Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 233-234

Text: This letter is in answer to your appeal for help from members of the cinema audiences. I am a female, aged 17 yrs. 2 mths. and of British nationality. I am still at school at present, and I hope to enter into the teaching profession in the due course of time. My father is a bricklayer and also Secretary of a Trade Union, my mother is a housewife.

In answer to question one. I have seen many films and I have always liked to watch closely the women’s manner of dress, or hair style. I may say that in many cases I have copied the styles but the most dominant film with regard to fashions were. Hair style. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Dress. Now Voyager.

And with regard to a film I have dreamt about I can safely name The Corsican Brothers, starring Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Ruth War[r]ick. That film I dreamt about for many nights, and I remember especially that the death scene of Julian the twin brother of Mario was the piece I remembered most vividly.

With regard to dreams I have also dreamt about a serial film that I saw when I was the age of 11 or 12 years. That film was Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. I can quite confidently say that I remember practically all of that film until a few weeks ago and then I saw part of it again as a weekly serial at a picture palace in our town.

It served to refresh my memory on the parts I had forgotten and I am sure I shall think and dream of it for a good many more years.

I think the facts that made it stick in my mind for such a long time was that it was of a strange planet and the costumes were also very strange. The hero and heroine and party did perform many incredible deeds but what did annoy me was the fact that many people in the cinema when they saw the Marsians (Martians) in the film doing things that seemed slightly unnatural to us, laughed!

I regard everyone who laughed at that film as a fool! They have no foresight. They have no understanding, nor did they try to understand.

I think there is a possibility of our, one day, trying to reach Mars by means of a rocket ship, after all they are trying to reach the moon shortly, so why not Mars?

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?

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Poor Pauline

Source: Charles R. McCarron, ‘Poor Pauline’, lyrics from sheet music (New York: Broadway Music Corporation, 1914)

Text:
I’m as worried as can be, all the movie shows I see
Have that awful mystery, “Pauline and her perils,”
On a rope they dangle her, then they choke and strangle her,
With an axe they mangle her, always something new.
To make you shake they give her Paris green,
Of course her horse will neigh, “Nay Nay Pauline.”

Poor Pauline, I pity poor Pauline,
One night she’s drifting out to sea,
Then they tie her to a tree,
I wonder what the end will be,
This suspense is awful.
Bing! Bang! Biff! They throw her off a cliff
They dynamite her in a submarine,
In the lion’s den she stands with fright,
Lion goes to take a bite
Zip goes the film – Goodnight! Poor Pauline.

Handsome Harry’s always near, he will save her never fear
Just in time he will appear, when Pauline’s in peril.
On a roof she fights for life, villain sticks her with a knife,
“Marry me or be my wife!” what will Pauline do?
But soon balloon with anchor swings around.
Pauline is seen and rescued upside down.

Poor Pauline, I pity poor Pauline,
One night she’s drifting out to sea,
Then they tie her to a tree,
I wonder what the end will be,
This suspense is awful.
Bing! Bang! Biff! They throw her off a cliff
They dynamite her in a submarine,
Then the villain takes her on his knee
Wonder what we’re going to see –
Zip goes the film – Oh Gee! Poor Pauline.

Comments: ‘Poor Pauline’ was written by Charles R. McCarron (lyrics) and Raymond Walker (music). It capitalised on the huge popularity of the Perils of Pauline serial, starring Pearl White, who endured perilous situations on a weekly basis only to recover to face another peril the next week. The recording by Billy Murray for the Victor label given above has some different lyrics to those given in the sheet music available from the Margaret Herrick Library and other online sources, with a second verse in which Pauline is captured by an Arab band. The song was very popular at the time, being sung by Fanny Brice and others.

