Cheap Amusements

Source: John Collier, ‘Cheap Amusements’, Charities and the Commons, 11 April 1908, pp. 73-76

Text: For four months a joint-committee of the Woman’s Municipal League and the People’s Institute has been engaged in an investigation of the cheap amusements of Manhattan Island. The committee has been composed as follows: Michael M. Davis, Jr., secretary of the People’s Institute, chairman; Mrs. Josephine Redding, secretary of the Woman’s Municipal League, secretary; Mrs. R. H. McKelvey, Miss Henrietta B. Rodman, Miss Alice Lewisohn, Mrs. F.R. Swift, Michael H. Cardoza, Charles H. Ayres, Jr., John Collier, and W. Frank Persons. The investigation has been made financially possible through the Spuyten Duyvil branch of the Woman’s Municipal League. The writer has acted as field investigator.

Attempt has been made to cover all phases of the cheap amusement problem, excluding from the detailed investigation dance-halls and skating-rinks on the one hand and high-priced theaters on the other. Legal and business aspects have been studied as well as educational and sanitary. The subject-matter has been fourfold: melodrama, vaudeville and burlesque; nickelodeons, or moving picture variety shows; penny arcades; and miscellany. The miscellany are anatomical museums, fake beauty-shows, etc., which are confined to a limited area of the city where they maintain a difficult existence. They can be passed over in the present brief report. What follows sums up the results of the investigation.

The whole topography of the cheap-amusement problem has changed within the last six years. To illustrate: the old-time crass melodrama has been in large measure dethroned, crowded out by the cheap vaudeville and the nickelodeon. The cheap vaudeville has spread widely and has become a problem in itself; it plays a fairly constructive role in a few instances, and in several is about the vilest and most brutalizing form of entertainment in New York. Withal, it generally keeps within the bounds of the laws protecting public decency, which are largely matters of interpretation, but only through agitation, hard fighting and a constantly aroused public sentiment can it be kept within bounds. But even the cheap vaudeville has been eclipsed by the tremendously expansive nickelodeon, the number of which in Greater New York, has grown in a few years from nothing to more than six hundred. The nickelodeon is now the core of the cheap amusement problem. Considered numerically it is four times more important than all the standard theaters of the city combined. It entertains from three to four hundred thousand people daily, and between seventy-five and a hundred thousand children. And finally, the penny arcade has sprung into mushroom existence, has proved itself to be irredeemable on the educational side and without the elements of permanent growth in popular favor and has worn out its public. It is now being driven from the field by the nickelodeon.

Not only the superficial aspect, but the essential nature of the cheap amusement problem has changed and changed for the better. Constructive elements have entered and triumphantly made good with the public, so that now the cheap-amusement situation offers an immediate opportunity and a rousing challenge to the social worker. The nickelodeon’s the thing, and the story of its development is instructive.

Five years ago the nickelodeon was neither better nor worse than many other cheap amusements are at present. It was often a carnival of vulgarity, suggestiveness and violence, the fit subject for police regulation. It gained a deservedly bad name, and although no longer deserved, that name still clings to it. During the present investigation a visit to more than two hundred nickelodeons has not detected one immoral or indecent picture, or one indecent feature of any sort, much as there has been in other respects to call for improvement. But more than this: in the nickelodeon one sees history, travel, the reproduction of industries. He sees farce-comedy which at worst is relaxing, innocuous, rather monotonously confined to horseplay, and at its best is distinctly humanizing, laughing with and not at the subject. Some real drama: delightful curtain-raisers, in perfect pantomime, from France, and in the judgment of most people rather an excess of mere melodrama, and in rare cases even of sheer murderous violence. At one show or another a growing number of classic legends, like Jack and the Beanstalk or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, can be seen any night. The moving picture repertoire amounts to tens of thousands, and is amazingly varied. One firm alone in the city has two million feet of “film” stored away until it can be used again as fresh material, after the public has forgotten it. In addition to the moving-picture, the nickelodeon as a rule has singing, and almost invariably the audience joins in the chorus with a good will. Thus has the moving-picture-show elevated itself. But the penny arcade has not elevated itself, and the cheap vaudeville, if anything, has grown worse.

The nickelodeon is a family theater, and is almost the creation of the child, and it has discovered a new and healthy cheap-amusement public. The penny arcade is a selfish and costly form of amusement, a penny buying only a half-minute’s excitement for one person. Its shooting-gallery and similar features are likewise costly. In the short-lived pictures there is no time for the development of human interest, but the gist of a murder or of a salacious situation can be conveyed. So the penny arcade has resembled the saloon, from which the family has stayed away; and everything artificial has been mustered in to draw the floating crowd. As for the cheap theater, it has had a false tradition behind it, and managers have taken for granted that a low-priced performance could be given only by an inferior cast. So when the cheap theater has departed from the crudest melodrama it has gone over into inferior vaudeville and has depended on illegitimate methods for its success. This is the rule, although there are exceptions, and vaudeville at best has only a limited interest for the great, basic, public of the working and immigrant classes in New York.

