Strength of the Hills

Source: George Ewart Evans, Strength of the Hills: An Autobiography (London: Faber, 1983), pp. 162-164

Text: During this year I met a remarkable woman, Mary Field, who was head of a film company producing children’s films. In the constant search to increase my earnings I had submitted to her the synopsis of a children’s story that I judged had visual possibilities. During my wanderings with the two girls I had come across an old mound in Tunstall Forest. It was obviously a burial mound, probably of the Sutton Hoo period. It was quite near Blaxhall Heath, not far from Snape, and completely surrounded by trees. Mary Field liked the idea of the film that was about three or four children who foiled a gang who planned to dig into the mound and rob the grave. She commissioned me to write the treatment for the film. The film was called The Ship in the Forest and was made in the area where the story was set. It had its first showing in the Aldeburgh cinema and we managed to get all the children in Blaxhall school, along with the Tunstall children, over to see it. I very much enjoyed working with Mary Field who was a master of her craft of film-making. In an hour or so’s conversation with her, I learned more about films than I could have learned in a lifetime of film watching and reading about them. She had thought deeply about films, and her Carnegie Report on children’s films illustrates the thoroughness of her methods.

This report revolutionized the making of children’s films. It arose out of her observation that it was possible to gauge a group of children’s reactions to a film simply by watching their physical responses. Restlessness and constant shifting of their position on the seats were obvious signs that their interest was not fully engaged, while a marked increase in the number of children leaving to go to the lavatory was a devastating criticism of the film itself. The technique she used in compiling her Carnegie Report was merely an extension of her commonsense observations. She did her studies in Saturday morning matinées, filming the children’s full physical reactions while the film was being shown. She used infra-red film that made filming possible in the dark. She was therefore able to study a film she had made, scientifically matching the children’s facial expressions and movements with the relevant passages in the film.

She had also made a study of various dramatists to improve her approach to film-making, and she recognized that her main problem was identical with that of the early dramatists, who had a milling crowd before or around the action on the stage, as much bent on having a holiday as on seeing a play. The playwright had to capture the composite audience of the pit right at the beginning with an arresting first scene, as Shakespeare did in Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, The Taming of the Shrew, and some of the historical plays. He knew that he had to win over the groundlings or else the players would have difficulties. We had a perfect example of this in the London première of our Suffolk film. It was held in the King’s Road, Chelsea, in a huge cinema at a Saturday morning matinée. I took Florence and our four children to see it. We were given seats in the upstairs circle, and below us was a real ‘pit’ audience of turbulent young Cockneys. They were supposed to be watching the climax of an American film that was supporting the Mary Field film, but most of them were doing everything bu watching the film; they were writhing about, and from above it looked like a free-for-all encounter rather than an audience. The film’s action had been designed as an exciting climax: the rescue of the heroine, an attractive, barely clad young girl who had been tied by the villains to a post in a rapidly burning building. Most of the children, however, were unconcerned and the noise was uproarious. We wondered how they would ever be able to show the Suffolk film in this bear garden. Yet as soon as the first shots were shown on the screen the children were captured. It was a pure triumph by a master of children’s film-making. The opening shots were a couple of children – a boy and a girl – and an old man, as far as I remember, an old fisherman. Immediately the audience identified with the children, and strangely enough, with the old man: the film had their full interest instantly and retained it to the end. It was one of Mary Field’s discoveries that young children are not interested in middle-aged adults but are naturally interested in children of their own age on whom they can easily project their own feelings; also in people old enough to be their grandparents.

Comments: George Ewart Evans (1909-1988) was a British folklorist and oral historian. At the time recalled here, he was a schoolteacher in Suffolk. Mary Field (1896-1968) was an educationalist, historian and filmmaker who became head of the Rank Organisation’s Children’s Entertainment Division in 1944. In 1951 she became executive officer of the Children’s Film Foundation, a pan-industry body which produced films for children. Her experiments with infra-red still photography of children in cinemas began in 1948 and took place in particular 1951-52. The photographs are reproduced in her book Children and films: A study of boys and girls in the cinema (Dunfermline Fife Carnegie United Kingdom Trust, 1954). The Ship in the Forest was released as the 60-minute CFF film The Secret of the Forest (UK 1956).