Links: Sheet music at Margaret Herrick Library Digital Collections
History of the song by Larry Harnisch at Daily Mirror blog

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Village Life in Old China

Source: Cornelius Osgood, Village Life in Old China; a community study of Kao Yao, Yünnan (New York, Ronald Press, 1963), pp. 19-20

Text: A little after nine we set out for the Cosmopolitan cinema in our host’s car. The journey was a short one and we descended at the side door which led to the directors’ office. My first impression was of being in a dark basement room of an old house, but the feeling was soon displaced by friendliness when tea was served. About ten, we all went into the theater to see the picture, a box with comfortable overstuffed arm chairs of the European type being reserved for us. The building itself was originally a temple famous for its great red columns of a celebrated hard wood notably used for expensive coffins. We sat in a reserved section of the left wing of a balcony, the central part of which extended some distance to the rear. All quarters of the house were crowded with Chinese and, as the picture began, someone started shouting at the other side of the balcony creating a din which made the English sound track of the film, already somewhat muted, completely inaudible. I expected the man who was yelling to have vented his feeling after a while, but when he continued with no sign of stopping, I discovered that he was the speaker, and that he was paid to convey the theme of the film to the audience who could not understand English nor, for the most part, read the Chinese characters customarily added to a foreign production. My companion informed me that Kunming was one of the few cities in China where the custom of having a speaker still existed. I regretted not being able to understand for, from what I could comprehend of the picture, it could not have helped from being considerably improved by an oriental commentary.

Comments: Cornelius Osgood (1905-1985) was an American anthropologist who conducted research in China, as well as the Arctic and Korea. Though published in 1963, his book Village Life in Old China describes field research undertaken in 1938. Lecturers who explained the action to audience were common in Chinese and Japanese cinemas into the 1930s, when films were silent.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Moslem Women Enter a New World

Source: Ruth Frances Woodsmall, Moslem Women Enter a New World (New York: Round Table Press, 1936), pp. 82-84

Text: The most widespread change in the general recreational life for women is shown by the increase of attendance at cinemas. Only a few years ago marked the beginning of cinema privileges for women in the Moslem East. Official approval of the cinema was given to women in Iran in 1928 by the removal of police restrictions. Special days were set aside when they could attend the cinema, the popularity of which was evident at the end of the performance from the steady stream of black chaddur figures leaving. A most remarkable performance for a mixed audience was given in Teheran in November 1928, when for the first time an unveiled Moslem woman sang in evening dress before a public audience. Seats were sold out several days in advance. Police were stationed in the aisles to avoid any possible trouble. A large detachment of police was detailed to the environs of the cinema, a precaution which showed the unusual significance of the occasion. It was one of the great events of the winter, widely talked about all over Iran. Cinemas in Iran still have a woman’s section, but women sit also in the mixed section, and enter veiled or unveiled. Even in a conservative centre such as Meshed women may attend the same cinema with men. An Iranian liberal newspaper made the interesting comment that having women sit with men at the cinema reduces the number of scenes in the streets and tends toward a higher moral tone. The opponents would of course challenge that statement.

In Baghdad, but not yet in Basra or Mosul, everybody goes to the cinema. “Open a schoolgirl’s desk, and you will find on top of her books a movie magazine with pictures of Hollywood stars,” the principal of the girls’ high school in Baghdad said, in commenting on the present passion for the cinema. The conservative women attend the special afternoon performances featured for them; others of prominent social position attend the mixed movies in the evening, with their husbands. They are technically veiled but from their box they look freely around the audience. The distinction between the special afternoon cinemas for women and the mixed evening cinemas holds also in Aleppo and Beirut. If Moslem women in Syria attend the mixed performances, they usually are unveiled in order to avoid being conspicuous, for although Moslem women go freely, there are always more men. In Damascus women began
attending the cinema in 1930 when a large outdoor cinema was turned over to them once a week. The rule “For women only” was strictly observed; not even boys over twelve years were admitted. Crowds of women flocked to this popular weekly dissipation, almost as interested in seeing each other as in seeing the film, which, however, on the occasion of my visit was one of absorbing interest for the women of Damascus — the story of Saladin and the Crusades. Their keen reaction to the picture and enthusiasm over Saladin’s exploits gave one a different idea of the Crusades from the usual Western point of view. The women in Amman Trans-jordan six years ago attended their first film, entering veiled but sitting on the front row unveiled. Cinema attendances of women in Cairo in now a commonplace. Women go unveiled with men or veiled alone, unveiling during the performance; they sit in boxes or with the audience, as they choose.