But the nickelodeon started with a free field and a marvelous labor-saving device in the moving-picture, and it began above all as a neighborhood institution, offering an evening of the most varied interest to the entire family for a quarter. Thus the nickelodeon grew as solidly as it grew swiftly, and developed a new amusement seeking public, the public that has made the nickelodeon what it is. Right here is found the most significant aspect of the present amusement situation. All the settlements and churches combined do not reach daily a tithe of the simple and impressionable folk that the nickelodeons reach and vitally impress every day. Here is a new social force, perhaps the beginning of a true theater of the people, and an instrument whose power can only be realized when social workers begin to use it.

The investigation led almost immediately to constructive opportunities. On the legal side, an anomalous situation was found. In no existing law, state or municipal, was penny arcade or moving picture mentioned. These theaters were grouped by construction as common shows, along with ferris wheels and bicycle carrousels, and were put under the authority of the license bureau. But where the standard theater is regulated in the minutest detail as regards its building requirements, by written law, there is no law and no printed specification for the moving picture show, which plays with fire. The theaters are controlled by the police, in whom responsibility is centered, and who co-operate with the proper departments. But the nickelodeon is controlled by the license bureau, a clerical department, and up to ten months ago it went to all intents and purposes unsupervised. Then popular agitation and the initiative of a hard working official in the fire department, set the city’s machinery at work, and a good deal has been done. The moving picture show is reasonably safe from fire now; it is not yet safe from contagious disease, and the air is often very bad.

As a first step toward adjusting the legal situation, the investigation committee framed a bill, which has been introduced by Assemblyman Samuel A. Gluck at Albany, and which has passed the Assembly by a large majority. Barring unforeseen obstacles it will pass the Senate at the present session. This bill provides for the raising of license fees on nickelodeons from $25 to $150 a year, for the placing of this license under the direct control of the police, along with the license for standard theaters, and for the exclusion of school children from nickelodeons during school hours and after eight o’clock at night, except when accompanied by guardians. This bill went to Albany with the endorsement of various civic organizations, the Board of Education, and the Moving Picture Association itself which has shown every desire to co-operate in the improvement of moving picture standards.

On the side of co-operation with the moving-picture business looking toward more elevated performances, and even the improvement of the artistic and educational quality and of sanitary conditions through direct competition on a commercial basis, the opportunity is immediate and large. In this field it is probable that the drama machinery of the People’s Institute will be turned to use in some co-operative plan, giving endorsement to the best of the shows and receiving in return the right to regulate their programs. Settlements on their own initiative could do valuable work in this way. The investigation committee, which is to be perpetuated as a sub-committee of the drama committee of the People’s Institute, will in all probability start one or more model nickelodeons, with the object of forcing up the standard through direct competition, of proving that an unprecedentedly high class of performance can be made to pay, and perhaps, in the event of success, of founding a people’s theater of the future.

Comments: John Collier was an American social worker working for the New York People’s Institute. Michael M. Davis of the same organisation later produced an important study of commercial entertainments, including cinema, The Exploitation of Pleasure: A Study of Commercial Recreations in New York City (1911). Charities and the Commons was a weekly journal dedicated to social and charitable themes. Penny arcades would often include moving pictures, usually of the peepshow variety.

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With the Picture Fans

Source: W.W. Winters, ‘With the Picture Fans’, The Nickeodeon, 1 September 1910, pp. 123-124

Text: Come on, girls, let’s go to the show. You get the tickets, Gertie. Of course, it’s Dutch treat, you know. Here’s mine.” There immediately begins an animated search among powder rags, trinkets, and sundry other articles held in a girl’s pocketbook, for the little purse with her small change. Result! “Heavens. Has everybody put all they have in? Yes? And only two dollars and sixty-nine cents. Mercy! Let’s see, one, two, three, four, five. Five of us can’t go anywhere on that. No, we went to Chase’s yesterday, so there are two of us who don’t want to go there. What? Of course, I won’t go in the gallery! Horrors ! I’m surprised at you, Clara. Oh! come on, then, and for mercy’s sake quit fighting about it here.”

Answer to the riddle. Twenty minutes later Five girls, with as many bundles, containing candy, etc., are sitting giggling in one of the city’s foremost nicolettes. Happiness!

* * *

“Do you know, Mrs. Jones, I do get too petered out shopping for any use, I do, indeed.” Mrs. Jones, looking a little done up herself, sympathizes with her. “And do you know, Mrs. Jones, it do beat all how hard it is these days to find a bargain. Oh! there goes that Mrs. Brown. ‘Pon my word, I don’t know where she gets the money she spends on her clothes. And Mr. Jones says her husband ain’t doing nothing worth talking of. Don’t tell me some women ain’t worthless. But Lord! you never can tell; there’s that dear Mrs. Smith, and you do know that her husband is acting scand’lus. What? You didn’t? Why it do beat all, but you know they say he has been running around with some little hussy that dyes her hair and — and, mercy, it’s an outrage, but I never do talk scandal, so you will have to find out — now, I wonder! Mrs. Jones, let’s take in this here show. Never been in one? Well, come on in now, I’ll pay, and I’ve got some candy that I promised Johnnie I would get him, but he’ll never know if we eat some, come on.” Exit Mrs. Jones and her talkative friend through the entrance of one of the five-cent theaters.