Links: The Secret of the Forest (from the East Anglian Film Archive)

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Theatre: pass the popcorn

Source: Extract from Andrew Collins, ‘Theatre: pass the popcorn’, Never Knowingly Underwhelmed blog, 10 December 2010, http://wherediditallgorightblog.wordpress.com/ 2010/12/10/theatre-pass-the-popcorn/

Text: More cross-platform arts. This time, Hamlet, live from the National Theatre, beamed into cinemas, in our case, the Curzon Mayfair. What a superb initiative. I will give you my opinion of Rory Kinnear’s Dane in a moment. First, a couple of practical concerns: the Mayfair is a glorious cinema, with a huge, 311-seat main screen, and a more intimate, 103-seat second screen. I saw White Ribbon in Screen One here last year, in the afternoon, and it ensured my experience of the film was about as effective and memorable as it could have been. I also hosted the Lost Q&A here last year, to a packed house of nerds, and the place really buzzes when it’s full. When we booked Hamlet, it was showing in Screen One. Unfortunately, in the interim, a charity gala premiere of The King’s Speech was booked into Screen One, and Hamlet was bumped into Screen Two. Because of the gala, with red carpet, barriers, press and people milling about in the lobby in smart coats, the bar was closed, so we couldn’t get a drink beforehand.

We could have done with one, as we were sat next to a party of three adults, a man and two women, who spent the whole of the build-up to the play playing on their BlackBerries, ignoring the pre-show film about the history of Hamlet, which was very interesting. I had to tell them to turn their phones off, as the bright, torch-like screens were in my eyeline. They did so. And then … after Hamlet had started, during the key opening scenes with the ghost of his father, they got them out again. I asked them to put them away, again. They did so, for the duration this time. What is the point of spending over the odds to see a live theatre production in a cinema and texting people? I can understand it when it’s idiot kids who know no better and have paid a few quid to be somewhere that isn’t outside, but these were grown adults! (During Act II, they munched from a massive box of popcorn. Yes, I know it’s on sale at the cinema, but this was a dramatic play, not a noisy blockbuster. During a knife’s edge soliloquy, you don’t want to hear the mouse-like rustling of hands going into popcorn and the popcorn being masticated. I put up with it.) Anyway, niggles over.

The production itself was magnificent. I speak as someone who has only seen Hamlet on film, never live, so I may be an unreliable witness – although the notices do seem to be positive – but Rory Kinnear really did make me understand the play for the first time. It is Nick Hytner’s production, and much of the appreciation must go in his direction: the decision to set it in a modern police state was very clever, and even Hamlet’s soliloquys were attended by shady men in suits with earpieces in, lurking in the dark. We get a recording device in a bible, paperwork being pushed across desks, camera crews filming Fontibras at the front … on a mostly bare stage, with lights and other props being moved around by the cast, and much of the action lit by torches and spotlights, and Hamlet’s dad’s ghost a truly unsettling grey apparition, this is atmospheric stuff indeed. Kinnear gives a smart interpretation of the Prince – an ordinary guy in a hoodie, with a smiley face drawn on his t-shirt to represent his duplicitously, villainous uncle, feigning madness with lots of comic business, that is both funny and disturbing. I noticed that he and David Calder as Polonious, used pauses very effectively, as if they were mouthing the words before saying them; quite a revelation from the more formal Shakespeares I saw as a schoolboy.

We never studied Hamlet, but it amazes me how much of it you just sort of know: the basic plot, the key markers like the gravedigger scene, and the speeches. I can almost recite “To be or not to be,” without ever having read the Brodie’s Notes. The whole thing made me retroactively despise Kenneth Branagh’s frilly and overwrought film version.

It’s unusual seeing a play, being performed live, at the cinema, with crowd murmuring beforehand, and Emma Freud popping up at the beginning and the end to top and tail it (this was being beamed not just around the UK, but across the world), but, as with Sleeping Beauty, there are advantages to close-ups you would never see from Row G of the National, and to – very sparing – camera cuts, which help to block out the action. I’m sure theatre purists would say it’s a poor substitute, but I am not one. I saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens at the National in 2004, and was impressed by it – another production on a bare stage with minimal scenery – but I don’t go to the theatre often, unless it is to see ballet or a musical, which I feel are better value for money! I feel rather privileged to have seen Kinnear, and Calder, and Clare Higgins, and Patrick Malahide, fretting and strutting while I sat in a cinema in Mayfair, and other people sat in the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and others again in the Coolidge Corner Theater in Boston, and elsewhere. Yes, we clapped at the end!

Comments: Andrew Collins is a television scripwriter, broadcaster, journalist, and film editor of the Radio Times. The stage production of the National Theatre’s Hamlet was broadcast at part of the NT Live series on 9 December 2010. The cast include Rory Kinnear (Hamlet), Clare Higgins (Gertrude), Patrick Malahide (Claudius), David Calder (Polonius), James Laurenson (Ghost/Player King) and Ruth Negga (Ophelia). My thanks to Andrew Collins for permission to reproduce his blog post here.

