Television

Source: George Audit, ‘Television’, World Film and Television Progress, August 1937, p. 37

Text: The relays from Wimbledon were something quite new in quality of reproduction and in the placing of the shots. The trouble with so many film versions of the tennis tournaments has been that the camera has tried to keep pace with the ball, and in switching from one player to another has ended in a confusion of strokes and dashes with the ball invisible. The television version had one camera commanding the whole playing area of the court and another to interject close-ups of the scoreboard, one of the players or an occupant of the Royal Box. The general view of the court was so clear that you could see the tiny white ball flash from one side to the other quite distinctly. Unfortunately the figures on this scale were so small that one had to approach to within a foot or two of the screen to see them distinctly. But at this proximity the image was so distinct that you could follow every detail of the strokes. I have seen the Centre Court play in the newsreels and through television, and I can say that the latter was by far the closest approximation to the real scene, and incidentally more enjoyable.

Technically the Wimbledon relay was most important because it was the first recording of the mobile television unit. This unit consists of a scanning apparatus with an Emitron camera and a radio transmitter. The scene is scanned and broadcast on ultra-short waves over the twelve miles to Alexandra Palace. The experiment was a complete success and it now only remains to be seen whether the unit is able to range further afield.

Comments: George Audit wrote a regular column on television for World Film and Television Progress at this time. In 1937 a television screen would have been around 8×10 inches in size. The BBC’s first official use of its mobile television unit (built by the Marconi-EMI Television Company) was for the coronation of King George V on 12 May 1937, though it was preceded by a test broadcast from Hyde Park nine days earlier.

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

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Speedsters Replace Cowboys

Source: Thomas Baird, ‘Speedsters Replace Cowboys’, World Film and Television Progress, vol. 2 no. 12 (March 1938), p. 20

Text: A little over twenty years ago, I started to go to the pictures. I was then a small boy
living in a provincial city. There was quite a ritual about this picture-going. The first requirement was a penny. Pennies only come on Saturdays and, strange coincidence, the “Penny Matinee” came on the same day. Part of the ritual was to forswear the sweetie shops on Saturday morning. This called for severe discipline. It is true that we children had watched the highly dramatic posters all the week. Early on Monday morning the bill poster had pasted them up opposite the school gate. At the eleven o’clock interval we hoisted each other up on to the school wall to see the new posters. From the top of the wall would come shouts of: “It’s a cowboy”, or “It’s about lions”, or “There’s a man in a mask”. Imagination eked out these brief abstracts, and by Saturday excitement was at fever pitch; many a Friday night was sleepless in anticipation. But still it was difficult to pass the sweetie shop and occasionally we succumbed to the temptation of toffee-apples and liquorice straps. Once the precious penny was broken there was nothing for it but to get the greatest value by spending in four shops. But Saturday afternoon was a misery without the matinee.

The second item of the ritual was to be at the picture house fully an hour before the programme commenced. We had to stand in a queue and fight periodically to keep our positions. In the quiet periods we read comics, Buffalo Bills, and Sexton Blakes. Part of the ritual was to swap comics. As a story was finished off a shout went up of: “Swap you comics”, and there was great reaching and struggling to pass the paper to someone else in the queue.

About fifteen minutes to three o’clock the queue grew tense. Comics were stuffed in pockets and the battle to retain a place in the queue started. The struggling and pushing continued for about five minutes. Then the doors opened and a stream of children spilled into the picture house. There was a fight for the best seats. The right of possession meant little, and many a well-directed push slid a small boy from a well-earned seat into the passage.