* * *

“Two o’clock. H-m-m-m, threequarters of an hour before I can see that man. Why didn’t I make it earlier. Great Scott, what a noise those places do make. Wonder what they’re like. H-m-m-m, 40 minutes. I reckon I’ll take a chance.” The next minute the gentleman disappears into a nicolodeon [sic], with a rather sheepish look.

When one says five-cent theater the first thought is that they are for the poorer people, those who cannot afford even to pay 50 cents for a seat in the “peanut” at one of the other theaters. But is this so? To a certain extent, yes; but only to a certain extent. No matter what time you take to visit these theaters you are sure to find among the motley throng some who are of your station almost, no matter what that station may be. You can, for instance, see plenty of Chinamen there, but whether or not — and from the immobile expression I should say not — they are enjoying it can only be a conjecture. And right here it can be said, and with praise, that one set that they appeal to is the soldier from the fort, the marine barracks, and, in fact, anywhere he comes from. This is in itself a fact that is worthy of praise, for if the soldier can secure an evening’s enjoyment by going to those places, and, at the same time, not spend more than he thinks right, they have filled a vacancy long felt in cities adjoining posts. Then, too, there are the children. They can surely find no more harmless amusement, and few less expensive. And last, but not by any means least, are the men and women who drop in for a while to be amused, or to fill up a spare moment, or even out of courtesy. This only brings us to the cleanness of the performance. It can be truly said that, as a general rule, there is nothing to offend the most fastidious. Taken as a whole, they present amusements that are good, bad, and — worse, the pictures of which the same may be said at times, but which are at least clean. This, too, is a fact worthy of praise, and more — of continuance.

* * *

How different it must seem to a man or woman who has not visited the city for, say, five years — nay, even less — to come here, and in the evening stroll down the avenues and streets. To see tall buildings outlined with lights, huge doorways filled with lighted figures, brilliant paintings, and the ever-present phonograph. But to see the outlay of lights and noise and color is to go back to the Midway at a fair; and consequently we wander past the girl at the window, depositing at the same time a coin, carelessly and as if by chance, on the counter, take up our ticket, and slip inside. It depends entirely upon where this sudden idea takes you what the inside will be like. No two are the least alike, and it must be said that they all show a certain amount of beauty. It is well to say a certain amount, for not wanting to knock them, there is nevertheless a certain incongruity about some of them in the manner in which they have mixed ideas. In other words, you can from the “trimmings” imagine it was done after any of a dozen styles of architecture. But this is a side issue. You go there to see moving pictures and vaudeville acts, and not to comment upon the wall decorations. You go there for amusement. And you can surely get it. No matter how crude the acting, or how far fetched the pictures, there is always sure to be some one who thinks they are “perfectly lovely,” and so amusement is assured. For if you cannot enjoy the performance it is pretty safe to say it is because you have been used to better acting, etc., but unless you are an absolute pessimist you cannot fail to be amused by those around you who do enjoy it.

* * *

One of the most noticeable habits of the patrons of those theaters is that of reading out loud what is flashed upon the screen. “The Capture of the Outlaws.” Ah-h-h-h-h. Everybody sits up and “takes notice.” “Love Triumphant.” Another long-drawn-out “Ah-h-h-h!” and some more notice. Then comes an act a la vaudeville. Somebody in the exurberance of their spirits yells “Get the hook!” whether or not the act is bad, whereat everybody laughs. There are times when the whole audience is so pleased with itself and everybody else that let any one accidentally, quite accidentally, sneeze, why, the whole house re-echoes with laughter. Have you ever noticed some old party who is so absorbed in the thing going on before him that he unconsciously makes remarks to nobody in particular, and seen how everybody around is generally tolerant, generally, be it said, and will nudge one another, and smile, and bob their heads in his direction. Ever seen it? Ever done it? Ever been it? Isn’t it nearly always a good-natured crowd? Doesn’t your heart warm within you and you feel like patting some small boy on the head, a small boy, be it said, that at any other time you would push out of your way? Somehow you all enter into the spirit of the thing. Armed with a few stray nickels, a bag of peanuts, a good supply of patience and good humor, and oh! what a time we did have! You all know that line from Kipling, “The colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin.” Isn’t it so? Don’t you slip away from yourself, lose your reticence, reserve, pride, and a few other things? Don’t you even forgive the fat old gentleman who, when he passed you, stepped on your co—-? Aren’t you most willing to do that? And why? Here’s where I retreat and let you puzzle it out.

