Sketches of India

Source: [Moyle Sherer], Sketches of India: written by an officer for fire-side travellers at-home (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1821), pp. 76-78

Text: As I walked in the bazaar, I came upon a crowd, one minute attentively silent, the next merrily talkative. I pushed among them, and found an exhibition of the magic-lantern kind: in light, colouring, and motion, it was exceedingly well managed. The representations were combats between natives and English; now groupes [sic] of horsemen, now of foot; now a single combat. The showman explained every scene, with many coarse jokes which I could not understand, but which took vastly with the crowd. The British were always beaten, especially in the horse-encounters, and their figures and dress were much caricatured. Had I been known, I should perhaps have been insulted, but with my hat over my eyes, and a handkerchief held generally to my face, I was probably taken for a half-cast [sic] Christian. Fruits, sweetmeats, sherbet, arrack, and toddy, were selling every where. In many places were large shallow pits filled with fires, round which circles of Moors brandishing their naked swords, danced a sort of war-dance in honour of the victorious Ali; singing and shouting at every pause “Ali, Ali!” Occasionally too, one or other of them leaped into and through the fire with looks and gestures half frantic. Walking on, you will see at the corner of one street tumblers, at another dancing-girls; here singers and music, there a story-teller with a party squatted round him. In short, everything wore a festive pleasure-seeking air; and, in spite of the difference of climate, religion, laws, and education, we find the materials in which the heart of man seeks the coarse gratifications suited to it in its natural state, are pretty much the same all over the world.

Comments: Joseph Moyle Sherer (1789–1869) was a British soldier, novelist and travel writer. He was stationed with his regiment in Madras from 1818-1823 and his sketches of India, published in 1821, went through several editions. The scene depicted took place near the British military station at Gooty in Andhra Pradesh.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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The Increasing Congregation

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance VI: The Increasing Congregation’, Close Up vol. I no. 6, December 1927, pp. 61-65

Text: It is the London season. Not a day must be lost nor any conspicuous event. And the cinema, having been first a nine months wonder and then, almost to date, a perennial perplexity, matter for public repudiation mitigated by private and, with fair good fortune, securely invisible patronage, is now part of our lives, ranks, as a topic, alongside the theatre and there are Films that must be seen. We go. No longer in secret and in taxis and alone, but openly in parties in the car. We emerge, glitter for a moment in the brilliant light of the new flamboyant foyer, and disappear for the evening into the queer faintly indecent gloom. Such illumination as there will be, moments of the familiar sense of the visible audience, of purposefully being somewhere, is but hail and farewell leaving our party again isolated amidst unknown invisible humanity. Anyone may be there. Anyone is there and everyone, and not segregated in a tier-quenched background nor packed away up under the roof. During the brief interval we behold not massed splendours bordered by a row of newspaper men, but everyone, filling the larger space, oddly ahead of us.

“What about a Movie? That one at the Excelsior sounds quite good.” Suggestions made off-hand. A Theatre is a rarity, to be selected with care, anticipated, experienced, discussed at great length, long remembered. But a film more or less is neither here nor there. May be good may be surprisingly good in the way of this strange new goodness provided for hours of relaxation and that nobody seems quite sure what to think of. It will at least be an evening’s entertainment, a welcome change from talk, reading, bridge, wireless, gramophone. And the trip down town revives the unfailing bright sense of going out, lifts off the burden and heat of the day and if the rest of the evening is a failure it is not an elaborately arranged and expensive failure.

There’s pictures going on all over London always making something to do whenever you want to go out specially those big new ones with orchestras. Splendid. It’s the next best thing to a dance and sure to be good you can get a nice meal at a restaurant and decide while you’re there and if the one you choose is full up there’s another round the corner nothing to fix up and worry about. And it’s all so nice nothing poky and those fine great entrance halls everything smart and just right and waiting there for friends you feel in society like anybody else if your hat’s all right and your things and my word the ready-mades are so cheap nowadays you need never go shabby and the commissionnaires and all those smart people about makes you feel smart. It’s as good an evening as you can have and time for a nice bit of supper afterwards.

It is Monday. Thursday. The pence for the pictures are in the jar beside the saucer of coppers for the slot metre. But folded behind the jar are unpaid bills. In the jar are threepence and six halfpence … “Me and ‘Erb tonight, then we’ll have to manage for Dad and Alf Thurdsay and then no more for a bit. … Whatever did we used to do when there was no pictures? Best we could I s’pose, and must again.”

