Sociology of Film

Source: Miss…, quoted in J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), p. 222

Text: Personally I find a good movie story enriches my memory and have proved that the cinema has educated the community and films have gained far more recruits for literature than the stage ever succeeded in doing.

Also recently when the whole world looked dark after a particularly trying week of hard work, I dropped into a local cinema to see Cover Girl, I left feeling amazingly refreshed, tackled the necessary household duties, and then — I made over one of my very old dresses (inspired by a dress worn by the star) arranged my hair à la Hayworth, and faced the world with new pep! And thanked my lucky stars I was fortunate to be living in this film-mad generation.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’, for which responses were sought via Picturegoer in February 1945 to two questions: Have films ever influenced you with regard to personal decisions or behaviour? and Have films ever appeared in your dreams? Cover Girl (USA 1944) starred Rita Hayworth.

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Source: Leila Berg, Flickerbook (London: Granta Books, 1997), p. 81

Text: Everyone in our street went to Town to see The Jazz Singer. (Not Mrs Taylor. But Louis went.) It spoke! The picture spoke! Everyone was calling to each other in the seats. I was afraid they wouldn’t stop calling when it started. This was the first time ever in the whole world a picture has spoken.

The grown-ups were crying all the time. All the way through. Especially when he sang Mammy, and Kol Nidre. They were crying and wiping their eyes. Everyone thought when he sang Mammy he was singing to them, that they were his mammy, and he was their boy. When they came out, they were saying ‘A Yiddishe boy, nu!’ as if they were very happy. But they were still crying.

Just one grown-up crying makes you cold inside, because you need them to be happy. But they were crying at the Mammy song and being happy at the same time. I don’t understand it.

Comments: Leila Berg (1917-2012) was a British children’s writer and left-wing journalist. Her unusual memoir Flickerbook documents her upbringing among Manchester’s Jewish community, written as though the incident described are recent recollections. She was ten years old at the time of this memory. The Jazz Singer (USA 1927) was the first feature film to feature spoken dialogue (in this case by synchronising the film with sound discs), but numerous short films with speech and song has been released before it.

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Source: Diary entry for 30 March 1939, in George Orwell (ed. Peter Davison), Diaries (New York/London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2009), p. 150

Text: Ship gives out a cyclostyled sheet of news every day. Movies occasionally (have not seen them yet).

In Casablanca went to the pictures, & saw films making it virtually certain that the Fench Gov.t expects war. The first a film on the life of a soldier, following up all the different branches & with some very good shots of the inner arrangements of the Maginot line. This film had evidently been hurriedly constructed & went into much greater detail than is normal in films of this kind. The other was the Pathé news gazette, in which the announcer gave what was practically a political speech denouncing Germany. Then more shots of British & French troops etc. The significant point was the attitude of the audience – utterly unenthusiastic, hardly a clap, & a few hostile comments.

Comments: George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair (1903-1950), British novelist and essayist. He kept intermittent diaries from 1931 to 1949. Orwell and his wife lived in Morocco for six months from September 1938 in the hope that the climate would be good for his health. This diary entry was written while at sea on his return to Britain. He had left Casablanca on 26 March 1939. Orwell seldom mentions cinemagoing in his writings, but occasional references such as the above indicate that he saw films not infrequently.

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The Way of a Transgressor

Source: Negley Farson, The Way of a Transgressor (London: Victor Gollancz, 1935), pp. 328, 567

Text: We saw Marseilles at its very best as a colourful sink of iniquity. Cox’s were a bit obtuse in Marseilles (they hadn’t got on to the curves of the Temporary Gentleman yet), and they allowed every officer to draw £5 a day as long as he was in a Transition camp. As a result we saw a glittering riot of life as it is lived over by the harbour where the Mediterranean shipping ties up alongside the sidewalks, and we were broke in Egypt for months afterwards.

We saw Marie’s, the most famous brothel in the world, with its staggeringly obscene movie. In those days the star film was a French comedian, à la Charlie Chaplin, seducing a dairymaid in the barnyard. When I saw it again in 1930, on my way back from India, the style had changed. It was now strictly Lesbian and homosexual.

Jack and I both admitted that anything more calculated to take all the enthusiasm out of a man, than watching that movie in cold blood, could hardly have been devised.


Eisenstein dined with us several times in our rooms in the Grand Hotel, telling us about his new picture, The General Line. The night we went to its uncensored version for a private showing, I took the daughter of one of the ambassadors with me. She was a girl with a rare sense of humour; but when we saw ourselves watching Eisenstein’s unblushing reproduction of the love story of a bull — from where he first saw an attractive cow, all the way to baby bull — we did not know where to look. It was as hot as some of the movies I had seen down in Marie’s brothel in Marseilles.

