Cocks and Bulls in Caracas

Source: Olga Briceño, Cocks and Bulls in Caracas; how we live in Venezuela (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945), pp. 126-130

Text: Everyone is curious to know how we amuse ourselves in South America. What, they wonder, do those strange people do for fun? It’s simple enough. We amuse ourselves like anybody else, admitting the while, parenthetically, that the whole world is short on pastime, with popular imagination in this respect the victim of a pernicious anemia.

Our amusements are those of any other country, but with one peculiarity. Others find their fun outside; we find ours mostly within.

First of all, we have the movies. We are devotees of adjectives, superlatives, and dithyrambs. In certain individuals the harmless mania is particularly marked — in mothers speaking of their children, naturally, and in lovers proclaiming their devotion. Impresarios of public entertainment also suffer from it. This surprises no one. ‘You must blow your own horn’ has come to be, with us, a basic premise. As a result, any statement that is highly flavored with adjectives is automatically reduced by half in the mind of the listener. In the case of impresarios, especially of moving pictures, this drastic reduction falls far short of being enough. One should credit no more than half of half of what is claimed, or better, only half of that! The imagination of these good gentlemen is ultra-supercolossal.

No film is ever advertised in terms consistent with its quality. God forbid! If it were, no one would dream of going to it. After the customary discounting, it would appear an abstract minus quantity.

The time-honored grading of films that is regularly employed in the United States is practically unknown to us. It has been taken up to some slight extent in Caracas recently, but no one has bothered to explain the significance of it, and hence it conveys little or nothing. Venezuela is not grade-conscious like the United States. The only grades we know are the grades a student needs for his degree, the grades of fever shown by a thermometer, and the grades of — say, fervor, which no thermometer can show. The business of grading eggs or milk, for example, is not for us. Not yet.

Never is a film advertised merely by name, dates, and actors. Rather:

‘The most stupendous achievement of the Eighth Art. An unforgettable spectacle that will set you quivering with horror, joy, and anger. A veritable gem of modern moving pictures.’

‘The Downhill Donkey,’ let us say, is one such gay production which might be advertised, in fine print and parentheses, as ‘Grade F’ in North America. The announcement of it will fill a whole page in the daily papers, for in Venezuela, as everywhere else, fame is won by advertising, and impresarios spend real fortunes on publicity. Each strives to outdo the others, and their lives are spent in lawless rivalry, with magazines and papers the major beneficiaries. If all exhibitors were to agree to use a stipulated space, less money would be spent, and the result would be the same. But then the periodicals would be the losers, with sad results for us poor journalists.

When the public buys tickets to a movie, it is torn between the exhibitors’ publicity and its own skepticism. There is no telling what to expect. Hence any film is a surprise. Going to the movies is like roulette — you never know just where the ball will drop. Anyone who has been promised a sensation is bound to be surprised when he finds himself bored; if a sensation is not only promised but delivered, that is the biggest surprise of all.

Movies in Venezuela are not shown continuously. The admission fee buys a view of one film, regardless of grade; there is also a newsreel, but then — good night. This is not quite fair; I was forgetting that there is a fifteen-minute intermission too. At possibly its most exciting moment the film is stopped, the lights come on, gradually or with a flash, according to the impresario’s caprice, and boys come down the aisles to sell chocolate.

For many people the intermission is the high moment of the show. Think of it! Fifteen whole minutes in which to talk with friends, to see who has come with whom, to smoke a cigarette — but that must be done outside — to look at the women’s costumes and see how the men are looking. Fifteen minutes in which to emerge from the anonymity of darkness into the realm of light!

The showings at different hours are not equally important. The first is for children. The vespertina, at five o’clock, is for the formally engaged, who come accompanied by mother, aunt, sister, or little brother; that is also the time for well-bred girls of the old school, white, charming, distant, cool of manner. Altagracia prefers the vespertina. The intermediate showing, which begins at seven, is attended by people in mourning who do not wish to be conspicuous, by couples who may be shady or perhaps just not officially engaged as yet, and by families in good standing but reduced circumstances who have neither new clothes to show nor the five bolivares which are the price of the fashionable performances.