For the most part the cinema has not attracted the Moslem women of the lower class in Beirut or elsewhere as much as it has the upper class, since change in recreation, as in unveiling, begins at the top and works down. A woman in Beirut of this lower class whom I asked whether she ever attended a cinema, gave me an answer which seems typical of her social level. “We know the cinema by name, but have never seen one.” But the different grades of cinemas and cheaper prices are beginning to make their appeal to this class also. Moreover the production of films portraying Eastern life in the language of the East and produced by Eastern players is bringing the cinema more into the life of the uneducated women, to whom the unfamiliar Western scene makes less appeal than to those who have had some Western education. In Turkey since the first Turkish film with Turkish women performers was produced only a few years ago, the Turkish production has steadily increased and doubtless the appeal of the cinema has accordingly widened. The unrestricted cinema attendance of Turkish women, since the special harem days were discontinued early in the new regime, is only one of the many indications of the naturalness of everyday life in Turkey to-day.

Travel, bobbed hair, photographs, sports, recreation, going to the cinema, these many precious stages of advance for the still veiled or hesitantly unveiling woman elsewhere in the Moslem world, have all become for the Turkish woman merely a matter of personal choice. One is impressed to-day with the lack of all reference in the Press or in private conversation to these details of freedom, which are regarded to-day as a normal part of life. The idea of freedom of women has been so completely accepted that distinctions between men and women are now as little emphasized as they would be in the Western world. It is indeed difficult to realize that the grandfathers of the present free young Turkish girls might have paid the price of this freedom by exile or death. For to-day Turkish girls play tennis, dance, dine out if invited, swim, ride horseback, play bridge, patronize the beauty parlour, frequent the movies, travel if they can afford it — work, study and play just as girls do in France or America. There is of course at the present time between the life of Istanbul or Ankara and parts of Asia Minor not only a difference of degree, but also of the kind of social life. But there are no artificially imposed social conventions of the veil and eventually Istanbul or Ankara will differ from Konia or Sivas in much the same way as the life in New York or Washington differs from that of cities or towns in the south or middle west.

Comments: Ruth Frances Woodsmall (1883-1963) was an American schoolteacher and author, who worked for the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Allied High Commission for Occupied Germany (where she was Chief of the Women’s Affairs Section), and UNESCO, reporting on women’s affairs. In 1928 she obtained a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to investigate the changing status of Muslim women in the Middle East, which resulted in her influential book Moslem Women Enter a New World and other studies.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Posted in 1920s, 1930s, Egypt, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, Syria, Transjordan, Travel writing, Turkey | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Indiscretions of the Naval Censor

Source: Douglas Brownrigg, Indiscretions of the Naval Censor (London, Cassell, 1920), pp. 215-217

Text: After dinner, spurred by ennui, my companion and I went, to the local cinema house, or barn, and, climbing up many stairs, we arrived among the local “knuts” and enjoyed a remarkably fine show. There were excellent films of the French infantry and cavalry training, followed by a full-blooded American business, “featuring” a lady on horseback being pursued headlong down a ravine by picturesque ruffians. I didn’t, however, see the pursuers follow her “over the top.” I suspect the merchant turning the handle had his dinner-hour then.

Somehow, and why I never understood, the next chapter of the story showed bandits taking the tyres off a motor (I don’t think it was a Ford) and putting the car on the railway lines, and — puff, puff, off they went in pursuit of the “Twentieth Century, Limited,” “operating ” between Chicago and New York. They overtook the train, and climbed in through the corridor window, and “did in” a gentleman sitting in the restaurant car, who can hardly have had time to compare his country unfavourably with this old place, where even on our South Eastern lines I think one of our expresses could have given the slip to a motor-car such as was shown on the screen.

And then came the climax, the ab-so-lute limit. I confess that my heart was thumping with excitement. Whether that denotes senility or childishness I don’t know, but it is the plain fact, and I believe everybody in the hall was likewise quivering with excitement, when on the screen was thrown the horrible and almost unbelievable words: “Final Chapter of this story — NEXT WEEK”!

That may be all right for the residents of Sligo, but what about two miserable devils from London? I could have torn the house down willingly. Even with the knowledge that “next week” would bring them the denouement of this hair-raising story, I was surprised that the young bloods of Sligo could stand it. Maybe they are inured to cinema shocks, as they were the only sort of shocks to which Ireland was exposed during the war!