But, my God, what a film!

Comments: James Negley Farson (1890-1960) was an American journalist, author and traveller, known in particular for his reporting of the Russian Revolution. The two sections quoted here from his memoirs date from 1918 and 1929, the former while he was serving with the American Air Force, the latter taking place in Moscow. Pornographic films were exhibited in brothels from the earliest years of cinema.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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Youth at the Gate

Illustration from Youth at the Gate

Source: Ursula Bloom, Youth at the Gate (London: Hutchinson, 1959), pp. 23-26

Text: On Tuesday, August the fourth, when we were already half-way through the evening programme at the White Palace, Mr. Clements returned and started to talk again. He said that he wanted the national anthems of all countries who would be our allies to be played in a kind of pot-pourri at the end of the evening, ours as the final one.

I did not think it was a good idea. Already innumerable countries were involved, some with very long national anthems, and it would take a time to compose and to play when all the audience asked was to be allow to go home.

He looked at me With gaunt dark eyes on either side a big nose which was like an eagle’s beak. He was horribly worried, we knew that because his finger-nails were bitten to the quick (one of his nastier habits) and last week one of the girls had noticed that they were actually bleeding.

Mr. Clements was on the Stock Exchange (the Cinema being merely a hobby), and with war coming he saw disaster ahead. It is pathetic that at the time I did not realize that his wife had a daughter by a previous marriage to a German, a girl born deaf and dumb, and both of them were in agony lest Olga would be taken from them and put into a detention camp. I had never heard of such a place.

Earlier this evening Brooker the commissionaire had gone. A policeman had come for him, which alone caused some perturbation, but he was an old soldier on the Reserve.

We wished him well, and those who could gave him something ‘for luck’, there seemed little time for goodbyes. This had brought the war considerably closer. Brooker, a very ordinary little man, who had never even been particularly brave with the drunks, suddenly glittered into something of a hero.

‘God only knows what’ll happen,’ said Mr. Clements in anxiety. ‘It’ll be the end of the world as we know it. One thing is certain, England’ll never be quite the same again.’

I was contemptuous. I thought he was cowardly, something to be despised in this moment of thrill. If we went to war (and oh, how I hoped we should!), England would rise with a glory never before achieved.

‘Maybe it’ll be nicer than you think? I suggested as I wrestled with ‘Poet and Peasant’ on the cottage piano.

‘You’re just a silly little girl! You don’t know a thing about it and you’d better hold your tongue,’ he snapped, then swept out through the curtains, which at the start had been second-hand, leaving me with a haze of their dust and facing the nastier bits of ‘Poet and Peasant’.

The ‘Pathé Gazette’ flickered across the screen with pictures of the Reserves being called up, to be greeted with violent applause from the twopennies. A destroyer put out from Harwich harbour. A slide told the audience that so far – my tin clock told me it was nine o’clock, just before the ‘big picture’ – Germany had not replied to our ultimatum, and the twopennies booed.

The cinema darkened again, just above me lights played on to the screen, and the tin clock (one-and-sixpence) on the piano top began to tick away the last vital minutes of the old régime. At the dramatic moments of one’s life one does not recognize the tensity of emotional crisis. Sitting there playing for Mary Pickford was just another night in my life. No more.

When the end came I played the national anthems, but the audience did not stay, for they were eager to rush out and hear if we were really at war or not. Not yet. I closed the piano lid, and pushed the borrowed music into a box, for at all costs we had to keep that clean or the shop on Hollywell Hill wouldn’t take it back next Monday. I went through the deserted foyer, up shoddy stairs to where Teddy was waiting with his chocolate tray to get it checked. As nobody else came to do it, he and I achieved this together.

The two girl attendants pulled on coats which hung on a wall hook, the only attempt at a ladies’ room that we had. There was no lavatory of any kind and in emergencies one had to go up to the station which was a considerable Way off. Any natural need of this kind was vulgar and could not be mentioned. Mother always said it was better than in the eighties when one was prepared to die than admit that nature could no longer contain itself, and some people had died, she vowed.

I went downstairs again into the foyer which advertised next week’s programme in big colourful posters to catch the eye. We should be running Les Misérables, a picture I had selected. Montie was waiting, in the green suit of the era, and with a stick.

‘Have we gone to war?’ I asked.

He didn’t know.

