Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Edward William Wifen, C707/9/1-2, 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: But there’s one thing I put in my other notes, about the cinemas. I can remember when I was ever so young and I suppose I was just at that age when you can remember, that my sister … one of my sisters taking me to the Corn Exchange here to what they call Pools Morama, and that was a kind of a … must have been when the moving pictures was in the very early stages, became I can’t remember very much about it except that they were all horses dashing along and they seemed to be coming towards you. That was called Pools Morama, and I think that that was connected with Ipswich because for years there was a Pools picture house in Ipswich, and I’ve got an idea that that was the same thing, and then eventually they went over to the ordinary pictures. But you don’t hear anything about that sort of thing, but that definitely was so, because I can distinctly remember going and I know that they were horses. They were men on horses and they seemed to be coming to you. Probably that was something to do with the Boer War. The picture may have been, you see, with all the horses, may have been that. But I can’t remember whether they were soldiers on the horses, or not. I couldn’t have been very old, but I do remember that.

Comments: Edward William Wifen (1897-?) was the youngest of eight children of a Colchester gardener, and his memories here relate to Colchester. Poole’s Myriorama was a travelling panorama show, organised by the Poole family, which toured widely across the UK in the late Victorian period and early 1900s. The Myriorama combined scrolling panoramas with cut-out figures, music, lighting effects, and narration, often illustrating military adventures (the Anglo-Boer was was 1899-1902). Ipswich did have a Poole’s Picture Palace, managed by the Poole family business. Wifen 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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What’s It All About?

Source: Michael Caine, What’s It All About? (London: Century, 1992), pp. 10-11

Text: When I was a teenager used to read a lot of biographies of actors to see if I had anything common with them, because by now I had dreams of becoming one as well. My avid reading as a teenager taught me that I had little in common with any actor – particularly the British stage greats. In fact they sounded as though they actually came from another plane. All their stories seemed to start from the same point: the first time that they ever saw an actor was when their nanny took them to the theatre, and as the curtain rose and the lights went up on the stage they just knew the theatre was going to be their life’s work.

In stark contrast to this, the first actor that I ever saw was the Lone Ranger and it was at a Saturday morning matinée for kids, which in my area was a cross between an SAS training camp and the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. The first obstacle in the assault course was the queue, which developed into a full-scale riot as some of the bigger kids who came late tried to push in front of others. Once inside, another riot started as everybody rushed for the front seats. And even when we were all seated comfortably and it seemed that our troubles were over missiles started hurtling around and an orange hit me on the back of the head. My friends had told me that after the lights went out and the picture started everything would be all right, but when I was plunged into darkness it turned out to be an overcoat which had been thrown down from the balcony above on top of me. It was finally dragged off me and thrown back up. accompanied by a lot of words that I did not understand but had heard before when my father stubbed his toe on the bed legs.

At last the lights went down, the film started, and on came the Lone Ranger. I sat there as entranced as those privileged actors before me with their nannies and I knew that this was what I wanted to be. A half eaten ice cream cone suddenly landed in my lap but even this could not break the spell; I just wiped it up, without taking my eyes off the screen.

After a while I got cramp, so I put my feet upon the back of he seat in from of me and stretched my legs. At this point the entire row of seats that we were sitting on tilted back on to the knees of the kids in the row behind. Yells of pain and indignation filled the air as the unfortunate patrons behind us tried to extricate themselves, but we were lying in our seats half over backwards with our feet flailing in the air. The lights went up, the picture stopped and the usherettes came rushing down to sort things out. I was pointed out as the culprit (there was no mention of the boys who had unscrewed the seats from the floor before we came in) and given a hefty whack round the ear. The lights went down, the picture started again and I sat there and watched through a veil of tears as my future profession unfolded before my eyes. I wonder what nanny would have made of that outing.

Comments: Michael Caine (b. 1933) is a British film actor, born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite. This part of his memoirs concerns his childhood in London before the Second World War.

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Cinemas and Cemeteries

Source: Richard Carr, ‘Cinemas and Cemeteries’, World Film and Television Progress, vol. 2 no. 2 (May 1937), pp. 18-19

Text: Once synonymous with suburban snobbery, Tooting to-day is a progressive and up-to-date suburb, contrasting favourably with its encircling neighbours, Balham and Wandsworth. As inner-London suburbs go, Tooting is fairly new: not so long ago, green fields abounded where now stand rows and rows of middle-class villas or streets of Council houses. Only in the older part of the suburb are there slums, bad ones too, slowly giving way before a continued and, at times, ferocious anti-slum campaign.

The population to-day is largely lower-middle and working class: the higher-ups have gradually moved further out as Council housing development has brought working-class people from the more crowded parts of London. Now its inhabitants are mainly office, shop, transport, printing and building workers, progressive in opinion and making the suburb a busy, lively and progressive area. It has no industries: unless cinemas and cemeteries be such.

For a population of 39,000 Tooting has seven cinemas. There are of course several others, on the outskirts of surrounding districts, within easy reach. Two of Tooting’s seven are “supers,” one a cine-news; the others date from earlier days and are correspondingly inadequate.

In old Tooting, there is a cinema which has claimed to be one of the first halls in London to show films. During its chequered career it has been music-hall, theatre, cinema; has closed and re-opened so often that the legend “under new management” might well be engraved on its walls, second in importance only to the cinema’s name.

The exact date at which films were first shown at this theatre is uncertain but its type of programme certainly tends to take one back some years in movie history. Names appear on the programme strange to the new generation of cinema-goers. Serials are run here too, serials on the old model in which the hero is left for a whole week suspended over a precipice, or lying helpless before an oncoming express, or at the mercy of relentless enemies. The display bills, contrasting with the modernistic advertising of the “supers,” are just long black-lettered lists of films: lists of westerns, of thrillers, of serials, of comedies, films not for an age but for all time.

