller’s Theatre’s planned May 7 opening and two week run of the film.
Wid Daily’s Wednesday, May 11 issue reported in detail on the incident. They noted the theatre tried to put on the film “despite the protests by the American Legion, the Motion Picture Directors’ Association, the Assistant Directors’ Association, the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees and Moving Picture Operators. Pickets from these organizations as well as wounded soldiers from the war carried banners admonishing the public not to attend the theater and in general picketed the theater.” Protests began with the first screening that Sunday morning, May 7, continuing until 8:30 at night. About 75 people before 6 pm attended the show, and about half that for the evening show. Demonstrators jeered patrons as they left the theatre, attempted two mob rushes for the door, and threw rotten eggs.
A still from “The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari” from “A Pictorial History of the Movies.”
The May 8 Los Angeles Times called the event the first open fight in the United States against German films. Over 100 men protested outside Miller’s Theatre, with others completely blocking traffic from Eighth to Ninth Street on Main Street, and paralyzed street traffic where Broadway, Ninth, and Main run together.
On May 21, Exhibitors’ Trade Herald called the demonstration “spectacular…the crowd assumed such proportions that police reserves and military police were called out.” They reported that one banner read, “Why Pay War Tax to See German-Made Pictures?” The Motion Picture Magazine noted that after Miller’s Theatre opened the film, “a mob of wounded soldiers and members of the American Legion stormed the place and created such a riot outside the theatre that the management gave up and showed an American film instead.” (“The Money Changers,” starring Claire Adams). On May 26, The Great Falls Tribune reported on the event, giving a side swipe to the city, noting that in many other theaters across the country, patrons had flocked to see the film and admired its artistic production.
Variety’s May 21 edition reported that on May 18 at the Hollywood American Legion, every branch of the film industry joined the Legion to oppose German films in the United States. Groups joining the Legion included Equity, the Directors’ Association, Authors’ League, American Society of Cinematographers, the Hollywood Board of Trade, the Screen Writers’ Association, the Art Directors’ League, the Assistant Directors’ Association, and Central Labor Council, who together forwarded resolutions to President Warren Harding, Mayor Snyder, the LA City Council, and the Motion Picture Producers’ Association, asking the German films be banned from playing in the United States. These machinations appeared to have failed.
While Sony pulled “The Interview” for perceived terrorist threats against movie theaters playing it, in 1921 Hollywood, seemingly every film industry member trade group and union fought to ban German films from ever showing in Los Angeles and in the United States. Freedom of speech won, and the tyranny of the confused and frightened was banished for a few decades.