Comments: Ursula Bloom (1892–1984) was a British novelist, the author of hundreds of works, including several volumes of autobiography, including Youth at the Gate. She worked as a pianist at the White Palace cinema in Harpenden, Hertfordshire, over 1913-14, until the outbreak of the First World War.

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Diaries and Letters 1945-62

Source: Harold Nicolson (ed. Nigel Nicolson), Diaries and Letters 1945-62 (London: Collins, 1968), pp. 291-292

Text: 14th December 1955
C.1 Albany, W.1

I went with Baba, the Douglas Fairbankses and the Walter Moncktons to the first night of Olivier’s Richard III. The Queen was there, radiant in pink and diamonds. Oh, I did love the film so! They took John Gielgud by the heels and pushed him head-forward into a butt of Malvoisie; they cut off Hastings’ head on a block; they strangled the young princes; and in the end off they went to Bosworth Field which, for film-purposes, was situated in the vicinity of Madrid with a distant line of Castilian mountains – not one little bit like Shropshire. But Olivier was superb, really superb, and in the end he is cut to pieces and thrown over the back of a packhorse and carried away a bleeding corpse quite dead. The crown is found under a bush and placed on the head of Henry Tudor. Oh my word, what a film! Then off we all went to supper with Douglas Fairbanks. Twenty-one people, including the Oliviers.

Comments: Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) was a British diplomat, politician and diarist. Richard III (1955), adapted from Shakespeare’s play, was directed by and starred Laurence Olivier. John Gielgud played the Duke of Clarence. The Battle of Bosworth was indeed filmed in Spain. The film was premiered at Leicester Square Theatre, London on 13 December 1955. Despite the presence of Queen Elizabeth II, it was not a Royal Film Performance.

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An Angel at My Table

Source: Janet Frame, An Angel At My Table: The Complete Autobiography (London: Virago, 2010 – orig. pub. as three separate vols; vol. 2, An Angel at My Table, first pub. 1984), pp. 68-70

Text: When I was not going to Mrs P.’s with Myrtle or downtown to look at the boys, I now spent my time with Dots and Chicks, preparing for our lives as actresses and concert performers. Each week the scene was set for the following week by the Saturday afternoon ‘picture’. We went to every film, watching through the news, the cartoon, the Pete Smith Novelties, the James Fitzpatrick travel talks, the serial, and, after halftime or interval, the ‘big picture’. Sometimes I went with Myrtle, who was keen on Jack Dixon, the projectionist at the Majestic, who lived up the road in a house with a high macrocarpa hedge in front. When the music and the funny pastel advertisements of Oamaru shops had finished and the programme was about to begin, we’d see him walk the length of the aisle, go through a small door down by the stage, ‘to turn on the sound’, Myrtle would explain, then, returning, walk past us again, along the aisle, or go upstairs to the projection room, and sometimes we’d look up and see his shadow, high up near the ceiling at the back, and Myrtle would nudge me again and say, ‘There’s Jack Dixon moving around upstairs, The pictures are starting.’

There’d be a funnel of light directed onto the screen, the whirring noise of the film, and Jack Dixon was at work in earnest. He was a neat young man, rather pale but handsome, and the coat of his striped suit was always buttoned in front, the way George Raft buttoned his coat, except that George Raft was a villain.

Each week the manager, Mr Williams, appeared on the stage to announce competitions and to remind the adults about the community sing that was held at the Majestic each week. Mr Williams took the promotion of this films very seriously, and every serial had its special competition. We loved the serials, although our belief in them changed to a cynical tolerance when we realised that the hero and heroine were immortal in spite of those episodes where they lay beneath the stone crusher or in the caves with the sea advancing. Three memorable serials were The Lost Special, about a train that disappeared; The Invisible Man, who needed only to press a contraption on his belly button to disappear; and The Ghost City, a Western. The Ghost City was lettered in our minds, for each week we were given cardboard letters, each of the title, and the person first completing the title won the prize. There was furious searching, swapping, but what could be done with five Y’s or three C’s? I had a handful of H’s. It was no use; we never won.

Then a chance came at the Opera House for someone in Oamaru to make ‘the big time’ in films. We knew what would happen. We’d seen it often enough in the films and read of it in the Motion Picture Weekly: the performance in the small-town theatre, (Oamaru), the presence in the audience of the Hollywood talent scout, then the contract, Hollywood, and the Big Time, with a house full of white telephones, dresses made of sparkly, scaly stuff like mermaids’ dresses when you attended your premiere.