Links: NT Live web site for Hamlet

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Live from the Met

Source: John Wyver, ‘Live from the Met’, Illuminations blog, 26 February 2007, http://www.illuminationsmedia.co.uk/blog/index.cfm?start=1&news_id=8

Text: On Saturday night I saw (and heard) the future of arts programmes. Or rather I saw how one strand of what we used to think of as arts television will develop. I went to the Gate Cinema in Notting Hill. But I also went to the opera, for this was an evening when the Gate was showing a live transmission in High Definition from the Metropolitan Opera in New York. And it did feel a little (just a little) like turning up at the Met, even if the ticket price was £25 rather than the $300 top-price charge in New York.

As we went in, projected onto the screen were pictures of people filtering into the auditorium across the Atlantic. There was an intermission for drinks and ice creams (and the Gate has a welcome policy of allowing drinks to be taken in – and in glasses too). People applauded after some of the arias and, once they had realised that it was socially acceptable, with even greater enthusiasm at the end. The HD pictures from the stage were stunning and the sound, at least where I was sitting was more than acceptable (friends further back felt that the audio feed was far too thin). But of course the experience for me was was neither exactly cinema nor opera; indeed it might best be described as live television on a big screen with an audience.

The opera was Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, with Renée Fleming as Tatiana and Valery Gergiev conducting. The cast and musicians all performed at the top of their game, and there were times, especially towards the end, when the experience was completely involving and emotionally affecting. The immensely experience[d] Brian Large directed the cameras, and did a wonderful job of pointing up the dramatic confrontations, staying back for the spectacles and on occasions getting in close for intimacy. The stage production was very spare, with exquisite lighting by Jean Kalman, and this translated wonderfully to the screen.

Saturday a week ago I watched the repeat of Wagner’s Das Rheingold on BBC4 from Covent Garden. Perhaps it’s unfair to compare the two experiences, but despite Rheingold being among my favourite two or three operas, I quite definitely preferred the experience of going to the Gate. Even allowing for the HD quality, the pictures from the Met were cleaner and clearer -the lighting at Covent Garden looked shadowy and uneven. There was also a much greater sense of occasion and ritual, even though I tried to clear the evening and settle down before the television with a decent red wine. As for whether I preferred an introduction from Mikhail Barysnikov or Michael Portillo (guess who was where) I could have lived without both, but I much preferred the detailed information about the opera and production on the Met’s website to the scrappy online information made available by the BBC.

One of the intriguing aspects of this initiative by the Met is that it takes “television” back to a moment just after World War Two when cinema chains in America experimented with live broadcasts into theatres. Both Paramount and RCA trialled projection systems in 1947 and in 1949 screenings of World Series baseball were immensely popular in New York, Boston and Chicago. Over one hundred theatres were equipped but the returns were never significant enough to recoup the costs. Then the regulatory authority refused to licence exclusive broadcast channels and television started to become the fundamentally domestic medium with which we’ve all grown up.

Satellites and HD, however, offer the chance to do things differently, and these early sell-out screenings of Met broadcasts (they are doing six this season, although not all are being taken in the UK) suggest that there’s a commercial future for this new experience. Next up is The Barber of Seville on March 24.

Comments: John Wyver is a British writer and producer of arts-based programmes with his company Illuminations. The streaming of live performances of theatrical productions into cinemas (and other venues) appears to have begun in late 2006 with the New York Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series (one of whose broadcasts into the UK is the subject of the blog post reproduced here), though as Wyver notes there is a long history of televised broadcasts into cinemas. The genre of live stage productions shown in cinemas has not settled on a term as yet: streamed theatre, live-streamed theatre, live-to-cinema, simulcasts, live theatre and live cinema have all been used. Picturegoing has settled on the term streamed theatre. Wyver has become a producer of streamed theatre himself with RSC Live, whose first production was the Royal Shakespeare Company’s Richard II in 2013. The Met’s production of Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin was first produced on 27 February 24 2007 and starred Dmitri Hvorostovsky (Onegin), Renée Fleming (Tatiana) and Ramón Vargas (Lensky), with conductor Valery Gergiev. The Gate is one of the oldest cinemas in the UK still operating as a cinema, having been founded in 1911. My thanks to John Wyver for the permission to reproduce his post here.