Besides children and lads, appreciative of exciting films, a small and rather depressed audience visits this cinema. One fancies them lost, hovering helplessly between the cinemas they knew in the ill-lit, novelty days and the new “supers.” These are neither the simple, easily satisfied audiences of the pre-war days, nor the sophisticated movie fans of to-day. Perhaps, too old or too tired to go farther than just round the corner to the pictures, or too conservative to accept change, or too dazed and bewildered by the luxury of the super and the speed and complexities of the modern film. Some are people from small provincial towns and villages who find the less luxurious cinema more like home. Much of this cinema’s custom depends of course on children to whom the cheaper prices are essential or the straight films more interesting.

One of the “supers,” Mr. Bernstein’s Granada, is the Mecca of cinema-goers for miles round, though its regular patronage is built of Tooting people. It opens at twelve, and for sixpence, in the afternoon, you can sit in a comfortable seat in luxurious surroundings and get somewhere around three and a half hours of entertainment. Two full-length films, a newsreel, a comedy cartoon or short and stage shows varying from straightforward acts to “sensations” and “circuses” at holiday times. No circus being complete without horses, elephants, and acrobats, even these are to be seen on the Granada stage at Christmas time.

Mr. Bernstein treats his patrons well: offers them substantial fare, good seating and reasonable prices and asks their opinions on films and stars regularly. There are minor criticisms though; the length of the programme means that the last performance starts around seven-thirty, sometimes a few minutes earlier or later. For men or women some distance from their work, or for shop-assistants in the area, this means missing part of the performance: even for those who can with a scramble get there round about seven, there is often a long wait outside in the cold, or standing inside, none too pleasant after a day’s work. This applies chiefly to the cheaper seats, the one-and-three and the nine-pennies and it is worth Mr. Bernstein’s while to give this some attention.

Repertory
Perhaps the best comment on this is provided by the success of Tooting’s newest venture: The Classic, a repertory cinema, where you can see the films you missed or those you liked well enough to see again. This cinema gives a two-and-a-half-hour show, one price only downstairs, sixpence. It was formerly a struggling independent cinema, bad lighting, bad screening, and bad sound diminishing its custom, its programmes being consequently limited. It has been renovated outside and in, seating and screening greatly improved, though the old structure has prevented it being all it should. One full length film is shown, the rest of the programme being made up of shorts, colour
cartoons and news.

It opened with David Copperfield; went on to Little Giant, the Edward G. Robinson success; Ruggles of Red Gap; Bengal Lancer; Top Hat; If I Had a Million; Desire; and The Informer. Its future programmes include Crime Without Passion; Design for Living; and Viva Villa. The highest of high-brow cinema-goers could hardly better this list within the limitations imposed. So far the attendances have been unusually good, showing increased appreciation of good films and a growing preference for a shorter programme. The mammoth programme is all right for the family outing, for an entire evening out, but for the late workers, a show starting at 8.30 gives time for a meal and allows a comfortable evening.

Audiences in this suburb vary greatly, both in size and in behaviour. Holiday shows, especially the Christmas circuses, bring crowds of children, mothers and fathers. They enjoy almost everything and applaud the stage acts with tremendous gusto. On the other hand gangster, tough-guy and western pictures bring a larger number of men than women to the cinema. The Shirley Temple type of film brings women and youngster. Recent successes have been Texas Rangers, Bullets or Ballots, Rhythm on the Range, San Francisco, Swing Time, My Man Godfrey, Manhattan Madness, The Great Ziegfeld, and Libelled Lady.

Speed, Action and Fast Dialogue
Differences in taste are noticeable: the audience in one of the smaller cinemas, catering mostly for working-class people, is much more responsive to speed, action, and fast dialogue than in the cinemas attended mainly by families, by women and by young girls, or middle-class people. Love stories get better response from the women of all classes. The Granada is a combination of lower middle-class and working-class audiences of the family type, and does fairly well with Shirley Temple and George Arliss for example; but an increase of men in the audience is very noticeable when a film like Texas Rangers, Bullets or Ballots, or Mutiny on the Bounty is shown. In the cinema where there is a tougher audience, much fidgeting and talking goes on during British pictures and most films of a purely love-interest type. With such audiences action pictures, good musicals, and good dialogue find an appreciative audience. The idols are Spencer Tracey, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Gary Cooper, and, in comedy films, W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy.

The Cine-news represents a real experiment, for the news-theatre has, in the past, got its chief support in the centre of towns, where many people have an hour to spare or to occupy. In a suburb, it does not invite the same support, the only attractions being newsreels of big races, fights, and other sporting events. A certain amount of custom is received as a result of nearby cinemas being crowded. In the main, the response has not been overwhelming. Whether local news items offer a means of building support remains to be seen, but it has to be remembered that the main attractions of the Cine-news — its cartoons and its newsreels — are often showing at the main cinemas as well.

Progressive Taste
Tooting provides much of interest and encouragement to the progressive cinemagoers or worker. Tip-top films are invariably well supported if shown under satisfactory conditions. The shifting of audiences from cinema to cinema corresponds strikingly to the merits of the film showing, save for such exceptional periods as holidays.

That there is a large and rapidly growing audience for the best type of film is strongly demonstrated by the likes and dislikes of Tooting audiences.

Comments: Richard Carr was a film journalist who wrote a series of articles on filmgoing habits across Britain for World Film and Television Progress. Tooting’s seven cinemas were the Granada Theatre, the Regent Cinema (founded c.1909 and probably the vintage cinema referred to by Carr), the Cinenews, the Broadway Palace Theatre, the Classic Cinema, the Mayfair Cinema, and the Methodist Central Hall.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive (c/o Media History Digital Library)

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Still in the Dark

Source: Jessie Lee, extract from audiotape interviewee recorded 5 July 1994, quoted in Gregg Bachmann, ‘Still in the Dark – Silent Film Audiences’, Film History, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1997), pp. 23-48.

