First we’ll talk about a pair of tuberculosis films, one from 1912 and the other from 1914. Tuberculosis may seem like a disease of the past, but it is especially relevant to COVID-times in terms of the way it is spread.
It’s too soon for the first COVID feature film to come out, especially since motion picture production has been almost entirely frozen at this point in time, but the documentaries and “documentaries” have already begun to trickle out. First we’ll talk about a pair of tuberculosis films, one from 1912 and the other from 1914. Tuberculosis may seem like a disease of the past (thanks to a highly successful global campaign to eradicate it), but it is especially relevant to COVID-times in terms of the way it is spread. One of the films I want to talk about was made for entertainment. Falling Leaves, directed by one of the pioneers of early cinema, Alice Guy Blaché, is a melodrama, featuring an adorable little girl who wants to save her ailing sister from TB and in the process ends up finding her both a doctor and, as it turns out, a likely future husband. The other film, The Temple of Moloch, was made by the Edison Manufacturing Company in collaboration with the National Association for the Study and Prevention of Tuberculosis in an effort aligned with the agency’s annual Christmas Seal fundraising campaign. Germ theory was a relatively new way of understanding disease in 1914, and this film uses this idea to tell a story about disease’s ability to impact both the poor and the rich. Both of these films rely on disease for their stories, but one deals with it purely for the sake of drama and the other primarily with the aim of educating and improving the health of the viewing public
Marsha Gordon, Ph.D. is Professor of Film Studies in the English Department at North Carolina State University. She is the recipient of a National Humanities Center Fellowship (2019-2020) and is a National Endowment for the Humanities Public Scholar (2020-2021) in support of a new book she is writing about author, screenwriter, and philosopher of modernity Ursula Parrott. She is the author of Film is Like a Battleground: Sam Fuller’s War Movies (2017) and Hollywood Ambitions: Celebrity in the Movie Age (2008), and co-editor of Screening Race in American Nontheatrical Film (2019) and Learning With the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (2012). Marsha does a monthly show, "Movies on the Radio," with NC Museum of Art film curator Laura Boyes and Frank Stasio, on 91.5/WUNC's “The State of Things.” She has also co-directed two documentaries, All the Possibilities… (2019) and Rendered Small (2017).
Miriam Posner, “Communicating Disease: Tuberculosis, Narrative, and Social Order in Thomas Edison’s Red Cross Seal Films.” Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States (Oxford UP, 2011): 90-106.
Kirsten Ostherr, “Movies have perpetuated racist ideas about illness for more than a century,” Washington Post (March 17, 2020).