Comments: Sir Douglas Egremont Robert Brownrigg (1867-1939) was the the Chief Naval Censor in Britain during the First World War. Despite the surprised tone of this account of an Irish film show, Brownrigg was well acquainted with the film industry, through his connections with propaganda filmmaking (as noted in his memoir, which is at times as indiscreet as its titles promises). A ‘knut’ was a slang term for a young person about town.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 136-138

Text: Another possibility of getting at the children’s film taste is by listing their answers to question 23 of our questionnaire. They are as follows:

What Kind of Film would you like to have made?

1 . A film which has Deana [sic] Durbin in it and George Formby that what I would have liked made. (Girl, first preference ghost picture.)

2. The films I want are the news reels. (Girl, first preference, news reels.)

3. Musical films. (Girl, first preference, musicals.)

4. A sad film. (Girl, first preference, detective pictures.)

5. Cowboy film called The Famous Cowboy Joe. (Girl, first preference, cartoons.)

6. I would like a cow boy film that lasted for six hours. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

7. A Detective film like The Hound of Basivile [sic]. (Girl, first preference, detective pictures.)

8. A film of Walt Disney’s. (Girl, first preference, cartoons.)

9. A sad film called When Will the Happy Life Come about a poor family. (Girl, first preference, cartoons.)

10. A Murder film. (Girl, first preference, gangster films.)

11 . Gone with the Wind which had Clark Gable in it thats what I would like to have made. (Girl, first preference, Historical pictures.)

12. One from the stories of the Arabian Nights. (Girl, first preference, ghost pictures.)

13. I would like a musical film with dancing in it. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

14. I would like a film with a lot of music in it (Girl, first, preference, love pictures.)

15. I would like to make a Cartoon about Donald Duck. (Girl, first preference, cartoons.)

16. I would like to make a Murder film. (Girl, first preference, detective films.)

17. I would like to have a film made with a lot of dancing in it. (Girl, first preference, musicals.)

18. One of Shirley Temples films. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

19. A Cowboy film from Roy Rogers. (Girl, first preference, ghost pictures.)

20. A very funy [sic] one, and it must have some very pretty girls in it. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

21. I would like a film of somebodys Life. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

22. The Film Bambi in Technicolour [sic]. (Girl, first preference, ghost pictures.)

23. I would like a ghost film that would last 3 hours. (Girl, first preference, ghost pictures.)

24. A Walt Disney Film. (Girl, first preference, detective pictures.)

25. A Happy-go-Lucky film with dancing, singing, and funny bits, sad bits, happy bits and some of my favourite film stars. (Girl, first preference, cartoons.)

26. I would like to have a musical film made in technicolour [sic]. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

27. A Detective film. (Boy, first preference, detective films.)

28. I would like a long Walt Disney’s Cartoon made. (Boy, first preference, gangster pictures.)

29. A Tarzan Film. (Boy, first preference, detective pictures.)

30. I would like a nice Detective film. (Boy, first preference, detective pictures.)

31. A good film of the prehistoric ages to the present. (Boy, first preference, historical pictures.)

32. I would like a Cowboy film with Roy Rogers acting. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

33. Comedy. (Boy, first preference, ghost pictures.)

34. A Cowboy Picture. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

35. The Life story of ‘Winston Churchal’ [sic]. (Boy, first preference, comedies.)

36. Walt Disney Cartoons. (Boy, first preference, cartoons.)

37. I would like to have a Walt Disney film made. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

38. A cowboy. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

39. Gipsy Wildcat. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

40. A funny ghost picture with Monty Woolley acting. (Boy, first preference, ghost pictures.)

41. I would like a cowboy film to be made with all the famous cowboys in it. (Boy, first preference, ghost pictures.)

42. A cowboy Picture. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

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 ‘Children and Adolescents and the Cinema’ and lists comments made by children as part of a questionnaire on their film tastes.