The last, at nine o’clock, is for family parties, the world of fashion, marriageable daughters who are not bespoken, night owls, and the generally emancipated, as well as for the wealthy and those supposed to be wealthy, since it is the most expensive. That is the time to display the new gown, the darling hat just received from Paris, the sweetheart, and financial affluence.

Different films are presented at any one day’s performances. The one shown at nine rates a whole page of publicity; from that peak a film descends to the vespertina, with a quarter page, and finally, in complete decadence, to the common grave which is the intermediate or the matinee performance and warrants only a stingy little epitaph of an advertisement that gives nothing but title and time. Vanitas vanitatum! as the disillusioned Preacher said.

In the smaller towns movies are far more enjoyable than in Caracas. Performances are usually presented out-of-doors, and the weather is always mild. Surrounded by low walls, the movie houses have the finest roof imaginable — a tropical sky of magic beauty, with moon, stars, Southern Cross, and all. One night Altagracia and I watched a raging Arctic blizzard with polar bears, ice-bound ships, seals, Eskimos, and all the frozen seasonings, while the heavens above seemed about to drop from the weight of stars, crickets chirped, and the intoxicating odor of magnolias filled the air. Grown blasé by travel, books, and fashion, we savored the incongruity and smiled in superiority, but the general public, farmers, muleteers, cowboys, travelers, Venezuelans all, exposed the virgin purity of their responsive souls to their emotions, and some even suffered a chill. A few dogs which had sneaked in among the seats barked at the polar bears. Several poor children who were watching, on horseback, outside, were excited by the snowstorm and produced a red one of their own with petals from the roses blooming on the wall; their perfumed shower caressed our faces. Suddenly, beside me, a thick but pleasant voice spoke with a countrified accent:

‘Will the young lady please shove over just a little?’

A farmer who had arrived late was looking for a seat. Frequently, in small-town theaters, the seats are only benches. The fellow must have hesitated a long time before venturing to bother us, but weariness at last had overcome timidity. Hat in hand, he waited for us to shove over and then sat down on the very end of the bench. When finally he had forgotten we were there, he gave free rein to his emotions. We watched him suffer, rejoice, worry, and laugh with the various episodes of the film. For him shouting children, barking dogs, the cries of vendors, stars, scents, had all ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, squeezed into her seat, Altagracia was grumbling about democracy and the absurd idea of rubbing elbows with anyone who came along. But all at once she stopped complaining and began to smile quietly. Her eyes had fallen on a pair of lovers, a half-breed muleteer and a dark-eyed country girl. They were holding hands in silence, and in their faces were reflected the beauty of the starlit night and all the fondness in the world. Southern Cross, rose petals, and magnolias seemed quite in keeping with that idyll unfolding on the bench of a country movie.

Comments: Olga Briceño (?-?) was a Venezuelan journalist, travel writer, novelist, lecturer and diplomat, who mostly wrote in Spanish. She was cultural attaché for her country in Cuba and the USA. Her charming book Cocks and Bulls in Caracas, describing family life in her native land, was published in English in America.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Prospero’s Cell

Source: Lawrence Durrell, Prospero’s Cell: A Guide to the Landscape and Manners of the Island of Corfu (London: Faber, 2000 [orig. pub. 1945). pp. 44-52

Text: It is towards the hour of seven that, mellowed by the excellent wine of “The Partridge’, we cross the little cobbled square by the Church of the Saint, and seek our way through the alleys and fents of the Venetian town (the women touching hands as they talk on the balconies over our heads) to where the shadow-play is to be shown. In a little sunken garden by the Italian school the lights and the grumble of a crowd had already marked the place. A prodigious trade in ginger-beer and sweets is being carried on with the schoolchildren and the peasants who sit crammed into the small arena before the dazzling white screen upon which our hero is to appear. Two violins and a drum keep up a squalling sort of overture, punctuated by the giggles of the children and the pop of ginger beer bottles. (Important note. Ginger beer, first pop of ginger beer bottles. (Important note. Ginger beer, first imported by the British during their occupation of the Ionian Islands, has never lost its hold over the Corcyrean public. In places such as the Canoni tavern it may even be bought in those small stone bottles which we remember from our childhood, and which are quite as aesthetically beautiful as the ancient Greek lamp-bowls with which the museum is crammed.)

