Laughter in Leningrad

Source: Dorothea Eltenton, Laughter in Leningrad: An English Family in Russia 1933-1938 (privately printed, 1998), pp. 141-142

Text: Lil and l had planned to go and see Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times which was showing in town, and as Sasha was still with us I suggested he come too. He was delighted. The film was having a terrific success (Shura, who, by the way, very much reminded us of Chaplin, had seen it in Moscow six times), but we were there early and got good seats.

It was wonderful to see Chaplin again, Chaplin better than ever but with those same touches of human vulgarity which he is unable to resist in every film. Lil and I were helpless with laughter, our sides were aching and still we went on. But at times I noticed that we were the only ones in the audience laughing, and sometimes even someone would look round as though we were laughing when we shouldn’t. Sasha was very solemn, not all the way through, for the whole audience thoroughly enjoyed the film and roared with laughter, but there were lots of places were Lil and I laughed and they didn’t.

I was out of breath when it was over. We stood up. Sasha’s face was sad. He sighed.

‘A tragic picture,’ he said slowly.

‘You mustn’t take it so seriously,’ I said.

You mustn’t take it so lightly,’ he replied. ‘It’s far too real to take lightly. You see so clearly the tragedy of the “little fellow” being kicked around.’ He sighed again, ‘A tragic picture.’

But Lil and I couldn’t help laughing all the way home as we recalled the funniest bits. The feeding machine in the factory, the conveyor belt.

‘And yet it is tragic, Lil,’ I said.

‘I know it is.’

Comments: Dorothea Eltenton (1904-2001) was born Ada Dorothea Hamilton in Manchester and lived in the Soviet Union with her physicist husband George Eltenton 1933-1938. They subsequently moved to San Francisco where she worked for the American Russian Institute for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union. Both came under suspicion from the FBI for communist sympathies. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (USA 1936) is a comic picture of the plight of a little man in an industrialised world.

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The Missionary Film

Source: Winifred Holtby, extract from ‘The Missionary Film’, Truth is not Sober (London: W. Collins Sons & Co., 1934), pp. 108-110

Text: In the market place the cinema beckoned to him, flaring with joyous light, festooned with small electric bulbs like jewels, emerald green and ruby stars. Such stars, though Mr. Grant, set all the Sons of God shouting for joy.

He paid eightpence and went in.

The honest friendly darkness engulfed him, but against the flickering pallor of the screen he saw the clear outline of Mrs. Fitton’s Sunday hat. He liked Mrs. Fitton; he liked the rural English audience; the scent of warm humanity and muddy boots reminded him of Sunday school treats in his childhood. The orchestra, a local pianist, and a girl playing the violin, broke out into Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song.” Bending to light his pipe, Mr. Grant missed the first title of the film. Head read only “… missionary propaganda, but rather education in its broadest sense.” He felt a twinge of disappointment, for he did not want to be educated. Above all, he did not want to be reminded of a man who had once been a missionary educationalist. He wanted to see Harold Lloyd or Tom Mix.

“The first sight of land which thrills the heart of the traveller,” he read with faint distaste. What trash about travellers. The best thing about travel was the last mile on the way home. He wanted to see Charlie Chaplin; but he saw instead a line of flat-topped hills, mottled about their base with little houses, and towering starkly over a placid sea.

He sat up rigidly, frowning.

“Adderley Street,” danced the caption. “the gateway to a continent.” Tall buildings, faint against the sunlight; dark trees tossing in a dusty wind; bearded farmers in knee breeches; Indian schoolgirls with prim plaits of hair hanging down muslin dresses; a market-gardener swinging baskets of melons and yams; pretty typists in sleeveless summer frocks; here they came. Then a couple swaggered down the road, the wind flapping in their ragged coats and wide trousers. They carried canes, and wore handkerchiefs in their breast pockets. Their black faces grinned, growing larger and larger until they filled the screen, blotting out towers and trams and all the paraphernalia of the European.

Click! They had gone. The orchestra began to play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody. A train started up from the veldt like a frightened snake and slid out of the picture. An ox-wagon lumbered between the scorching hills and twisted thorn bushes. A naked boy with a round, gleaming belly ran ahead of the beats. Mr. Grant could hear the creak of the leather and the grinding of heavy wheels on the dry red soil.