“Never swore I wouldn’t go again this week. Never said swelp me. Might be doin’ worse. Its me own money anyway.”

“Goin’ on now. This minute. Pickshers goin’ on now. Thou shalt not ste… Goin’ on and me ‘ere. It won’t be, if I pay it back. …”

And so here we all are. All over London, all over England, all over the world. Together in this strange hospice risen overnight, rough and provisional but guerdon none the less of a world in the making. Never before was such all-embracing hospitality save in an ever-open church where kneels madame hastened in to make her duties between a visit to her dressmaker and an assignation, where the dustman’s wife bustles in with infants and market-basket.

Universal hospitality. See that starveling, lean with loathing, feeding his unknown desperate longings upon selected books, giving his approval to tortoiseshell cats. He creeps in here. Braving the herd he creeps in. His scorn for the film is not more inspiring than the fact of his presence.

And that pleasant intellectual, grown a little weary of the things of the mind, his stock-in-trade. He comes not for ideas, but to cease in his mild circling, to use the cinema as a stupifier, forty winks for his cherished intelligence. He will go away refreshed to write his next article.

Happy youth, happy childhood, weary women of all classes for whom at home there is no resting-place. Sensitives creep in here to sit clothed in merciful darkness. See those elders in whose ears sound always the approaching footsteps of death. Here, now and again, they are free from the sense of moments ticked off. See the beatitude of the stone-deaf. And that charming girl lost, despairing in the midst of her first quarrel who would no more go to an entertainment alone than she would disrobe herself in the street. But this refuge near her lodgings opens its twilit spaces and makes itself her weepery.

Refuge, trysting-place, village pump, stimulant, shelter from rain and cold at less than the price of an evening’s light and fire, drunkenness at less than the price of a drink. Instruction. Peeps behind scenes. Sermons. Homethrusts for hims and for hers, impartially.

School, salon, brothel, bethel, newspaper, art science, religion, philosophy, commerce, sport, adventure; flashes of beauty of all sorts. The only anything and everything. And here we all are, as never before. What will it do with us?

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.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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One Day in the Life of Television

Source: Nicola Johnson, quoted in Sean Day-Lewis (ed.), One Day in the Life of Television (London: British Film Institute, 1989), p. 194

Text: I switch the television on when I want and I turn the television off when I want. Sometimes if me and my sister are fighting over which side we want to watch my Mam turns it off … By television I have learnt how very dangerous fireworks are. I have also learnt a few answers for some questions what I never could have known. I also learnt how to make things like cakes and pies by watching cookery programmes.

Without television I would never have thought that someone could kill another person, or that there could be a ferry disaster or a car crash that could happen to a close friend or even me. If there was no television I suppose I would be pretty bored but I suppose I could find something to do like draw or listen to the radio …

Comments: One Day in the Life of Television was a project organised by the British Film Institute which documented one day’s television broadcasting in the UK (1 November 1988) with impressions specially recorded by hundreds of television professionals and ordinary viewers. Nicola Johnson was a 12-year-old schoolgirl from Wallsend, Tyne and Wear.

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Berlin Childhood around 1900

kaiser-panorama

Source: Walter Benjamin (trans. Howard Eiland), Berlin Childhood around 1900 (Cambridge, Mass./London: The Belknap Press of Hardvard University Press, 2006), pp. 42-44

Text: One of the great attractions of the travel scenes found in the Imperial Panorama was that it did not matter where you began the cycle. Because the viewing screen, with places to sit before it, was circular, each picture would pass through all the stations; from these you looked, each time, through a double window into the faintly tinted depths of the image. There was always a seat available. And especially toward the end of my childhood, when fashion was already turning its back on the Imperial Panorama, one got used to taking the tour in a half-empty room.

There was no music in the Imperial Panorama – in contrast to films, where music makes traveling so soporific. But there was a small, genuinely disturbing effect that seemed to me superior. This was the ringing of a little bell that sounded a few seconds before each picture moved off with a jolt, in order to make way first for an empty space and then for the next image. And every time it rang, the mountains with their humble foothills, the cities with their mirror-bright windows, the railroad stations with their clouds of dirty yellow smoke, the vineyards down to the smallest leaf, were suffused with the ache of departure. I formed the conviction that it was impossible to exhaust the splendors of the scene at just one sitting. Hence my intention (which I never realized) of coming by again the following day. Before I could make up my mind, however, the entire apparatus, from which I was separated by a wooden railing, would begin to tremble; the picture would sway within its little frame and then immediately trundle off to the left, as I looked on.