Our seats are right in front, where the orchestra can scrape away under our noses, and the sales of ginger beer increase noticeably owing to Ivan Zarian who persuades his father to buy us a bottle each. N. prefers nougat while Nimiec has found a paper-bag full of pea-nuts. Thus equipped we are prepared for the spectacle of Karaghiosis, whose Greek is sure to baffle us however much his antics amuse.

Presently the acetylene lamps on the hedge are extinguished, and the rows of eager faces are lit only by the light of the brilliant screen with its scarlet dado. The actors are taking up their dispositions, for now and then a shadow crosses the light, and the little peasant children cry out excitedly, hoping that it heralds the appearance of their hero. But the orchestra is still driving on with the awkward monotony of a squeaking shoe. I catch a glimpse of Father Nicholas at the end of a row, and seeing us smiling at him he feels called noon to make some little gesture which will put him, as it were, on the same plane as ourselves. He pushes aside the ginger-beer hawker, blows his nose loudly in a red handkerchief, and bawls to the tavern-keeper across the road in superior accents: ‘Hey there, Niko – a submarine for my grandson if you please.’ ‘A submarine’ is a charming fantasy; Nicholas’ little grandson would much rather have a ginger beer but he is too experienced and tactful a child to interrupt the old boy. He sits vaguely smiling while the waiter darts across to them from the tavern with the ‘submarine’ – which consists of a spoonful of white mastic in a glass of water. Nothing more or less. The procedure is simple. You eat the mastic and drink the water to take the sweetness out of your mouth. While the child is doing this, and while Father Nicholas is looking around him, pleased at having caused a little extra trouble, and at having been original, the orchestra gives a final squeal and dies out. Now expectancy reaches its maximum intensity, for the familiar noise of sticks being rattled together sounds from behind the screen. This is a sign for the play to begin.

The crowd draws a sharp breath of familiarity and pleasure as the crapulous figure of Hadjiavatis lurches on to the screen, cocking an enormous eyebrow and muttering a few introductory remarks. ‘It is Hadjiavatis,’ cry the small children in the front row with piercing excitement, while Father Nicholas remarks audibly to the row behind him: ‘It is the rogue Hadjiavatis.’ But even his gruffness cannot disguise the affection in his tones, for Hadjiavatis is beloved for his utter imbecility. He is to Karaghiosis what Watson is to Sherlock Holmes – his butt and ‘feed’ at the same time. At the appearance of Hadjiavatis the orchestra strikes up a little jig – his signature tune – completely drowning his monologue, whereupon he gives an indignant shake of his whole body, commands it to be silent, and recommences his groans and exclamations. Apparently everything is rather gloomy. Nothing is right with him. He is poor, he thickening of his speech indicates that he is now full of a sense of warmth and well-being.

From now on the play becomes a surrealist fantasia. Their rise to fame is meteoric and is accomplished by the unblushing cunning of the hero, with Hadjiavatis suffering here and there for his errors of judgement. Almost nothing is too fantastic to present, and I can see from the glowing face of Father Nicholas that what our surrealist friends might call ‘the triumph over causality’ is considerably older than Breton – and indeed is an integral part of all peasant art. The succession of figures on the dazzling screen glow with a kind of brittle life of their own; the voices (whose volume and pitch betray their human origin) crackle and spark with a kind of suppressed hysteria. All Greece is in this scene; the market-place, the row of Turkish figures, the wonderful power and elasticity of thought and verbal felicity; the tenderness and vulgarity of Karaghiosis; and all indicated with so little of the landscape to which I had hoped to be a guide. Karaghiosis, whose humour is cast in a townsman’s mould, is still surrounded by memories of the day when he and his kind were mad, violent clansmen in the hills around Olympus: or scattered colonies across the Black Sea, still tenaciously holding to an optative mood and a pronunciation which Piraeus has forgotten or only remembers as a joke. On this little dazzling screen you have the whole laic mystery of Greece which has been so long dormant in the mountains and islands – in the groves and valleys of the archipelago. You have the spirit and the unconquerable adaptability of the Greek who has penetrated with the leaven of his mercuric irony and humour into every quarter of the globe.