A group of women stooped beside the spruit washing sweet potatoes. Their white bead anklets clanked as they moved. Water dripped from black wrists and flat pink palms. One carried on her head a blanket in which two fowls roosted cackling.

Mr. Grant’s pipe had gone out. He sat clutching the plush arm rest of his eightpenny chair. The sweat round his lips tasted salt and cold …

Comments: Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) was a British novelist, journalist and political campaigner. This extract is from a collection of her short stories. The story is about a man who had previously served on a mission who sees a promotional film in a British cinema about South Africa, and is reminded of how he was forced to leave because of his sympathy for the black South Africans. At the end of the story he decides to return to South Africa to pursue what he believes in. Adderley Street is in Cape Town.

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Benares, the Stronghold of Hinduism

rat

Man swallowing rat, from National Media Museum collection

Source: C.[harles] Phillips Cape, Benares, the Stronghold of Hinduism (Boston: R.G. Badger, 1910), pp. 209-210

Text: A night or two after our arrival, a magic-lantern entertainment was given outside the tent. It can hardly be called a lantern service, as some of the slides had a secular tendency. When the well-known moving picture of the rat-swallowing sleeper appeared on the sheet, the evangelist, thinking it must have a moral, explained to the wondering audience that this was the fruit of drunkenness.

But on another night, when this same slide was shown for the amusement of the children, one of our younger preachers informed the listeners that the swallower of rats was a victim of the opium habit! All the slides were not of this nature, for we followed with ‘Probable Sons,’ ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress,’ and finished with some scenes in the life of our Lord, which seemed to impress the people deeply. We thought we had been generous enough in allowing all to come without charge or collection, and were not a little surprised by a man asking next day how much we would give him if he attended the entertainment!

Comments: Charles Phillips Cape (1874-?) was a British Christian missionary. His book on Hindusim and Benares (now Varansi) is a mixture of missionary endeavour and travel writing. The incident described took place in a village outside the city. The set of images showing a sleeping man appearing to swallow a rat was one of the most popular of all magic lantern slide sets.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Jaws on the Water

jaws

Source: ‘Jaws on the Water’ by https://instagram.com/hlkfotos, referenced in ‘The most TERRIFYING screening ever? Seriously, would you watch Jaws like this?’, http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/589985/jaws-screening-on-water-scariest-films-alamo-drafthouse, 9 July 2015

Comments: A screening of Jaws (USA 1975), Steven Spielberg’s film about a shark terrorising a beach resort, at the Alamo Drafthouse, New Braunfels, Texas, where audiences watch the film from rubber rings floating in a lake. The Alama Drafthouse ski ranch and entertainment complex first introduced the ‘Jaws on the Water’ concept in 2002.

Links: Jaws on the Water event page

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Unchained Russia

Source: Charles Edward Russell, Unchained Russia (New York/London: D. Appleton, 1918), pp. 300-305

Text: But as to what we call morals; of course the standards of the Nevsky Prospekt after sundown are reflected in the powerful Russian literature and the extraordinary Russian drama. There are those among us that are willing to take the Russian novel as it is and slip off our Puritan scruples for the sake of the Russian novelist’s unequaled grasp upon the vital and the moving; for when you read him it is as if one of Bret Harte’s “jinnies fierce and wild” had reached out of space and caught you irrevocably by the heart. And as to the drama, if I may make any fair guess, that is no more than beginning, and another generation is likely to see Russian plays that will set the world agape, morals or no morals. But I speak of the people as they are today, and according to all tradition and theory one of the best reflexes of their mental state should be found in a typical audience at a theater or a typical group of spectators at a film show.

But I solemnly swear to you I went out upon such a hunt and returned but little wiser. There was at one of the larger film theaters of Petrograd when I was there a moving-picture show that certainly should bring out a people’s mental processes, if anything of that kind could. It was a version of the Russian Revolution and the story of Rasputin. Morals aside, once more, the thing was exceedingly well done; there is no question about that. The acting seemed to be superbly spirited; the stirring scenes of the Revolution were put on with endless accessories, great crowds and potent realism. Night after night the theater was packed with people. They sat there and gazed upon vivid picturings of the most colossal drama in modern history and of the strangest and weirdest tale ever told, and for emotion might as well have been graven of stone.