It happened that an Australian company wanted a young actor. Filled with the anticipation of being ‘discovered’, we flocked to the Opera House to find out that when the Australian producer called for volunteers to go on stage and, leaning towards an imaginary mine, cup their hands and cry, ‘Look out, there’s dynamite down there’, only a handful of children were bold or brave enough to offer. We watched, amused, scornful, envious, admiring, while each performed. Some were scared at the last minute. Some made fools of themselves. Not Avril Luxon, whose glory shone a little on us, for he lived in the house on the other side of the bull paddock and his father was the butcher, going around with a horse and cart and wearing a striped apron with a worn leather bag like a bald sporran dangling in front, where he kept the money. Avril was a short, stocky boy with a red, freckled face and red hair, but his ‘Look out, there’s dynamite down there’ echoed through the Opera House, and his performance is the only on I remember. He didn’t win the part, though. Someone from Auckland, where people were more clever, won the film test and went off to Australia, on the way to Hollywood and the coveted Big Time, while our life in Oamaru settled again to the collection of letters for The Ghost City or playing the film we’d seen that week or writing our secret codes or trying to dance the Highland Fling, the Sword Dance, the Sailors’ Hornpipe, the highland Chantreuse (which we knew as the Scottish).

Comments: Janet Frame (1924-2004), born Nene Janet Paterson Clutha, was a New Zealand author and autobiographer of note. She spent part of her 1930s childhood in the town of Oamaru, on South Island, from which the above extract from her memoirs comes. The American producer Pete Smith made a variety of entertainment short film, including the famous Pete Smith Specialities, though these dated from 1936, after the time described here. The Invisible Man serial to which she refers may be The Vanishing Shadow (USA 1934).

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An Island Night’s Entertainment

Source: ‘Inbad’, ‘An Island Night’s Entertainment’, Ladies’ Mirror, 1 May 1925, pp. 59-60


by “INBAD”


Those who only know the “Movies” in such palatial homes as New Zealand provides may care to hear how we unsophisticated South Sea Islanders keep in touch with the screen world.

As I sit on my front steps watching the star-shadows of the cocopalms lengthen on the green until they fade away as the sun sinks, and the hills take on the wonderful afterglow of the tropics, there comes into my head a verse of Laurence Hope’s which might have been written about this spot:

The daylight is dying, the flying fox is flying.
Amber and amethyst flame in the sky;
See, the sun throws a late, lingering roseate
Kiss to the landscape to bid it goodbye.

The glow on the hills gradually fades until only little clouds high up keep the warm tint; the chatter of hundreds of mynahs in the purau trees dies away as they settle for the night, and gradually the scent of a myriad flowers, unnoticed in the day, steals down the soft breeze and mingles with the smell of wood smoke from the neighbouring village as the evening meal is prepared. Just as I knock the ashes from my pipe preparatory to going indoors to light the lamp and settle to an evening’s reading, a figure comes soft-footed across the lawn and proves to be Johnny Pokia, a native planter who is my nearest neighbour. The white vest and scarlet pareu set off his muscular figure as our bifurcated garments never could, and one wonders anew at the narrow ignorance of the missionaries who introduced and insisted on European clothing.

“Haeremai, Johnnie! Metake?” and his wonderful teeth flash as he comes up and takes a seat on the steps.

“You goin’ pickshurs to-night?”

I had forgotten that it was picture night, and had looked forward to a quiet evening. Still –

“Good picture you think, John?”

“Yes. Charlie Brown tellin’ me gooood pickshur. Plen-ty fight’n!”

“You going John?”

“I dunno. What you t’ink?”

The troubled look on John’s face is explained. Alas, a lack of the needful has kept others from their heart’s desire ere this!

“All right. I’ll come. Go and get dressed and tell your boy and girl they can come too.”

Johnnie’s gloom vanishes as if by magic. As he turns away and as I rise to go in to change (for I, too, wear vest and pareu in my isolated home), there is a faint distant throbbing in the air which gradually draws nearer and nearer until the headlights of a big lorry appear round a point.

This brings Charlie Brown with the projector and films from his plantation home near Arorangi and the throbbing emanates from a number of his “boys” clustered on the tail of the car who beat a drumming advertisement along the route that this is picture night. Their instruments are crude – an empty kerosene tin, two or three sections of hollowed log, and a bass drum, — but the effect is surprising. First a rattling roll on the tin, then the logs take it up, the tin stops and a single drummer beats time on a hollow bamboo. Suddenly the others join in with a crash in marvellous time and the lorry thunders past my wharé to the accompaniment of a rolling, throbbing, reverberating roar that gets into the blood as does no other instrument but the pipes.

As I go in to change I concur with the writer who said that every South Sea native appeared to have swallowed a metronome.