By now we have met a number of characters who are to become familiar in the immortal Karaghiosis cycle of plays. There is Gnio-Gnio, a lunatic figure in a top hat and cutaway coat, whose singing Zante accent is a joy to listen to. There are the Salonika Jews, each tiny and clad in a shapeless sack-like robe, out of which they speak shrill and clever, hands firmly folded in front of them. There is even an unusual figure called ‘The Lord’ who is dressed in what Father Nicholas must imagine to be the conventional English fashion – in a tail-coat, buttonhole, spats, and a topper. There is also the appalling Stavrakas of Piraeus whose vanity and vulgarity make him justly the object of little children’s derision. There is the Grand Vizier, a most sympathetic figure, and of imposing size – not to mention the Cadi, who orders beatings with a cool impersonal air of detachment.

The drama reaches its peak with a faked election, in which Karaghiosis, in order to win, manages to resurrect all the corpses in the local cemeteries, who pass in a grisly single-file across the stage to the polling booth to vote for the hero.

And now, with abrupt suddenness Karaghiosis appears to recite a short epilogue and while the applause is still deafening us, the screen goes out and we are in darkness. The orchestra has long since packed up, and we stumble yawning from the garden in the darkness, pressed all about by the eager bodies of the children …

Comments: Lawrence Durrell (1912-1990) was a British novelist and travel writer. He lived with his family on the Greek island of Corfu between 1934 and 1941, when the island fell to Nazi Germany and he fled to Egypt. Prospero’s Cell is an artfully composed memoir of his time on Corfu. Karaghiosis, or Karagiozis, is a figure from Greek folk-lore who features in both Turkish and Greek shadow-puppet theatre. My thanks to Artemis Willis for bringing this account to my attention.

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The Years

Source: Virginia Woolf, The Years (London: Hogarth Press, 1937), p. 419

Text: Thinking was torment; why not give up thinking, and drift and dream? But the misery of the world, she thought, forces me to think. Or was that a pose? Was she not seeing herself in the becoming attitude of one who points to his bleeding heart? to whom the miseries of the world are misery, when in fact, she thought, I do not love my kind. Again she saw the ruby-splashed pavement, and faces mobbed at the door of a picture palace; apathetic, passive faces; the faces of people drugged with cheap pleasures; who had not even the courage to be themselves, but must dress up, imitate, pretend. And here, in this room, she thought, fixing her eyes on a couple…. But I will not think, she repeated; she would force her mind to become a blank and lie back, and accept quietly, tolerantly, whatever came.

Comments: The British novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf (1881-1942) was a member of the Film Society, the London-based society which organised screenings of artistic films. Her novel The Years traces the progress of a well-heeled family from the 1880s to the 1930s. The view of the picture palace audience as apathetic is that of Peggy Pargiter, a misanthropic doctor, in her thirties at this stage of the novel (the present day).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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The Valley of the Moon

Source: Jack London, The Valley of the Moon (New York: The Review of Reviews Company, 1917 [orig. pub. 1913]), p. 279

Text: They bought reserved tickets at Bell’s Theater; but it was too early for the performance, and they went down Broadway and into the Electric Theater to while away the time on a moving picture show. A cowboy film was run off, and a French comic; then came a rural drama situated somewhere in the Middle West. It began with a farm yard scene. The sun blazed down on a corner of a barn and on a rail fence where the ground lay in the mottled shade of large trees overhead. There were chickens, ducks, and turkeys, scratching, waddling, moving about. A big sow, followed by a roly-poly litter of seven little ones, marched majestically through the chickens, rooting them out of the way. The hens, in turn, took it out on the little porkers, pecking them when they strayed too far from their mother. And over the top rail a horse looked drowsily on, ever and anon, at mathematically precise intervals, switching a lazy tail that flashed high lights in the sunshine.

“It’s a warm day and there are flies—can’t you just feel it?” Saxon whispered.

