The Bell of Atri

October 16, 1920 marked an important day in the visual history of Humane Education. This was the first public screening of The Bell of Atri, a film produced by the American Humane Education Society (AHES). The film was shown at the Exeter Theater in Boston, and in attendance were a large number of school children and their teachers.

The Bell of Atri  was based on Henry Wadsworth Longfellow’s poem of the same name. This poem had long been used by those advocating for kindness and justice for all animals, but the film adaptation of this tale had been much anticipated because of the ability of this visual medium to reach such a broad audience.

Longfellow’s poem tells the tale of a abandoned horse who had the eventual good fortune to be living in a village that had a rather unique approach to community justice. In this village a centrally-placed bell which was to be rung when an injustice occurred. The sounding of the bell, according to Longfellow’s tale, gathered villagers together in order to help settle the dispute. In his search for food, the hungry horse in the poem began nibbling on the rope attached to the bell, and in so doing sent the signal to the villagers that an injustice was taking place. The injustice in this case, of course, was the plight of the once-loved horse who was turned out to fend for himself. The “noisy crowd” that gathered at the site of the bell witnessed the Knight who had once proudly ridden this very same horse ordered to “comfort his old age, and to provide Shelter in stall, an food and field beside.”

Illustration of Longfellow’s poem “The Bell of Atri” reproduced in Our Dumb Animals. Collection of MSPCA Angell.

The decision to turn this tale in to a film appears to have been discussed by the AHES as early as March 1916. At that time AHES President, Dr. Francis H. Rowley appealed to readers of Our Dumb Animals for financial assistance for the production of a film, stating that this project “promises to be a production of very high order. Unless all indications fail it will be shown all over the United States, and abroad as well. Its fundamental purpose is to awaken and foster the principles beneath all humane education. Its appeal is to old and young alike.”

The funds for this project was received, and for many years The Bell of Atri was an important tool in the campaign for Humane Education. The Press published favourable reviews of the film, including this one from the Boston Globe

“In its screen presentation the beautiful poem is one to hold the attention of the spectators from start to finish. The pictured story of the aged horse, his ill-treatment and the method by which he won redress for his wrongs is finely presented. No little expense was incurred to secure such a beautiful picture, with its wonderful lesson in kindness to animals, and the part played by the horse in the film presentation shows careful training of the steed. The photoplay throughout is of the best, the scenes both pretty and dramatic. The spectators were generous in their applause of the fine points of the picture.”

The American Humane Education Society made the film available for sale and for rent, and it was, by all accounts, very popular and played to full houses around the United States. The AHES also made the film available for audiences in other countries–the advertisement below mentions that The Bell of Atri was to be “translated into Norwegian and widely exhibited.” The AHES continually marketed the film, but gave it special attention in the months leading up to Be Kind to Animals Week® each year.

Ad for “The Bell of Atri” in April 1927 issue of Our Dumb Animals. Collection of MSPCA Angell

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