Occasionally the programme was suitable, and by that I mean interesting to us children. Often, however, the feature was quite meaningless to us. On rare occasions I can remember films like Last Days of Pompeii, Tarzan of the Apes, Cowboy films, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, and the war films, giving us unexpected thrills, but in the main we went for the more comprehensible shorts: Bronco Billy, John Bunny, the Keystone Kops, Ford Sterling, Fatty Arbuckle, then one day a funny little waiter who afterwards we learned to call “Charlie”. Newsreels with soldiers, guns and bursting shells we loved. But we went for one thing above all others — the serial. These were the days of the Clutching Hand, The Exploits of Elaine, The Black Box and The Laughing Mask. Many of the names have faded and been forgotten, but I can recall that the heroine par excellence of all small boys was Pearl White. As Elaine she triumphed week after week, and later, changing with the times, she was Pearl of the Army. The villain of villains was an oriental called Warner Oland and, if I remember rightly, he was the Clutching Hand Himself, but this I will not swear to because these old serials had already learned the trick of making the obviously bad man become good in the last reel. I can remember living through fifteen exciting weeks to learn who the Clutching Hand was: to-day I can’t remember whether it was Oland or not. I seem to be losing my sense of values. Week after week we followed Warner Oland through his baleful adventures. Later he became the malevolent Dr. Fu Manchu. Then for a while I missed him, but, joy of joys, he reappeared as Charlie Chan. It is sad news that he has, perhaps, made his last picture. He has been one of my symbols of a changing cinema; the evil and the nefarious Clutching Hand became in time a prolific and model parent and fought on the side of the angels.

The blonde hero and partner of Pearl White in so many of these episodes was Cr[e]ighton Hale. To us, twenty years ago, he was a superman. He could hang for a week to the edge of a cliff and on the next Saturday miraculously climb to safety. It is perhaps a greater miracle that we, who, in imitation, hung from the washing-house roof, escaped with our lives. But the master mind — the great detective — was Craig Kennedy. That is the name of the character. I doubt if I ever knew the actor’s name and can still remember my astonishment when he turned up as a naval officer in a feature picture. He existed only for us as a detective with no other function than to answer the plea of Cr[e]ighton Hale to discover the whereabouts of Pearl White, or, out of bubbling retorts, to distil the antidote to the bite of the beetle which Warner Oland had secreted in her bouquet of flowers.

Periodically, a rumour ran round. It was whispered in hushed tones in the waiting queue and passed from lip to lip along the rows of excited children. Pearl White was dead. Somebody’s uncle had read in a paper — not an ordinary paper, but an American paper — that she had been killed jumping from an express train on to a motor-cycle. But she kept turning up week after week and this continual resurrection was sufficient to discount each rumour.

Last week I attended a press view of a serial. All the old characters were there. A black-faced villain (Julian Rivero), a thin-lipped henchman (Jason Robarts [sic]), a beautiful schoolboy’s heroine (Lola Lane), a juvenile of strange intelligence and unerring instinct (Frankie Darro) and a hero, smiling, confident, wise, resourceful and athletic (Jack Mulhall). There they all were, and in episode after episode they romped through their tantalizing escapades. The hero leapt from certain death at the end of one reel to equally certain safety at the beginning of the next; falling in mid air at the end of part three, he easily caught hold of a beam at the beginning of part four; flung from a racing car at the end of part four, he landed safely, with never a scratch, in part five. The scream of the heroine in part one turned through tears to laughter in part two; the leer of certain triumph of the villain in part nine turned to a scowl of miserable defeat in part ten.

I was unable to sit through all the hours necessary to reach the satisfactory conclusion which must be inevitable in the final episode, but I am sure that Burn ‘Em Up Barnes kissed Miss Lane in the end, that Frankie Darro achieved his aim both of a college education and being an ace cameraman, that the villains met a sticky end, in a burning racing-car, that Miss Lane never signed that deed which would have ruined her, and which she threatened to sign at least ten times and would have signed, had not Mr. Mulhall, driving at 413.03 miles per hour, arrived in the nick of time. Of all these things I am certain, and who would have it otherwise?

But even with all these familiar items I felt a little strange in the face of this serial. The fatal contract was there; true, the evil leers; true, the heroic athletics; but it was all set in a strange new world. There was no oriental mystery, no cowboy horses, no swift smuggling of drugs, no torture chamber, no shooting, no labs, with fantastic chemistry, no death-ray. It was all set for the new generation of youngsters who read “Popular Mechanics” in the Saturday queues and not for me, with my world of Sexton Blake and Buffalo Bill. The hero is a racing driver. The vital document was not a faded parchment taken from an old sea chest but a cinematograph film taken on a Mitchell. The hidden wealth was not gold but oil. Death came not suddenly by poisoned arrow or slowly in the torture chamber, but fiercely in burning automobiles or lingeringly on the sidewalks after a crash.