* * *

And when you come out, this is particularly so of a Saturday night, you wander up and down and find yourself brushing shoulders with goodness knows who. And then you go to speak to your friend, he was right by your side a second ago. You turn. “Oh! do let’s take in that one — Oh ! Oh-h-h-h! I be-eg your pardon. Oh! there you are. Mercy, that was a perfectly strange man.” There you are! The man took off his hat and went his way and forgot you. But there is something in the air, a something caused by the bright lights, and a great deal of squeeky noises issuing forth from each recess you pass, that gets into your bones, and you all lock arms, everybody in your crowd, and swing down the street, happy and care free, and proceed to take in every five-cent theater that so much as displays a little tweeny light — and then wish for more. And, of course, it is understood that you had not only no idea of ever going in the “cheap” places, but, when you were finally inveigled in, that you could go once, but never again. But what’s the use? Why not submit gracefully and admit that the five-cent theaters have a place all their own and that, after all, you are going again. By Jove! So there!

Comments: ‘Nickelodeon’ was a name given to early American film theatres, which appeared in cities from around 1905 onwards, where seats were commonly priced at five cents (a nickel).

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Comparison between Theatres and Films

Source: H.G., quoted in J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 113-114

Text: I do not know wether [sic] I am to be considered lucky that I happened to have a wireless on when the Brainstrust [sic] was discussing the subject on which I am going to endeavour to write about.

First the cinemas [sic] good points.

One is always sure of being able to hear and see what is going on. Whereas in the thatre [sic] you are not, unless one is very near the stage, a position which is not very suitable because one can see the actors and actresses make-up.

In wartime the theatre is apt to be drab and the costumes look as if they have seen better days, also in the films one does not expect colour, unless it is in Technicolour [sic] which is very pleasing to the eye in days of war.

Once I was in the pictures seeing a film in Techni-colour called Best Foot Forward with Lucille Ball it was lovely, and the warning went, it was a very heavy raid, but I was much to interested to think about it.

I do not think that the theatre could get one, so concentrated in programme, to forget about it.

Unless one is fond of comedy the theatre can be very boring, if the artists are not good. But films must be good or at least good enough to pass the critics (who allows the films fit for the public).

Plays are not too bad in theatres, but are also apt to be boring.

Last year my sister took my mother and I to see Arsenic and Old Lace. Mummy hated it, but would not tell my sister so because it may have hurt her feelings.

Mummy hated it because (a) She could not hear properly and only caught snatches of the conversation; (b) She was bored stiff, because all they seemed to do was open and shut a box by the window.

I like plays, and during the examinations I went to see The Lisbon Story it was a very spectacular show, and we had a very good seat, which makes all the difference.

In the cinemas it is warm and not so draughty as theatres.

In the theatre one is seeing the thing actually being done, and every thing is more or less real, where as in the cinema, one is seeing something that has been practised to perfection, and if one is seeing what I term a THRILLER! one knows that if somebody in the picture has been killed he or she is not really dead.

So … on the whole I think pictures are better, most of them come from Hollywood and America has all the best stars and I do not think the english [sic] film star has a chance.

In the pictures the story has been picked out and the unnecessary parts cut and the best parts brought out, and in my opinion the films are infinately [sic] better than the theatre and if not in your opinion, better, they are very good entertainment, and I don’t know what a lot of us would do without them.

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 response comes from the section ‘Children and Adolescents and the Cinema’. The contributors for this section came from a school in Hampstead, with the children being described by Mayer as female, mostly middle class, on average not older than twelve-and-a-half.

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The Cinema in Arcady

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance XII: The Cinema in Arcady’, Close Up vol. II no. 1, July 1928, pp. 52-57

Text: Hedge-topped banks form a breezeless corridor upon whose floor, white with dust, the sun beats down. Dust films the edges and most of the flowering things that brought forgetfulness of the hidden distances have fled. We trudged averted from beauty defaced, hearing bird-song in the unspoiled hedges of fresh invisible fields and watching for the bend of the long lane and the reward: shelter or high trees that there begin their descending march and, for our shaded eyes, the view of the little grey harbour town at our feet screened by misty tree-tops of spring, the wide estuary beyond it, sapphire backed by golden sand-dunes, miniatures of the tors standing in distant amber light along the horizon. The bend came and the twin poplars that frame the prospect for which our waiting eyes were raised; to see, fastened from trunk to trunk an obliterating sign-board: Come to the Pictures.

Jealously the year before we had resented the walls of the small palace rising in unearthly whiteness at the angle of a grey ramshackle by-street. And even while we knew that what we were resenting was the invasion of our retreat by any kind of culture and even while we were moved by the thought of the marvels about to appear before the astonished eyes of villagers and fisherfolk, we still had our doubts. And this placard defacing the loveliest view in the neighbourhood seemed symbolically to confirm them. We doubted because we had found in these people a curious completeness; wisdom, and a strange sophisticated self-sufficiency. We told ourselves that they were an ancient aristocratic people and made romantic generalisations ffrom every scrap of favourable evidence. And though it may perhaps fairly be claimed that these lively, life-educated people of the coast villages and fishing stations do not need, as do the relatively isolated people of crowded towns, the socialising influence of the cinema, we were obliged in the end to admit that our objections were indefensible.

