The impact of Victorian Theatre on the film industry

Most people going to see plays at the Belasco Theatre in New York would probably not recognise the origin of the theatre’s name.

Kevin Brianton, Adjunct Senior Research Fellow

La Trobe University, Melbourne, Australia

Most people going to see plays at the Belasco Theatre in New York would probably not know the origin of the theatre’s name. David Belasco was an inspiring figure who was a leading figure in American theatre from 1895 to 1915. His theatre was flamboyant, extravagant and spectacular, and he dominated Broadway for decades.[1] Belasco certainly had an impact on Hollywood. He helped launch the careers of James O’Neill, Mary Pickford, Lenore Ulric and Barbara Stanwyck, who became major Hollywood stars. He also had a major influence on Hollywood directors such as Cecil B. DeMille and his influence continues to the present day.

In turn, Belasco had been building on the work of Imre Kiralfy and his spectacular circuses of the 1880s and 1890s. Kiralfy’s Nero or the Fall of Rome – The Greatest Spectacular Production of Modern Times was performed at St. George, Staten Island, New York, in 1888. These shows were part circus and co-produced with P. T. Barnum, the founder of Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey. [2]  The New York Times observed that Kiralfy was: …never satisfied with doing things on a large scale, and in his latest spectacular production, he is fully satisfied in his own mind that he has the biggest thing of its kind on earth. As far as magnitude is concerned, his production of “Nero: or the fall of Rome” is on a colossal scale, and Mr Kiralfy takes pride in the fact that on the biggest stage now built, he places 2,000 people and uses up 20,840 feet of scenery and has a ballet of 500 girls.[3]

Birth of A Nation employed Victorian publicity tehcniques. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

Cinema was only in its infancy during this time, but such shows’ visual display would have impacted those growing up in this environment.  The first major Hollywood director D.W. Griffith had a strong background in Victorian theatre, and he employed a similar technique to Kiralfy when promoting Birth of a Nation in 1915. For example, this ad was printed in The Atlanta Constitution, 12 December 1915: D.W. GRIFFITH’S GIGANTIC SPECTACLE, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, YOU WILL SEE

18,000 People – 3,000 Horses – 5,000 Scenes

  • Petersburg at the height of battle.
  • Lee and Grant at Appomattox.
  • The shot that killed Abraham Lincoln.
  • The pillaging of Atlanta by Sherman’s invaders. [4]

Future directors such as Cecil B.DeMille was only a child at this time. His father Henry worked with Belasco for many years before his early death. With his family’s deep involvement in the theatre, he would almost certainly have attended performances of this or similar events. Such productions made an impact on his cinema. Posters for the Karifly production called it “The Greatest Show on Earth” – a title DeMille would eventually use for his film in the 1950s. Indeed, Nero would feature in The Sign of the Cross (1932), which was based on Wilson Barrett’s religious play of 1895.

Flyers supporting the film Fool’s Paradise (1921) showed an approach to promoting films from the period he would use for his entire cinematic career. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

DeMille’s debt to Victorian Theatre is obvious in both the films and in the publicity he employed. He would convert a stream of Belasco plays to cinema in his early years as a director. Flyers supporting the film Fool’s Paradise (1921) showed an approach to promoting films from the period he would use for his entire cinematic career. It involves highlighting the film’s most sensational aspect and constant repetition of the word “see”.

  • See the wonderful ice-ballet and the flight of the magic carpet.
  • See the marvelous growth of a Mexican oil town.
  • See the great thrill of sacred reptiles and the flight for life against man-eating reptiles.
  • See the spectacular Siam Soo dances by natives and the attempt at a living sacrifice.
  • See the great theatre scenes, the cigar explosion, the knife-throwing villain, the sacrifice of a woman’s soul for the man she loves and a thousand other elements of a marvellous story. [5]
Victorian publicity techniques are in place throughout DeMille’s careers. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

DeMille used this strategy, a direct lift from Victorian theatre, of describing in sensationalist terms some of the key scenes from the film. As late as his third last film Samson and Delilah (1949), he would continue the motif of: “See the seduction of Samson by the infamous Delilah who robs him of his mark of power! See Samson strangle a lion bare-handed, crushing the breast to death with his grip of steel”.[6] The presentation of DeMille’s films never lost a sense of Victorian spectacle.

“See the great thrill of sacred reptiles and the flight for life against man-eating reptiles.” Jurassic Park continues the tradition of Vicotrian Theatre on Hollywood. Image courtesy of eMoviePoster.

DeMille and Griffith could trace their origins back to Victorian Theatre, but they had a great deal of influence on future generations. Directors such as Stephen Spielberg would acknowledge their debt to DeMille. The same sense of spectacle can be seen in films such as Jurassic Park (1993). It has the same basic idea of the story: a family staying together in the face of enormous challenges – and you get to see some great dinosaurs. You could almost use the line that DeMille employed in Fool’s Paradise in 1921. “See the great thrill of sacred reptiles and the flight for life against man-eating reptiles.” The same basic motif can be seen in thousands of films. Victorian Theatre is still very much with us.


[1] William Winter, and William Jefferson Winter, The Life of David Belasco.(New York: Moffat, Yard and Company, 1918).

[2] Robert Sugarman, The Many Worlds of the Circus. (Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2007).

[3] KIRALFY’S BIG SPECTACLE.: DRESS REHEARSAL OF “NERO” AT ST. GEORGE, STATEN ISLAND, The New York Times, 24 June 1888.

[4] The Atlanta Constitution, 12 December 1915: D.W. GRIFFITH’S GIGANTIC SPECTACLE, THE BIRTH OF A NATION, YOU WILL SEE

[5] Fool’s Paradise Flyer, Paramount 1921.

[6] Samson and Delilah, daybill from author’s collection.

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