The art forms that survived here all died out with the coming of the twentieth century. At its inception, they found their last audience in children. Distant worlds were not always strange to these arts. And it so happened that the longing such worlds aroused spoke more to the home than to anything unknown. Thus it was that, one afternoon, while seated before a transparency of the little town of Aix, I tried to persuade myself that, once upon a time, I must have played on the patch of pavement that is guarded by the old plane trees of the Cours Mirabeau.

When it rained, there was no pausing out front to survey the list of fifty pictures. I went inside and found in fjords and under coconut palms the same light that illuminated my desk in the evening when I did my schoolwork. It may have been a defect in the lighting system that suddenly caused the landscape to lose its color. But there it lay, quite silent under its ashen sky. It was as though I could have heard even wind and church bells if only I had been more attentive.

Comments: Walter Benjamin (1892-1940) was a German philosopher, essayist and cultural commentator. His idiosyncratic memoir of observational pieces was not published in collected form in his lifetime, and not until 1989 in a form that most closely matches the author’s intentions. The Kaiserpanorama, invented by August Fuhrmann in 1880, was a cylindrical construction with usually twenty-five seats around its perimeter, at which observers would look through twin lenses to view rotating stereoscopic images. Fifty images were on offer at any one time. The Berlin Kaiserpanorama was located off Friedrichstrasse. The above image (from Wikimedia Commons) shows the Berlin Kaiserpanorama, c.1880.

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Out of the Darkness

Source: Allan Morley, ‘Our Cinematographic Cartoons, no. 50 – Out of the Darkness’, Pictures and the Picturegoer, 13 February 1916, p. 475

outofthedarkness

Comments: Allan Morley is probably the comic artist of that name (1895-1960) who worked for DC Thomson magazines from the 1920s to the 1950s, including work for such children’s comics as The Beano and The Dandy. The legend that accompanies the cartoon reads: “Pictures are often amusing, but the conversations of picturegoers are very often more so. Our cartoonist presents a sample of what he has overheard at sundry cinemas”. The use of speech bubbles to reveal the conversations of a film audience in the dark is also employed in the postcards ‘The Bioscope‘ and ‘In the Cinema‘ previously featured on this site. Pictures and the Picturegoer was a British film trade journal. My thanks to Maria Velez for having first tweeted this image.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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Adventures with D.W. Griffith

Source: Extracts from Karl Brown, Adventures with D.W. Griffith (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973), pp. 86-95

Text: It was a packed house, with swarms of people standing around outside, hoping for cancellations so they could get in anywhere at all, even in the top gallery. I never saw or felt such eager anticipation in any crowd as there was at that opening night. We three, my father, my mother, and I, had been given choice seats saved for us by Frank Woods. My parents, old-stagers at the business of opening nights, were all keyed up to a state of high tension, while I – well, I was feeling a little sick because I knew what the picture really was, just another Biograph, our four times as long. I simply couldn’t help feeling that it had been a tragic mistake to build up such a fever pitch of eager anticipation, only to let them down by showing them what was bound to be just another movie. Only longer, much longer, three hours longer. What audience, however friendly, could possibly sit through that much of nothing but one long, one very long movie of the kind they had seen a hundred times before?

My first inkling that this was not to be just another movie came when I heard, over the babble of the crowd, the familiar sound of a great orchestra tuning up. First the oboe sounding A, then the others joining to produce an ever-changing medley of unrelated sounds, with each instrument testing its own strength and capability through this warming-up preliminary. Then the orchestra came creeping in through that little doorway under the proscenium apron and I tried to count them. Impossible. Too many. But there were at least seventy, for that’s where I lost count, so most if not all of the Los Angeles Symphony orchestra had been hired to “play” the picture.

[...]

The house lights dimmed. The audience became tensely silent. I felt once again, as always before, that strange all-over chill that comes with the magic moment of hushed anticipation when the curtain is about to rise.

The title came on, apparently by mistake, because the curtain had not yet risen and all I could see was the faint flicker of the lettering against the dark fabric of the main curtain. But it was not a mistake at all, because the big curtain rose slowly to disclose the title, full and clear upon the picture screen, while at the same time [Joseph Carl] Briel’s baton rose, held for an instant, and then swept down, releasing the full impact of the orchestra in a mighty fanfare that was all but out-roared by the massive blast of the organ in an overwhelming burst of earth-shaking sound that shocked the audience first into a stunned silence and then roused them to a pitch of enthusiasm such as I had never seen or heard before.