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Hitchcock on Style

Source: Extract from ‘Hitchcock on Style: An Interview with Alfred Hitchcock’, Cinema, vol. 5 issue 1 (August & September 1963), p. 8

Text: H: You know the young film director always says, oh, let’s do a scene where the audience is the camera. That’s the prime cliché of all clichés. Bob Montgomery did one called Lady in the Lake. It’s quite unnecessary. You might just as well do a close-up of who it is. You know, it’s a trick and there’s nothing to it. You’d much better have a close-up and then what they see. Move with them — do anything you like — make them go through any experience — anything.

I: But Chabrol and Truffaut have in a sense imitated this style of yours, or learned from it.

H: Yes, they have. But after all, the greatest example of that which has been traditional, I think, in movies is the experience of a person on a roller coaster. You know when they brought that out with Cinerama, people said “Oh, my God, isn’t Cinerama wonderful? Nothing, of course, nothing like it at all!” That old roller coaster angle has been shot ever since silent films — way, way, back. I remember when they made a film years ago called A Ride on a Runaway Train and they put the camera up front and looked the world in the face. I can go back as far as 1912, maybe earlier, maybe 1910, when they used to have a thing in London called “Hale’s Tours.” And the audience paid their money and they went into a long car, like a pullman car, with rows of seats and a screen at the end. So you sat there, and all they did, they back-projected a film taken on the front of a train in Switzerland. Going through the Alps and so forth, and you sat there, and you were taken for a ride on a train. This is the same thing. This is purely subjective treatment.

Comments: Alfred Hitchcock (1899-1980) was a British film director. He was brought up in London and was a regular cinemagoer from an early age, including experiencing Hale’s Tours of the World, an entertainment in which films were projected from the front of a mocked-up train carriage. There was a Hale’s Tours in London’s Oxford Street, as well as other locations. It opened in May 1906 and was still being exhibited in 1909-1910. A Ride on a Runaway Train was made in 1921 by American travelogue producer Lyman Howe.

Links: Copy at The Hitchcock Wiki

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A Tear for Lycidas

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance: A Tear for Lycidas’, Close Up vol. VII no. 3, September 1930, pp. 196-202

Text: During last year’s London season we saw and heard one Talkie, Hearts in Dixie and wrote thereof in Close Up and foreswore our sex by asserting, in bold, masculine, side-taking, either-or fashion, that no matter what degree of perfection might presently be attained by the recording apparatus we were certain that the talkie, as distinct from the sound-film, will never be able to hold a candle to the silent film.

This year, therefore, though we knew there must be small local halls still carrying on, and hoped that our own little Bethel, which we had left last autumn ominously “closed for repairs,” might have taken courage to re-open, we felt that we were returning to a filmless London. Resignedly.

There was, there always is, one grand compensation: we came fully into our heritage of silent films. “The Film,” all the films we had seen, massed together in the manner of a single experience — a mode of experience standing alone and distinct amongst the manifolds we assemble under this term — and with some few of them standing out as minutelv remembered units, became for us treasure laid up. Done with in its character of current actuality, inevitably alloyed, and beginning its rich, cumulative life as memory. Again and again, in this strange “memory” (which, however we may choose to define it, is, at the least, past, present and future powerfully combined) we should go to the pictures; we should revisit, each time with a difference, and, since we should bring to it increasing wealth of experience, each time more fully, certain films stored up within. But to the cinema we should go no more.

Arriving, we found our little local hall still wearing its mournful white lie. All over London we met — there is no need to describe what we met, what raucously hailed us from the facade of every sort of cinema. Our eyes learned avoidance, of facade, newspaper column, hoarding and all the rest.

But ears escape less readily and we heard, as indeed, bearing in mind the evolution of pianola and gramophone, we had expected to hear, of the miracles of realism achieved by certain speech-films. Of certain beautiful voices whose every subtle inflection, every sigh, came across with a clarity impossible in the voice speaking from the stage. People who last year had wept with us had now gone over to the enemy and begged us to see at least this and that too marvellous. Others declared that each and every kind of speech film they had seen had been too dire.

We accepted the miracle so swiftly accomplished, the perfected talkie, but without desire, gladly making a present of it. Wishing it well in its world that is so far removed from that of the silent film. Saw it going ahead to meet, and compete with, the sound-film. Heard both rampant all over the world.

Driven thus to the wall, we improvised a theorem that may or may not be sound: that it is impossible both to hear and to see, to the limit of our power of using these faculties, at one and the same moment. We firmly believe that it is sound.