Text: We always looked forward to going there and all the kids in the neighborhood and at school, that’s what we would talk about. All week. Especially on The Perils of Pauline. Oh, is she going to get out, or is she going to fall off of the cliff, or will the train hit her, you know. She was so real. She was part of us. It was … I don’t know, movie stars nowadays are away from it, they’re up there some place. These people were right down here where they were just everyday people like we were. I don’t know what we would have done without the Saturday movie. And of course any punishment that was needed … the worst they could give to us was when you can’t go to the movie on Saturday. Anything but that, we’d promise anything just as long as we got to go to that movie. Very seldom did we get that punishment, I’m glad to say that.

We looked forward to Saturday, that was the highlight of the whole week. Everybody wanted to go down to the picture show. So we had to walk to the picture show – it was a small town, that was no big deal at all. So, we’d go to the movie, we’d get there early and of course we’d always go down in the front row.

It was one of the fondest memories of my childhood. Going to the movies, earning the money and then talking about it. We talked about it all next week. And, of course, we children, and I think older people are the same way, nobody ever sees the same thing in a movie. Some are interested in this, some are interested in that. Like a Western, the boys are interested in the guy with the gun shooting and we’re interested in the heroine what she’s going to do and how she’s going to get out of it. It just made something to talk about for a whole week.

I don’t know, there was a difference about it, you lived through the movies in those days. There wasn’t just something you were looking at that was a way off, it was real to you. That’s as near as I can describe it.

Comments: Jessie Lee (1906-?), from Marion, Indiana, was one of sixty-five interviewees recorded over a period of four years in the 1990s and quoted by American film historian Gregg Bachman for his article ‘Still in the Dark – Silent Film Audiences’.

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A Journey Round the Globe

The interior of Wyld’s Great Globe, Illustrated London News, 7 June 1851, via Wikimedia Commons

Source: Anon., ‘A Journey Around the Globe’, Punch, or the London Charivari, vol. 21 (1851), pp. 4-5

Text: We did not even take a carpet-bag, or a tooth-brush, or a clean collar with us. All our luggage consisted of a walking-stick and a postage-stamp. The latter we parted with at the end of our journey, to acquaint our friends that we had been round the Globe in perfect safety.

We have our doubts whether ladies will approve much of this new style of travelling. It dispenses with everything in the shape of luggage.

Our only passport was a shilling. This passport is very convenient. It requires no viséing. No allusions are made in it to your eyes; no questions asked about your name, residence, or nose. You present your passport at the door; it is taken from you; and you never see it any more. We wish every passport was as easy to obtain, and as easy to get rid of.

We like traveling round the Globe. First of all, there is not a single turnpike on the road. There is no dust, nor any throwing of eggs nor flour, as on the journey from Epsom – and again, there are no beggars, as in Ireland, — no revolutions, as in France – no monks or mosquitos, as in Italy, – and no insults, as in America. It is as easy as going up stairs to dress, and coming down in to dinner.

The journey is made on foot. Young ladies who cannot travel anywhere but in their own carriage, must abandon all thoughts of travelling round the Globe. It is true, the journey might be made on horseback, but then the horse must be one of those “trained steeds” from ASTLEY’s, which are taught to run up ladders without missing a single step. The travelling, it must be confessed, is rather steep and resembles very much a journey up the Monument. This resemblance, however, arises entirely from the peculiar formation of the interior.

In this respect MR. WYLD has made a grand discovery. He satisfactorily proved that the interior of the Globe is not filled with gases, according to AGASSIZ; or with fire, according to BURNET; neither has he filled it, like FOURIER, with water, as if the Globe were nothing better than a globe of gold fish. No; MR. WYLD has lately shown us that the interior of the Globe is occupied by immense strata of staircases!

These staircases rise above one another, like the steps in the Duke of York’s Column. This new theory must make traveling remarkably easy for persons who are occupied all day long in running up and down stairs, and seems as if it had been purposely laid down for maids-of-all-work, or poor relations on a visit.

Our first flight through the Globe – that is to say, when we came to the first landing place – convinced us that the crust of the Earth very much resemble the crust of a beefsteak pie that had been considerably overbaked. The inequalities on the surface, where the mountains are supposed to rise, represented to our ingenious fancy the bumps caused by the potatoes slumbering below, whilst the cracks through which the rivers are imagined to roll, disclosed to our mind’s eye the crevices in the crust that sometimes display such tempting glimpses of the rich gravy that is flowing underneath.

This notion of the pie is not in the least overdone; for really the heat of the Globe is equal to that of any baker’s oven. We don’t wonder at this, when we observed at every turn that there were small jets of gas bursting out of the Earth, in a number almost sufficient to roast a prize ox at any of the ensuing elections. The combustion of these several gases raises the atmpsphere of the almost to boiling point; and we are confident that if any one, anticipating a long journey round the Earth, took his dinner with him, he could cook it on the spot, free of expense.

The most curious thing is, that the higher a person ascends in the World, the hotter it becomes for him; so that when he has reached the greatest elevation man can attain, he suddenly finds the World too hot to hold him, and is obliged to come down again with a run. This is a fine lesson of world ambition, which we experienced, for once, ourselves. We felt the heat so excessive, and, fancying the Arctic Regions must be of all regions the coldest in the World, we steamed our panting way up there; but, will it be believed? – accustomed as we are always to be at the top of the Pole – we could not stand the climate of early peas and pine-apples, that is almost at forcing-height in those icy districts; and we were compelled to run down stairs to the Tropics as fast as we could, in order to get cool again. It is lucky that there are parts of the Globe where a person can breathe with comfort, or else MR. WYLD would have made us regret that we had ever come into the World at all!