I could not then explain this fact and do not pretend to explain it now. I went back to the place more than once to make sure, and I talked with others that went, some of them as much puzzled as I, and it was always the same story. The people sat absolutely unmoved before scenes that one would think would stir them to their depths. There was every kind of strong, if primitive, emotion in that play; also everything calculated to appeal to the revolutionary spirit of revolutionists and the reactionary spirit of reactionaries, and nobody seemed to be either glad or mad.

They saw the alleged relations between Rasputin and the late Czarina indicated with a frankness and lack of reserve that might have appalled a crowd of Westerners, but these apparently were neither shocked nor pleased. They saw the late Czar depicted as dull, sensual, cruel and as his wife’s degraded dupe, and if there were monarchists in the company they did not care, and if there were republicans they suppressed their elation. They saw the Czar signing his abdication and surrendering the throne of his ancestors and were unconcerned. They saw the uprising of the people, the dawn of liberty, the fighting in the streets, the triumph of democracy, the long-looked-for day come at last, the long processions of cheering multitudes, and gave never a hand-clap.

I could never well understand that play. The author might with equal reason be believed to have planned it to awaken enthusiasm for the Revolution or sympathy for the deposed and worthless tribe of Romanoffs — I never could tell which. The Czar in the earlier scenes was represented as unattractive, but the last scenes seemed intended to make him a martyr and a figure of cheap pathos, if anybody cares for that. He is a prisoner in his palace; he paces up and down with bent head, and then tries to pass out of a doorway. Two soldiers, with bayonets advanced, halt him. He nods his head and sighs, and then paces around to another door and two other soldiers halt him there. Then he draws apart the window curtains and looks sadly into the street where the people are celebrating the Revolution, and the end of it is a “close up” of him in that position.

One night a young officer, pointed out to me as the son of a noble, shed tears at this rather mawkish scene, but the rest of the people did not cry nor seem to care. It was plain that they were interested, but whatever emotions they felt they successfully concealed.

On another occasion I saw a film of a celebrated American comic hero of the movies whose impossible and galumphing antics have made millions roar in this country, and he did not seem funny to the Russians. They observed him chasing cannon-balls and dancing on his head and did not even smile. This time it was plain they were bored by the show. They talked and moved restlessly about and cracked sunflower seeds, and some went out, a signal proof of disapprobation, for the Russian is thrifty; he will not easily spend money for a show and then leave it.

Yet a few nights later I saw an audience composed of about the same class of people made ecstatic by a vocalist. He sang very effectively some Russian folksongs and the people cheered him with a sincerity of feeling that any performer might be proud to evoke. They were discriminating, also; they knew good singing from a poorer offering; they were not carried away by any bare appeal of the song itself. Being singers themselves they had reason to know the real from the counterfeit. A little later they would hardly give a hand to a performer that they thought fell short of a laudable standard.

It was a very large audience and a program that began at 8:30 P.M. lasted until 1 A.M., which in summer is no unusual time for these entertainments to close. A man made the audience cry with the way he read a simple little poem. I doubt if anybody could make an American audience cry with the same thing. Another man made them laugh with a comic sketch of his own composing. I think this was the most interesting part of the performance. The sketch being new there was an unusual chance to see how the minds of the people worked upon a humorous suggestion and they seemed to work like a steel trap. They seized the idea the instant it left the speaker’s lips.

They laughed at funny lines, wept at a poem about a little girl in the snow, and looked with considerable indifference on film-show antics of a high-priced and favorite entertainer.