The two eloquences, the appeal to the eye and the appeal to the ear, however well fused, however completely they seem to attain their objective — the spectator-auditor — with the effect of a single aesthetic whole, must, in reality, remain distinct. And one or the other will always take precedence in our awareness. And though it is true that their approximate blending can work miracles the miracle thus worked is incomparably different from that worked by either alone.

Think, for example, of the difference between music heard coming, as it were, out of space and music attacking from a visible orchestra. Recall that an intense concentration on listening will automatically close the eyes. That for perfect seeing of a landscape, work of art, beloved person, or effectively beautiful person, we instinctively desire silence. And agree, therefore, that there neither is, nor ever can be, any substitute for the silent film. Agree that the secret of its power lies in its undiluted appeal to a single faculty.

It may be urged that to the blind the world is a sound-film whose images must be constructed by the extra intelligent use of the remaining senses helped out by memory, while to the deaf it is a silent film whose meaning cannot be reached without some contrived substitute for speech. That deaf people are more helpless and are usually more resentful of, less resigned to, their affliction than are the happier blind. And that therefore the faculty of hearing is more important than that of sight: the inference being that the soundless spectacle is a relatively lifeless spectacle.

Those who reason thus have either never seen a deaf spectator of a silent film or, having seen him, have failed to reflect upon the nature of his happiness. For the time being he is raised to the level of the happy, skilful blind exactly because his missing faculty is perfectly compensated. Because what he sees is complete without sound, he is as one who hears. But take a blind man to a never so perfect sound-film and he will see but little of the whole.

In daily life, it is true, the faculty of hearing takes precedence of the faculty of sight and is in no way to be compensated. But on the screen the conditions are exactly reversed. For here, sight alone is able to summon its companion faculties: given a sufficient degree of concentration on the part of the spectator, a sufficient rousing of his collaborating creative consciousness. And we believe that the silent film secures this collaboration to a higher degree than the speech-film just because it enhances the one faculty that is best able to summon all the others: the faculty of vision.

Yet we have admitted, we remember admitting, that without musical accompaniment films have neither colour nor sound! That any kind of musical accompaniment is better than none. The film can use almost any kind of musical accompaniment. But it is the film that uses the music, not the music the film. And the music, invisible, “coming out of space,” enhances the faculty of vision. To admit this is not to admit the sound-film as an improvement on the silent film though it may well be an admission of certain possible sound-films as lively rivals thereof.

Life’s “great moments” are silent. Related to them, the soundful moments may be compared to the falling of the crest of a wave that has stood poised in light, translucent, for its great moment before the crash and dispersal. To this peculiar intensity of being, to each man’s individual intensity of being, the silent film, with musical accompaniment, can translate him. All other forms of presentation are, relatively, diversions. Diversions in excelsis, it may be. But diversions. Essential, doubtless, to those who desire above all things to be “taken out of themselves,” as is their definition of the “self.”

Perhaps the silent film is solitude and the others association.

* * *

Wandering at large, we found ourselves unawares, not by chance, we refuse to say by chance, in a dim and dusty by-street: one of those elderly dignified streets that now await, a little wistfully, the inevitable re-building. Giving shelter meanwhile to the dismal eddyings and scuttlings of wind-blown refuse: grey dust, golden straw, scraps of trodden paper. Almost no traffic. Survival, in a neglected central backwater, of something of London’s former quietude.

Having, a moment before, shot breathlessly across the rapids of a main thoroughfare, we paused, took breath, looked about us and saw the incredible. A legend, not upon one of those small, dubious façades still holding their own against the fashion, but upon that of the converted Scala theatre: Silent Films. Continuous Performance. Two Days. The Gold Rush.

Why, we asked, stupefied, had we not been told? Why, in the daily lists, which still, hopelessly hopeful, we scanned each day, was there no mention of this brave Scala?

A good orchestra. Behind it the heart of Chaplin’s big wandering film: the dream wherein the sleeping host entertains his tragically absent guests with the Oceana Roll, showing itself to an empty house.

To the joy of re-discovering a lost enchantment was added strange new experience. Within us was all we had read and heard and imaginatively experienced of the new conventions. All that at moments had made us sound-fans. Enhancing critical detachment. We were seeing these films with new eyes. They stood the test. These new films, we said, may be the companions, they can never be the rivals of the silent film. The essential potency of any kind of silent film, “work of art” or other, remains untouched.

Later we saw The Three Musketeers and agreed, perhaps with Fairbanks, we trust with Fairbanks, that if melodrama be faithfully sought all other things are added unto it. And we were looking forward to Metropolis and The Circus when suddenly the theatre closed.

The experiment, we gathered, had not been a success.