“Sure. An’ that horse’s tail! It’s the most natural ever. Gee! I bet he knows the trick of clampin’ it down over the reins. I wouldn’t wonder if his name was Iron Tail.”

A dog ran upon the scene. The mother pig turned tail and with short ludicrous jumps, followed by her progeny and pursued by the dog, fled out of the film. A young girl came on, a sunbonnet hanging down her back, her apron caught up in front and filled with grain which she threw to the fluttering fowls. Pigeons flew down from the top of the film and joined in the scrambling feast. The dog returned, wading scarcely noticed among the feathered creatures, to wag his tail and laugh up at the girl. And, behind, the horse nodded over the rail and switched on. A young man entered, his errand immediately known to an audience educated in moving pictures. But Saxon had no eyes for the love-making, the pleading forcefulness, the shy reluctance, of man and maid. Ever her gaze wandered back to the chickens, to the mottled shade under the trees, to the warm wall of the barn, to the sleepy horse with its ever recurrent whisk of tail.

She drew closer to Billy, and her hand, passed around his arm, sought his hand.

“Oh, Billy,” she sighed. “I’d just die of happiness in a place like that.” And, when the film was ended. “We got lots of time for Bell’s. Let’s stay and see that one over again.”

They sat through a repetition of the performance, and when the farm yard scene appeared, the longer Saxon looked at it the more it affected her. And this time she took in further details. She saw fields beyond, rolling hills in the background, and a cloud-flecked sky. She identified some of the chickens, especially an obstreperous old hen who resented the thrust of the sow’s muzzle, particularly pecked at the little pigs, and laid about her with a vengeance when the grain fell. Saxon looked back across the fields to the hills and sky, breathing the spaciousness of it, the freedom, the content. Tears welled into her eyes and she wept silently, happily.

Comments: Jack London (1876-1916) was an American novelist and political activist. His 1913 novel The Valley of the Moon, named after the wine-growing Sonoma Valley of California, is about a working-class couple, Billy and Saxon Roberts, who leave city life behind for work on the land. Their visit to a cinema takes places in Oakland, California, before they settle in the country. A continuous show would indeed have meant that the same film programme would be shown over again, without need for those already seated to purchase another ticket. The Valley of the Moon was filmed as a six-reel feature in 1914, directed by Hobart Bosworth.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

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Scandinavians

Source: Robert Ferguson, Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North (London: Head of Zeus, 2016), pp. 327-329

Text: Fast-foward, as they say, to 1967 and a Swedish film called Hugs and Kisses. It was at a time when the British Board of Film Censors was still largely preoccupied with censoring naked bodies out of existence, and every visit to a cinema would be preceded by a sombre moment in which the curtains drew back to reveal a statement in white print on a black background announcing which of three audiences the film was considered appropriate for: an ‘X’ certificate for over-sixteens only; an ‘A’ for under sixteens accompanied by an adult; and a ‘U’, which meant anybody could see it. Getting into X-rated films was a kind of holy grail for kids under sixteen, and in Blackpool there were two cinemas in particular that were known to be easier to get into than others. One was the New Ritz on the Promenade, and the other the Tivoli, a little further back from the seafront, not far from the Talbot Road Bus Station. Both were flea-pits, scruffy, rundown and cheap. As far as I can recall, they only ever showed X- or A-rated films. At fourteen I hadn’t even started shaving, so visits to the Tivoli and the New Ritz were things I used to hear about from my older brother William. The word had got out that there was a film showing at the New Ritz with a naked woman standing in front of a mirror where you could see her pubic hair, her breasts, her arse – everything, as we boys used to gasp in disbelief in the playground.

