Saloons & Cinema from Porter to Prohibition: Report on Research

| October 4th, 2022

The research on this project began on something of a whim. While looking at the Charles Musser documentary Beyond the Nickelodeon (for this course), I was struck by two pieces of information I had not previously known. First, that saloons were utilized as early exhibition spaces at the turn of the century, specifically in the lower class and immigrant neighborhoods of New York City. Second, that Edwin S. Porter actually made films satirizing prominent figures in the temperance movement, most notably Carrie Nation in Kansas Saloon Smashers (1901).

I grew up in barrooms and have been lucky enough to travel the world and visit some of the oldest bars, taverns, saloons, inns, public houses, and cafes in existence. It has gone beyond a hobby. It is a passion, and on this very blog I published a list of my 100 favorite such establishments, open or closed. The notion of my two life passions, saloons and the cinema, having a “special relationship”, was exciting. It sent me on this research journey.

The Lantern Search

My adventures with Lantern were an attempt to confirm the existence of this institutional camaraderie and began with a simple search: “early cinema” and “saloons”. That search came up relatively fruitless, as it should, because “early cinema” did not know it was “early” any more than World War I could augur its sequel decades later. The more worthwhile searches included variations of “cinema”, “saloon”, and “nickelodeon”.

The results were surprising, to say the least. Saloons and cinema were not the institutional Butch & Sundance, fighting the good fight on the battlefield of the barroom. They were Campbells and MacDonalds, two clans at separate ends of a moral and commercial dispute.

Below are three primary sources found in that search, ranging from 1908 to 1932. Currently, I have 11 documents, each furthering the conversation in a new and interesting direction and each of those will be incorporated in the longer paper to be produced at the end of the semester.


1908: The Moving Picture World



The headline reads “Nickelodeon Versus Saloon” and the opening sentence reads, “A South Boston correspondent sends the Boston Transcript a communication in which he points out that the moving picture show is serving as a powerful competitor to the saloon.” Viewing saloons and nickelodeons as competition changed the entire trajectory of the research. Further searches from this time period found similar pieces being written in New York and Chicago.

Since this was the opinion of a third party, presumably a journalist, not an individual involved in either industry, the question must be asked if the sentiment was shared by those actually operating saloons and nickelodeons. Did they view each other as competition? Was that competition exclusively an economic one, i.e., a battle for the working-class wallets in the communities they operated?

(I want to pause here and note that at this stage of the project I have reached very few conclusions. To borrow from Allyson Field, I know what the texts I have are, but I am not certain what they mean.)


1915: Motography


Here was further confirmation of the saloon business struggling in the wake of a proliferation of motion pictures. (There is debate in the piece as to the amount of credit motion pictures actually deserve.) This text focuses not on the consumer, but on consumption, as it suggests an increase in available motion pictures has led to a decrease in intoxication.

One passage definitively stood out:

“…we can safely assume that the normal man who spends his evenings in a saloon away from him family must feel a certain sense of guilt. Many people – perhaps the majority – are so constituted that they cannot entertain themselves; they must have diversion of some sort. In a great many cases, it is that, and not love of the drink, which leads them to the saloon.

It has been proven that men like picture shows well enough to go to them alone – so the incentive to attend needs no moral or ethical boost. But there is no occasion to go alone. The whole family can go for the cost of a round of drinks – and the show lasts longer.”

In cinema, the Prohibitionists have found their hero. No longer must they espouse abstinence from – a famous temperance movement image featured women gathered together with a banner that reads “Lips That Touch Liquor Shall Not Touch Ours” – but now they have second option to promote dedication to.

Again, one must understand that this piece appears in Motography. Further research is required to determine if the whole of the temperance movement shared this sentiment.


1932: Universal Weekly


Carl Laemmle was still head of production at Universal and in 1932 the studio would have been in the middle of their monster movie heyday. (Frankenstein was 1931, The Mummy was 1932 and The Invisible Man was 1933.) This felt like a major discovery: a prominent figure in the industry, writing in an industry-specific periodical, that saloons re-opening would “wreck” their business. This document directly links Hollywood to Prohibition and has subsequently redirected much of my research.

Has the Ground Already Been Walked?

These documents (and the eight others) present a complicated relationship between the saloon and the cinema, but they also present an incomplete history. These documents can all be read as presenting a cinematic perspective, as Lantern skews of course towards media history. I have already mentioned needing more information on Prohibitionists of the period, but I also need evidence that saloon owners themselves viewed cinema as a threat. (The approach to that research will be noted below.)

Before immersing myself fully into this project, I wanted to ensure that historians and scholars had not already done the work. After spending half a day on JSTOR, Project Muse and, well, Google, I determined there has been almost no attention to this specific area. Perhaps, as fate would have it, the topic required someone with equal passion on both sides of the conversation?