But what, we would respectfully enquire of the Scala management, what is the use of winking in the dark? What is the use of having a silent season, in an unfrequented by-street, and leaving London’s hundreds of thousands of silent-film lovers to become aware of it by a process of intuition? Advertisement is surely less costly than an empty house. And we are prepared to wager that any house bold enough to embark on a silent season and to advertise it at least to the extent of listing it in the dailies will gather its hundreds for each showing.

[Humble apologies to The Boltons cinema in Kensington and the Palais de Luxe in Piccadilly; of whose current loyalty to the silent film the writer is informed too late for tribute in this article.]

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. The films mentioned are Hearts in Dixie (USA 1929), The Gold Rush (USA 1925), The Three Musketeers (USA 1921), Metropolis (Germany 1927) and The Circus (USA 1928). The Scala was a small theatre between Charlotte Street and Tottenham Court Road in London which occasionally showed films in the 1910s and 1920s.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

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Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Gwendoline Strong, C707/446/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: What about – was there a cinema in Oxford before you went to school, or when you were at school?

A: Yes. Yes, there was a cinema – we also had a cinema here.

Q: Did you go there?

A: Yes. Yes, but that was only on Saturday evenings. And it was sixpence. The – the fee to go in was sixpence and I remember on one occasion – the film caught fire, and we – oh it was a terrific – of course it was great fun for the children, it was a – almost a children’s cinema you see, but a few older people went, and there was one old lady went who was a cripple, and she was – she had crutches you see, under the arm crutches, and her name was Mrs Gardner, well now she could never move without these crutches but when there was a fire nobody will ever [k]now how she got out of the hall, but she got out and the crutches were left behind, which was very amusing to the children you can imagine.

Comments: Gwendoline Strong (1898-?) was the daughter of a gentleman’s outfitter, who was brought up in Woodstock, Oxfordshire. Film fires were not uncommon in the early cinema period, owing to the nitrate film stock used and the poor conditions of some cinemas. It was after a number of fires in which children were killed that the 1909 Cinematograph Act was passed, requiring all cinemas to be licensed. Ms Strong was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).

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A Cinema in the Harbour

Source: Extract from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘A Cinema in the Harbour’, in Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France 1925-1939 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), pp. 64-66 . Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 4 November 1925

Text: The cinema faces the ships. From out at sea a man who has long lived without the pleasures of terra firma can take out his binoculars and make out the large, colourful posters. The cinema goes by the modest name “Cosmos.” Today, it is showing the film called Red Wolves.

The Red Wolves are a band of robbers in the Abruzzi. They have kidnapped the beautiful Margot and hidden her in a high tower miles from anywhere. Ah, but what is miles from anywhere, how high is high? A brave young man by the name of Cesare joins the Red Wolves, but only for appearances: What he really wants is to free Margot.

You probably imagine joining a band of robbers is a simple matter? Let me tell you! It’s incredibly difficult.You need to take a battery of tests, in wrestling, in knife fighting, and in arm wrestling. This series of tests takes up most of the film. Cesare comes through them and gains the applause not only of the Red Wolves but of the audience here, who dream of being robbers in the Abruzzi.

The film about the Red Wolves is screened eight times a day, from ten in the morning until midnight. Cesare passes his tests eight times a day, and eight times the audience gets enraptured, a third of them spending the entire day in the cinema. This one-third are women and children. By day it’s cooler in the dark cinema than it is in their own cramped apartments and in the even more cramped streets. So the women go there to cool off. Children get in for nothing. Every adult visitor brings at least four children with her. She pays for one seat and occupies five.

In the evening the men, dockworkers in the harbour, come along. They eat, they wash, and they go to the cinema. They watched and cheered Cesare’s deeds yesterday and the day before yesterday. But it’s not possible to see enough of such heroism, if you are nothing more than a dockworker – with the dream in your heart of being a robber in the Abruzzi.

Even more romantic than a harbour is the robbers’ cave in the Abruzzi. The day labourer who is today a fisherman, tomorrow gets taken on as a seaman, and the day after finds himself in a distant port watching the film about the Red Wolves finds his life insufficiently romantic.

I like to imagine the robbers in the Abruzzi going to the cinema to see a film about the sea dogs of Marseilles. The robbers in the mountain envy the men of the port. The robber treats his calling as a humdrum job, and dreams of something romantic and exotic elsewhere. It is these reciprocal yearnings that make the film industry tick.