Comments: Charles Edward Russell (1860-1941) was an American journalist and prominent socialist. He was a member of Elihu Root’s American mission to Russia in June 1917, which offered America support to Kerensky’s Provisional Government. Russell was impressed by the influence of film on Russian audiences and pressed for American propagandists to produce films for Russian consumption. The film he describes could one of a number of Russian films at this time which dramatised the falls of the Romanovs, with a particular focus on the antics of Rasputin (e.g. Tsar Nikolai II, 1917). Russell would later appear in the American feature film The Fall of the Romanoffs (USA 1918) as himself, in a scene filmed outside the Duma during his time in Petrograd. I cannot identify the American comedian to whom he refers.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

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Die Illusion im kinematographischen Theater

Source: Fred Hood [Friedrich Huth], extract from ‘Die Illusion im kinematographischen Theater,’ Der Kinematograph, 17 March 1907, quoted in Gabriele Pedullà (trans. Patricia Gaborik), In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema (London/New York: Verso, 2012, originally published in Italian in 2008), p. 51

Text: When we enter into a movie house, we immediately see the screen on the wall, which is nothing other than a large cloth framed with wood or velvet. We know that on this cloth nothing can really happen, as it were; it is as if it lacks the stage to put a good number of people in the scene. We would like to fall under the illusion, but this ought not to be made so difficult for us. Entering the auditorium, for example, we expect to see a stage. It is incredible how our emotions rise when, taking our place, we find the familiar old stage and curtain; certainly, the curtain should cover only the screen, hiding its edges. But our fancy enchants us, and we imagine a complete set design with wings, dressing rooms, trapdoors, machines that put actors in flight, etc. If one does not want to construct an artificial stage, there is still another possibility for intensifying the illusion. An architectural frame can be placed on the wall to make the screen seem to emerge from a big opening. In this way we would see the events, as it were, from the balcony of a salon, from a castle loggia. This seems like an even better solution because we get something like the impression that everything is happening far away. Anyone who keeps these elements in mind will manage greatly to increase the public’s interest in movies.

Comments: Fred Hood was the pseudonym of Friedrich Huth (1866-c1935), a German secondary school teacher. He wrote several commentaries on film and cinemagoing in German journals at this period.

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Seats in All Parts

Source: Leslie Halliwell, Seats in All Parts (London: Granada, 1985), pp. 59-60

Text: When at last the Odeon was ready, the family in its various ways prepared for the excitement of another premiere performance. We were all there, but I went with Mum and Dad and my sisters with their boyfriends. Report had it that, over in Ashburner Street, there was a dogged determination to outshine the Lido, which we thought could hardly be difficult. Again a Saturday night was chosen, and half our acquaintance dutifully put on best clothes and trooped proudly into that vast auditorium, having first made our choice of seats at sixpence, ninepence or one shilling, and no half price. Memory suggests that, despite arriving more than an hour early, we had to pay ninepence, which must have been unique for us; at any rate we sat a long way back, and although I couldn’t see very well I was prepared to put up with the handicap because this was an occasion. But at the interval Mum miraculously found three seats on the aisle, from which I had an uninterrupted view not only of the giant proscenium arch but of several less fortunately placed friends near the front, to whom I waved in an unforgivably superior manner. The décor was undeniably sumptuous. My first impression, after I got my breath back, was of rounded corners everywhere, without a right-angle in sight. The immensity of the red velour curtains; the cunningly concealed lighting; the great golden honeycomb grills on each side of the screen; the green octagonal clocks in which the letters THE ODEON took the place of numerals; all these played their part in the magnificence oft hat massive decorated space. It was more overwhelming than being in St Mark’s Church, or even Manchester Cathedral. But as I later discovered to be the case with all Odeons, the design was in fact simple to the point of austerity. There was nothing that could catch dust. The foyers and corridors were laid with rubber tiling in green and black abstract designs, with just a touch of red; and even the toilets had a smooth severity which counterpointed the general grandeur. Henceforth, Bolton’s older halls with their plaster cupids and decorated pillars would seem tawdry indeed.

Each seat on opening night had a gilt-edged programme waiting upon it, and no sooner had we absorbed this dazzling piece of showmanship than a mammoth all-glass Compton organ rose from the orchestra pit, changing colour as it came and radiating ‘The Entry of the Gladiators’ through a dozen strategically placed loudspeakers. Where was the Lido now? The premiere attraction, following a Mickey Mouse and the news, Dark Journey, a moderately adult spy melodrama with Conrad Veidt and a new young star called Vivien Leigh. There were absolutely no complaints about it, except that we would have preferred a happier ending, but some of us wondered why it had been chosen in preference to the great backlog of spectaculars which the Odeon was known to have held in reserve. But after this comparatively mild start, the spectaculars came at us in legions, with a colour film at least once a month. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, The Garden of Allah, Her Jungle Love, Vogues of 1938, The Goldwyn Follies, ]esse James, Hollywood Cavalcade, these were some of the items which brightened our lives by their sheer splendour, even though Technicolor seemed oddly to drain their drama of vitality. However, we felt we had achieved a great bargain in getting full colour at no extra price.