Exterior of the Great Globe, Illustrated London News 7 June 1851, via Wikimedia Commons

And of this we should have been profoundly sorry; for, to speak the truth, this World is a most beautiful one. It is most agreeable to stand in the centre of the Earth, and to see yourself surrounded by oceans and continents, – first, to, feast of a bit of land, and then to drink in with your eyes a whole Atlantic-full of water. Drink as much as you will, you cannot take all the water in. You dread lest the waters should close in around you, and swallow you up like a cork in the middle of a water-butt. You cling to the railings for support; but the sight of land cheers you the next moment. All the World is before you; you have only to choose where to go to. With a patriotic rush your eyes run to England, and you are wonder-struck at a country which occupies so large a space in the thoughts of the world, should take up so little room on the surface of it. England, that has filled so many leaves in the world’s history, is scarcely the size of a cabbage leaf; and London, which prides itself upon being the centre of civilisation, is not half so big as TOM THUMB’s nose.

The World, as has often been remarked by moralists before, is exceedingly hollow; but then, if it were not, we could never have seen it for one shilling. This is very lucky; for it has enabled MR. WYLD to present to us the Globe in the shape of a geographical globule, which the mind can, take in at one swallow. You see the comparative heights of all the mountains, and the comparative sizes of the different continents. Everything is measured to the nicety of a fashionable tailor; and we must say, that in no worldly quality do we admire MR. WYLD so much as in the moderation of his measurement. Most men when they are given an inch take an ell; but MR. WYLD, with a modesty that is beyond all measure, was given ten miles, and he has only taken an inch! – for that is the magic scale with which he has compressed volcanoes into a thimble, and condensed lakes into the size of a tea-cup!

Not only are the features of the different continents carefully portrayed but an attempt has also been made to give the face of each an individual complexion. For this purpose MR. WYLD has called in the assistance of MR. BEVERLEY, whose brush must now enjoy, if it did not before, a world-wide renown. Warm colours are given to warm climates – dead colours to barren districts — neutral colours to countries of which little is known; whilst a generous couleur de rose is thrown over those parts where the Sun of civilisation is supposed to shine the strongest. Here and there, you see glittering red points burning away like the tops of the lighted cigars that are made in chocolate. These are volcanic mountains, and the authority for painting them that colour, has been taken from the celebrated Mountain in the French Chambers, which we all know is excessively volcanic, and particularly Red.

The general effect is very curious. Here a country looks like an immense cabbage-leaf, flattened out, half green and half decayed, with an immense caterpillar crawling right over it, in the shape of a chain of mountains. There a country resembles an old piece of jagged leather hung up against the wall to dry, with large holes that have been moth-eaten out of it. On one side you will see a cluster of islands, like dead leaves on the water, whilst, opposite to it will be some large tract of land looking vesicated, with the rivers running close to one another, like the veins in an anatomical engraving. Above your head will be hanging an old rug, like Russia, looking half-burnt and half-blistered by live coals that had fallen upon it, whilst underneath your feet may be spread Africa, like an immense skin – in some parts red and tawny, like a lion’s — and in others a rich yellow, with beautiful black marks, like the stripes on a leopard’s back. Fancy these, and many hundred others, hung up, in monster frames with endless margins of blue-water, and you will have a vivid conception, though perhaps not a very picturesque one, of the Globe which WYLD has suspended, like a fine, suggestive, picture, on the wall, for us to look at. The great pity is, you cannot see the picture all at once. It is cut in two by the hideous stair case. But this may have been run up purposely to show us that “one half the Globe doesn’t know what the other half is doing.”

Comments: Wyld’s Great Globe was a panoramic entertainment built in the shape of a globe, which was exhibited in London’s Leicester Square 1851-1862. It was created by the British mapmaker and MP James Wyld (1812–1887). The Great Globe was hollow, with iron staircases and platforms enabling visitors to see the world’s surface displayed on the inside to a scale of 10 miles to the inch, in plaster of Paris. It was 60 ft 4 ins in diameter, and was contained within a building around 180 ft square with 20 ft walls and a domed roof. As Punch notes, the gas lighting, combined with the crowds, made the interior uncomfortably hot. The entrance price was a shilling, two shillings and sixpence on Thursdays and Saturdays. The exhibition was accompanied by hourly lectures, moving panoramas, and displays of cartographic equipment in adjoining galleries. The Great Globe, which opened on 2 June 1851, was a huge success in its first year of operation, boosted by crowds that came to London for the Great Exhibition. It remained in Leicester Square for another ten years, after which it was torn down. Mr. Beverley was William Roxby Beverley, a theatrical scene painter.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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A Democratic Art

Source: Anon., ‘A Democratic Art’, The Nation, vol. 97 no. 2513 (28 August 1913), p. 193

Text: If Tolstoy were alive to-day, it is not unlikely that he would find in the “movies” a close approximation to his ideal of art. A direct and universal appeal to the elementary emotions — that was the standard which Tolstoy held up in opposition to the exaggerations, the aberrations, and the obscurities of the Shakespeares, the Goethes, and Richard Wagners. The Russian’s ultimate test of a work of art was its appeal to the untutored but unspoiled peasant. The cinematograph meets this test completely. The Russian mujik is under the spell of the films. India’s millions are deserting the story-tellers and the jugglers of the bazaar for the moving-picture shows. China, Peru, and Washington Heights have succumbed to the photo-play. All nations, all ages, all classes, both sexes — it is inconceivable how art can be more popular than that.

But the moving-picture show is something more than popular. It is intimate. To an extraordinary extent it is entering into the daily thought of the masses. The good men and women who are fond of writing on literature and life, who are devoting themselves to the task of bringing the drama into touch with the life of the people, must be amazed, and slightly chagrined, at the intensity with which the film-play has seized upon the popular imagination. The crowds not only throng to the shows; they talk about them, on street corners, in the cars, and over the hoods of baby carriages. From time to time there have been plays in the regular theatre which have become the theme of general discussion. There have been players whom the public has made its favorites. But the theatre as an institution has hardly impressed itself upon the popular mind in this country. A show was either good or bad, and there it ended with the ordinary theatre-goer. The technique of the theatre was a subject for professionals and “high-brows.” But the crowd discusses the technique of the moving-picture theatre with as much interest as literary salons in Paris or London discuss the minutiae of the higher drama. The crowd knows how the films are made, and what it costs to make them, and who the leading actors in the show are. The producers of these shows have achieved an extraordinary triumph. They have converted their entire audience into first-nighters.