There, at any rate, the cinema presently was. We ignored and succeeded in forgetting it until the placard appeared and in imagination we saw an epidemic of placards, in ancient hamlets, in meadows, on cliffsides and we went forth to battle. We battled for months for the restoration of the hillside landscape. In vain. Urban district councillors were sympathetic and dubious. The villagers were for living and letting live and the harbour towns-folk would not come out against a fellow townsman. Generally our wrathful sorrow provoked a mild amusement. The placard was regarded as a homely harmless affair as inoffensive as a neighour’s out hung washing, except by those few who were voluble in execration of the cinema and all its works. From these we collected evidence recalling the recorded depredations of strong drink amongst primitive peoples. Crediting all we heard we should see the entire youthful population of the parish, and many of the middle-aged, centred upon the pictures, living for them. We heard of youths and maidens once frugal, homely and dutiful, who now squander their earnings not only twice weekly when the picture is changed, but nightly. Of debt. Of tradesmen’s bills that mount and mount unpaid as never before. The prize story is of a one-time solid matron now so demoralised that rather than miss a picture she will obtain groceries on credit and sell of them to her neighbours.

It is clear that down here amongst these full-living hard-working landspeople the enchantment has worked at least as potently as in the towns. And reflection suggests an explanation that would apply equally to almost any rural district where life is lived all the year round in the open or between transparent walls, lived from birth to death in the white light of a publicity for which towns can offer no parallel. Drama is continuous. No day passes without bringing to some group or member of the large scattered family a happening more or less shared by everyone else and fruitful of eloquence. Speech is relatively continuous. Solitude almost unknown. And these people have turned to the pictures as members of a family who know each other by heart will turn to the visitor who brings the breath of otherness. And whereas in the towns those who frequent the cinema may obtain together with its other gifts admission to a generalized social life, a thing unknown in slum and tenement, lodging-house and the smaller and poorer villadom, these people of village and hamlet, already socially educated and having always before their eyes the spectacle of life in the raw throughout its entire length, the assemblage of every kind of human felicity and tribulation, find in the cinema together with all else it has to offer them, their only escape from ceaseless association, their only solitude, the solitude that is said to be possible only in cities. They become for a while citizens of a world whose every face is that of a stranger. The mere sight of these unknown people is refreshment. And the central figures of romance are heaven-born, are the onlookers as they are to themselves, heroes and heroines unknown to their neighbours. To cease for a moment to be just John or Mary carrying about with you wherever you go your whole known record, to be oblivious of the scene upon which your life is lived and your future unalterably cast, is to enter into your own eternity.

It is not possible perfectly to disentangle from that of the wrireless, the popular newspaper and the gramophone, the influence of the cinema in rural districts. Certain things however, emerge more or less clearly. There is for example no evidence, at any rate down here in the west, of any increased desire for town life. Rather the contrary, for the prestige of that life has suffered more than a little as a result of realistic representation and the strongest communicable impression whether of London, New York or other large city — all much of a muchness and equally remote, though not more so than Plymouth — is that of insecurity. Neither in railway station, hotel, or crowded street is either money or life for a single moment free from risk. And the undenied charm of the Far West is similarly overshadowed: you must be prepared either to shoot or to be shot. And although condemnation goes hand in hand with envy of the apparently limitless possibilities of acquisition and independence, the vote on the whole goes steadily for the civilisation and safety of rural conditions.

Melodrama and farcical comedy are prime favourites and an intensity of interest centres about the gazette, the pictures of what is actually going on in various parts of the world. That there is always something worth seeing and that the music is “lovely” is almost universal testimony. It is probable that the desire for perpetual cinema will presently abate. A year of constant film-seeing is not overmuch for those without theatre, music-hall or any kind of large scale public entertainement. Meantime one clearly visible incidental result of this intensive cultivation is to be noted: these people, and particularly the younger generation, have no longer quite the local
quality they had even a year ago. They are amplified, aware of resources whose extent is unknown to them and have a joyful half-conscious preoccupation with this new world that has been brought into their midst, a preoccupation that on the whole, and if one excludes the weaklings who would in any case be the prey of desirable or undesirable external forces, serves to enhance the daily life. They no longer for one reason and another, amongst which the cinema is indisputably the foremost, [f]it to their local lives as closely as of yore. Evidence of this change is to be found even in their bearing. The “yokel” is less of a lout than he was wont to be and the dairymaid even on workdays is indistinguishable from her urban counterpart. And though doubtless something is lost and the lyric poet is shedding many an unavailing tear, much undeniably is gained. These youths and maidens in becoming world citizens, in getting into communication with the unknown, become also recruits available, as their earth and-cottage-bound forbears never could have been for the world-wide conversations now increasingly upon us in which the cinema may play, amongst its numerous other roles, so powerful a part.