Then, of course, came those damned explanatory titles that I had shot time and time again as Griffith and Woods kept changing and rechanging them, all with the object of having them make as much sense as possible in the fewest possible words. Somehow, the audience didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps they were hardened to it. They should have been, by now, because whenever anybody made any kind of historical picture, it always had to be preceded by a lot of titles telling all about it, not to mention a long and flowery dedication thanking everyone from the Holy Trinity to the night watchman for their invaluable cooperation, without which this picture would not have been possible.

The orchestra sort of murmured to itself during the titles, as though to reassure the audience that they couldn’t last forever. And then … the picture, gliding along through its opening sequences on a flow of music that seemed to speak for the screen and to interpret every mood. The audience was held entranced, but I was not. I was worried in the same way that young fathers, waiting to learn whether it’s a boy or a girl, are worried. I was worried, badly worried, about the battle scenes, and I wished they’d get through fiddle-faddling with that dance and all that mushy stuff and get down to cases. For it was a simple, open-and-shut matter of make or break as far as I could see; and I could not see how that mixed-up jumble of unrelated bits and pieces of action could ever be made into anything but a mixed-up jumble of bits and pieces.

Well, I was wrong. What unfolded on that screen was magic itself. I knew there were cuts from this to that, but try as I would, I could not see them. A shot of the extreme far end of the Confederate line flowed into another but nearer shot of the same line, to be followed by another and another, until I could have sworn that the camera had been carried back by some sort of impossible carrier that made it seem to be all one unbroken scene. Perhaps the smoke helped blind out the jumps, I don’t know. All I knew was that between the ebb and flow of a broad canvas of a great battle, now far and now near, and the roaring of that gorgeous orchestra banging and blaring battle songs to stir the coldest blood, I was hot and cold and feeling waves of tingling electric shocks racing all over me.

[...]

Somewhere during my self-castigation a title came on reading INTERMISSION. So soon? I asked my father the time. He pulled out his watch, snapped open the case, and said it was nine thirty. Preposterous. Somehow during the past fifteen minutes, or not more than twenty, an hour and a half had sneaked away.

We went out with the rest of the crowd to stretch our legs and, in true backstage fashion, to eavesdrop on the comments of the others. There was enthusiasm, yes; lots of it. It had been exactly as grandpa had described it was the consensus, only more real. There were also a few professionals who were wisely sure that Griffith was riding for all fall. “You can;t shoot all your marbles in the first half and have anything left for your finish” was the loudly expressed opinion of a very portly, richly dressed gentleman. “That battle was a lulu, best I’ve seen, and that assassination bit was a knockout, I ain’t kidding you. But what’s he going to do for a topper, that’s what I want to know. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. This thing is going to fizzle out like a wet firecracker, that’s what it’s going to do. Don’t tell me, I know! I’ve seen it happen too many times. They shoot the works right off the bat and they got nothing left for their finish. You wait and see. You just wait and see.”

[...]

And yet it wasn’t the finish that worried me so much as the long, dull, do-nothing stuff that I knew was slated for the bulk of the second half. Stuff like the hospital scenes, where Lillian Gish comes to visit Henry Walthall, she in demurest of dove grey, he in bed with a bandage neatly and evenly wrapped around his head. Now what in the world can anyone possibly do to make a hospital visit seem other than routine? He’ll be grateful, and she’ll be sweetly sympathetic, but what else? How can you or Griffith or the Man in the Moon possibly get anything out of such a scene? Answer: you can’t. But he did, by reaching outside the cur-and-dried formula and coming up with something so unexpected, and yet so utterly natural, that it lifted the entire thing right out of the rut and made it ring absolutely true.

Since this was an army hospital there had to be a sentry on guard. So Griffith looked around, saw a sloppy, futile sort of character loitering about, and ran him in to play the sentry, a fellow named Freeman, not an actor, just another extra. Well, Lillian passed before him and he looked after her and sighed. In the theater and on the screen, that sigh became a monumental, standout scene, because it was so deep, so heartfelt, and so loaded with longing for the unattainable that it simply delighted the audience. But not without help. Breil may not have been the greatest composer the world has ever known but he did know how to make an orchestra talk, and that sigh, uttered by the cellos and the muted trombones softly sliding down in a discordant glissando, drove the audience into gales of laughter.

[...]