Comments: Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) was a film historian and programme buyer for ITV and Channel 4. Seats in All Parts is his memoir of cinemagoing, including his Bolton childhood. The cinema described is the Odeon in Ashburner Street, Bolton, which seated 2,534 and which opened on 21 August 1937.

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A Century of Cinema

Source: Susan Sontag, extract from ‘A Century of Cinema’ in Where the Stress Falls (London: Penguin, 2009), pp. 118-119 (originally published in a German translation in Frankfurter Rundschau, 30 December 1995)

Text: As many have noted, the start of moviemaking a hundred years ago was, conveniently, a double start. In that first year, 1895, two kinds of films were made, proposing two modes of what cinema could be: cinema as the transcription of real, unstaged life (the Lumière brothers) and cinema as invention, artifice, illusion, fantasy (Méliès). But this was never a true opposition. For those first audiences watching the Lumière brothers’ The Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat Station, the camera’s transmission of a banal sight was a fantastic experience. Cinema began in wonder, the wonder that reality can be transcribed with such magical immediacy. All of cinema is an attempt to perpetuate and to reinvent that sense of wonder.

Everything begins with that moment, one hundred years ago, when the train pulled into the station. People took movies into themselves, just as the public cried out with excitement, actually ducked, as the train seemed to move toward them. Until the advent of television emptied the movie theatres, it was from a weekly visit to the cinema that you learned (or tried to learn) how to strut, to smoke, to kiss, to fight, to grieve. Movies gave you tips about how to be attractive, such as … it looks good to wear a raincoat even when it isn’t raining. But whatever you took home from the movies was only a part of the larger experience of losing yourself in faces, in lives that were not yours – which is the more inclusive form of desire embodied in the movie experience. The strongest experience was simply to surrender to, to be transported by, what was on the screen. You wanted to be kidnapped by the movie.

The prerequisite of being kidnapped was to be overwhelmed by the physical presence of the image. And the conditions of “going to the movies” secured that experience. To see a great film only on television isn’t to have really seen that film. (This is equally true of those made for TV, like Fassbinder’s Berlin Alexanderplatz and the two Heimat films of Edgar Reitz.) It’s not only the difference of dimensions: the superiority of the larger-than-you image in the theatre to the little image on the box at home. The conditions of paying attention in a domestic space are radically disrespectful of film. Since film no longer has a standard size, home screens can be as big as living room or bedroom walls. But you are still in a living room or a bedroom, alone or with familiars. To be kidnapped, you have to be in a movie theatre, seated in the dark among anonymous strangers.

No amount of mourning will revive the vanished rituals – erotic, ruminative – of the darkened theatre. The reduction of cinema to assaultive images, and the unprincipled manipulation of images (faster and faster cutting) to be more attention-grabbing, have produced a disincarnated, lightweight cinema that doesn’t demand anyone’s full attention. Images now appear in any size and on a variety of surfaces: on a screen in a theatre, on home screens as small as the palm of your hand or as big as a wall, on disco walls and mega-screens hanging above sports arenas and the outsides of tall public buildings. The sheer ubiquity of moving images has steadily undermined the standards people once had both for cinema as art at its most serious and for cinema as popular entertainment.

Comments: Susan Sontag (1933-2004) was an American writer and critic. This is an extract from an essay written to mark the generally recognised centenary of cinema in 1995, and is reproduced in a collection of her essays. When it was first published in English, in the New York Times in 1996, the essay was entitled ‘The Decay of Cinema’.

Posted in 1990s, Essays, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Mazie

Source: Joseph Mitchell, extract from ‘Mazie’ in Up in the Old Hotel (London: Vintage, 1992), pp. 23-24 (original essay published in The New Yorker, 21 December 1940)

Text: … Mazie has presided for twenty-one years over the ticket cage of the Venice Theatre, at 209 Park Row, a few doors west of Chatham Square, where the Bowery begins.