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves.

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Leaving the Movie Theater

Source: Extract from Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard), ‘Leaving the Movie Theater’, in The Rustle of Language (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), pp. 345-346

Text: There is something to confess: your speaker likes to leave a movie theater. Back out on the more or less empty brightly lit sidewalk (it is invariably at night, and during the week, that he goes), and heading uncertainly for some café or other, he walks in silence (he doesn’t like discussing the film he’s just seen), a little dazed, wrapped up in himself, feeling the cold – he’s sleepy, that’s what he’s thinking, his body has become something sopitive, soft, limp, and he feels a little disjointed, even (for a moral organization, relief comes only from this quarter) irresponsible. In other words, obviously, he’s coming out of hypnosis. And hypnosis (an old psychoanalytic device – one that psychoanalysis these days seems to treat quite condescendingly) means only one thing to him; the most venerable of powers: healing. And he thinks of music: isn’t there such a thing as hypnotic music? The castrato Farinelli, whose messa di voce was “as incredible for its duration as for its emission,” relieved the morbid melancholy of Philip V by singing him the same aria every night for fourteen years.

This is often how he leaves a movie theater. How does he go in? Except for the – increasingly frequent – case of a specific cultural quest (a selected, sought for, desired film, object of a veritable preliminary alert), he goes to movies as a response to idleness, leisure, free time. It’s as if, even before he went into the theater, the classic conditions of hypnosis were in force: vacancy, want of occupation, lethargy; it’s not in front of the film and because of the film that he dreams off – it’s without knowing it, even before he becomes a spectator. There is a “cinema situation,” and this situation is pre-hypnotic. According to a true metonymy, the darkness of the theater is prefigured by the “twilight reverie” (a prerequisite for hypnosis, according to Breuer-Freud) which precedes it and leads him from street to street, from poster to poster, finally burying himself in a dim, anonymous, indifferent cube where that festival of affects known as a film will be presented.

What does the “darkness” of cinema mean? (Whenever I hear the word cinema, I can’t help thinking hall, rather than film.) Not only is the dark the very substance of reverie (in the pre-hypnoid meaning of the term); it is also the “color” of a diffused eroticism; by its human condensation, by its absence of worldliness (contrary to the cultural appearance that has to be put in at any “legitimate theater”), by the relaxation of postures (how many members of the cinema audience slide down into their seats as if into a bed, coats or feet thrown over the row in front!), the movie house (ordinary model) is a site of availability (even more than cruising), the inoccupation of bodies, which best defines modern eroticism – not that of advertising or strip-tease, but that of the big city. It is in this urban dark that the body’s freedom is generated; this invisible work of possible affects emerges from a veritable cinematographic cocoon; the movie spectator could easily appropriate the silkworm’s motto: Inclusum labor illustrat; it is because I am enclosed that I work and glow with all my desire.

In this darkness of the cinema (anonymous, populated, numerous – oh, the boredom, the frustration, of so-called private showings!) lies the very fascination of the film (any film). Think of the contrary experience: on television, where films are also shown, no fascination; here darkness is erased, anonymity repressed; space is familiar, articulated (by furniture, known objects), tamed: the eroticism – no, to put it better, to get across the particular kind of lightness, of unfulfillment we mean: the eroticization of the place is foreclosed: television doomed us to the Family, whose household instrument it has become – what the hearth used to be, flanked by its communal kettle …

Comments: Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a French literary theorist and semiotician. This text, of which the first part is reproduced here, comes from a posthumously-published collection of essays written between 1967 and 1980.

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Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show

Source: Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (USA 1902, Edison Manfucturing Company), Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division collection, http://www.loc.gov/item/00694324

Comments: This Edison film plays on the comic contemporary idea that some audiences were unable to distinguish the action on a screen from reality. The three films seen by Uncle Josh are Parisian Dancer (not the same as the 1897 Edison film Parisian Dance), Black Diamond Express (not the same as the 1896 Edison film of that title) and A Country Couple (appears to have been produced for this film). An earlier British film, The Countryman and the Cinematograph (UK 1901), finds its comedy in showing how a naive person from the country lacks a sophisticated urban understanding and runs away from an approaching train shown on the screen. The Edison film is a likely imitation. The projectionist shown at the end would have been in front of the screen, not behind it. Uncle Josh is played by Charles ‘Daddy’ Manley. The character featured in two other Edison films of this period.

Links: Online copy at Library of Congress

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Gods, monsters

Source: Extract from Andrew Collins, ‘Gods, monsters’, Never Knowingly Underwhelmed blog, 28 March 2011, http://wherediditallgorightblog.wordpress.com/2011/03/18/gods-monsters/

Text: To the Curzon in Mayfair for our second go at NT Live, where the National Theatre in London beams one of its productions, live, or as-live, around the whole world. This time: the much-discussed rendition of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein by writer Nick Dear and director Danny Boyle. Having already seen and been enthralled by Rory Kinnear’s Hamlet in this format in December, I can honestly say that this experience topped it. Not only was the production something to behold, but Hamlet was in the smaller Screen 2 at the Mayfair – we were moved there to accommodate the gala opening of some new film called The King’s Speech, which sank without a trace as far as I can tell. Anyway, Frankenstein was in the massive Screen 1. Much better. [...]