Comments: Thomas Baird was a British film journalist and documentary film executive, who worked for the Ministry of Information in the 1940s as its non-theatrical film supervisor. There was no serial named The Clutching Hand in the 1910s or 20s. Instead ‘The Clutching Hand’ was Perry Bennett, the mystery villain played by Sheldon Lewis in The Exploits of Elaine (USA 1914). This was based on the writings of Arthur B. Reeve, whose Craig Kennedy detective character features in the serial, played by Arnold Daly. Pearl White starred as Elaine and Creighton Hale appeared as Walter Jameson in this and the subsequent New Exploits of Elaine (1915) and The Romance of Elaine (1915), the latter of which featured Warner Oland, who became best known for playing the Chinese detective Charlie Chan in the 1930s. The other serials mentioned are The Black Box (USA 1915), Pearl of the Army (1916) and Burn ‘Em Up Barnes (USA 1934). I have not been able to discover what serial is meant by The Laughing Mask. The reference to four shops is because there were four farthings to a penny, and some sweets could be bought for a farthing.

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

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British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 198-201

Text: AGE: 20 SEX: F. OCCUPATION: SHORTHAND-TYPIST NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: POLICE CONSTABLE MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HOUSEWIFE

I have not the time to be a habitual picturegoer, so when I get the chance to spend a few hours in the cinema, naturally I choose the film I wish to see. I often think that I have more enjoyment this way than if I were to visit a picture-house two or three times in a week.

My animosity against the cinema is not strong – I know what I like and on the whole I am satisfied. Starting with the main feature, I like a good story that is essential and I like the producer to stick to the story, that is if he is making an adaption from a book. I really can’t see any reason for side-tracking into scenes alien from the general text. I can think on one film – Madame Curie – one I looked forward to seeing because I was familiar with her life story and thought it juicy material for the film world to knawe [sic]. I saw Madame Curie, or rather I saw Greer Garson, a dashing glamourised, good actress making me believe that she had known poverty! The film should have been called The Love Story of Pierre Curie and Marie Sklodovska – not Madame Curie. I wanted to see her when she was old, her work during the Great World War No. I – they did not have to employ battle scenes for that part of her life, it could have been portrayed in a field hospital – and it would have given colour (not technicolour) to that part of her life. What I did see of the ageing Madame Curie was a perfect Hollywood make-up addressing a hall of eager students, a perfect Hollywood ending. If the war had not been on, would it not have been a good experiment to make this film with an international film unit. I like a good scientific picture, but they are not good box office unless they are garlanded with Hollywood roses, and this seems to prevent a producer taking a chance. What excellent material these cautious men are missing, but what chances they are giving lesser known independent companies.

I like continental films in their original state, not remakes by our own studios. I like these films because they are sincere no matter how absurd the plot may be or trivial the dialogue. There is good honest down-to-earth work put into these films and I like to applaud their efforts.

I have enjoyed a few good adaptions from best-sellers, one in particular – Rebecca. More than once I have spent an evening in a cinema showing this film, in preference to a third rate at another hall. In my opinion this film was a ‘first’, almost perfect in acting, dialogue and scenery and the music, I must not miss out an important part of the film. They kept to the book as near as they could and I passed over the adaptions necessary in this case they helped the film.

Two films of a serious nature, that seems to be my taste. Comedy? Has to be a very good picture before I can let myself go. Irene Dunne’s pictures seem to be the answer, here I can see wit performed in a sophisticated manner, laughable fun as she canters through not always improbable situations. As for the other comediens [sic] on the screen, I snap my fingers at them, but that is just my taste.

I never did like war films and I still don’t like anything with the slightest flavour of war. My reason? I have no wish to relive the past in a cinema.