The Bowser Section

As luck would have it, at the same time I was conducting this research, I was reading Eileen Bowser’s The Transformation of Cinema for Dana Polan’s class. On page 188, a subheading: “Prohibition Films”. From Bowser:

It was a subplot well suited to the uplift movement and yet could exploit violence and dramatic thrills. Drink led to the breakup of the home, a major social concern of this era. Biograph’s contributions to the cause of Prohibition included A DRUNKARD’S REFORMATION (March 1909) and WHAT DRINK DID (JUNE 1909).¹

Bowser includes some wonderful historical context, but the films became of paramount interest.

A Drunkard’s Revenge (D.W. Griffith, 1909)


In the film, a father returns to his wife and daughter after a night in the saloon. He is dark eyed and belligerent. His daughter asks him to take her to a play and he begrudgingly agrees. In a Shakespearean twist, the play is set at the Ye Olde Black Owl Inn (an indisputably brilliant name) and could be summarized by a banner displayed on stage: “Beware of the Demon Drink”. The father learns his lesson, returns home, throws his booze in the trash, and smokes a pipe with his wife and child.

For the purposes of this project, the most important element of the film is its opening title: “The Most Powerful Temperance Lecture Ever Depicted.” Presenting the film as a lecture immediately suggests it as political propaganda. More research is required into the film’s production history, exhibition, reception, etc.

What Drink Did (D.W. Griffith, 1909)


Once again, we have an opening title card to denote propaganda, as the film is positioned as “A Thoughtful Moral Lesson.”

This is the story of man living a happy life with his wife and two daughters. Soon, at the encouraging of some gentlemen at work, he turns to drinking and begins ignoring his family. One night, his wife sends their daughter to look for him in the saloon. She finds him. He shoves her to the ground. The barman takes umbrage with his behavior and a fight ensues, with the barman pulling out a pistol and accidentally shooting the young girl dead. The husband goes home and apologizes, and the family moves on, minus a daughter.

It is one of the most shocking films I have ever seen. It is made with anger. And just as with the film above, further research is required into its production, exhibition and reception.

D.W. Griffith’s Role

As the director of both films above, I became interested in Griffith’s role in essentially promoting the work of Prohibitionists and his rationale for making these films. I stumbled upon a blog by author John W. Harding and he made an interesting point:

A different style of farce released by Biograph in February 1909, also portrayed public drunkenness for comic effect and was a big hit for Griffith. “The Curtain Pole” featured young Mack Sennett, a chunky, slouching hulk of a man, as an inebriated home decorator on a disastrous errand into town. It sparked Sennett’s own ambition for directing a type of knockabout farce that within a few years would earn him the title of “king of slapstick comedy.”

Something happened at this same time, however, that caused Griffith to reconsider the messages he was sending.  Some say he was moved by the suicide of a popular English actor named Charles Warner, celebrated on Broadway for portraying a dying alcohol addict in the sensational hit play, “Drink.” Or perhaps it was the brand new New York state Board of Censorship that reminded him of the power that movies had on impressionable minds.²

This led me directly to a piece by David Mayer entitled The Death of a Stage Actor: the Genesis of a Film, which details Warner’s passing and the impact it had upon Griffith. It seemed that Griffith’s “turnaround” was morally motivated, and the cinema’s most important filmmaker was engaged in an active propaganda campaign against alcohol.

The Next Phase of the Research

I have become so excited about the topic and its potential that I am starting to consider it as my primary submission with PhD applications next fall. There is still much work to be done on this topic, however, as it transitions from preliminary research to coherent and exciting term paper.

  • What was the response from saloon owners at the time? This research will be done by consulting Christine Sismondo’s America Walks into a Bar: A Spirited History of Taverns and Saloons, Speakeasies and Grog Shops and also through an exhaustive Newspapers.com search, attempting to find quotations from proprietors of the period.
  • I will be reading the two most well-regarded books on Prohibition:
    • Last Call: The Rise and Fall of Prohibition by Daniel Okrent
    • The War on Alcohol: Prohibition and the Rise of the American State by Lisa McGirr
  • Cinema-based texts that should provide value: Lee Grieveson’s Policing Cinema, Robert Sklar’s Movie-Made America, Richard Schickel’s D.W. Griffith: An American Life, Tom Gunning’s D.W. Griffith and the Origins of American Narrative Film and Norman Denzin’s Hollywood Shot by Shot: Alcoholism in American Cinema.
  • Robin Room produced a paper for the Medical Research Institute of San Francisco, published in the British Journal of Addiction in 1988. The paper is titled, Movies and the Wettening of America: The Media as Amplifiers of Cultural Change. This will be an interesting look at what impact depictions of alcohol/alcoholism in the cinema truly have, from the perspective of addiction specialists.


¹Bowser, Eileen. The Transformation of Cinema. University of California Press. 1990.

²John W. Harding. “The Spirits of Biograph: Moonshine and Prohibition in the Age of Griffith”. (Blog post) August 8, 2018. The Spirits of Biograph: Moonshine and Prohibition in the Age of Griffith – John W Harding

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