As part of learning more about With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College, I sought some reading about the early U.S. film era, from around 1900-1915.
Not surprisingly, documentary histories tend to skip this era. While it follows the Lumière brothers’ experiments, it still predates the landmark Nanook of the North (1922), Grierson’s “documentary” definition (1926), and even Hollywood’s emerging dominance. This era’s best-known film is probably Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery (1903), a prototype of the popular western genre that I have tortured more than 20 classes and more than 2,500 students with (and no, not exaggerating that number).
This period, though, was a boon for both fiction and nonfiction films, which often played in theaters on the same bill. Without the documentary or fiction labels that we use today, though, the nonfiction films had other names, including educational, scenic, industrials, topicals, and travelogues.
It is this latter type that Woodbury University professor Jennifer Lynn Peterson examines in her book Education in the School of Dreams: Travelogues and Early Nonfiction Film. Her book offers a thematic analysis of the travelogue, which she defines “as nonfiction motion pictures that represent place as their primary subject.” She situates these films within cultural, industrial, and other contexts of the time.
My post here concerns what I learned from the book and thus does not offer a formal review, though you can find some reviews here and here. I am more interested in what this book tells me about that era and how it informs understanding With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College specifically.
One useful lesson is the basic conventions of these films — what did they look like? Since a print of the film most likely no longer exists, this question is important. Peterson describes the travelogue as series of shots switching between scenery and people. Titles appear between to explain the shots, but no narrative glue unites them. Instead, “The stand-alone quality of the shots is another of the genre’s most notable formal elements,” Peterson writes.
Another useful lesson is the place of these films within the emerging industry at the time. The Selig Polygraph Company is credited for making the film, as companies receive the credit. The idea of auteurs had not yet emerged at that time. Similar to the Production Code era three decades later, these early films faced questions about their respectability and their potential dangers to audiences. Peterson writes how the industry sought to become more respectable in light of these criticisms. Nonfiction film in particular served as part of this cultural uplift. (See Moya Luckett’s Cinema and Community for a more sustained discussion of progressivism specifically relating to Chicago.)
The final useful lesson is the importance of the train in film production during this era. “Railway companies were some of the most important early sponsors of travel films,” Peterson writes. With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College is about a train trip throughout North Dakota, and The Great Northern Railway Company provided equipment for that journey.
Travelogues created a strong connection with popularizing the U.S. West to the U.S. East, showing the former as a place for recreation and for settlement. Train companies, the fastest form of transportation at the time, “encouraged the promotion of the West on film beginning in the 1890s, and in the 1910s, they enlarged the practice by subsidizing numerous film productions and initiating a major tourism promotion campaign using the slogan ‘See America First,'” Peterson writes.
Drawing on Peterson’s comments, we can guess that With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College mostly likely offers a series of scenes about the students and their activities on the special. Intertitles probably explain the images.
The presence of the train companies within early film perhaps explains The Great Northern Railway Company’s donation, not to mention Selig’s production of this film.
But the notions of travel and uplift become more complicated within this film. Travelogues typically show “somewhere else,” allowing viewers to “travel” without leaving their theater seats. Even when representing the West, these films showed national parks and western cities as modern and domesticated, inviting visitors to come see for themselves.
With the Students of the North Dakota Agricultural College, however, stays within North Dakota. The state joined the union in 1889, just 24 years prior to the special, and the college was founded in 1890, just 23 years prior to the special. Staying within the young state’s boundaries made sense for reaching potential local students. Though changing quickly, most people still lived in rural areas at the time, but trains allowed greater opportunities to travel, including possibly leaving home to attend school nearby.
So instead of showing the possibilities of travel elsewhere, this film showed the possibilities of education. In that regard, it serves as part of cultural uplift and progressivism. This purpose suggests that it belongs less to a travelogue and more to the promotional film. Peterson writes, “[I]n the early film era, the boundary between promotional and nonpromotional content was unclear.” Loosely constructed though it most likely was, the journey becomes a frame for the promotional message for the college and perhaps even the train industry.
Peterson’s book was immensely useful and insightful about this period. Her passion for the subject beamed from many sentences. Her clear writing incorporates critical theory but does so in an accessible way and does not get bogged down by it.