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Bertolt Brecht Diaries 1920-1922

Source: Bertolt Brecht (trans. John Willett), diary entry for 29 October 1921, in Herta Ramthun (ed.), Bertolt Brecht Diaries 1920-1922 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979), pp. 140-141

Text: Then I saw a little one-acter of Charlie Chaplin’s. It’s called The Face on the Bar-room Floor and it is the most profoundly moving thing I’ve ever seen in the cinema: utterly simple. It’s about a painter who enters a bar, has a drink and ‘because you folk have been so good to me’ narrates the story of his own downfall, which is that of a girl who has gone off with a bloated plutocrat. He sees her again, drunk and in rags, and it’s ‘the profanation of his ideal’, she’s fat and has children, at which he puts his hat on askew and goes off upstage into the darkness, staggering as if he had been hit on the head, all askew, my God, all askew as if he’d been blown off course by the wind, all windblown like no one you ever saw. And then the teller of the story gets drunker and drunker, and his need to communicate ever stronger and more painful, so he asks for ‘a bit of that chalk you put on the tips of your billiard cues’ and draws the loved one’s portrait on the floor – only to produce a series of circles. He slithers around on it, quarrels with all and sundry, gets chucked out and goes on drawing on the pavement – more circles and gets chucked back in and goes on drawing there and chucks them all out and they pop their heads in at the windows and he’s drawing on the floor and the end of the whole thing is: suddenly, just as he was trying to add a particularly artistic curl to the loved one’s hair, he let out a dreadful shriek and collapsed on top of his picture, dead … drunk … (ivre… mort…). Chaplin’s face is always impassive, as though waxed over, a single expressive twitch rips it apart, very simple, strong, worried. A pallid clown’s face complete with thick moustache, long artist’s hair and a clown’s tricks: he messes up his coat, sits on his palette, gives an agonised lurch, tackles a portrait by – of all things – elaborating the backside. But nothing could be more profoundly moving, it’s unadulterated art. Children and grown-ups laugh at the poor man, and he knows it: this nonstop laughter in the auditorium is an integral part of the film, which is itself deadly earnest and of a quite alarming objectivity and sadness. The film owes (part of) its effectiveness to the brutality of its audience.

Comments: Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German dramatist and poet. Chaplin’s The Face on the Barroom Floor (1914) is a spoof of a poem by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy about an artist who loses his love, is driven to drink, and draws the face of his lost love on a barroom floor before dying. The film was produced by Keystone Studios. Brecht wrote a poem about the film in 1944, ‘A Film of the Comedian Chaplin’.

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Japanese Cinema

Source: Carl Koch, from ‘Japanese Cinema’, Close-up vol. VIII no. 4 (December 1931), pp. 296-298

Text: The Japanese film director and actor, Katsumi, recently showed me his latest film in a Berlin projection room. This film, in which he played the main role, told of the downfall of a Samurai who fought against the reigning Shogun about two centuries ago. The plot developed slowly and was punctuated by innumerable captions, until after about 6,000 feet a tremendous fight broke out between the Samurai and (apparently) the whole assembled bodyguard of the Shogun. This ended in the hero’s suicide after an incredible struggle against overwhelming odds. Although the movements were extremely interesting both in their details and in the way they followed through, yet it was clearly impossible to expect a European audience to tolerate anything so long. In fact, I was quite at a loss how this film could be adapted for the European market.

A few weeks later I received an invitation from Katsumi to a Sunday morning performance of this film in a small west-end cinema, where it was to be privately shown to the Japanese colony in Berlin. As I came into the cinema, I was given a printed slip containing a synopsis of the film. At the side of the screen was a lectern where Katsumi stood.