Here’s the deal: people at the National Theatre on the South Bank watch actors do a play. People not at the theatre but in cinemas around the country, and the world, also watch actors do a play, at the same time. It’s a brilliant initiative, and even better if you’re a member of the Curzon and your tickets are discounted. But it’s particularly brilliant if you don’t live in London. I know because people were chattering excitedly about it on Twitter yesterday that it was showing at the mighty Duke Of York’s in Brighton, for instance. [...] So, that’s the background. What about the play? After all, the play’s the thing.

Well, Frankingstein [sic] has been running for a month at the National and has been showered with positive notices. (Emma Freud, who stands in the NT auditorium and introduces the live link-up while confused theatregoers take their seats behind her and gawp vacantly into the camera, informed us that people are queuing up for tickets at 1am. I must admit, we booked our tickets for the Curzon showing before Christmas, sensing a sellout, which it was. Imagine a play that not only sells out the theatre it is in, but auditoriums it is not in.) You have to see these things for yourself sometimes. I am not an inveterate theatregoer, as we have established. I’ve seen some plays. Living in London is a bit of a privilege in that sense, but I’ve always felt a little bit ripped off when I’ve seen some men and ladies standing around talking to each other. If I’m going to pay West End prices, I want to see men and ladies dancing and singing. So, bear that in mind when I review this, as I am only comparing it to a handful of other plays I have seen. In many ways, I’m an easy lay, as I am just excited to be watching a play.

Danny Boyle is known as a filmmaker, but he started out in the theatre, as everyone will tell you. Well, that’s as may be, but he brought a cinematic eye and sense of occasion to Frankenstein. Beginning with the creature’s birth and following his infantile development – he walks! he talks! he reads Milton! – most of the first act is wordless. It’s just Benedict Cumberbatch (or Jonny Lee Miller – the pair alternate the main roles of Creature and Frank[en]stein) crawling and hobbling around the vast, bare stage, and grunting his way to coherence. Ironically, although this section is a tour de force, it’s made more cinematic when you watch it in the cinema, as you get close-ups and pans, and – something really special for the non-theatre audiences – aerial shots! So, what we saw in the Curzon is not what they saw at the National. They will say theirs was better, because they were in the same hall as Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Lee Miller off of the telly and the films, but I will say that ours was better. Funnily enough, the theatre crowd were still rudely talking when the play started. We were really quiet in the cinema. A huge bell sounds to signal the play has started, and yet, there they were, the big London theatre ponces, still muttering as Cumberbatch’s hand started feeling around inside the womb of his creation.

Unless you can afford to go twice in succession, you’re going to have to play the Cumberbatch/Lee Miller Lottery like the rest of us. Who will it be? It’s like a theatrical Kinder Egg – literally, as the creature bursts out of his membranous shell. Having experienced the full two hours, with no interval (Danny Boyle the bad boy rule-breaker!), I’m going to stick my neck out and say that I’m glad we got the Cumberbatch monster. It is a performance to leave your head spinning with its sheer physicality, nuanced grostequery [sic] and well balanced pathos/bathos. Lee Miller has less to do as the professor, less stagetime, and he had an audible sore throat last night, so heaven knows how he’ll cope as the grunting and squealing monster tonight. Vocalzone to the rescue, one hopes.

It’s actually scary, which is no mean feat for a stage play. The design and the lighting were spare and epic at the same time, with a stunning ceiling light made of hundreds of tiny individual bulbs that could undulate or burst into a retina-searing dazzle, and a revolving circular stage that occasionally gave birth to bits of scenery, and also coped with rain, snow and a roaring fire from below, not to mention a strip of what looked like actual grass that seemed to grow from nowhere. The design and the music – by Underworld – combined to create a fabulously Gothic setting, against which a fine cast could do their best with a script that at times was over-ripe, but on the whole managed to balance the philosophical and the portentous with bawdy and silly humour. You might find, say, the broad Scottish accents of the graverobbing crofter and his son a bit Fraser-from-Dad’s-Army, but it’s a period piece, and you have to take that onboard. There is no trendy modernisation here. It’s all industrial machinery and gaslight and rabbit stew cooked over a hearth. Naomie Harris off of the telly and the films, had a thankless part as Frankenstein’s intended, Elizabeth, until the grisly denouement, but Karl Johnson was fantastic as the old blind man who “sees” past the creature’s ugliness and identifies his soul.

I wonder if Cumberbatch and Lee Miller will share the theatre awards next year? They sort of should. Many critics said that Lee Miller’s monster was better than Cumberbatch’s. But they saw both.

