Three-dollar film tickets!?!: Week of May 17th, 1919

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One hundred years ago this week, Grace Kingsley reported on the latest in inflation:

It has arrived at last—the day of the $3 picture. And D.W. Griffith’s Broken Blossoms, now being exhibited in New York at the Cohan Theater, is the picture that has done it. A telegram received yesterday at the Griffith studio announced the glad news that henceforth all desirable seats in the theater will be $3, and now all the other directors in town are sending hot telegrams to their New York offices.

From other than a financial standpoint the fact is interesting, as Mr. Griffith himself considers the picture his best work. Also, he was not sure of its success, since it is a tragedy, and the public, we are told, demands happy endings.

The distributors had used the strategy of charging $2 for during the early days of release for Griffith’s epics Birth of a Nation and Intolerance, but Broken Blossoms was an intimate film that only took 18 days to shoot. However, it worked: Blossoms was Griffith’s all-time third most profitable film after Birth of a Nation and Way Down East according to Richard Schickel. The reviews were just that good.

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To get an idea of how remarkable a $3 ticket was, average admission price in 1919 ranged from 10 cents in smaller theaters (300 seats) to 25 cents in larger theaters (1,100 seats and over) according to Richard Koszarski. Oddly enough, in 1915, the price theater owners paid for a chair itself was only $2.75!

The new record didn’t affect admission prices for most films (Griffith’s next release, True Heart Susie, was shown at ordinary prices) but occasionally big films like The Ten Commandments (1923) or Ben-Hur (1925) had a “roadshow release” following this model.

The audience didn’t just get a movie for their $3. At the premier, incense wafted over the audience and the theater was decorated in blossoms. There was a live prologue set in “a Chinese joss house filled with characters representative of the story and half concealed, half disclosed by nebulous mists of light save for a rich golden shaft that poured over a white girl lying on a divan,” plus an orchestra playing original compositions by Louis F. Gottschalk and D.W. Griffith to accompany the film, according to The Sun newspaper.

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A leghorn hat

Lillian Gish was also at the premier, but earlier she’d told Kingsley that before she hadn’t had the courage “to face a New York opening—that she never had been present at one of those fateful affairs.” But for this one, she managed to tough it out, with the help of a “great big leghorn hat” and a seat in the back of a box. She was glad she did, telling Kingsley that “after it was over, she confessed the occasion gave her the thrill of her life.”

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Broken Blossoms eventually came to Los Angeles in September, but they got the prologue and three orchestras for only $1.50. Kingsley got to attend and thought it was the “latest marvel of the master picture maker.”

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This week, audiences in L.A. were paying 15-25 cents for matinees and 25-35 cents for evening shows to see two of Hollywood’s biggest stars. They, and Kingsley, enjoyed both of their films very much. At the Kinema, Mary Pickford managed to surprise her with her skills:

you’ve never known Mary Pickford or Daddy Long-Legs either, until you’ve seen them in the marvelous picture brew which that amazingly clever young star has given us. Daddy Long-Legs was delicious as a story, delightful as a play, and is entrancing as a picture. A crowded house went fairly into raptures yesterday, and applause, even at that cold 12:45 performance, punctuated the picture…In short, Mary does as she pleases with us in this—and proves herself, incidentally, a surprisingly versatile actress.

Fritzi Kramer at Movies Silently says it’s still an excellent film.

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Kingsley had even more fun at Grauman’s:

Dashing Doug appears in a rip-roaringly funny and zip-zipplingly thrilly comedy at Grauman’s this week entitled The Knickerbocker Buckaroo, in which the hero leaps over all the obstacles which come in his path from New York all the way to Mexico. The story involves lost treasure….But what’s the use of trying to describe a Douglas Fairbanks comedy? Just take my word for it The Knickerbocker Buckaroo is one of the best and go see it.

Unfortunately, you can’t because it’s a lost film.

Elsewhere in her review Kingsley made a point about appreciating simple pleasures in movies:

Some of us may rave about the high-brows—but we’ll sneak away from the most soulful moment in any of their plays to see Bill Hart punch the nose of the villain who is rough-housing the heroine, while there are moods in which we are just crazy about the subjective drama of Galsworthy and Ibsen, aren’t we always not only willing, but anxious, to view the spectacle of Bill Farnum beating the tar out of the crook who has stolen the money from the poor old man?

Audiences now are the same as they were then, they’re just accustomed to more CGI in their fights.

 

 

 

 

“Broken Blossoms is Blend of Greek, Chinese, London and American Effects,” Sun, May 14, 1919.

“Broken Blossoms” Strong Griffith Drama at Cohan’s Theater,” Evening World, May 14, 1919.

Richard Koszarski, An Evening’s Entertainment, Berkeley: UC Press, 1990.

Richard Schickel. D.W. Griffith: An American Life. NY: Simon and Schuster, 1984.

 

 

2 thoughts on “Three-dollar film tickets!?!: Week of May 17th, 1919”

  1. Whoa – $3 would have been a lot of money, as you said. I just looked it up on an online inflation calculator, and the $3 ticket today would be $44.31. However, it sounds like they tried to give audiences their money’s worth.

    Happily, there is a version on YouTube a person can see for free, minus the incense and blossoms.

    Liked by 1 person

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