The film started. At the same time Katsumi began a running commentary to the preliminary titles in the normal explanatory tones of a narrator. The Samurai were strolling about on the screen. Silence. The actors conversed with each other. The voice began again, no longer in explanatory, everyday tones, but using the guttural utterance of the Japanese classical theatre to provide an exact accompaniment to the various actors’ conversation. Then a long caption, unaccompanied perhaps for half its length. Then some monotonous instrument like a guitar began to play, continued through the following scenes and stopped suddenly in the middle of a scene. The film continued. Silence. Then, the quiet explanatory voice of the speaker. A humorous remark elicited a titter from the audience — apparently some personal allusion of the speaker’s. Presently the voice became pathetic, continued so through scenes and captions, and then suddenly stopped dead. Silence. More music. Single plucked notes with long pauses in between. Another conversation in the deep gutteral style of the classical theatre, very carefully synchronised with the film and the various actors, who were made to speak sometimes high, sometimes low, clearly, confusedly, slowly or quickly, according to the context. Silence again. On the screen the chief of Shogun’s bodyguard vainly interrogated his daughter whom he had sent to spy on the hero in order to convict him of treason. She was in love with the hero and attempted to persuade her father that she had been unable to discover anything. The old man had now shot his last bolt. He sat there for some time, alone, motionless. Suddenly a gesture — and a man’s shriek. The girl rushed back into the room and flung herself on her father. He tried to free himself in order to reach his sword. His daughter tried to prevent him. The same terrible shriek recurred everytime the old man made some violent effort. At last his daughter broke down, gave him the required information and betrayed her lover. Light guitar music. It was all very thrilling. Finally came the fight, which was accompanied, partly by an exciting rhythmic figure that rose and fell, partly by the solemn declamation of some text that was probably well known to all the Japanese present.

A movie had suddenly been turned into a talkie by the extraordinary art of the speaker, the restrained but subtly differentiated use of different kinds of elocution, and the persistence of the transparent monodic, nearly always unisonal, music. This music had no resemblance to the illustrative music usually to be heard in the European cinema; it ran counter to the action on the screen in a kind of dialectical counterpoint. (For instance, doleful music usually accompanied gay scenes on the screen; quick and lively music, slow sad scenes.) The restraint with which this was carried out made for clearness, lucidity, excitement, variety. The subtleties of tone often lent scenes which had dragged in the projection room an extraordinary tension.

This is the way in which films are shown in Japanese cinemas. The idea of an announcer and a completely independent musical accompaniment is foreign to us, and so we can hardly hope to import Japanese films with any success, since, in spite of adaptation and revision, some passages would still remain too long and deliberate in tempo, and (apart from that) the film sequences are not such as are customary according to the unwritten convention between public and producer here in Europe.

Comments: Carl Koch (1892-1963) was a German film director, whose credits included Nippon, a compilation short of extracts from Japanese films, which at this time were scarcely known about in the West. Katsumi is presumably the Japanese actor-director Yôtarô Katsumi. The article is illustrated with stills from a Japanese film whose title is given as The Torch (made by the Shochiku company). My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing this passage to my attention.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

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The Journals of Arnold Bennett

Source: Arnold Bennett, journal entry 6 March 1924, in Newman Flower (ed.), The Journals of Arnold Bennett: 1921-1928 (London: Cassell, 1933)

Text: Thursday, 6 March – German film last night at Polytechnic Cinema. One has the idea that all films are crowded. The balcony here was not 15% full. Front row, where Duff Tayler and I were, 8s. 6d. for 1½ hours’ entertainment. A gloomy place, with gloomy audience. No style or grace in them. All lower middle class or nearly so. The hall tricked out with a silly sort of an ikon, illuminated, of Death, to advertise or recall or illustrate the film. The orchestra most mediocre. Played all the time, and three performances a day! Hell for the players I should think. Also the habit of illustrating certain points musically, or noisily. The clock must strike, etc. And a special noise as a sort of leit motif for death. Lastly three small common Oriental mats (probably made in England) laid in front of the screen on the stage to indicate that much of the story was Oriental. The captions, etc, were appalling, and even misspelt, such as ‘extention’, ‘Soloman’ etc. The phrasing! Good God. The City of Yesteryear meant, I believe, the cemetery.

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 Polytechnic Cinema was part of what was originally the Royal Polytechnic Institution, a venue for popular science lectures and entertainments, which hosted the UK debut of the Lumière Cinématographe in February 1896. It operated as a cinema in the 1920s, and was recently re-furbished and relaunched as the Regent Street Cinema. The film Bennett saw was Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod aka Destiny (Germany 1921), which features Death as a character and a sequence set in Persia.

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The Promise of Air

Source: Algernon Blackwood, The Promise of Air (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1918), pp. 170-173

Text: The rush of the wonderful cinema then began, and he forgot himself.