I tried to read Shelley’s novel in my early twenties and gave up, defeated. Maybe I’ll give it another crack. They played a short making-of documentary before the play – risking letting light in upon magic, although the footage was from rehearsals and not the production itself – and Frankenstein was described by some academic or other as a creation myth for the age of science. This is a fascinating idea, and one that’s not fully explored in, say, the classic 1931 film of Frankenstein, which, as Boyle notes, took away the creature’s voice. His version gives it back.

Oh, and despite a full house, the two seats in front of us were empty. RESULT!

Comments: Andrew Collins is a television scripwriter, broadcaster, journalist, and film editor of the Radio Times. The stage production of the National Theatre’s Frankenstein was broadcast at part of the NT Live series on 17 and 24 March 2011. The cast included Benedict Cumberbatch and Jonny Miller, who alternated in the roles of Frankenstein and the Creature. The Curzon Mayfair is a London cinema. My thanks to Andrew Collins for permission to reproduce his blog post here.

Links: NT Live website for Frankenstein

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Russia of To-day

Source: John Foster Fraser, Russia of To-day (London: Cassell, 1915), pp. 92-93

Text: One more experience: we must go to a kinema show. The “pictures” are just as popular in Petrograd as in London or New York or Sydney or Paris. We have difficulty in getting seats and we pay twice as much as we would in London. Of course there are the usual American films; the Transatlantic dramas are pronounced “Anglichani” by the Russians who fail to know the difference.

But the Russian likes strong meat. Merely amusing pictures leave him cold. There was a film of the career of “A Daughter of Joy” which would not have been passed by the Censor in England. There was a sad love drama. The Russians will not have a happy ending. They adore a mournful ending where the young lady has to marry the man she hates and the real lover cuts his throat with a razor at the marriage feast and writhes on the floor before he expires with the bride on her knees sobbing upon his breast. The Russian glories in murder in the “pictures.” He and she turns up his or her nose at the sentimental journeys-end-in-lovers-meeting sort of film which is popular in other countries. The manager of a film firm told me it was usual to have two endings, one gruesome for Russia and one happy for elsewhere.

Comments: John Foster Fraser (1868-1936) was a British travel writer and cyclist. ‘Russian endings’, in which Russian-produced films had tragic endings for the Russian market and happy endings for export, were common.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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David Lean: A Biography

Source: Kevin Brownlow, David Lean: A Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1997 [orig. 1996]) p. 203

Text: I was making GREAT EXPECTATIONS down at Rochester when the first print came through [of Brief Encounter] … I suggested we ask the local theatre if they would run a preview. Rochester was a pretty tough town in those days and at the first love scene one woman down in the front started to laugh. I’ll never forget it. And the second love scene in got worse. And then the audience caught on and waited for her to laugh and then they all joined in and it ended in an absolute shambles. They were rolling in the aisles – partly, I must admit, laughing at the woman, she had such a funny laugh. I remember going back to the hotel, and lying on the bed almost in tears thinking, ‘How can I get into the laboratory at Denham and burn the negative?’ I was so ashamed of it.

Comments: David Lean (1908-1991) was a British film director, whose films included Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946). The film being previewed was Brief Encounter, and the Rochester cinema was the Majestic (later named Gaumont).

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Into China

Source: Claude Roy, Into China (London: McKibbon & Kee, 1955), pp. 283-284, trans. Mervyn Savill from Clefs pour la Chine (Paris, 1953), reproduced in Jay Leyda, Dianying: An Acount of Films and the Film Audience in China (Cambridge, Mass./London: The MIT Press, 1972), p. 187

Text: In China I saw an amazing film whose beauty seemed to challenge all the esthetic rules of the game between film stock and light. For the first quarter hour in this long documentary on prostitution and its suppression, the camera did not move away from the ordinary and very distressing face of a young woman who only told her life story. A french audience probably would have been annoyed by this fifteen-minute-long passage in which the camera remains immobile and where nothing happens – except the reflection on one face of a whole destiny of humiliation and servility. I can imagine how a French audience would have sought release either in laughter, no matter how tense and nervous, or in flight from the theater. What was most moving for me in this film showing was not merely the nakedness and authenticity of the woman’s testimony, it was the attitude of the audience. The hundreds of spectators in this Chinese cinema did not give the usual impression of being spectators, of being on the other side of a mirror that stretched across this great space of a face and a life. An almost concrete link was established between them and the screen – nor was this merely uneasy curiosity or pharisaical hostility. No fear of ridicule, no enjoyment of indiscretion, no contemptuous withdrawal broke the equality between the woman who laid her burden before all of us and the “spectators” who received it without irony and without scorn – I might even say, without pity. At least without that pity which is already a judgment in its condescension. Each one felt that it could have happened to him. That is all. That is enormous.

Comments: Claude Roy (1915-1997) was a French poet, autobiographer and travel writer. The film described here is Stand up, Sisters! aka Peking Prostitutes Liberated (China 1950 d. Shih Hui).

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