I endured the “drama” – all that stuff with Ralph Lewis being shown up as a fake when he wouldn’t let his daughter marry George Siegmann because he was a mulatto – all because I was itching to get to the part where Walter Long chased Mae Marsh all over Big Bear Valley, running low and dripping with peroxide. What came on the screen wasn’t Walter Long at all. It was some sort of inhuman monster, an ungainly, misshapen creature out of a nightmare, not running as a human being would run but shambling like a gorilla. And Mae Marsh was not fluttering, either. She was a poor little lost girl frightened out of her wits, not knowing which way to turn, but searching, searching for safety, and too bewildered to know what she was doing. So she ran to the peak of that rock, and when the monster came lumbering straight at her, she … well, all I can say is that it was right, absolutely, perfectly, incontestably right.

And did the audience hate Griffith for letting them down? Not a bit of it. When the clansmen began to rise,the cheers began to rise from all over that packed house. This was not a ride to save Little Sister but to avenge her death, and every soul in that audience was in the saddle with the clansmen and pounding hell-for-leather on an errand of stern justice, lighted on their way by the holy flames of a burning cross.

[...]

So everyone was rescued and everyone was happy and everyone was noble in victory and the audience didn’t just sit there and applaud, but they stood up and cheered and yelled and stamped feet until Griffith finally made an appearance.

If you could call it an appearance. Now I, personally, in such a situation would have bounded out to the center of the stage with both hands aloft in a gesture of triumph, and I would probably have shaken my hands over my head, as Tom Wilson had told me was the proper thing for any world’s champion to do at the end of a hard-fought but victorious fight.

Griffith did nothing of the sort. He stepped out a few feet from stage left, a small, almost frail figure lost in the enormousness of that great proscenium arch. He did not bow or raise his hands or do anything but just stand there and let wave after wave of cheers and applause wash over him like great waves breaking over a rock.

Then he left. The show was over. There was an exit march from the orchestra, but nobody could hear it. People were far too busy telling one another how wonderful, how great, how tremendous it had all been.

Comments: Karl Brown (1896-1990) was an American cinematographer and director. He served as assistant to cinematographer Billy Bitzer on D.W. Griffith’s feature film The Birth of a Nation. His memoir Adventures with D.W. Griffith is one of the best first-hand accounts of silent era film. The event recalled here is the premiere at Clune’s Auditorium, Los Angeles, on 8 February 1915, when the film was still known as The Clansman. The composer Joseph Carol Breil did not conduct at the premiere – it was Carli Elinor, conducting his own score. Brown’s memory sometimes places film sequences in the wrong order, though Griffith did re-edit the film after initial screenings and in response to requests by censorship boards. Frank Woods was co-scriptwriter on the with with Griffith. Walter Long was a white actor playing a black character, Gus.

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Jane Addams Condemns Race Prejudice Film

Source: ‘Jane Addams Condemns Race Prejudice Film’, New York Evening Post, 13 March 1915, p. 4

Text: Jane Addams Condemns Race Prejudice Film

Calls It “Pernicious Caricature of Negro Race.”

Producer Seems to have Gathered Most Vicious and Grotesque Individuals to Show Them as Representatives of Entire Race, says Head of Hull House After Seeing “The Birth of a Nation” Moving Picture Drama.

“Pernicious caricature of the negro race,” is the way in which Miss Jane Addams of Hull House, Chicago, expressed her opinion to-day of the motion-picture dramas. “The Birth of a Nation,” now being shown in New York, in which is told a story of Reconstruction days and Ku Klux Klan violence in the South following the Civil War. After having seen the film, Miss Addams softened no terms in her condemnation of it.

“The producer seems to have followed the principle of gathering the most vicious and grotesque individuals he could find among colored people, and showing them as representatives of the truth about the entire race,” she said in describing her impressions of the play. “It is both unjust and untrue. The same method could be followed to smirch the reputation of any race. For instance, it would be easy enough to go about the slums of a city and bring together some of the criminals and degenerates and take pictures of them purporting to show the character of the white race. It would no more be the truth about the white race than this is about the black.

An Anachronism

“One of the most unfortunate things about this film is that it appeals to race prejudice upon the basis of conditions of half a century ago, which have nothing to do with the facts we have to consider to-day. Even then it does not tell the whole truth. It is claimed that the play is historical: but history is easy to misuse. It is undoubtedly true that some of the elements of the plot are based on actual events, but they are only a part of the picture. You can use history to demonstrate anything, when you take certain of its facts and emphasize them to the exclusion of the rest.