The interest of the masses in the moving-picture show is even more personal than that. They are not only spectators and critics, but to a very considerable extent they are the authors. Everybody is writing moving-picture scenarios. In part it may have been a real dearth of ideas which induced the film-producers to appeal for contributions to the nation at large. In part it may be excellent business to inoculate the audiences, not excluding children of the grammar grades, with the virus of authorship. The regular theatre draws a not inconsiderable part of its revenue from “students” of the drama who go to the theatre in order to learn how to write plays. The number of those thus directly interested in the moving-picture plays must be enormous. In a very real sense the photo-play then becomes a truly popular art. The operatic composer will strive to give reality — and popularity — to his music by incorporating folk-themes into his score. To the extent that the music of the masses enters into the finished product the composer‘s art is a popular art. The moving-picture showman goes much further than the composer can go by throwing upon the screen the very ideas supplied him by the crowd in the seats.

It is not a very high art, this art of the photo-play as created for the masses and largely by them. The authors of the benches reveal the common predilection of the popular taste for the lurid and the fantastic. But in this the moving-picture show merely takes the place of the old-fashioned melodrama. And it has the added advantage of realism. The setting of the photo-play is incomparably more real than anything even a Belasco can give us. It reproduces action in real deserts, on real oceans, in real forests. The heroine walks out of a very actual cottage, down actual steps, and takes a perfectly authentic trolley car to a real department store. The audience knows that these things and the trees, rocks, bridges, boats, and guns are absolutely true to life, because it has often seen the man with the camera at work. To watch one of these exhibitions is like seeing an animated popular magazine without the labor of turning the pages. And like the picture magazine it requires no thought and little attention.

Comments: The Nation was, and continues to be, a leading progressive American journal. Invitations to submit ideas for film scenarios were not uncommon at this time, from the smaller film concerns, and publications on how to write film scripts were legion – though it is doubtful that many, if any, of those who read such books ever produced something that a film company would have accepted. David Belasco was an American theatre producer renowned for the naturalistic effects employed in his stage productions.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Silent Magic

Source: Ivan Butler, Silent Magic: Rediscovering the Silent Film Era (London: Columbus Books, 1987), pp. 27-31

Text: During the early part of the 1920s my own cinema-going was restricted by the confinements of boarding-school during term time, and in the holidays (to a lesser extent) by the fact that at least in our neighbourhood ‘the pictures’, though tolerated and even enjoyed, were still regarded as a poor and slightly dubious relative of the live theatre, the picture gallery and the concert hall. Their passage towards respectability was not helped by scandals in Hollywood such as the ‘Fatty Arbuckle Affair’. I can still recollect the atmosphere of something sinister and shuddersome that surrounded the very word ‘Arbuckle’ long after the trials (and complete acquittal) of the unfortunate comedian, even though my innocent ideas of what actually took place in that San Francisco apartment during the lively party on 5 September 1921 were wholly vague and inaccurate – if tantalizing. In his massive history of American cinema, The Movies, Richard Griffith writes, “During the course of the First World War the middle class, by imperceptible degrees, became a part of the movie audience.’ ‘lmperceptible’ might be regarded as the operative word. However, when it comes to paying surreptitious visits a great many obstacles can be overcome by a little guile and ingenuity, and I don’t remember feeling particularly deprived in that respect. I managed to see most of what I wanted to see.

Our ‘local’ was the cosy little Royal in Kensington High Street, London – a bus journey away. The Royal has been gone for half a century, its demise hastened by the erection of a super-cinema at the corner of Earl’s Court Road. To the faithful it was known not as the Royal but as the Little Cinema Under the Big Clock in the High Street. The clock itself is gone now, but on a recent visit I though I could spot its former position by brackets that remain fixed high in the brick wall. The entrance to the cinema was through a passageway between two small shops, discreetly hidden except for two frames of stills and a small poster. A pause at the tiny box-office, a turn to the left, a step through a swing door and a red baize curtain, and one was in the enchanted land – not, however, in sight of the screen, because that was flush with the entrance, so you saw a grossly twisted pulsating picture which gradually formed itself into shape as, glancing backwards so as not to miss anything, you groped your way up to your seat. To the right of the screen was the clock in a dim red glow, an indispensable and friendly feature of nearly all cinemas in those days, and a warning – as one was perhaps watching the continuous programme through for the second run, that time was getting on. Prices were modest: from 8d (3p), to 3s (15p). This was fairly general in the smaller halls; cheaper seats were available in some, particularly in the provinces, others – slightly more imposing demanded slightly more for the back rows, possibly with roomier seats and softer upholstery, but such elitism was not, to my memory, practised at the Royal.

Projection was to our unsophisticated eyes generally good, preserving the often marvellously crisp and well graded black-and-white photography. Programmes were changed twice weekly (but the cinemas were closed on Sundays, at any rate during the early years) and continuous from about 2 o’clock. They consisted as a rule of a newsreel such as the Pathé Gazette with its proudly crowing cockerel (silent, of course), a two-reel comedy (sometimes the best part of the entertainment), Eve’s Film Review, a feminine-angled magazine the high spot of which was the appearance of Felix the Cat walking, and, finally, the feature film. This was before the days when the double-feature programme became general. Somewhere between the items there would be a series of slide advertisements – forerunner of Messrs Pearl and Dean – which always seemed to include a glowing picture of Wincarnis among its local and ‘forthcoming’ attractions. The average moviegoer of those days (much as today, though perhaps to a greater extent) went to see the star of a film rather than the work of its director; Gish rather than Griffith, Bronson more than Brenon, Bow more than Badger, Swanson more than DeMille though as the years went by the names of the directors became more familiar and their importance more fully recognized. Criticism was often surprisingly informed and uncompromising.