The Venice is a small, seedy moving-picture theatre, which opens at 8 A.M. and closes at midnight. It is a dime house. For this sum a customer sees two features, a newsreel, a cartoon, a short, and a serial episode. The Venice is not a ‘scratch house.’ In fact, it is highly esteemed by its customers, because its seats get a scrubbing at least once a week. Mazie brags that it is as sanitary as the Paramount. ‘Nobody ever got loused up in the Venice,’ she says. On the Bowery, cheap movies rank just below cheap alcohol as an escape, and most bums are movie fans. In the clientele of the Venice they are numerous. The Venice is also frequented by people from the tenement neighborhoods in the vicinity of Chatham Square, such as Chinatown, the Little Italy on lower Mulberry Street, and the Spanish section on Cherry Street. Two-thirds of its customers are males. Children and most women sit in a reserved section under the eyes of a matron. Once, in an elegant mood, Mazie boasted that she never admits intoxicated persons. ‘When do you consider a person intoxicated? she was asked. Mazie snickered. ‘When he has to get down on all fours and crawl.‘ she said. In any case, there are drunks in practically every Venice audience. When the liquor in them dies down they become fretful and mumble to themselves, and during romantic pictures they make loud, crazy, derogatory remarks to the actors on the screen. but by and large they are not as troublesome as a class of bums Mazie calls ‘the stiffs,’ These are the most listless of bums. They are blank-eyed and slow-moving, and they have no strong desire for anything but sleep. Some are able to doze while leaning against a wall, even in freezing weather. Many stiffs habitually go into the Venice early in the day and slumber in their seats until they are driven out at midnight. ‘Some days I don’t know which this is, a movie-pitcher theatre or a flophouse,’ Mazie once remarked. ‘Other day I told the manager pitchers with shooting in them are bad for business. They wake up the customers.’

Most Bowery movie houses employ bouncers. At the Venice, Mazie is the bouncer. She tells intimates that she feels fighting is unladylike but that she considers it her duty to throw at least one customer out of the theatre every day. ‘If I didn’t put my foot down, the customers would take the place,’ she says. ‘I don’t get any fun out of fighting. I always lose my temper. When I start swinging, I taste blood, and I can’t stop. Sometimes I get beside myself. Also, a lot of the bums are so weak they don’t fight back, and that makes me feel like a heel.’ Mazie is small, but she is wiry and fearless, and she has a frightening voice. Her ticket cage is in the shadow of the tracks of the City Hall spur of the Third Avenue elevated line, and two decades of talking above the screeching of the trains have left her with a rasping bass, with which she can dominate men twice her size. Now and then, in the Venice, a stiff throws his head back and begins to snore so blatantly that he can be heard all over the place, especially during tense moments in the picture. When this happens, or when one of the drunks gets into a bellowing mood, the women and children in the reserved section stamp on the floor and chant,‘Mazie! Mazie! We want Mazie!’ The instant this chant goes up, the matron hastens out to the lobby and raps on the side window of Mazie’s cage. Mazie locks the cash drawer, grabs a bludgeon she keeps around, made of a couple of copies of True Romances rolled up tightly and held together by rubber bands, and strides into the theatre. As she goes down the aisle, peering this way and that, women and children jump to their feet, point fingers in the direction of the offender, and cry, ‘There he is, Mazie! There he is!’ Mazie gives the man a resounding whack on the head with her bludgeon and keeps on whacking him until he seems willing to behave. Between blows, she threatens him with worse punishment. Her threats are fierce and not altogether coherent.‘Outa here on a stretcher!‘ she yells. ‘Knock your eyeballs out! Big baboon! Every tooth in your head! Bone in your body!’ The women and children enjoy this, particularly if Mazie gets the wrong man. as she sometimes does. In action, Mazie is an alarming sight. Her face becomes flushed, her hair flies every which way, and her slip begins to show. If a man defends himself or is otherwise contrary, she harries him out of his seat and drives him from the theatre. As he scampers up the aisle, with Mazie right behind him, whacking away, the women and children applaud …

Comments: Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) was an American journalist, best-known for his pieces in The New Yorker, of which Up in the Old Hotel is a collection. The Venice opened in 1914 and seated 650 people. The profile continues with its description of Mazie and the cinema operation, noting that she was quite uninterested in films themselves, saying ‘They make me sick’. My thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing this piece to my attention.