And yet the men in the harbour have roughly the same traits as the men of the mountains. The dockers stab with Corsican knives; they are passionate arm wrestlers with their friends, a stage wrestling matches with their colleagues. They are pleased to see that these same recreations are also popular in the Abruzzi. While still sitting in the cinema, they pull out their knives, and, not taking their eyes off the screen, give their neighbour a playful little stab.

The neighbour, who doesn’t stand for this sort of nonsense, challenges his friend to step up in front of the screen and make like Cesare.

So in the cinema, you don’t just see the deeds of men of the Abruzzi but also those of the men of Marseilles.

Meanwhile the pianist keeps banging out La Fille du Régiment. No wonder the viewers are getting restive. They want a different tune. The pianist gets up, walks out, and the film continues without music.

A little later I see a large, angry-looking man. He’s not putting up with the piano-player’s rudeness. One knows what it means when a very large, very broad man, with a broad red belt slung around his hips, with about one inch of forehead and with hands like iron shovels, won’t stand for the impertinence of a tiny piano player in evening dress and umbrella.

Five minutes later the pianist is wriggling in the iron grip of the irate cinemagoer, the lights go on, and everyone laughs. The giant waves to the crowd with his left hand, plunks the pianist down in front of his instrument, and decrees the tune desired by the majority.

And the film carries on. …

Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. I have not been able to identify any film of this period called ‘The Red Wolves’ (or a translation of this) or which features a robber band called by that name.

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Ancient Mysteries Described

Source: William Hone, Ancient Mysteries Described, Especially the English Miracle Plays, Founded on Apocryphal New Testament Story, Extant Among the Unpublished Manuscripts in the British Museum etc. (London: William Hone, 1823), pp. 230-231

Text: The English puppet-show was formerly called a motion. Shakspeare [sic] mentions the performance of Mysteries by puppets; his Autolycus frequented wakes, fairs, and bear-baitings, and ‘compassed a motion of the Prodigal Son’ On a Twelfth night, in 1818, a man, making the usual Christmas cry, of ‘Gallantee show,’ was called in to exhibit his performances for the amusement of my young folks and their companions. Most unexpectedly, he ‘compassed a motion of the Prodigal Son‘ by dancing his transparencies between the magnifying glass and candle of a magic lanthorn, the coloured figures greatly enlarged, were reflected on a sheet spread against the wall of a darkened room. The prodigal son was represented carousing with his companions at the Swan Inn, at Stratford; while the landlady in the bar, on every fresh call, was seen to score double. There was also Noah’s Ark, with ‘Pull Devil, Pull Baker,’ or the just judgment upon a baker who sold bread short of weight, and was carried to hell in his own basket. The reader will bear in mind, that this was not a motion in the dramatic sense of the word, but a puppet-like exhibition of a Mystery, with discrepancies of the same character as those which peculiarized the Mysteries of five centuries ago. The Gallantee-showman narrated with astonishing gravity the incidents of every fresh scene, while his companion in the room played country-dances and other tunes on the street organ, during the whole of the performance. The manager informed me that his show had been the same during many years, and, in truth, it was unvariable; for his entire property consisted of but this one set of glasses, and his magic lanthorn. I failed in an endeavour to make him comprehend that its propriety could be doubted of: it was the first time that he had heard of the possibility of objection to an entertainment which his audiences witnessed every night with uncommon and unbounded applause. Expressing a hope that I would command his company at a future time, he put his card into my hand, inscribed, ‘The Royal Gallantee Show, provided by Jos. Leverge, 7, Ely Court, Holborn Hill:’ the very spot whereon the last theatrical representation of a Mystery, the play of Christ’s Passion, is recorded to have been witnessed in England.

Comments: William Hone (1780-1842) was a British satirist, bookseller and campaigner against censorship. A Galantee show was one provided by a travelling entertainer of the first half of the nineteenth century, whose entertainments could include magic lanterns, puppets, shadows shows etc. Autolycus is a character in William Shakespeare’s play The Winter’s Tale. Hone’s book Ancient Mysteries Described traces the history of the English miracle and mystery plays, and here finds traces of their survival in the magic lantern show performed for a child audience.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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Cinema Hero

Source: Siegfried Sassoon, ‘Cinema Hero’ in Picture-Show (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1920), pp. 27-28

Text:
O, this is more than fiction! It’s the truth
That somehow never happened. Pay your bob,
And walk straight in, abandoning To-day.
(To-day’s a place outside the picture-house;
Forget it, and the film will do the rest.)

There’s nothing fine in being as large as life:
The splendour starts when things begin to move
And gestures grow enormous. That’s the way
To dramatise your dreams and play the part
As you’d have done if luck had starred your face.

