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«The Reward of Courage (1921) A rediscovered cancer film of the Silent Era David Cantor, PhD Office of History, National Institutes of Health ...»

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In commissioning The Reward of Courage, the ASCC built upon a growing enthusiasm for film as a tool of public health education.28 For many physicians and public health officials, the motion picture had the unique ability to encourage personal and social transformation. It could present vast amounts of information, much more than the printed word and still images. It could take people places and show them things that a physical demonstration or lecture could not. And, the ability of moving images to evoke emotion, entertain, and educate seemed to be unrivalled by other media, at least according to advocates of motion pictures. There were some who questioned such claims, but from the 1910s on, a large number of films were released on topics such as alcoholism, water and food contamination, tuberculosis, and venereal disease.

Some were made by physicians themselves, others by commercial film companies (anxious, in part, to counter the reputation of motion pictures as corruptors of public morals), and others by state and city governments, health charities and advocacy organizations, and, especially during the First World War, by the federal government.

The ASCC echoed this excitement about film, but also approached the technology with caution. The Reward of Courage was to be the first ever public education film about cancer, but the ASCC (despite Osborne’s and Powers’ enthusiasm for motion pictures) did not regard it as a simple solution to its educational goals. Like other health organizations, it believed that movies had an exceptional ability to instruct, but it also suggested that this exceptionality was brought out best when film was used in concert with other, more traditional, educational media such as pamphlets, posters, slides, newspapers, and lectures. With this in mind, Osborne wrote a scenario for the film, and asked a former colleague at the American Social Hygiene Association for advice on production. The colleague was the Association’s director of exhibits, H.E.

Kleinschmidt, a prominent advocate of film in health education.29

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Frank A. Tichenor and his son Frank A. Tichenor Jr. Undated photograph, probably from late 1910s/early 1920s. Source: Tichenor scrapbook, author’s collection. Reproduced with permission of David Cantor.

Kleinschmidt persuaded Osborne that the ASCC did not have the ability to make the film in-house, so he turned to a commercial film entrepreneur called Frank A. Tichenor for help.31 (Fig. 3) Tichenor was the head of the Eastern Film Corporation, which had been founded in 1915 in Rhode Island as a film production and distribution company that Tichenor hoped would rival some of the largest entertainment studios then in existence. But things did not work out as Tichenor wanted, and Eastern largely abandoned entertainment films in favor of producing and distributing educational, training and industrial films, and movies for political and advertising campaigns. Whereas in 1915 Tichenor had been at the center of the entertainment film world, hobnobbing with film stars and directors, by the 1920s his business contacts were very different.32 Much of his new work involved cultivating sponsors for the new types of films Eastern was to produce, and persuading them that film could be a part of their educational, training, or publicity efforts. But, it was often an uphill task selling films to sponsors. Films were expensive to produce and for customers to buy, and potential clients were not always convinced of the value of film over more traditional, and often cheaper, means of education—newspaper articles, lectures, lantern slides, and so on. The Reward of Courage was one of Tichenor’s first major commissions, and an important one since it came with quite a bit of money. The ASCC had gotten $8,000 from the Rockefeller Foundation to make two movies—one targeted at the medical profession, and one targeted at the public.33 It is unclear whether the medical movie was ever made, but the public education movie went ahead, and became The Reward of Courage.34

Figure 4

The Reward of Courage was set in Pleasantville, Pennsylvania, but someone forgot to check all the props. The automobiles have Rhode Island plates (“R.I.”), the state where the film was made. Note the reverse text at the edge of the film. This image comes from the original nitrate print. This and figures 5–9 were produced by the Library of Congress.

The timing was opportune for Tichenor. With the withdrawal of the federal government from public health film production after World War I, numerous new companies began to enter the field, and Eastern found itself struggling to differentiate itself from the competition. The ASCC commission provided a way to do this. Eastern sought to portray itself as a producer and distributor of high quality films35—by implication in contrast to the many other companies that (from Eastern’s perspective) produced films of lesser quality and of dubious educational value. The ASCC commission came with a sizeable budget that allowed Eastern to consider making a film that would allow it to distinguish its output from the many lesser films it believed were flooding the market. The company took Osborne’s script, added some human interest in the form of a love story, and began production.36 Filming took place over the summer of 1921 at Eastern’s studios in Providence and in various other locations around Rhode Island, and the film was released just before National Cancer Week, sometime in late October 1921.37 Most of the location shots cannot be identified, except that they are all in Rhode Island or nearby. Nor are the actors known. In general, Eastern tended to rely on actors from local Rhode Island theatres or touring companies, but occasionally it would bring them in from New York.





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Miss Keene, the nurse at Dr. Dale’s clinic, examines Anna Flint. This is probably the first cinematic representation of a breast examination for cancer in a public health movie.

The stories in the film The film is a melodrama set in the fictional town of Pleasantville, Pennsylvania, (but see Figure 4) and is made up of several interwoven stories — a love story, a story of a woman endangered, a story of a sleazy quack, and a story of a hardheaded businessman converted to a progressivist belief in the value of medicine to industry.38 Perhaps the most surprising to a modern audience is the inclusion of what one commentator later called “a beautiful home love story.”39 This is the tale of Eugene (Gene) Barnes and Dorothy Flint. Gene and Dorothy are due to marry, but Dorothy is also being wooed by Morris Maxwell, whom her mother, Anna, prefers as a future son-in-law. Dorothy is not interested in Morris, and brushes him off when they first meet, to Maxwell’s discomfort. But a more serious threat to Dorothy and Gene’s future emerges when Anna discovers a lump in her breast and turns for help to Miss Keene, an old friend of Dorothy’s and a nurse. In what is probably the first representation of a breast examination for cancer in a public health movie (Fig. 5), Miss Keene confirms Anna’s suspicions, and Dorothy calls off her engagement with Gene, as the intertitle puts it, sacrificing “her own happiness through the mistaken idea that the disease was hereditary.” Their marriage is only saved when the surgeon Dr.