I come to the second features, usually what I look forward to. My first choice is James A. Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks. I bow to this man, and I thank him for his work which I am sure he enjoys thoroughly for bringing his country to my eyes. How often has one of his films superseded a highly coloured main feature. Another second feature series – Crime Does Not Pay. We don’t get enough of them and surely crime is just as rampant here as in the States. Couldn’t Scotland Yard co-operate with the English studios and start a series over here. Then on very rare occasions when I am lucky enough to see one, I enjoy the little cameos on medical research where silent acting predominates and the narrator in plain American explains the subject. Westerns I don’t dislike, but feel indifference towards them. The Stooges – a man threesome enjoyed by the children, but not by me. The Marx Brothers I do like, but I can count on one hand the times I have seen them!

Only once have I seen an experimental film made in America. It was badly made and the story was piecey, but there was enthusiasm oozing through the lens of the camera. The Seventh Victim was the title I have yet to find out who the second victim was. This film was trying to break away from the usual run of mysteries, to bring its art to the man in the street and if they failed, it was through no fault of trying. Taking all defects into consideration, I admired the work put into it and the acting of the unknown young actors and actresses who had been given a chance to show what they could do. That chance means a great deal when you are striking out for yourself.

On the whole, I don’t care where a film is made whether it is in China or over here, so long as it conveys to me that here is good material and here is a good film. What I would like is an international studio producing films of the world in general and isn’t there a saying about two heads being better than one, but in this case, it would be much more.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘A Study in Film Preferences’. The films mentioned are Madame Curie (USA 1943), Rebecca (USA 1940), the Crime Does Not Pay series (USA 1935-1948), and The Seventh Victim (USA 1943, a horror film but not experimental as such). James A. FitzPatrick’s TravelTalks was a series of travelogues (USA 1930-1954) characterised by its cheerful but bland tone.

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Television Starts – Where Will It End?

Source: Anon., ‘Television Starts – Where Will It End? “Era” Special’, The Era, 4 November 1936, p. 1

Text: Television for domestic purposes is like a home movie with sound. In a typical Baird receiver the images are thrown on to a mirror about the size of a woman‘s handkerchief.

They are brilliant miniatures, especially when a film is being used, and there is a slight suggestion of eye-strain at this stage. The images behave unexpectedly, as did the early films, but are surprisingly free from atmospheric interference, though the coil ignition systems of passing cars are liable to throw a few flashes on the mirror.

Lord Selsdon, who, in presence and manner, to say nothing of experience, seems cut out to be a Television star, made the important announcement at the opening ceremony last Monday, that people who bought receiving sets now could be assured that there would be no radical change in receiving sets for at least two years, and that the effective range of the Alexandra Palace station was twenty miles, with local variations that might reach much further.

The price of the Baird Television set, manufactured by Bush Radio, on which we saw the demonstration, is 85 guineas.

There is a population of 10,000,000 within the area covered by the Alexandra Palace station, equal to, say, 2,500,000 families. If only one family in a hundred purchases a set of some kind, there is obviously a considerable immediate market for the new attraction.

It will be a tremendous boon to such aspects of broadcast entertainment as “Music Hall,” travel interludes, the news bulletins, and “In Town To-night” – simple, direct things – but it is unlikely, at first to affect the course of radio drama.

Its power, as a rival attraction to other entertainments, depends largely on the amount of money spent on it, and it would appear that the B.B.C. has already pawned its shirt to provide the not very elaborate entertainment now being broadcast from the Alexandra Palace.

We are unable to see that Television increases the menace of radio as a rival to existing forms of entertainment, though it may do something to arrest the decline in the entertainment appeal of radio.

Television calls for so much fixation of attention that an hour at a time is likely to be the limit of the average man’s endurance.

On the whole, it seems to us that the entertainment professions should congratulate themselves on the birth of an entertainment from which they will be able to extract substantial fees, leaving Posterity to decide whether Television is to be a comprehensive umbrella for all forms of entertainment.

Comments: The first regular BBC television series began on 2 November 1936, broadcast from Alexandra Palace in London. Irregular experimental transmissions had taken place since 1929. The regular service alternated for its first six months between the Baird mechanical 240-line system and the EMI-Marconi electronic 450-line system, before the BBC elected to continue with the latter. The first programmes were Opening of the BBC Television Service, a British Movietone News newsreel, a variety programme headed by Adele Dixon, shown 15:00-16:00, followed by Television Comes to London, Picture Page and another Movietone newsreel, shown 21:00-22:00. The Era was a journal for the theatrical business, hence its particular take on television and radio.

