The Spell of China

Source: Archie Bell, The Spell of China (Boston: The Page Company, 1917), pp. 97-102

Text: The Chinese are becoming infatuated with the motion picture exhibition to such an extent that they will gladly attend a performance, the program of which extends through four, five, or even six hours, which is quite in keeping with the time limit of native theatrical representations. I saw a crowd quite overcome with joy at the vicissitudes that befell the heroine in the American-made film, “The Hazards of Helen.” The thrilling scenes were greeted by outbursts of applause, many of the spectators rising to their feet and shouting lustily when the hero saved Helen and her baby by venturing onto the railroad bridge and jumping into the river with the two in his arms as the express train whizzed across the screen.

Such a demonstration meant much more in China than it would mean in a Western country. It is not “good form,” not even “proper,” for a Chinese to betray his emotions; at least, he must not let them rise to the surface. He may applaud at the theater, but even while making this demonstration, which is not in accordance with ancient custom, he must not smile or laugh. The comedian may grimace; gentlemen in the audience are not supposed to do so. The
scene may be very thrilling and tense, but Chinese gentlemen should have better control of themselves than to show by any facial movement that they are excited.

But Helen, assuredly very modern, as seen in the motion pictures, caused them to forget some of the things that they had been taught by their fathers. They not only betrayed the fact that they received the thrill, but they seemed to be delighted to do so and seemed to desire to let the hero know that they appreciated what they had done. When “close-up” portraits of the characters were shown, smirking and “looking pleasant,” which is so contrary to all the canons of Chinese theatric art, they stood up and waved their hands. When the express train was flashed on the screen, whizzing along at a mile a minute — in a country where trains seem likelier to move a mile in ten minutes — they applauded as we in America applaud when a favorite star makes her “big speech” in the third act. Certainly they enjoyed “The Hazards of Helen.” It was the first time that I saw a Chinese audience witnessing a film that was “Made in America.” If I had never seen another Chinese audience beholding a “Made in America” film, I would have had the impression that the motion picture was more popular in China than in America. But I saw many of them. I saw audiences only mildly interested, and I saw some that were quite visibly bored, because they did not know what it was all about, and, not knowing, they could not feel an interest any more than the popular American audience would feel for Greek tragedy or the sacred dances of Siam. At Chinese motion picture houses a lecturer frequently stands on the stage and explains the action, even in such stories of primitive situations as “The Hazards of Helen.”

“Now you see the little child going out on the railroad bridge,” he says. “She is a thoughtless infant, who does not know that death is lurking in her path. She is as happy as any innocent little child can be. She skips over the railway ties, having found a new amusement. But what will happen when the fast train comes thundering along the track? What will become of the child!”

Oh, he is an eloquent extemporaneous speaker, this Chorus who explains the play! He weaves much into his “explanation” that is prompted by the picture itself, much that never entered the mind of the scenario writer.

“Helen sees the little girl,” he continues; “What can she do? How can she save her?” (Helen is flashed on the screen gazing bridge-ward, with a sort of hunted-deer expression.) “Will she stand there and see the child run over by the train, or thrown into the river below? No, she does not think twice, but rushes out onto the bridge and snatches the child into her arms. But the cruel train is coming; see, it is coming around the mountain. It will plunge into the tunnel and then out onto the bridge.” (Business of express train plunging into a tunnel.) “The hero sees Helen and he, too, rushes out onto the bridge. Will he reach her and the child before the train comes? That is the great question. See! He has reached them, but it is too late! In ten seconds the train will be upon them. There is no time to escape, so the hero takes both Helen and the child in his arms and jumps off the bridge into the river. Will he be strong enough to swim and reach the shore in safety with his precious load?”

And so forth, the “lecturer” creates action, when he thinks the interest is flagging. During the scenes that make merely an “exposition” of the characters and plots he is obliged to keep up his story, or at least he does so. He invents enough plots and counterplots to provide another instalment of the serial. I was unable to learn the origin of these gentlemen, who seem so important to the movie in China, but they must have had much theatrical experience in their native country. They must have as ready knowledge of all the old plots as the average
dramatist in America. Perhaps some of them have acted in Chinese plays, the plots of most of which are the same as the stereotyped plots in American drama. They remember, but the audience does not, apparently, because, as in America, it appears to enjoy the unraveling of the same old stories. It is the “lecturer” who makes the American motion picture intelligible to the oriental audience, at least the Chinese audience, which insists upon knowing something about what is transpiring. Chinese actors carry “suggestion” so much further than the Americans would attempt to do their speeches are so absolutely inaudible, on account of the strumming and squawking of the various instruments of the orchestra, that people do not expect to hear too much and have learned to trust to their eyes. Or perhaps they do not care to understand. In the course of a six-to-ten hour entertainment, which is not an uncommon length of time for a Chinese play to run, they will hear enough to satisfy them and reward them for going to the theater. It is useless to permit one’s self to become overwrought and excited about mere play acting. Life itself is much more comic, much more tragic; and they do not become excited about life, seeming to value it very lightly, and not worrying about death.

Comments: Archie Bell was an American travel writer. The Hazards of Helen was an American serial, originally starring Helen Holmes (later episodes starred Rose Gibson in the role), that was originally released 1914-1917 in 119 episodes. Lecturers explaining the action of silent films were common in many cultures, most famously the benshi of Japan. The film shows described were probably in Shanghai.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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