In a few minutes I am ready – island toilets are not elaborate – and there comes a timid knock at the door. It is John’s small girl who brings me a crown of flowers to wear. As this custom is not commercialised here as in the larger islands of Hawaii and Tahiti, it is still a sign of friendship and esteem, so I am proud to wear it. It is composed of the waxen tiaré maori interspersed with the scented pits of pineapple rind and red berries from the “bush,” cut in spirals which dangle down at the sides.

John appears in a smart white duck suit and white canvas shoes and we start off down the sandy road, the kids racing on ahead to ensure good places for themselves. There is a young moon, just sufficient to silhouette the tall coco-palms that border the road, turning their spreading fronds to studies in black and silver, and as we look up we see ever and anon the flittering shape of “mor kiri-kiri,” the flying fox.

As we come into the village we enter an arch of flamboyant trees, which are now in full bloom, and the road is carpeted with their scarlet flowers. The neat concrete houses bordering the road are almost lost in their bowers of flowering shrubs hibiscus of all colours, roses, tiaré maori, and gardenia grow like weeds in the rich soil, and the houses themselves are half smothered in masses of alamanda and bougainvillea. Gradually the road is filled with natives hound for the picture house, the men in whites or blue denims; the women in flowing – “Mother Hubbards” of muslin.

After a walk of nearly a mile we reach the grassy plot beside the tin shed which forms our local picture palace. We are late, but Charlie Brown does not consider the audience sufficiently large yet, so blows several loud blasts on his whistle to warn stragglers that the show is about to commence, and the “band” strikes up anew. Curious to watch the crowd as the stirring rattle gets into their veins – many of them find it too much for them and do little impromptu shuffles as they stand talking in groups. Suddenly there is a burst of laughter and applause as a little man in white vest and dungarees with an enormous hibiscus flower over his ear leaps into the space near the drummers and goes through the knee-bending, wriggling motions of a hula. A barrow laden with fruit pasties and huge slabs of water-melon does a brisk trade with the waiting crowd.

Charlie Brown comes across to pass the time o’ day, and gives us an inkling of the pictorial treat in store. He looks round, considers that the crowd is now large enough, and blows a long blast on his whistle. The drums die away after a final tattoo and we file in and take our places. The front benches are packed with a mob of chattering kiddies so John and I take our places well to the rear under the projector. Next to me is the charming wife of a neighbouring planter with her daughter who is home from her New Zealand boarding school for the holidays. In front of me is one of the real “old-timers” who came here years ago, before the mast of a wind-jammer and found the island lure too much for him. He has a little store in the village, but knows that there will be no trade while the shows lasts.

The chief picture to-night is a Pearl White serial, “The House of Hate,” and provides enough strenuous action to satisfy even the present audience. Dark Tony Moreno, always a great favourite with the natives, is the hero, and his timely rescues of the fair lady stir the excited crowd to frenzy. When he is embroiled in a “rough house” with the villain’s myrmidons, the audience rises and yells encouragement.

The natives cannot, of course, read the captions, so Charlie Brown keeps up a running fire of explanation. One suspects that he docs not keep much to the text, and from the chuckles and roars that greet his witty sallies, and the point-blank refusal of the lady beside me to translate some of his jokes it is to be feared that much of his talk is distinctly Rabelaisian in character.

The episode from the serial draws to an end, and the Impresario announces that there will be a further instalment next week. Follows a short interval in which we go out for a breath of fresh air.

John presents me with a big slice of water melon, which is thirst-quenching and refreshing, and takes the place of the whisky and soda of more civilised lands.

The whistle blows and we once more take our seats. The next film is a mystery picture featuring a man who has invented a cloak which renders the wearer invisible, and is tremendously popular with the crowd, who love anything that savours of “mana-mana!”

There are many thrills in the picture, but they affect the audience in a different way. Instead of the ear-shattering roar which acclaimed the fights, the mysterious vanishments are greeted with long-drawn gasping “A-h-h-s” of excitement. One remembers some of the old fairy tale pictures with their suddenly appearing djinns and melons that become coaches in the twinkling of an eye. What excitement they would create here!

The show comes to an end at last and the crowd disperses chattering like daws about the night’s thrills. The planter’s wife and daughter are offered a lift on the lorry, which passes their home, so we bid them good-night and wander home along the beautiful road. John is busy discussing the picture with friends, so I hurry and overtake the young daughter of my nearest white neighbours, who has been to the show in care of a native lady. The moon has disappeared, but it is a wonderful night of stars and the cool refreshing breeze is grateful after the somewhat close atmosphere we have left.