“Nobody denies that in the haste and confusion of the period after the Civil War the men in control of politics did very tyrannical and shortsighted things; and made a great many mistakes. The ‘carpet-baggers’ from the North, who went in and influenced the negroes against the interests of the whites unquestionably did a great deal of harm; but to present the tendency they represented as the only one is as unfair to the North as to claim that all Southerners wanted to oppress the negroes would be to the South. Then the film shows a ridiculous scene in a Southern Legislature, to which the election of a majority of negroes has been obtained by defrauding whites of their votes. Negro legislators are shown taking off their shoes at their desks, drinking whiskey from flasks while making speeches, acting in all sorts of uncouth ways. It is laughably false to the whole truth.

“Then there is the impression that is created of the Ku Klux Klan — perfectly ridiculous. The Klan takes the place of the melodrama hero, always doing the noble thing and rescuing the heroine in distress. There are the revolting scenes of the pursuit of one white girl, which rouse feeling against the negro; and then there follows a second similar scene of attempted forced marriage between a powerful mulatto politician — there may have been such vicious individuals as this man is shown to be, but they were certainly exceptions — and a white girl. Of course, the Klan breaks in just in time to prevent the success of the design. At every turn the Klan is made to appeal to the enthusiasm of the spectator as the heroic defender of a victimized people. None of the outrageous, vicious, misguided outrages, which it certainly committed, are shown. I am not interested in loading blame for those outrages on the men who made up the Klan. It was natural that in the heat of the times they made mistakes, just as did the men of the North. I am simply contending that what this play tells of it is not the whole truth.

The Part of the Klan

“Of course the spectators applaud the Klan. It is not shown to them except to stir their sympathy. Of course they applaud slights and contempt for the negroes; they are shown only as despicable brutes.

“It is certainly to be hoped that such a film can be suppressed. As an appeal to race prejudice, it is full of danger.”

“Do you recall any portions of the play that you found particularly objectionable?” Miss Addams was asked.

“No, it was rather the whole tone of the second part,” was the reply. “Of course, there are the unpleasant episodes in which white girls figure; but the evil is rather in the dominant attitude of mind toward the negro. As I have said, it seems to me an attempt to make him appear worse than childish, and brutal and vicious — actually grotesque and primitive and contemptible.”

“How far did you observe that this attitude of mind influenced the spectators?”

“It is hard to tell, of course. Certainly I felt that they were made to feel a prejudice against negroes; some showed approval in applause when the hero refuses to shake hands with the mulatto politician, and they were roused to the point of clapping enthusiastically, before the end of the pictures, whenever the Ku Klux Klan appeared. That was the noticeable thing about the play — the success of the glorification of the activities of the Ku Klux Klan, contrasted with the base and elemental character of the negroes misrepresented in the ludicrously perverted scenes of plantation life. The production is the most subtle form of untruth — a half-truth.”

Comments: Jane Addams (1860-1935) was an American social worker and social reformer. Her criticism of The Birth of a Nation (USA 1915) was reproduced in many other newspapers and circulated widely by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which was lobbying for a boycott of the film. Criticism of the film was widespread among the African-American community, but rare from white Americans such as Addams. Her reference to the director D.W. Griffith having selected “the most vicious and grotesque individuals he could find among colored people” suggests she did not realise that the leading black parts in the film were played by white actors in blackface. She viewed the film in New York.

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Facts about Birth of a Nation Play at the Colonial

Source: Mrs K.J. Bills, ‘Facts about Birth of a Nation Play at the Colonial’, The Chicago Defender (Big Weekend Edition), 11 September 1915, p. 3

Text: Facts about Birth of a Nation Play at the Colonial

One Who Has Seen and Knows About the Early Days the Author Tries to Falsely Depict Tells It Like It Was

I went to see the “Birth of a Nation” – not because I wanted to see it, but to be able to criticize intelligently. It is impossible to know what a play is unless one is an eye witness. I had heard so much said for and against the play I was determined to see for myself. There is nothing in the first part to which any reasonable person would object. It deals with historical facts which hold a person almost spellbound.

The second part – well, it is such an exaggeration that to a person who really knew and lived during that period it is not at all interesting. It is false from beginning to end. It is meant to create a greater race prejudice than already exists between the races. I shall mention some of the false impressions: Was there ever a congress composed entirely of Negroes who passed laws to govern all the whites in the South? Was there ever a time when the southern white people were at all as submissive to the blacks as this picture would have people believe? Does anyone believe that after the war the Negroes had no other ambition than to marry white women? Someone has said we as a race have enough hardships heaped upon us without creating a picture which actually lies. I wonder if Mr. Griffin [sic] lived during those days, and does he really remember things as they were.

