The Murder of Othello

Source: H.F. Hoffman, ‘The Murder of Othello’, Moving Picture World, 22 July 1911, p. 110

Text: It may be wrong for a writer in one department to go browsing around in the pasture of another. Mr. Richardson is supposed to be conducting the projection department of this paper, and no doubt I am violating all professional ethics when I deliberately steal some of his thunder. I have noticed that sometimes operators have criticised him because he goes to a show and then writes a “knock” about the operator.

If Mr. R. were not so capable of taking care of himself I might feel sorry for him and be inclined to help him out, but as it is I know he would not thank me for such a foolish proceeding on my part. However, there is no law that I can find against the giving of moral support, and therefore whatever I may write about the operator will come under the head of Moral Support.

Many of you exhibitors make use of a little slide that reads: “If you like our show tell others; if not, tell us.” Then when someone tells you your show is awfully bad you call it a “knock” and mumble something about deadheads being the biggest kickers, etc. That is, some of you do, but the majority of you take the criticism in the spirit in which it is given. The politicians say, “Let the tariff be reformed, but only by its friends,” and we say, “Let the moving picture be reformed, but only by its friends.”

Someone has got to do the kicking; that is a certainty, and we feel to a large extent the burden falls upon us who have the welfare of moving pictures at heart. We wish that everything about them were perfect, so we would not have to criticise. We believe we will live to see the day when they will be as nearly perfect as possible, but we also realize that nothing was ever improved by trying to gloss over the faults. One of the best ways to learn things is to learn by making mistakes. Teddy Roosevelt says that the only way to make a people correct their faults is to keep reminding them of those faults. In other words, “Ding it into em.”

There has been considerable written in the past in these pages about bad projection, etc., and the chances are that there will be and ought to be considerably more, just so long as there are exhibitors who stand for films to be run without titles or with the words reading backwards, or a dozen other stupid sins of comission or omission that are to be seen daily almost anywhere. The only way to remedy the fault is to keep on dinging about it.

Your little slide that says “If you like our show tell others; if not, tell us,” is all very pretty on the screen, but it doesn’t amount to much. If you are an exhibitor you know very well that none of your patrons comes to you and tells you your show is “rotten.” In the first place, they wouldn’t want to hurt your feelings, and secondly, they won’t take a chance on you swelling up and asking what people will want next for a nickel. If you are an exhibitor you also know that the public is fickle. You know that they simply reverse your little slide. When your show is good they tell you, and when it is bad they tell others. They like to flatter you, perhaps in the hope of getting on the free list some day. Your faults they relate to your competitor up the street because they may think he likes to hear it and may possibly grant them the freedom of his house, or something else. I don’t know why they do it, but they do.

The opinions of lay critics are not very safe guides, as I have found out once or twice to my sorrow. The public judges by results only. With them a picture is either good or bad, but they could not tell exactly why. Their criticism is not analytical. They do not know good projection from bad, except in the most superficial way. When the operating is bad you never hear them say, “What poor projection they have here.” No; you are more apt to hear them say “I like the pictures, but they hurt my eyes.” When the projection is good they forget about the technical end and lose themselves in the picture itself. Why? Because things are as they ought to be; they expect good projection when they come. They have a right to expect it.

[…]

Now then, having brushed away opposition from all sources, let us proceed with the Murder of Othello. He was murdered by an operator last Friday night. They took him out of his tin armour and placed him on the operating table in the operating room. They made a diagnosis, gave him an anasthetic [sic], then put him through a sausage machine and when the poor fellow came out of the other end he was mangled beyond recognition.

I had been talking just before with the manager. He said, “Yes, I take the Moving Picture World. A manager should not be without it because it is so full of valuable advice. Have you noticed our solid brick operating room?” I then took notice. The place was an airdome seating at least 1,500, with loads of room to spare. Behind the rear seats was a promenade fifty feet wide, and there at the end of the middle aisle stood the solid brick oven on four legs. It covered an area about six feet square or 36 square feet. He could have built a two-story residence there without interfering with anyone’s view, and yet he who took the World for its helpful hints had constructed this 6×6 oven and called it an operating room. Oh, Brother Richardson, you will have to use bigger type.

The Othello picture began with the usual chorus — “What’s the name of this?” “I wonder what this is.” “Mamma, who’s that man?” “Did you get the name?” “I beg pardon, sir, did you notice the title of this?” “I wish I knew what this is all about.” “What is it?” “I don’t know, looks like something from the Bible.” “What did it say?” “Excuse me, was there any name to this?” “No, I didn’t see any,” etc. Now in the name of just plain common sense, I am going to ask why this thing is done, day after day, in so many places. Is it possible that a man can have the nerve to call himself a manager or an operator, and still show such indifference to the one thing of all that brings the people to the place — the picture?

I would like to have a photograph of the mind of such a man to see by what mental process he concludes that the audience knows what it is looking at. After the first offense, if that party were in my employ, he would last about as long as a June frost. All this talk about reels coming from the exchange without titles is a lazy man’s excuse. Cover glass is cheap and title slides can be written in half a minute. Fancy lettering is not necessary and takes up too much time. There is nothing in a temporary slide that looks any better than good plain handwriting, especially if the slide is tinted and the principal words are properly capitalized and underscored. Try it and you will find it better than most of these horrible hand-printed affairs.

The big laugh in Othello came with the first scene when the title and sub-titles came through reading backwards. It was the same laugh you hear when a song slide gets in upside down. But the fun didn’t end there. Instead of clipping his film at once and reversing the upper reel, the operator let the whole thing go through the way it was. We are all aware that Othello is not the easiest subject in the world to follow, even under the best of circumstances. The title and all the sub-titles are extremely necessary, even to those who know it, and a good lecture should go with it for those who do not. Imagine the audience then, for the most part in utter ignorance of what they were looking at. The light was vile. The patrons had their choice of two things to look at. On the sheet the spectacle of a white woman smearing her love upon a colored man, or in the operating room, the operator who had attracted their attention.

It seems that in his dilemma he had hit upon the idea of hiding his mistake by speeding up his machine when the sub-titles appeared, so as to get them over with quickly. But the racket of it only made matters worse by drawing their attention to him. All thought of how the audience was enjoying the picture was far from his mind, but they were enjoying it just the same. They quickly saw that he was trying to pull the wool over their eyes so they began to watch for the sub-titles. When these appeared mid he put on the high speed the audience would howl with delight. He was greeted with mock applause, laughter, cat calls and other noises. Nobodv felt bad when Othello breathed his last. The program was short on comedy anyhow, and this filled the bill very nicelv. On my part, for a long time to come, I will remember the murder of Othello.

Comments: The film of Othello was probably the Film d’Arte Italian production Otello (Italy 1909), which was released in the USA in April 1910. Mr Richardson is F. H. Richardson, who wrote a technical advice column for Moving Picture World. H.F. Hoffman was a film lecturer and occasional writer for the journal.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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