We discuss “Shakespeare and the musical glasses” until my little home is reached, the lass goes on with her friends and I wait at the gate set in the tall hedge of mock-coffee until John comes up. This is a “dry” island, so we go in and have a couple of glasses of home-brewed orange beer, and my guest takes his leave with many expressions of thanks and as a parting gift insists that I accept the half of a fruit pastie he has bought at the barrow and is taking home to his vahine. She, too, is a “movie fan,” but, alas, the duties devolving upon a newly-arrived piccaninny keep her at home for the present.

I go round to the back of the the house to investigate the cause of a rattling noise and find that a big-beady-eyed hermit crab has somehow got into my rubbish bucket and cannot get out. The varmint shows no signs of alarm in the ray of my electric torch, but sits up and waves his black glistening claws at me menacingly. I pick him up by his “house” gingerly — no fun to get a nip from his claws, which are capable of breaking a finger – and heave him away towards his home under the purau trees that fringe the beach. The soft lap-lap of ripples on the white coral sand of the lagoon catches my ears. Shall I? The night seems too wonderful for bed. In a few seconds I am on my way to the calm water of the lagoon, a pareu knotted round my middle. The next half hour is spent swimming lazily about or floating in a water so buoyant that it is almost impossible to sink, until I find I am nearly asleep. A run home across the grass a quick shower under the bathroom tap, and so to bed. As I put out the lamp and turn in, the palms and trees rustle as though the night had turned over in its sleep, and the distant harmonies of a “himene” drift down the village.

So ends another happy island day. Can a man be more than happy?

Comments: The setting for this idyllic account, by a writer identifed only as ‘Inbad’, is Raratonga, largest of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific Ocean. The racial epithets used are of their period. The House of Hate was a 1918 serial starring Pearl White and Antonio Moreno. I have not been able to identify the invisibility film. My thanks to Carol O’Sullivan for drawing this article to my attention.

Links: Copy at Papers Past (National Library of New Zealand)

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Urban-Smith Kinemacolor Demonstration

Source: S.D. Levings, ‘Urban-Smith Kinemacolor Demonstration’, The Nickelodeon, 1 January 1910, pp. 7-9

Text: There is a certain Englishman by the name of Charles Urban, well known to the moving picture industry as a manufacturer of high grade motion picture film; there is also a certain Englishman by the name of G. Albert Smith, F.R.A.S., not so well known to the trade, but who, nevertheless, has been Mr. Urban’s right hand scientific photographer. Now there is also an American, who, for courtesy’s sake, we must keep in the background, who has the privilege of expressing his opinions freely through the medium of a certain trade paper.

For some time past there have emanated from the foreign offices of Mr. Urban certain positive statements to the effect that he has successfully photographed moving objects in natural colors, and has reproduced them by projection, the result being a true record of the colors and objects. This was, to our American friend, beyond belief, and he did not hesitate to say, in the columns of his paper, that either Mr. Urban was talking through his Oxford millinery or that the wires in the trans-Atlantic cable which transmitted the intelligence had become badly crossed at the several times this report had reached America.

But it transpired that Mr. Urban and Mr. Smith, feeling in need of a rest from the arduous labors they had gone through in perfecting the color motion photography, decided to take a pleasure trip, and selected America as their objective point. They do not like to be absent from their beloved cameras and projecting machines for long at a time, so they just packed them up and brought them along. When they reached New York they “hired a hall,” the same being the concert hall of Madison Square Garden, and on the night of December 11 they set up their machine, invited several hundred manufacturers and their friends, including the skeptical American, and incidentally showed the “doubting Thomas” that the reports at which he has been scoffing were, in reality, the exact truth. The writer was one of the several hundred above mentioned and was present in the interests of THE NICKELODEON. He will endeavor in the following to tell you of what he saw …

… Kinemacolor is a young art and at present it is being withheld except to three of the world’s great cities. But the exhibition convinced many that a new era has dawned for the moving picture industry; that a new power has been placed in the hands of those whose business or interest it is to make records of the world’s happenings; and that the enjoyment of the vast majority of mankind who cannot attend these happenings but who delight in seeing them pictorially reproduced will be greatly increased by Kinemacolor.