The outrages of the Ku Klux were nothing like the picture shows them to be. There was no noise, no fast horseback riding, no clash between them and the Negroes. It is true they went around on horseback, but very quietly, like thieves. No one knew or heard any horses’ feet. I remember well when a small child the Ku Klux came to my father’s cabin. They knocked quietly, called him by name and made him open the door. Though they were masked, he knew their voices, for they were some of the gentlemen of his master’s family. They asked for his gun. He gave it to them. They left as quietly as they came. They went to every other Negro cabin and did the same thing. There was no resistance, no fighting.

The part showing the black man chasing the little girl, compelling her to jump off a high place and kill herself, is meant only to stir up hatred. Nothing of this kind has ever happened since the world was created. the Negro has never been so brutal. Why was not some of this brutality shown while their masters were at war? It was then the Negroes had full charge of their masters’ families. They protected them as no other person would have done.

I cannot understand why this was not cut out by the censors. They claim to be so very particular. No other race but this black American race would stand for the exhibition of pictures which are mean to poison the mind as this picture is. The Irish, German, Jewish, Polish, Swedish or any other race would have wrecked the Colonial theater long ago. No judge or censor bureau would have permitted it if it were showing any other race than the Negro.

Comments: Mrs K.J. Bills was a suffragist and an occasional contributor to The Chicago Defender, a newspaper for African-American readers. The Birth of a Nation (USA 1915), based on the novel and play The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, was a feature film set during the American Civil War and the period immediately after. It was first released in February 1915. Its inflammatory scenes of supposed African-American behaviour and its lionising of the Ku Klux Klan aroused great controversy even while the film gained great praise and attracted huge audiences. There was a strong campaign from members of the African-American community to have the film censored or banned, and screenings were halted in some cities, including Chicago (though only temporarily). The film’s director D.W. Griffith was born in 1875, years after the Civil War, but his father had served as a Confederate army colonel. The Colonial was a combined movie house and variety theatre. My thanks to Beth Corzo-Duchardt for having brought this piece to my attention.

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The Mexican Touch

Source: Edwa Moser, The Mexican Touch (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940), pp. 110-114

Text: If one was to patronize the movies, Monday was the day to choose, preferably Monday afternoon. Every Monday morning, the Cine Morelos was cleaned and disinfected. The Cine Morelos, once known as the Teatro Diaz, had been built on the colonial plan, with a pit that scarcely sloped at all, surrounded by tier upon tier of boxes. Hänsel had what he called his own box, though he let us sit in it. It was his because he always managed to arrive twenty minutes before the calliope announced the opening, and as soon as he got into his box, he put his booted foot against the door so that no one else could come in. His box faced the center of the screen and was situated on the first and most desirable tier. There were six hard, stiff chairs in it. We were rather crowded as none of us could risk sitting too close to the rail for fear someone above might become excited and absent-mindedly spit. On our hard chairs, we huddled together, the fumes of iodoform writhing, I could have sworn visibly, about us. Hänsel sat straight as a ramrod, his monocle gleaming above a thick handkerchief tied about his nose. Gretel ignored the smell, saying placidly, “Better it should stink a bit than swarm with fleas.” Above us, tier upon tier, the seats would fill, until sometimes … as when Jungle Jim was showing in serial … the whole place became a solid mass of dark, intent faces. The theater was always packed.

It was a good theater. The sound effects carried well and the screen was in good condition. It is true that the electricity sometimes failed, but that was not the fault of the management. At such times, we bought peanuts from the venders [sic] and smoked and chatted pleasantly together until the lights came on again. I recollect only one occasion when the film broke, just at its most thrilling moment, of course, and I remember when the lights were turned on how startled I was that most of the men in the audience had, in the excitement of the story, drawn their revolvers. I remember how unconcerned they looked as they stood up or squirmed about in their seats to put their revolvers away again.

The pictures shown were of all kinds and from all countries. Indeed, at the little Cinema Palace of Cuernavaca, the children and I saw more French and British and German, not to mention Argentinian, films than we had ever seen at home. There were also Mexican movies.