Musical accompaniment at the Royal was provided by a piano during the less frequented hours, supplanted by a trio who arrived at a fixed time regardless of what was happening on the screen. I remember well the curious uplift we felt as the three musicians arrived, switched on their desk lights, tuned up and burst into sound, perhaps at a suitable moment in the story, perhaps not. Meanwhile the pianist (always, I recollect, a lady) packed up and left for a well deserved rest and cup of tea. The skill of many of these small cinema groups, even in the most modest conditions, was remarkable; their ability to adapt, week after week, often with two programmes a week and with little or no rehearsal, to events distortedly depicted a few feet before them, was beyond praise. The old joke about William Tell for action, ‘Hearts and Flowers’ for sentiment, the Coriolan overture for suspense and that’s the lot, was an unfair and unfunny gibe.

I have described the old Kensington Royal in some detail as it was fairly typical of modest cinemas everywhere in Britain at that time. Most were at least reasonably comfortable and gave good value for little money, maintaining decent standards of presentation. Very few deserved the derogatory term ‘flea-pit’, though ‘mouse parlour’ might sometimes have been an accurate description. On one occasion the scuttering of mice across the bare boards between the rows of seats rather disturbed my viewing of a W.C. Fields film (Running Wild, I think it was), though the print was so villainously cut and chopped about that the story was difficult to follow in any case. But such cases were infrequent. I have forgotten the name of the cinema, and the town shall remain anonymous.

Sometimes, in early days, films would be shown in old disused churches, and it is supposedly through this that the employment of an organ for accompaniment in larger cinemas became general. The first exponent was probably Thomas L. Talley, who in 1905 built a theatre with organ specifically for the screening of movies in Los Angeles. It was soon discovered that such an organ could be made to do many things an orchestra could not: it could fit music instantaneously to changes of action, and simulate doorbells, whistles, sirens and bird-song, as well as many percussive instruments. On one later make of organ an ingenious device of pre-set keys made available no fewer than thirty-nine effects and even emotions, including Love (three different kinds), Anger, Excitement, Storm, Funeral, Gruesome, ‘Neutral’ (three kinds), and FULL ORGAN. This last effect, with presumably all the above, plus Quietude, Chase, China, Oriental, Children, Happiness, March, Fire, etc. all sounding together, must have been awesome indeed. […] Before long the organ interlude became an important part of any programme, as the grandly ornate and gleaming marvel rose majestically from the depths of the pit in a glowing flood of coloured light.

Nothing, however, could equal the effect of a large orchestra in a major cinema, which could be overwhelming. The accompaniment (of Carl Davis conducting the Thames Silents Orchestra) to the 1983 screening of The Wind, for instance, was a revelation that will never be forgotten by those who had never before ‘heard’ a silent film in all its glory, particularly at the climax of the storm.

Admittedly, at times, particularly from the front seats, the presence of a busy group of players could be distracting; their lights would impinge on the screen, their busy fiddle bows and occasionally bobbing heads would make concentration on what the shadows behind them were up to a little difficult. In general, however, their mere presence, apart from the music, added immeasurably to the sense of occasion and until one got used to it the cold vacancy below the screen in the early days of sound had a chilling effect. Those cinema musicians are surely remembered with warm affection and regard by all of us who were fortunate enough to have heard them.

[…]

In these days of multi-screen conglomerates it is difficult to imagine the awe and excitement that could be aroused by the greatest of the old-style movie palaces; the thick-piled carpets into which our feet sank, the powdered flunkies and scented sirens who took our tickets with a unique mixture of welcoming smile, condescending grace and unwavering dignity, the enormous chandelier-lit entrance halls, the statues, the coloured star portraits, the playing fountains, the rococo kiosks – all leading through cathedral-dim corridors to the dark, perfumed auditorium itself, the holy of holies where we would catch our first glimpse of Larry Semon plastering Fatty Arbuckle with bags of flour.

Prices, of course, were rather grander than in the smaller, humbler houses, roughly (for variations were wide) from about 1s 3d (6p) or 2s 4d (12p) to 8s 6d (43p) or even 11s 6d (57p); but once you had paid your tribute to the box-office every effort was made to see that you felt you were welcome, were getting your money’s worth and were someone of importance – that this whole occasion was especially for you.

Comments: Ivan Butler (1909-1998), after a career as an actor, went on to become a notable writer on the art and history of cinema. His Silent Magic is a particularly evocative memoir of the silent films he could remember when in his eighties. The American comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was accused of the rape and manslaughter minor actress and model Virginia Rappe. Though acquitted, thanks to lurid reporting his career was ruined. The scandal helped lead to the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to self-govern the American motion picture industry. The Eve’s Film Review cinemagazine was produced by Pathé, who also made Pathé Gazette. Thames Silents was the name given to a series of theatrical screenings and broadcasts of restored silent films with orchestral scores by Carl Davis, produced by Photoplay Productions and Thames Television over 1980-1990.

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From Monmouth to Movies

Marine cinema, Lyme Regis, from World Film and Television Progress

Source: Richard Carr, ‘From Monmouth to Movies’, World Film and Television Progress vol. 2 no. 5 (August 1937), pp. 12-13

Text: Lyme Regis not Movie-mad says Richard Carr

The cinema is not a vital element in the leisure-time of Lyme Regis people. In this little sea-town, described by Macaulay as a “small knot of steep and narrow alleys, lying on a coast, wild, rocky and beaten by stormy seas,” neither young nor old are movie mad; the cinema seem comparatively unimportant.

* * * *

Lyme was once an important town in the West, a wool and weaving centre and a seaport doing a considerable trade in wines and tobacco. Its industry and commerce made it a stronghold of puritanism. In the Civil War it stood out for Parliament when all the West, save Poole, was held by the Royalists, resisting siege by Prince Maurice of the Rhine for two months. It stood strongly for Protestantism against the “Papists,” for Parliament against Absolutism.