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Dream Pictures and Real

Source: Marion P. Bartlett, ‘Dream Pictures and Real’, The Motion Picture Story Magazine, March 1912, p. 58

Text:
I sat by the fireside dreaming of days of long ago,
And pictures seemed to form in the midst of the embers’ glow;
But faded e’er I could catch them, the coals to ashes died,
E’en as my hopes had perished and the heart within me sighed.

I left the dying firelight and the lonely, cheerless room,
And wandered down the avenue, seeking to lift, the gloom;
When I heard the sound of music, saw countless lights agleam,
And, suiting an idle fancy, I entered as in a dream.

I entered into darkness, but sudden, before my eyes,
On a curtain of white came pictures, and I stared in mute surprise;
Pictures that moved! In wonderment I quite forgot my pain;
Pictures that lived! And with them I lived my youth again.

The North, the South, the East, the West were all at my command;
The whole world came before me, at touch of an unseen hand.
Ah! the pictures by the fireside may fade and die away,
But those on the magic canvas live anew for me every day.

Comments: This poem appears in an American journal that reproduced film stories for fans. I have not been able to find out more about its author. The anthology Red Velvet Seat: Women’s Writing on the First Fifty Years of Cinema (2006 ed. Antonia Lant with Ingrid Periz) credits the poem to Hattie M. Loble, but it is merely cited at the end of an article by Loble, entitled ‘A Western Woman’s Opinion of Pictures’, in Moving Picture World, June 1912 p. 820.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust
Copy of Moving Picture World article at Internet Archive

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Journal des voyages de Monsieur de Monconys

Source: Journal des voyages de Monsieur de Monconys, Conseiller du Roy en ses Conseils d’Estat & Privé, & Lieutenant Criminel au Siège Presidial de Lyon (Lyon, Horace Boissat & George Remeus, 1665-66), vol. 2, pp. 17-18, diary entry for 17 May 1663. Translation in Herman Hecht (ed. Ann Hecht), Pre-Cinema History: An Encyclopaedia and Annotated Bibliography of the Moving Image Before 1896 (London: Bowker Saur, 1993), p. 19

Text: 17 May 1663. After we had eaten we went to Longuecker [Longacre] on the way back to see Mr Rives [Reeves] who makes telescopes which he sells at six Pounds Sterling each. But he had none ready and deferred us to another time as regards this matter and also to show us how a bulls-eye lantern works which has a crystal half-sphere of about three inches in diameter and which represents the objects well. The latter he puts between the light source and the crystal, using a glass-plate on which objects are painted. This plate, which is like a frame, he slides into a square box which obtrudes from the lantern and which contains the half-sphere crystal.

Toutes les allées font bordées ou de jonquilles ou de geroflées ou de lis. Aur etour apres auoir fait collation nous fufmes encore à Longuexer, chéz M Riues qui fait les Telefcopes, qu’il vend fix liures fterlin piece. Mais il n’en auoit point de prets, & il nous remit à vne autre fois tant pour cela que pour voir l’effet d’vne lanterne fourde qui a vn demi-globe tout entier de criftal , d’enuiron poulces de diametre, & qui porte bien loin la reprefentation des obiets qu’il met entre la lumiere, & ce criftal, par le moyé d’vne feüille de verre fur laquelle ces obiects font peints, laquelle lame ou feüille il fait couler comme vn chaffis dans l’eftuy quarré qui auance au dehors de la lanterne, & qui enferme le demi-globe de criftal.

Comments: Balthasar de Monconys (1611–1665) was a French traveller, diplomat and diarist. He travelled to Portugal, Germany, Italy, the Netherlands (where he met Vermeer), the Near East and England. On a visit to London he saw a magic lantern demonstrated at the shop of the optician Richard Reeves (also referred to in Samuel Pepys’ 19 August 1666 diary entry about seeing a magic lantern demonstrated). This is the first known reference to the magic lantern in Britain.

Links: Copy in French at Hathi Trust

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An Image of Leda

Source: Frank O’Hara, ‘An Image of Leda’, from Selected Poems (New York: Borzoi, 2008), p. 15 [orig. pub. 1950]

Text:
The cinema is cruel
like a miracle. We
sit in the darkened
room asking nothing
of the empty white
space but that it remain pure. And
suddenly despite us
it blackens. Not by
the hand that holds
the pen. There is
no message. We our-
selves appear naked
on the river bank
spread-eagled while
the machine wings
nearer. We scream
chatter prance and
wash our hair! Is
it our prayer or
wish that this
occur? Oh what is
this light that
holds us fast? Our
limbs quicken even
to disgrace under
this white eye as
if there were real
pleasure in loving
a shadow and caress-
ing a disguise!

Comments: Frank O’Hara (1926-1966) was an American poet and art curator. He wrote several poems on the themes of film and cinemagoing. ‘An Image of Leda’ alludes to the Greek mythological tale of Leda, who was seduced by Zeus in the form of a swan.

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Some Unpublished Letters of Lafcadio Hearn

Source: Osman Edwards, ‘Some Unpublished Letters of Lafcadio Hearn’, Transactions and Proceedings of the Japan Society, vol. 16 (1918), pp. 16-32

Text: We know how he loved to mingle unobtrusively with the joys and sorrows of his unsophisticated neighbours. He gives the following account of a visit to a Tokyo cinema:

“Here I, too, have been looking at scenes of the Boer War – shadowed by the cinematograph. The representation was managed so as to create only sympathy for the Boers: and I acknowledge that it made my heart jump several times. The Boer girls and wives were displayed as shooting and being shot. What you would have enjoyed were the little discourses in Japanese, uttered between each exhibition. They were simple and appealed to Japanese sympathy, – to the sense of patriotism, and the duty of dying to the last man, woman, and child for one’s country.

Also I saw the Paris Exhibition (1900) in the Kinematograph – and – a can-can! Before the shadows began to dance, their dancing was properly apologised for to the Japanese audience. ‘It is rather queer dancing,’ said the man, ‘but the French think that it is very fine!’ The dancers kept white veils or something before them when they kicked, – police injunction, perhaps! You can imagine how the audience felt – and how I felt with them! And I was glad when it was over.”

Comments: Patrick Lafcadio Hearn (1850-1904) was an Irish-Greek journalist and travel writer best known for books on Japan, where he lived from 1890, taking on Japanese nationality with the name Koizumi Yakumo. The films of the Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) may have been the fictions produced by the Edison company. My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing this reference to my attention.

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The Age of the Eyes

Source: Karel Čapek (trans. Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová), ‘The Age of the Eyes’, The People’s Paper [Lidové noviny], 22 February 1925, reproduced in Believe in People: The Essential Karel Čapek (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), pp. 18-20

Text: You may have noticed that conspicuously few old people go to the cinema. Even if you take into account that older people are as a rule more frugal and more comfortable, and all in all, less profligate than the rest of us, it’s not a sufficient explanation for why so few of them indulge in the depraved invention of luminous pictures. The older generation expresses open disgust for this modern spectacle. They mutter something like, ‘Don’t bother us with such tosh,’ and open yesterday’s paper or a fifty-year-old novel instead. Meanwhile, the said fifty-year-old novel is being enacted on the screen of a picture palace round the corner, and the rest of us, who are breathlessly watching its flying action, can’t understand that an old man has the patience to read such ancient trash. The average film is, in the vast majority of cases, much closer to Walter Scott than to, say, Vít Nezval, and resembles George Sand more closely than George Bernard Shaw. The average film doesn’t pick up on modern literature, but on old literature. As a matter of fact, it’s the direct successor of old novelistic fiction. The younger generation doesn’t realise that in the cinema they give themselves up to the lush imaginative world of their distant fathers. The older generation doesn’t have an inkling that the shadowy pictures they are so contemptuous of are bone of their bones, or rather I should say the shadow of their bones. Which is of course a typical, unbridgeable rift between the generations.

It seems to me, then, that the older generation doesn’t reject film because it’s too modern, or too silly, but for more profound reasons: because it’s too fast and isn’t rendered in words. I am of the opinion that older people would take pleasure in going to the cinema if texts instead of pictures were projected on the screen. In the beginning of their world is the word, not an optical event. A picture in itself, a picture without language, doesn’t mean anything; it must get words to acquire reality. An old man sees just shadows, shadows, shadows on the screen, bolting, and unreal. If they waited for a moment, he could find a term for them and describe them in words. But alas, they’ve gone, and new shadows are fluttering there in a mute hurry of events. The word lasts, the word can be remembered, the word is solid and firm. But movement doesn’t last long enough to be interpolated into what exists and what is valid; it’s just a change, a transition, and not a decent, reliable, enduring being. An old man watches the running film as if dreams were being shot before him; if he read in a book about a lissom damsel walking like a doe, he’d believe it, but when he sees a lissom damsel on the screen, walking like a doe, he doesn’t recognise this poetic moment because it’s not written there with binding words. It doesn’t say anything, it’s just phoney and monkey business. And the old man leaves the cinema as if he hadn’t seen anything. Don’t bother me with such tosh, he says.

A kind of re-education of people has really taken place here. A person sitting in the cinema must have found a shorter connection between the eye and the brain without the medium of words; in a technical sense, he may even have found a direct connection between the eye and the brain. The older generation probably lacks this direct connection, this leaping of a spark from the retina straight to the cerebral centres. They are more of a reading, conceptual type, while today’s man is becoming a visual type. My late Granny had to read out loud to properly understand what she was reading, for her the word was still an auditory, not a visual, image. In bygone times most readers must have perceived reading through the ear. Later on a more trained reader dropped this aural digression and understood directly by means of verbal signs. In film even the word has turned out to be a digression; we are learning to understand without words. I don’t want to decide if it is progress for the time being it’s a fact.

But surely film threatens literature to a considerable extent, not because it wants to replace it, but because it develops another kind of people – a visual instead of a reading type. The reading sort is patient; it takes its time to penetrate the circumstances, to bask in the descriptive passages and follow the conversation from start to finish. The visual type will not be so patient; it wants to seize the situation in a single glance, to comprehend the story without letting it last, and immediately see something new. But perhaps one day people will run from that stampede of pictures back to the book, to take a breather, or rather, they’ll have the radio narrate fairy tales and novels nice and slowly for them; they’ll listen with closed eyes, letting themselves be lulled by the word, which will re-assume its original destiny – to be spoken language. Maybe who knows? – maybe the book will die out, maybe it will become a curious cultural heritage like inscribed Babylonian bricks. But art will not die out.

Comments: Karel Čapek (1890-1938) was a Czech novelist, essayist and playwright, best known for his science fiction works including the play R.U.R. which introduced the concept of the robot. He was no enthusiast for the cinema, but liked the audiences. Vít Nezval was Vítězslav Nezval, a Czech avant garde poet.

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Kinoplastikon

Filming Kinoplastikon, from Scientific American, 18 April 1914
Filming Kinoplastikon, from Scientific American, 18 April 1914

Source: Anon., ‘Kinoplastikon: As Seen From the Stalls’, The Bioscope, 8 May 1913, p. 391

Text: The cinematograph industry, from its very inception, has been so prolific of novelties and sensations, that we have now grown almost accustomed to living in a condition of perpetual astonishment. The biggest surprise of all, of course, was the cinematograph itself, but since then we have had colour films. speaking films, singing films – in fact, films of almost every character it is possible to imagine or desire. Celluloid has become the embryo of a new universe, which seems to contain everything that was in the old world, and a great deal besides that the old world never dreamed of.

One of the latest wonders to come forth from the inexhaustible womb of the moving picture camera is kinoplastikon, the remarkable “living, singing, talking camera pictures,” of which, as our readers will remember, an enthusiastic description was given in our issue of March 20th. by our special correspondent, Mr. John Cher, who saw them in Vienna, before they had been brought to this country. As most people know, they have now come to England, and are to be seen each night in the west-end of London, at the beautiful Scala Theatre, where we had the pleasure of making their acquaintance the other evening.

Kinoplastikon pictures are certainly very surprising when you first set eyes on them, especially when they come, as they do at the Scala, in the middle of a programme of ordinary cinematograph films. The curtain goes up, and the stage is revealed, bare, to all appearance, of everything but a conventional set. Then, suddenly, you hear the grating of a gramophone beginning to work. The orchestra strikes up in accompaniment. And, without warning, two white pierrots dance on from the wings – as naturally and as easily as though they were beings of real flesh and blood. They give a xylophone duet – their instrument apparently resting on a table which has been placed there beforehand, in full view of the audience, by a solid human attendant – and then, their performance finished, they skip off the stage to make their bows in answer to the riotous storm of applause which marks the conclusion of their “turn.” Five other pictures follow, one of them a flute solo and the other vocal performances.

The appearance of these amazing spirit creatures is curious. They resemble the figures of an ordinary cinematograph film, cut away from their original background with a pair of scissors, and set to caper and gesticulate, their vitality unimpaired, upon a wooden stage. Some of them are in black and white only; others are coloured artificially.

To offer any explanation of how Kinoplastikonis “worked” would be imprudent without investigating it more closely – and we have not yet had an opportunity of examining these “picture people,” except at a respectful distance from the auditorium. Speaking without prejudice, one would imagine that they are related, more or less nearly, to the famous ghosts of the late lamented Professor Pepper, the maker of mirror miracles. They are advertised as being presented “without a screen”; one rather fancies, however, that the screen is invisible, as, on the left-hand side of the stage, the creatures disappeared a trifle before they reached the wings. In, mid-air, also, are occasionally noticed white spots, which seemed to suggest scratches upon a black film.

Kinoplastikon produces a stereoscopic effect, because the figures in its films stand in the middle of an ordinary stage, and thus really have space before and behind them, In themselves, however, they are not stereoscopic, a fact which was observable in the last film shown, where a woman stood in front of several other people, the latter appearing unnaturally small and out of perspective, as is the case in an ordinary photograph.

It is difficult to make speculations about the future of Kinoplastikon without knowing more of its modus operandi. Even if it accomplishes nothing more than the sort of thing which may be seen at the Scala, however, it may always be safely relied upon to make a novel and effective item in a variety programme. And it certainly constitutes a remarkably fine example of the “talking picture.”

Comments: Kinoplastikon was a means of showing coloured motion pictures, with sound, in stereoscopic relief. The original system was the invention of the German film pioneer Oskar Messter, who named it ‘Alabastra’. Based on the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ stage illusion, whereby seemingly life-like images could appear on stage via reflected projection from a mirror, Messter extended the idea to employ motion picture film, hand tinted and with musical accompaniment. An adaptation of Alabastra was exhibited in Vienna under the name Kinoplastikon, subsequently appearing in Britain in 1913 at the Scala Theatre, London. The films were produced in a studio lined with black velvet (the actors had to be dressed entirely in white) on the roof of the Scala theatre, with synchonrised sound-on-disc accompaniment using Cecil Hepworth’s Vivaphone system. The director was Walter Booth. As the reviewer suspected, a screen was used, though hidden from view.

Kinoplastikon excited much comment, with suggestions that it was the future of entertainment, but as Hepworth observes in his autobiography, Came the Dawn, “It suffered, I suspect, from the usual fate which almost always dogs the steps of any ghost-illusion. Very few people are interested in an illusion of that kind as an illusion. They may think it is clever but do not bother to wonder how it is done; they don’t even care. Unless it tells some story, or belongs to some story which cannot well be told without it. it very soon ceases to intrigue them”. Kinoplastikon was exhibited in Austria, Britain, France, Russia and the USA, but it swiftly disappeared.

Diagram of Kinoplastikon stage setting, where O = proscenium, P = projector, A = translucent screen, B = transparent sheet of glass, C = back cloth and D = sloping floor. From F.A. Talbot, Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked (1923)
Diagram of Kinoplastikon stage setting, where O = proscenium, P = projector, A = translucent screen, B = transparent sheet of glass, C = back cloth and D = sloping floor. From F.A. Talbot, Moving Pictures: How They Are Made and Worked (1923)
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