Usually the Mexican movies were clumsy and hard to follow. But I found, after I considered the matter a bit, that the difference was owing not to inferior production, but to their unique technique. The focal point of the action seemed to be, not conveniently in front of me along the “footlights,” but somewhere else, farther off. Then I recollected the Abbey Players from Dublin, who maintain that the center of interest should be the center of the stage itself, as if the audience were included with the actors. And after that, I saw, too, that there was yet another resemblance to the Irish theater: the plots of the Mexican movies need not come to any definite conclusion. After that I enjoyed the good films immensely.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the Mexicans could create drama without the glamourizing that Hollywood thinks essential. The houses were houses, ineptly furnished but adequate. On the screen they looked somehow innocent and appealing. They might have been any of the houses we passed every day. The heroines were seldom beautiful. Their clothes would not set a fashion. None of them had had their teeth straightened, much less filed and capped. But when they could act, they could act; and without “glamour,” they became urgent and important because they were human beings appealing to human beings in terms of mutual humanity. Some of the heroes were cross-eyed. (Crossed eyes are still considered a mark of beauty by those who appreciate Aztec art.) They behaved … as men behave. They spat, they got drunk, they left their shirttails out or tucked them in in public, they cried on their mothers’ shoulders, they cut off an unfaithful sweetheart’s pigtail. And they continued with apparent satisfaction to everyone the life that went on everywhere, every day.

This method was immensely satisfactory to me, for as there.was no attempt at “build-up,” I could believe that the films represented Mexican life, which we foreigners might otherwise never know. Ken liked the Mexican films. He would go again and again to roar with laughter over El Chaflan and Don Catarino, who were so funny, so naturally funny, it was hard to know if they knew themselves that they were funny. Don the films left cold. He preferred swapping yarns with Alberto or Pedro. Molly would, to Hansel’s delight, emit a succession of disgusted “Ooo’s” every time Rafael Falcón had occasion to weep, as he often had — for he wept beautifully, the tears streaming across his pale, shapely cheeks — while all the girls in the audience could be heard sniffing in sympathy. And Conchita, when we had got home, would sigh at mention of his name, and wiggle her hand inside her dress above her heart to show what palpitations she suffered on his account. But not my Molly. …

There was one picture that impressed us all — as successful a piece of work as we ever saw anywhere. Its name was La Mujer de Nadia (Nobody’s Wife) and it was produced by a woman. It was the story of three young students, none of them particularly attractive, who lived together in a one-room house amid the agreeable harmony of music, painting, and poetry, and who, returning one night from a comradely spree, found a woman unconscious by heir door. They took her in, feeling sorry for anyone who was unhappy and alone while they were so gay, so secure in their fellowship. She, poor drab! could hardly be distracting to that. But with food, and a home and friendship, the girl changed. She became young and beautiful. They all fell in love with her. The painter’s best picture was her portrait. The musician’s best composition had love of her for its theme. The poet’s best verses wooed her. But with love came jealousy. They began hating. It was a tragic moment when the little waif determined she must not destroy the structure on which her happiness was built. Silently, she told the little house good-by and went away, knowing her absence would unite again the spirit that had let her live.

We still remember that picture as one of the merriest, as well as saddest, we ever saw. There was about it the quality of a Strauss waltz that echoes after the party’s over and the guests have gone, and the sky grows gray. It was the only movie I have ever seen that I should like to have for my own.

Comments: Edwa Moser was an American magazine writer and novelist, who wrote this book on a 1930s visit to Mexico. Ken and Molly were her children. Hänsel and Gretel were names she gave to their German neighbours. El Chaflan was a character played by Mexican actor Carlos López; Don Catarino may be a reference to a comic strip character who was filmed. Rafael Falcón was a Mexican film actor. La Mujer de Nadia (La mujer de nadie) was directed by Adela Sequeyro in 1937. Iodoform is a disinfectant.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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There’s a Reason

Source: H.F. Hoffman, ‘There’s a Reason’, Moving Picture World, 20 August 1910, p. 403

theres_a_reason

Comments: H.F. Hoffman was an American film lecturer, cartoonist and occasional writer for Moving Picture World. This cartoon appeared at the time when the film of the world heavyweight boxing championship won on 4 July 1910 by the black Jack Johnson against the white Jim Jeffries was causing great controversy across America – because it showed a black victory, because prizefighting existed in a semi-illegal status, and because the result had been so popular among the black community. Hoffman’s point in producing the cartoon appears to have been to argue for continued segregation of theatre audiences along race lines. The audience in the stalls are desegregated, which those in the balcony are all black (the standard arrangement for accommodating black audiences in the American south at this time). A report on the Johnson-Jeffries fight film on the opposite page to this cartoon reinforces the likely connection.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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