The strength of its opinions were again shown when Monmouth made his bid for the throne of England in the name of the Protestant religion. He landed at Lyme and a large part of the town’s male working population marched out with him. They were marched aimlessly around Somerset until, armed only with scythes and staves and rough swords, they were slaughtered at Sedgemoor or taken to grace the gibbets of the Bloody Assize.

This was the last event of national importance in the history of Lyme. From then on its chronicles tell of decline in its industries. But the people held stubbornly to their opinions and, in a smaller way, went on fighting for them.

Out of centuries of such struggle its people achieved a character and strength of their own. It is written all over the counties of Dorset and Devon, this struggle and its later phase, the struggle against squire and parson is mutely testified by the scores of chapels, around the right to build and to worship in which many a bitter fight waged. And, in the nineteenth century, Dorset gave to trade unionism its most celebrated martyrs.

* * * *

To-day Lyme is a seaside resort, small, and, as such places go, unimportant. Its past gives it and its people a character not to be found at the popular seaside resort: the film of the Monmouth Rebellion, once proposed but banned by authority, could be made in its streets, acted and spoken by its people; and with scarcely a change in clothing would be more eloquent of the subject and the times than most of the expensive costume dramas of the studio. A great deal of the character remains; but its industries have gone. There is now but one important industry: the direct or indirect catering for visitors and summer residents. The town reflects this change in its livelihood-making but slowly; it begins to cater slightly for the visitor. A pin-table amusement saloon has made a nervous appearance on the sea-front, but is regarded with heavy disapproval by the authorities, who, by banning the giving of prizes, have recently struck at the basis of its business. The one cinema in the town is soon to have a “luxury” companion.

Lyme’s one cinema is perched high on the sea wall, and in the winter rough seas swamp over the entrance giving many a patron a soaking. Films have been shown in this building for eight years; before then they were shown in the eighteenth century assembly rooms, now demolished. The present home of the movies was once the Volunteers’ Drill Hall, a name which takes it well back into the nineteenth century. Then it served as a theatre. Underneath the cinema, in the high sea wall, are deep vaults, once Roman baths.

A visit to this cinema is a strange experience to anyone used to London “supers” and their audiences. It seats about three hundred. Its smallness, its setting — the queer old town, the rugged cliffs, and the sea breaking on the rocky shore beneath — make it seem most unreal. The audience too seemed apathetic to the films and certainly not willing to applaud or to praise. It being summer according to the calender [sic], the audience was mixed: the sixpennies — right bang in the front and almost close enough to the screen to take part in the films — and the ninepennies, only a few rows behind, were occupied by local people, mainly young, though here and there a labouring man and his wife, dressed for the visit and clearly uncomfortably conscious of being at the cinema. In the one-and-threes and the balcony were visitors. The mixed nature of the audience made clear-cut impressions difficult.

All these facts, the setting, the smallness of the cinema, the audience, made a hard test for the films. Many of them seemed fantastic in these surroundings. The first, for example, was the magazine-interest film. We were shown how champagne was made, from the field to the table; the latest fashions in women’s clothes, some of the garments costing more apiece than many of these people earned in a twelvemonth; finally two young Americans climbing Monte Blanc, in great danger according to the commentator though this was by no means obvious. As the people of Lyme Regis live all their lives at an angle of forty-five degrees, or so it looks to a stranger, this climbing up and down must have seemed very commonplace. A Secrets of Nature film was next; it seemed to interest the swells greatly, but the front seats hardly at all. It was about seagulls, again hardly a novelty to the locals.

Then the newsreel. This is bad enough when one sees it in London, sandwiched in a long programme, but here its triviality seemed outrageous. It was all Royalty and parades with one of the usual obscure and meaningless motorbike-races-round-the-houses thrown in. It brought nothing of the events pounding the world to pieces, nothing of the happenings and men of our day. Its dullness and uselessness was never so striking as in this place where real, vital news of the outside world could mean so much.

The main feature film in the first half of the week was Men of Yesterday. This film was not well liked on its London showing, being condemned for its sentimentality. It was a film about the efforts of ex-servicemen to promote peace by giving a dinner to ex-servicemen from allied and ex-enemy countries. It had all the faults of this conception and all the features of the ex-servicemen’s appeal and movements. It was overwhelmingly sentimental and, set against the stream of world events, its solution of the war problem seemed astonishingly trivial and foolish.

Yet it made some impression. It had an uncomfortable sincerity; the people were more real than is usual in British films. It was about ex-servicemen and they were very much like ex-servicemen. There were no stars, apart from the almost forgotten Stewart Rome and a short appearance by George Robey. It was obviously liked, though this liking was tempered by the objection to war films which, it seems, is as strong here as elsewhere.

I give these impressions for what they are worth because it is almost impossible to find out what people here like or dislike in films. The box-office does not show it, save in rare cases; the people express few opinions, occasionally one or two will say the film was bad. The first show decides the attendance on the next two evenings; opinions are reported among friends, work-mates and neighbours. The fantastic and far-fetched are not popular. Neither is the educational. Musical films are; Rose Marie was one of this year’s successes. The other was Mutiny on the Bounty, which did great business.

Other films which have done fairly well this year have been: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Strangers on Honeymoon, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Three Maxims, When East Meets West. In so far as attendance provides any sort of guide here, George Arliss has some following, as have the Lynn-Walls team. War films are as unpopular here as elsewhere; educationals are disliked; “near the knuckle” films frowned upon; Westerns and action pictures fairly popular with the men; musicals with the women.

In the summer the cinema gets a great deal of its support from visitors; in the winter it depends on the local people. It is the only form of amusement for winter evenings in this town, but during the winter there is a great deal of unemployment. The money earned in the short summer season has to be eked out over the long winter and visits to the cinema are therefore few and far between for most. Through the winter the cinema does a fair business, but very rarely indeed does it have to turn people away, small though the seating capacity be.