The program which I witnessed was as follows:

1. “Our Floral Friends” (10 Studies).
2. “Natural Color Portraiture” (12 Studies), dealing with details of costumes and flesh tints.
3. “The Steamship George Washington,” leaving Southampton for New York.
4. “Scenes on the Riviera,” south coast of France, including views of Cannes, Nice and Monte Carlo.
5. “Carnival and Battle of Flowers,” Nice.
6. “Waves and Spray,” waterfall and mountains (French Alps).
7. “The New Sultan of Turkey,” going to the Semelik, Constantinople.
8. “Life on the River Thames,” from the Tower of London to Henley.
9. “Our Farmyard Friends”—luncheon on straw, among the sheep, feeding a lamb, donkey and carrot, the parrot, mesmerized rooster, rabbits, cattle, horses, cat at toilet, kitten and parrot, etc.
10. “British Races and Military”—the King’s Derby, Royal Ascot, the Soldiers’ Pet, Band of the Cameron Highlanders, Sentry at Aldershot, March of Gordon Highlanders, etc.
11. “Their Majesties, the King and Queen of England,” driving through London.
12. “Scenes on Galata Bridge,” Constantinople.
13. “Motor Boat and Yacht Racing,” England.
14. “German Uhlans and Infantry,” Berlin.
15. “West Point Cadets.”
16. “Views of Potomac Falls (note Rainbow) and the Home of George Washington,” Mt. Vernon.
17. “The Harvest”—plowing, reaping, loading crops off to the barn, threshing, relaxation after labor.
18. “Review of the British Navy,” at Spithead, England.
19. “London Zoological Gardens,” showing pavilion and flower vase, camels, polar bears, buffalo, tigers, swans, hippopotami, zebra, brown bear, leopards, flamingoes, elephants, giraffes, macaws, etc.
20. “Old Glory,” showing 2,000 children forming the stars and stripes on the steps of Albany Capitol during the Hudson-Fulton Celebration.

The ten studies of the flowers, “Our Floral Friends,” were remarkable in the extreme, and to me were the supreme test of the evening, as nothing could demonstrate the quality of color better than the selection of one of Nature’s flowers, which no artist, however clever, has been able to reproduce to perfection. These studies included a wide scope of subjects, and the names of some of the flowers being foreign to me, I am unable to name all that I saw. Roses, carnations, nasturtiums, pansies, tiger lilly, etc., were included in the study. The colors were true to nature in both quality and density. These various bouquets were most artistically arranged in various colored glass and crockery jars, and in each case the colors of the receptacles were clearly brought out. One in particular caused me to marvel, and it was a Japanese bowl. The grotesque figures on the bowl, also the red and blue lines and background, were all truthfully represented.

Next in importance, to my mind, was the natural color portraiture. The flesh tints were marvelous in their naturalness and were far superior to any product of the brush. A striking feature of this photography was brought to light in several pictures dealing with the pastoral, in which horses were the engrossing subject. Apart from the beautiful browns that were represented, the gloss and sleekness of the horses’ coats, as they reflected the sunlight, gave an optical impression that could be produced in no other way.

Before the performance I had a long talk with Messrs. Urban and Smith, and plied them with questions as to several points which I did not expect to be brought out. One of these points was the delineation of the colors, that is, the division and the degree of fineness which could be caught by the camera. Mr. Smith said that this was precisely the same question that he asked himself when he first obtained results, and to prove that there was no limit, he had photographed a Scotch plaid shawl, held up by his little daughter, a charming miss of some 15 or 16 years. This film was reproduced on the screen that night, and I capitulated at once, if I ever held any ideas that I could catch Mr. Smith napping on this particular point. There was absolutely no infringing of color between the plaids of that shawl, and there was absolutely no difference in density between the center and the edges. The flesh tints of the daughter’s face, added to the combination afforded by the shawl, was indeed a picture to behold. Another very remarkable effect was noticed in the film showing the Sultan of Turkey. Carried by several of the Turks in this parade were banners edged with gold tassels and fringe, and the shimmer of the gold, coupled with the rich yellow color, was all that could be desired by an eye-witness.

The photographs of the birds and beasts in the London Zoological Gardens were especially interesting, and the birds of rare and highly colored plumage were the most interesting exhibit. Here again that sheen of nature was shown in its fullest effect and which I have never seen reproduced before in any way. I could go on for page after page and describe the wonderful colorings and subjects, but space does not permit. I want to make this point clear, however. To show that there was absolutely no color in the film itself and that natural light and the process was alone responsible for the colors, Mr. Smith requested the operator, during the projecting of one of the films, to remove the color screens, which he did, and the picture was then produced in black and white tones, which in effect was identical with the ordinary film as we know it.