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Television

Source: Roald Dahl, ‘Television’, in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1967, orig. pub. 1964)

Text:
The most important thing we’ve learned,
So far as children are concerned,
Is never, NEVER, NEVER let
Them near your television set -
Or better still, just don’t install
The idiotic thing at all.
In almost every house we’ve been,
We’ve watched them gaping at the screen.
They loll and slop and lounge about,
And stare until their eyes pop out.
(Last week in someone’s place we saw
A dozen eyeballs on the floor.)
They sit and stare and stare and sit
Until they’re hypnotised by it,
Until they’re absolutely drunk
With all that shocking ghastly junk.
Oh yes, we know it keeps them still,
They don’t climb out the window sill,
They never fight or kick or punch,
They leave you free to cook the lunch
And wash the dishes in the sink -
But did you ever stop to think,
To wonder just exactly what
This does to your beloved tot?
IT ROTS THE SENSE IN THE HEAD!
IT KILLS IMAGINATION DEAD!
IT CLOGS AND CLUTTERS UP THE MIND!
IT MAKES A CHILD SO DULL AND BLIND
HE CAN NO LONGER UNDERSTAND
A FANTASY, A FAIRYLAND!
HIS BRAIN BECOMES AS SOFT AS CHEESE!
HIS POWERS OF THINKING RUST AND FREEZE!
HE CANNOT THINK — HE ONLY SEES!
‘All right!’ you’ll cry. ‘All right!’ you’ll say,
‘But if we take the set away,
What shall we do to entertain
Our darling children? Please explain!’
We’ll answer this by asking you,
‘What used the darling ones to do?
‘How used they keep themselves contented
Before this monster was invented?’
Have you forgotten? Don’t you know?
We’ll say it very loud and slow:
THEY … USED … TO … READ! They’d READ and READ,
AND READ and READ, and then proceed
To READ some more. Great Scott! Gadzooks!
One half their lives was reading books!
The nursery shelves held books galore!
Books cluttered up the nursery floor!
And in the bedroom, by the bed,
More books were waiting to be read!
Such wondrous, fine, fantastic tales
Of dragons, gypsies, queens, and whales
And treasure isles, and distant shores
Where smugglers rowed with muffled oars,
And pirates wearing purple pants,
And sailing ships and elephants,
And cannibals crouching ’round the pot,
Stirring away at something hot.
(It smells so good, what can it be?
Good gracious, it’s Penelope.)
The younger ones had Beatrix Potter
With Mr. Tod, the dirty rotter,
And Squirrel Nutkin, Pigling Bland,
And Mrs. Tiggy-Winkle and -
Just How The Camel Got His Hump,
And How the Monkey Lost His Rump,
And Mr. Toad, and bless my soul,
There’s Mr. Rat and Mr. Mole -
Oh, books, what books they used to know,
Those children living long ago!
So please, oh please, we beg, we pray,
Go throw your TV set away,
And in its place you can install
A lovely bookshelf on the wall.
Then fill the shelves with lots of books,
Ignoring all the dirty looks,
The screams and yells, the bites and kicks,
And children hitting you with sticks -
Fear not, because we promise you
That, in about a week or two
Of having nothing else to do,
They’ll now begin to feel the need
Of having something to read.
And once they start – oh boy, oh boy!
You watch the slowly growing joy
That fills their hearts. They’ll grow so keen
They’ll wonder what they’d ever seen
In that ridiculous machine,
That nauseating, foul, unclean,
Repulsive television screen!
And later, each and every kid
Will love you more for what you did.

Comments: Roald Dahl (1916-1990) was a British writer of both adult and child fiction. ‘Television’ is a song sung by the Oompa Loompas in his children’s novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and echoes the distaste expressed in the novel for television, as exemplified by the television-watching and violence-obsessed character Mike Teavee.

Posted in 1960s, Poetry and rhyme, United Kingdom | Tagged , , | Leave a comment