It must be remembered too that the intense interest in pictures, fed by the “fan” magazines, by the press reviews and stories, has little effect here — the number of films that can be seen is limited. With one cinema there is no choice. Film papers are something which the local people do without. The reviews of the films in the Press, even the “current release” reviews are useless to these people, for only a small — and not always the best — part of the releases ever reach them and then only long after the reviews have appeared.

Allowing for all these factors; for the poor selection opportunity, for the smallness of the cinema, for the poverty of the people over the greater part of the year, the comparative unimportance of the movies here is not completely explained.

The truth is that, though it has been in and around Lyme for many years, the cinema has not driven itself into the lives of these people as it has done in the towns. The only leisure-time entertainment for the young in the rough winters it is not a vital part of their lives. Perhaps it is as important to them as it was to most people twenty years ago; a way of passing an evening, a place to go to, a chance to see places, people and events occasionally. They live under conditions that have changed but little in external environment; they are tied to ways of life and of thought much more than are the young in the towns.

It should be emphasised too that there is a community of life and of interest in places like Lyme which is not found in the towns. Chapel-going, the gossiping in the streets and in the neighbour’s house — in the quiet, warm summer evenings the streets are alive with groups of men and women gossiping — and a common dependance [sic] upon summer “lets.” Life in these places is harder, more in contact with natural dangers, more built around the seasons and the tides, more bound up with the past, its thinking and living, and less affected by the new and the novel, than in the urban district.

In any case much of the youth is drawn away to brighter employment prospects in neighbouring towns; those left find their occupation around the parasitical job of providing for visitors. Yet these people have a character and strength that prevents them from ever becoming a race of boarding-house keepers. If they ever get the cinema-going habit, not any film will get by. Circumstances, environment, plus a deeply critical nature, a hatred of artifice and showyness — these factors will prevent the movie which is unreal and false being successful among these people.

Comments: Richard Carr was a film journalist. The Marine cinema at Lyme Regis was built as a drill hall in 1894, and started showing films in the 1920s. It continued showing films into the 1940s but a larger cinema, the Regent, was built in 1937 (it burnt down in 2016). The building continues as the Marine Theatre. The films shown during Carr’s visit were the British feature film Men of Yesterday (1936), directed by John Baxter; one of the 1922-1933 Secrets of Nature documentaries made by British Instructional Films; and a cinemagazine and a newsreel.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive (c/o Media History Digital Library)

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The Private Diaries of Sir Henry Rider Haggard

Source: D.S. Higgins (ed.), The Private Diaries of Sir Henry Rider Haggard 1914-1925 (London: Cassell, 1980), p. 261

Text: 27th July, 1923
This morning I went to Pathé’s to see the cinematograph film which their representative made of me here a week or two ago. It was very good, especially of my poor old spaniel, Jeekie, but as the bright sunlight seemed to turn my hair snow-white, it made me look even older than I am. These cinemas, however, go so fast that it is difficult to take in details. In future generations they will form interesting records of persons of our age, that is if they are kept as Pathé people told me they were. It seems that these photographic interviews go all over the world and are very popular with the masses.

Comments: Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) was a British novelist, who had a strong interest in cinema following the film adaptations of his popular novels such as She and The Lost World. Pathé was as good as its word – the film ‘interview’ with Haggard at his Ditchingham home survives and can be found on its website.

Links: ‘Camera Interview’ with Henry Rider Haggard on British Pathe site

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Passages from the Life of a Philosopher

Source: Charles Babbage, Passages from the Life of a Philosopher (London: Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green, 1864), pp. 180-181

Text: One day Herschel, sitting with me after dinner, amusing himself by spinning a pear upon the table, suddenly asked whether I could show him the two sides of a shilling at the same moment.

I took out of my pocket a shilling, and holding it up before the looking-glass, pointed out my method. “No,” said my friend, “that won’t do;” then spinning my shilling upon the table, he pointed out his method of seeing both sides at once. The next day I mentioned the anecdote to the late Dr. Fitton, who a few days after brought me a beautiful illustration of the principle. It consisted of a round disc of card suspended between the two pieces of sewing-silk. These threads being held between the finger and thumb of each hand, were then made to turn quickly, when the disc of card, of course, revolved also.

Upon one side of this disc of card was painted a bird; upon the other side, an empty bird-cage. On turning the thread rapidly, the bird appeared to have got inside the cage. We soon made numerous applications, as a rat on one side and a trap upon the other, &c. It was shown to Captain Kater, Dr. Wollaston, and many of our friends, and was, after the lapse of a short time, forgotten.

Some months after, during dinner at the Royal Society Club, Sir Joseph Banks being in the chair, I heard Mr. Barrow, then Secretary to the Admiralty, talking very loudly about a wonderful invention of Dr. Paris, the object of which I could not quite understand. It was called the thaumatrope, and was said to be sold at the Royal Institution, in Albermarle-street. Suspecting that it had some connection with our unnamed toy, I went the next morning and purchased, for seven shillings and sixpence, a thaumatrope, which I afterwards sent down to Slough to the late Lady Herschel. It was precisely the thing which her son and Dr. Fitton had contributed to invent, which amused all their friends for a time and had then been forgotten.

Comments: Charles Babbage (1791-1871) was a British mathematician, philosopher and inventor. He is considered to be the father of computing for his work on his difference engines. The Thaumatrope was an optical toy popular throughout the nineteenth century. Two related images on either side of a card, when spun via a connecting thread, would appear to form a single a picture (such a bird and a cage coalescing to form a bird in a cage). The Thaumatrope appeared in 1825, supposedly the invention of British doctor John Ayrton Paris. Babbage’s anecdote suggests that William Henry Fitton (a geologist) was the inventor, inspired by the principle set out by the astrnomer John Herschel. Joseph Banks died in 1820, which ought to put this story in the 1810s, but it is assumed that Babbage’s memory was slightly at fault, with the mid-1820s being far more likely.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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