Book Review: “When Movies Were Theater” — Exploring Where We Watch the Movies

If you are interested in how the architecture within American movie houses shaped the cinema and vice-versa, William Paul’s often brilliant tome is an instant classic.

When Movies Were Theater — Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film by William Paul. Columbia University Press, 432 pages, paperback, $40.

By Gerald Peary


William Paul was a film critic for The Village Voice in its legendary days in the late 1960s and early 1970s, along with Andrew Sarris, Molly Haskell, Stuart Byron, and Tom Allen, the greatest staff of reviewers ever. Afterward, Paul became a film professor at MIT and lived in Cambridge, where we became friends. He published two important books of film criticism, Ernst Lubitsch’s American Comedy (1983), and Laughing Screaming: Modern Hollywood Horror and Comedy (1995). He moved to St. Louis to teach at Washington Universe, and then a two-decade silence for his book output. It took twenty years of research and deep thinking to complete his newly published When Movies Were Theater-Architecture, Exhibition, and the Evolution of American Film. If these are your concerns, how the architecture within movie houses in the USA shaped the cinema and vice-versa, Paul’s often brilliant tome is an instant classic.

Several warnings: this is not a work of nostalgia about glorious days gone by, and it’s most definitely not a book about the beauty of theater architecture. There are plenty of such books, and practically all volumes on early movie houses are paeans to their rococo or Grecian splendor, especially their palatial facades. About the latter, Paul couldn’t care less, as exterior design has no impact on the movies themselves. His focus is inside theaters, whether a first-run movie house, a legitimate theater converted to a film space, a lecture hall in a wax museum (films were projected in such a spot in 1897), a Multiplex shoe-box, a drive-in, a Cinerama showcase. Paul’s obsession is with all of these: any space where people are watching moving images on a screen.

Everyone with a foothold in film history knows that the first movies to be projected were in France in 1895 by the Lumière Brothers, one-minute documentary “actualities.” According to Paul, the Edison Company in 1896 actually beat the Lumières’ arrival in America by two months in a race to be the first here projecting shorts. The premiere Edison screening was in a vaudeville theater, and the mini-movies sprinkled between acts literally mirrored the live performances. They were mostly short clips of acclaimed vaudevillians doing their routines.

This mingling of live entertainment and movies would prosper in later decades, flourishing in the 1920s, though the balance changed. Gradually, film emerged as the main act, the flesh-and-blood performers –musicians, actors, dancers, etc. — a bonus for the audience. Paul theorized that the Depression curtailed most such live accompaniment because it was too expensive to pay for the talent along with renting the movie. Sound, of course, got rid of the on-the-spot musicians. And the rise of double features in the 1930s practically ended any kind of live participation in the movie house. Instead, audiences got the low-budget treat of a “B” picture.

It was in the first years of the 20th century that movies became enormously popular in America, one- and two-reelers shown day and night in so-called “store theaters.” Much like the later advent of video stores, “store theaters” popped up in every neighborhood, the viewing space long and narrow, a projector at the back, a screen at the front, a large middle aisle, and seats on the two sides. There were thousands of these in the USA, a building boom from 1905-1910. Curiously, the lights were kept up in the house so people could enter and exit whenever without bumping into others. Also, according to Paul’s research, so that the audience could read a newspaper when disinterested in the doings on the screen. The 1908 correlative of texting?

At first, actualities were mixed in freely with fiction films. But audiences soon opted for made-up stories. Paul quotes early film historian, Robert Allen: “Between 1907 and 1908, a dramatic change occurred in American motion picture production; in one year narrative forms of cinema (comedy and dramatic) all but eclipsed documentary forms…”


The next part of exhibition history is more complicated. Paul grasps it all. I get some of it. As “store theaters” shut down between 1910-1915, movies were shown most often in already built legitimate theaters, on a screen upstage. There was money to be made, and a business model was borrowed from those robber barons who monopolized American live theater, squeezing out competition. The same would happen in cinema, with smaller production companies pushed from doing business. Paul discovered a major crossover between established theater moguls and up-and-coming movie entrepeneurs, the clearest manifestation of their dealing being the huge number of plays that were converted into films: 103 in 1914, 170 in 1915 (versus 9 in 2007, 3 in 2011). The logic was obvious: it was far more profitable to film a drama and exhibit that film everywhere than to take a play on the road.

Finally, theaters were built exclusively for screening motion pictures. Paul writes of the prototype Strand Theater on Broadway opening in 1914, 3,000 seats including a raked balcony. Other theaters followed, the fancier ones lavish “movie palaces,” culminating in Radio City Music Hall in 1932. These charged far higher prices than the early everyman “nickelodeons.” A new audience — wealthier, more educated — demanded sophisticated prestige movies. The many adaptations of well-known plays were typical of what was now on screen: feature films with high production values and stars in lieu of the crude, anonymous shorts of the “store theaters.”

John Wayne in "The Big Trail." --

John Wayne in 1930’s “The Big Trail,” directed by Raoul Walsh.

In truth, I enjoyed the first half of Paul’s book far more than the second, which seems less cohesive, more a series of esoteric academic papers aimed at experts in architecture and film exhibition. It is no accident that Paul taught at MIT. Besides being a film historian, he has the brain of a scientist, much on display in this book, and also the hefty mind of an economist, also here at work. I’m a misfit reader in either field.

How deep does Paul burrow in his specialized knowledge? Here’s a prime example, complaints lodged in a footnote against the authors of a book called Epics, Spectacles, and Blockbusters: a Hollywood History:

…the presentation is fairly garbled because they are unaware of the connection between the combination system and roadshow exhibitions, they ignore different levels in A-list production, and they do not distinguish between extended-run/reserved-seat and extended-run/grind or pre-release films and programmers…

I have no comprehension of what Paul is carping about. Should I be expected to understand? Perhaps. But I don’t feel guilty skipping 15 pages in which Paul goes scene by scene through two versions of the 1930 epic western, The Big Trail, pointing out differences between the 35mm and 70mm versions. Sorry, that’s padding for this book, and should be saved for a power-point presentation at a conference of film scholars. Philistine me, what I relish far more from When Movies Were Theater are little factoids I had no knowledge of, i.e., that close-ups were often called “big heads” in early cinema days. Paul has learned this two ways, from his assiduous silent-movie research and from having a lunch once with Raoul Walsh, The Big Trail‘s ace director. Walsh talked through the meal of “big heads,” never of close-ups.

Gerald Peary is a professor at Suffolk University, Boston, curator of the Boston University Cinematheque, and the general editor of the “Conversations with Filmmakers” series from the University Press of Mississippi. A critic for the late Boston Phoenix, he is the author of nine books on cinema, writer-director of the documentaries For the Love of Movies: the Story of American Film Criticism and Archie’s Betty, and a featured actor in the 2013 independent narrative Computer Chess.


  1. tim jackson on June 16, 2016 at 12:47 pm

    Fascinating – great book pick and summary. Must read!!!

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