There is no question in my mind but that the problem of natural color motion photography has been solved …

Comments: S.D. Levings was an American film journalist. Kinemacolor was a colour motion picture process invented in 1906 by the British filmmaker and film processor George Albert Smith (1864-1959) and marketed by the Anglo-American producer Charles Urban (1867-1942). Kinemacolor was a two-colour system, employing a rotating red and green filter on both camera and projector to achieve a satisfactory colour effect. It was the first successful natural motion picture process and enjoyed great success 1909-1914. Urban and Smith organised a screening for the American film trade at Madison Square Gardens on 11 December 1909 with the hope of selling the American rights to the system. The sceptical journalist to whom Levings refers was probably Thomas Bedding of Moving Picture World.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Journal 1929

Source: Arnold Bennett, Journal 1929 (London: Cassell, 1930), pp. 123-126

Text: London, September.

I went by invitation to the “world-premiere” of an English-written and English-directed talking film, in which Gloria Swanson was the star. The film was apparently made in America. My opinion of Gloria Swanson’s gifts as an actress in silent films is very high indeed. I was bidden for nine o’clock, and at nine o’clock I arrived.

The street in front of the theatre was crowded with sightseers, some of whom were perched on the tops of lorries used as grandstands. A broad path across the pavement was kept clear by the united efforts of policemen and theatre officials. As I passed between the stalwarts I was the subject of loud remarks from the populace. The big theatre was crowded, except in the best seats round about me, which had been reserved for guests whose names have a publicity value. Many of these empty seats were never occupied during the evening. A silent film was already in progress, and it continued in progress for an hour or so. What qualities it had to recommend itself to my attention I failed to see. However, it did at length finish. Then a gentleman came in front of the curtain and said, inter alia: “Miss Gloria Swanson is in the audience and if you will kindly remain in your seats for one minute after the conclusion of the new film, you will see her.” At these words there was a great noise from the audience — a curious kind of clapping not intended to signify approval. The talking film began. The noise increased. So much so that the film, though it could be seen, could not be heard at all. The film-operator and the audience were equally obstinate for a minute or two. The audience won. Gloria Swanson, who was seated a few rows behind me, stood up in the gangway and bowed. Useless! Half the audience could not see her. The audience grew still more restive. The noise was resentful and imperious. It seemed to say: “She belongs to us. She is ours by right. Show her.”

She left the circle, and was presently seen walking up the central aisle of the floor, well escorted. Then she came before the curtain, obviously in a highly nervous condition, and made a little speech, which was almost inaudible. As soon as she had retired, at least two-thirds of the huge audience on the floor stood up and hurried from the theatre. They had come to see, not the film, but Gloria Swanson. Having seen her, they departed. Surely rather odd.

The film started again, to many hundreds of empty seats. I could discover no originality whatever in the film, and no merit except the striking merit of Gloria Swanson’s performance. The story somewhat resembled that of “East Lynne”; but it was not as good as “East Lynne”. Crude, tawdry, grossly sentimental, encumbered with stretches of acutely tedious and undramatic dialogue, and rendered ugly by the continuous falsification of the sound of the human voice which mars all talking films, it crawled along from foreseen crisis to foreseen crisis in the most exasperating manner. Its attempts to be noble were merely distressing.

But Gloria Swanson was magnificent in it. She proved that a great star of the silent can be equally great as a star of the talking. She used extreme technical skill, and displayed throughout both real power and real distinction. She even sang. The songs were her one mistake. The film did not demand song, and her singing was amateurish. At the close she appeared once more before the curtain and made another little inaudible speech.

I left the theatre saddened by this spectacle of the waste of a first-rate artist. The space across the pavement was still being kept by policemen and commissionaires. The crowd was larger than before, but order was being maintained. Then suddenly order vanished. The two lines of stalwarts were smashed in an instant, and I was being tossed to and fro in a mass of hysterical women. Gloria Swanson had appeared in the entrance-hall. She fled back. I gave a stalwart one shilling to act as a spear-head for my party through the wild surge. He was not overpaid. In ten seconds we had reached safety. Cries! Shouts! Shrieks! Clapping! Order was restored and Gloria Swanson slipped into the film-star’s immense and luxurious automobile which was waiting for her. What an evening! What a light thrown on the mentality of the film-fan! I restrained my sympathy for Gloria Swanson. She is a queen-empress. She does what she chooses. She is a woman of experience, and she must have known what she was in for.

Comments: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British writer, best known for his novels of life in the Potteries with its ‘five towns’ that now equate with Stoke-on-Trent. The American actress Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) was one of the great stars of the silent era whose career did not survive the transition to sound. The film described here was The Trespasser (1929), in which she sang ‘Love, Your Magic Spell Is Everywhere’. It was made in both silent and sound versions. It was her only successful talkie until Sunset Blvd. (1950).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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