Clinton (whom we never see on screen) persuades her that cancer is not hereditary. (Fig. 6) Surgery offered hope for those with a broken heart as well as for those with cancer.

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The love story: 1) The lovers separate (in blue). 2) The lovers are reunited (in amber). 3) The happy outcome of their union (in pink). 4) And all because of Dr. Clinton.

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A) Morris Maxwell, Dorothy’s sleazy suitor, on the porch of the Flint’s house. B) Radiumized Paste, his fraudulent cancer cure.

The love story served to reinforce a broader ASCC educational message about the hereditary nature of cancer. Pamphlets circulated by the cancer society during the 1921 Cancer Week noted that cancer was not inherited, and that it was not even certain that a tendency or predisposition to the disease was inherited.40 The real danger, according to the ASCC, was that the public belief that cancer was a hereditary disease encouraged those “infected with this disease desire to conceal it,”41 perhaps out of shame. The result was twofold.

Not only did this belief generate “much needless worry about inheriting the disease,”42 it also encouraged people to delay going to their physicians until it was too late to treat them successfully. The love story was thus a warning against what the ASCC regarded as mistaken and dangerous beliefs about cancer — dangerous both to patients, and to the success of the anti-cancer campaigns.

The love story is also interwoven with the story of a vulnerable woman endangered—this is the story of Dorothy’s mother, Anna, and her discovery that she has breast cancer. The danger, however, comes not only from her cancer, but also from the figure of Morris Maxwell. Maxwell, it turns out, is not only a sleazy rival to Gene as suitor to Dorothy, but also little more than a fraudulent healer. (Fig. 7) Maxwell claims to be associated with a philanthropic group of scientists who offer a cancer treatment called Radiumized Paste, sold with the label — “NO KNIFE, NO PAIN, No Failure Recorded.” The label gives the clue that Morris is not what he claims to be, for the Cancer Society asserted that no paste or salve ever cured cancer, and that those who offered such cures were not to be trusted, especially those who, like Maxwell, offered a cure based on a secret remedy. Secret remedies were another sign of untrustworthiness, and those who substituted secret remedies for surgery were especially to be damned — the “knife” in the label above referred to surgery.

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Hidden behind a curtain, Morris Maxwell overhears a conversation about Anna’s cancer diagnosis before offering Anna a painless “cure” for the disease for $200.00 – his Radiumized Paste.

Morris is perhaps the strongest character in this movie, and the filmmakers and the actor seem to have had a lot of fun trying to present him as sly and conniving. He is a stage villain, who listens secretly behind a curtain (Fig. 8), and takes advantage of what he overhears to exploit Anna’s vulnerability — she has just heard that she needs an immediate operation, and Maxwell, hoping for a financial return, is quick to reassure her that she doesn’t need it. An intertitle describes him as “apparently a gentleman of leisure,” a choice of phrase that establishes Maxwell as a very different sort of character to the other men in the movie — Gene, Marshall Flint (Anna’s husband, and the owner of the Pleasantville Accessories Supply Company)43, and Dr. Dale (a physician in the company’s clinic). Compare Maxwell’s aristocratic clothing — the jacket tails for example — with the plainer clothes of Gene and Dale (who also wears a white coat), and even Marshall’s attire of a successful businessman, better cut than Gene’s and Dale’s.

Also, look at the way Maxwell uses his cigarettes. A modern audience might see this hinting at lung cancer, but this was probably not the concern at the time.

Gene and Marshall also smoke, but they do not smoke with the same style as Maxwell. Watch how the actor playing Morris uses the cigarette in the porch scene before he meets Dorothy to signify Morris’s complacency and selfsatisfaction; note his extravagant cigarette holder in the living room or parlor scene with Marshall, Anna, and Dorothy, signifying Morris’s affected, if not effete nature (by contrast, Marshall the vigorous businessman smokes a more manly cigar); or how he discards a lighted cigarette when approaching the Flint’s house later in the movie, to signify Morris’s contempt for the Flints. Where Marshall, Gene, and Dale all value productive work, Maxwell enacts Thorstein Veblen’s characterization of a gentleman of leisure. He is someone who apparently has the pecuniary ability to live a life of idleness, free from the need to make money. Audiences might also expect him to live such a life from a sense of productive work as unworthy.44 Note also the word “apparently” — as in “apparently a gentleman of leisure.” Maxwell is in fact not a gentleman of leisure, but someone who seeks to give a convincing impression of such a lifestyle. Thus, while he tries to suggest that he does not have to work, in fact, like Marshall and Gene, he does have to work to make a living. However, his work is not like that of Maxwell, Gene, or Dale.

Where the latter three undertake productive work that benefits both themselves and others, Maxwell’s work is only for his own benefit and is actually harmful to others. The movie makes clear that the consequences for Anna will be disastrous if she remains under his sway. Maxwell is a counterfeit, just like his medicine, and his style of clothing and mannerisms while aping those of the rich are also affectations that point a finger of suspicion at him.

Even his one redeeming grace—his apparent involvement with a group of philanthropic scientific men—is little more than a sham.



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