They experienced the sense such a performance leaves behind of having been—as Mother put it—all over the place. Sitting in the dark the individual at first is conscious only of himself, neighbours ignored if not forgotten. The screen then flashes into light, and with the picture, consciousness flashes across the world. The lie of the stationary photograph is corrected, time is denied, partially at least, and space is unable to boast and swagger as it loves to do. The cinema frees and extends the consciousness, restores the past, and sets distance close beneath the eyes. Only the watching self remains—pregnant symbol!—in the darkness.

It was one of the best performances in London; within an hour or two the audience danced from the dingy streets of the metropolis into the sunlight of India, Africa, and of islands among far southern seas. The kaleidoscope of other lands and other ways of thinking, acting, living carried them away with understanding sympathy. From savage wild life drinking at water-holes in the sun-drenched Tropics, they darted across half-charted oceans and watched the penguin and the polar bear amid arctic ice. Over mountains, down craters, flying above cities and peering deep under water, the various experiences of strange distant life came into their ken. They flew about the planet. The leaders of the world gazed at them, so close and real that their emotions were legible on their magnified features. They smiled or frowned, then flashed away, and yet still were there, living, thinking, willing this and that. Widely separated portions of the vast human family presented themselves vigorously, registered a tie of kinship, and were gone again about their business, now become in some sense the business of the audience too. Fighting, toiling, loving, hating, meeting death and adventure by sea and land, creating and destroying, differing much in colour, custom, clothing, and the rest, yet human as Wimble and his family were human, possessed with the same griefs, hopes, and joys, the same passion to live, the same fear of death—one great family.

Joan slipped her arm into that of her father; they nestled closely, very much in sympathy as the world rushed past their eyes upon the screen. “We’re flying,” she whispered, with a squeeze, as the penguins on the polar ice gave place to a scene of negroes sweating in the sun and munching sugar-cane while they lazily picked the fluffy cotton. “We’re everywhere all-at-once, don’t you see?” A moment later, as though to point her words, they looked down upon a mapped-out country from an aeroplane. The unimportance of earth was visible in the distance.

“You can’t fly under water anyhow,” mumbled Wimble, as they left the air and flashed with a submarine upon sponges, coral, and inquisitive, perfectly poised fish. A black man was trying to knife a shark.

“I can see what they feel though,” was the whispered answer. “Inside their watery minds, I mean.”

“Wherever I am I go,” he thought, but didn’t say it, because by the time he had reflected how foolish it was to remain stuck only upon the minute point of his own tiny personal experience, they were climbing with a scientific Italian of eminence down a crater full of smoke and steam, and could almost hear the thunder of the explosions. But while they went down, everything else went up. Smoke, steam, masses of rock all trying to rise. “Gravity is the devil,” he remembered; “it keeps us from flying into the sun.”

The idea made him chuckle, and Joan pinched his arm, giggling too audibly in her excitement. “Hush!” said Mother. They watched in silence then; a bird’s-eye view of the planet was what they watched. With each picture they took part. Every corner of the globe, with its different activities, touched their hearts and minds with interest—busy, rushing life in various forms, and all going on simultaneously, at this very moment—now. Life obviously was one. The strange unity was convincing. Nothing they saw was alien to themselves, for they took part in it. In each picture they “wondered what it felt like.” They took for an instant, longer or shorter, the point of view of a new aspect of life, of something as yet they had not actually experienced. They longed—or dreaded—to stand within that huge cavern of blue lonely ice and hear the waves of the Polar Sea lick up the snow; to taste that sugary cane with animal-white teeth, and feel the fluffy cotton between thick, lumpy fingers; to swim under water and look up instead of down; to crawl fearfully a little nearer to the molten centre of the planet through smoke and fire and awful thundering explosions. They longed or dreaded. Mentally, that is, they experienced a new relationship in each separate case, a relationship that stretched a suburban consciousness beyond its normal ken.

Comments: Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was a British writer of ghost stories and fantastical fiction. The Promise of Air is one of his novels on a mystical theme, and is concerned with freeing the spirit from the limitations of the human frame. Characters are either earthbound or airy. The above passage is part of a long sequence covering the central Wimble family’s visit to a cinema, in which their rhapsodic experience are occasionally touched by the practicalities of attending a cinema.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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