I’m ‘Rupert from the Mountains’! (Pass the stout)…
Yes, I’m the Broncho Boy we watched to-night,
That robbed a ranch and galloped down the creek.
(Moonlight and shattering hoofs. … O moonlight of the West!
Wind in the gum-trees, and my swerving mare
Beating her flickering shadow on the post.)
Ah, I was wild in those fierce days! You saw me
Fix that saloon? They stared into my face
And slowly put their hands up, while I stood
With dancing eyes, — romantic to the world!

Things happened afterwards … You know the story …

The sheriff’s daughter, bandaging my head;
Love at first sight; the escape; and making good
(To music by Mascagni). And at last
Peace; and the gradual beauty of my smile.
But that’s all finished now. One has to take
Life as it comes. I’ve nothing to regret.
For men like me, the only thing that counts
Is the adventure. Lord, what times I’ve had!

God and King Charles! And then my mistress’s arms. …
(To-morrow evening I’m a Cavalier.)

Well, what’s the news to-night about the Strike?

Comments: Siegfried Sassoon (1866-1967) was a British poet, renowned for his poems about the First World War which revealed much of the reality of life in the trenches. This poem comes from his 1919 collection Picture-Show, whose title poem has the famous lines “And still they come and go: and this is all I know / That from the gloom I watch an endless picture-show … And life is just the picture dancing on a screen.”

Links: Copy of Picture-Show at Hathi Trust

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D.V.

Source: Diana Vreeland (ed. George Plimpton and Christopher Hemphill), D.V. (New York: Harper Collins, 2011, orig. 1984), pp. 48-50

Text: One night in Paris, after I was married, a friend and I went to a little theatre above Montmartre to see a German movie called L’Atlantide, with a wonderful actress in it called Brigitte Helm, who played the Queen of the Lost Continent. It was the middle of July. It was hot. The only seats in the theatre were the third balcony, under the rafters, where it was even hotter. There were four seats in a row, and we took two.

We sat there, the movie started … and I became totally intoxicated by it. I was mesmerized! I have no idea if I actually saw the movie I thought I was seeing, but I was absorbed by these three lost Foreign Legion soldiers with their camels, their woes … they’re so tired, they’re delirious with dehydration … And then you see the fata morgana. That means if you desire a woman, you see a woman, if you desire water, you see water – everything you dream, you see. But you never reach it. It’s all an illusion.

Then … a sign of an oasis! There’s a palm … and more palms. Then they’re in the oasis, where they see Brigitte Helm, this divine-looking woman seated on a throne – surrounded by cheetahs! The cheetahs bask in the sun. She fixes her eyes on the soldiers. One of them approaches her. She gives him a glass of champagne and he drinks it. Then she takes the glass from him, breaks it, cuts his throat with it…

And et cetera.

This goes on and on, I hadn’t moved an inch. At some point I moved my hand … to here … where it stayed for the rest of the movie. I was spellbound because the mood was so sustained. I was simply sucked in, seduced by this thing of the desert, seduced by the Queen of the Lost Continent, the wickedest woman who ever lived … and her cheetahs! The essence of movie-ism.

Then … the lights went on, and I felt a slight movement under my hand. I looked down — and it was a cheetah! And beside the cheetah was Josephine Baker!

“Oh,” I said, “you’ve brought your cheetah to see the cheetahs!”

“Yes,” she said, “that’s exactly what I did.”

She was alone with the cheetah on a lead. She was so beautifully dressed. She was wearing a marvelous little short black skirt and a little Vionnet shirt — no sleeves, no back, no front, just crossed bars on the bias. Don’t forget how hot it was, and of course the great thing was to get out of the theatre we were in. The cheetah, naturally, took the lead, and Josephine, with those long black legs, was dragged down three flights of stairs as fast as she could go, and that’s fast.

Out in the street there was an enormous white-and-silver Rolls-Royce waiting for her. The driver opened the door; she let go of the lead; the cheetah whooped, took one leap into the back of the Rolls, with Josephine right behind; the door closed … and they were off!

Ah! What a gesture! I’ve never seen anything like it. It was speed at its best, and style. Style was a great thing in those days.

Comments: Diana Vreeland (1903-1989) was a fashion writer who worked for Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue, where she was editor-in-chief. Josephine Baker was an African-American dancer who gained great fame in France. Her pet cheetah’s name was Chiquita. L’Atlantide (Germany/France 1932) was directed by G.W. Pabst. My thanks to Artemis Willis from bringing this unique passage to my attention.

Posted in 1930s, France, Memoirs | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments