Little Wilson and Big God

Source: Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God (London: Heinemann, 1987), p. 55

Text: Still, social mobility is built into women and may be an aspect of their biology. Madge remained refined, though ill-informed, and she dressed elegantly in the bosomless style of the day, going off to her stenography in a cloche hat and with exposed pretty knees. She was well informed only about the cinema, in which she had a professional stake. She fed me for a time with a dream of Hollywood, of which we were all learning more, not only from film magazines but from the screen itself. I had seen at Jakie Innerfield’s cinema a movie with the title Hollywood, which memory confuses with another movie called Sodom and Gomorrah. The film capital was already cannibalising itself, and there was one expressionist scene in which this happened literally: a huge human head with HOLLYWOOD burnt into its brow swallowed pigmy aspirants to film fame. This did not impair our fascination with the place, which was more magical silent than talking. The first squawk on the Vitaphone disc was a great disillusionment. In 1925 Rudolph Valentino still had a year of life ahead of him, and he was lucky to die voiceless. There was nobody like Valentino, so Madge thought, and she was right. I remember a party of friends of hers, all knees and cigarettes and no bosoms, in the upstairs drawing-room, and they were discussing a film in which Valentino appeared in white wig with a beauty spot. I said knowledgeably: ‘It’s called Monsewer Bewcare.’ I was corrected and left the room in humiliation, hearing Madge says: ‘Poor kid.’

Comments: Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was a British novelist and literary critic, whose book A Clockwork Orange was filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. His childhood was spent in Manchester. His 1986 novel The Pianoplayers features a pianist who plays for silent films, based on Burgess’ father who played the piano in pubs and cinemas. Madge was his step-sister. The films he refers to are Hollywood (USA 1923), Sodom und Gomorrha (Germany/Austria 1922) and Monsieur Beaucaire (USA 1924). The Vitaphone sound-on-disc film, used for many short subjects before supplying sound for some of the first talkies, was introduced in 1926. Jakie Innerfield’s cinema was on Princess Road, in the Moss Side of Manchester, close to the family’s tobacconist shop.

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