My brother usually went to the cinema on Friday nights with two friends from school. This Friday, for some reason, they couldn’t make it and he reluctantly ordered me to go along with him. We caught the 11A from St Annes Square, got out and began walking towards the cinema entrance. It wasn’t raining but he had given me his white shortie mac to wear, saying it would make me look older. Right outside Louis Tussaud’s waxworks, next door to the cinema, just before we reached the neon glow of the foyer, he stopped, scrutinized me, turned up the collar of the shortie, took a packet of Embassy tipped from an inside pocket, lit one from the one he was smoking and stuck it in my mouth, telling me quite unnecessarily to remember to say to the ticket-seller that I was sixteen if he asked how old I was. As it turned out the ticket-booth was manned by a tired old pensioner who hardly even bothered to look up from his newspaper to sell us our tickets, which is how I got in to see Hugs and Kisses and for the first time in my life saw female pubic hair. It turns out the hair belonged to an actress named Agneta Ekmanner, now seventy-nine years old and to this day still working, according to the IMDb website. I am fascinated to note that she had a part in Suzanne Osten’s Bröderna Mozart (The Mozart Brothers), the 1986 film Olof Palme went to see on the night of his murder. Hugs and Kisses was Swedish, and with this film I had my first experience of that legendary frankness about sexuality that has been such an important part of how the rest of the world thinks about Scandinavians; or to be more precise how the rest of the world thinks about Swedes and Danes. Norwegians and Norwegian cinema were never a part of the sexual revolution exported throughout the last decades of the twentieth century by its neighbours, and which was still being exported in the twenty-first century by the Danish director Lars von Trier in films such as The Idiots and Nymphomaniac. In the 1980s, in the days before the internet, a striking sight when crossing the border by road from Norway into Sweden was all the caravans parked up on spare farm land on the Swedish side advertising ‘PORNO’ for sale in huge hand-lettered writing.

Comments: Robert Ferguson is a British translator, biographer (Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsun), author and authority on Scandinavian life and culture. His book Scandinavians is a study of nature of Scandinavian society. Hugs and Kisses (Swedish title Puss & kram) was directed by Jonas Cornell and was released in the UK in 1968 with a X certificate, after some cuts. Olaf Palme was prime minister of Sweden. He was shot in a Stockholm street by an unknown assailant.

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Call to Arms

Source: Lu Xun, from the preface to Call to Arms, contained in Selected Works of Lu Hsun vol. 1 (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1956), p. 3

Text: [1956 translation] I do not know what advanced methods are now used to teach microbiology, but at that time lantern slides were used to show the microbes; and if the lecture ended early, the instructor might show slides of natural scenery or news to fill up the time. This was during the Russo-Japanese War, so there were many war films, and I had to join in the clapping and cheering in the lecture hall along with other students. It was a long time since I had seen my compatriots, but one day I saw a film showing some Chinese, one of whom was bound, while many others stood around him. They were all strong fellows but appeared completely apathetic. According to the commentary, the one with his hands bound was a spy working for the Russians, who was to have his head cut off by the Japanese military as a warning to the others, while the Chinese beside him had come to enjoy the spectacle. Before the term was over I had left for Tokyo because after this film I felt that medical science was not so important after all.

[1980 translation] I have no idea what improved methods are now used to teach microbiology, but in those days we were shown lantern slides of microbes, and if the lecture ended early, the instructor might show slides of natural scenery or news to fill up the time. Since this was during the Russo-Japanese War, there were many war slides, and I had to join in the clapping and cheering in the lecture hall along with other students. It was a long time since I had seen any compatriots, but one day I saw a news-reel slide of a number of Chinese, one of them bound and the rest standing around him. They were all sturdy fellows but appeared completely apathetic. According to the commentary, the one with his hands bound was a spy working for the Russians, who was to be beheaded by the Japanese military as a warning to the others, while the Chinese beside him had come to enjoy the spectacle. Before the term was over I had left for Tokyo, because this slide convinced me that medical science was not so important after all.

Comments: Lu Xun, also Lu Hsün, the pen name of Zhou Shuren (1881-1936) was a Chinese short story writer, poet and designer. In the preface to his 1922 short story collection Call to Arms (吶喊) he writes about seeing on a screen the beheading of a Chinese while he was a medical student at the time of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). The Chinese word ‘diànyǐng’ normally means motion picture, but it can also mean magic lantern slide. The 1956 translation above suggests that what he saw was a film; the 1980 translation suggests that it was a slide. Lu Xun also wrote about the incident in his 1932 memoir Dawn Blossom Plucked at Dusk (朝花夕拾):

In our second year we had a new course, bacteriology. All the bacterial forms were shown in slides, and if we completed one section before it was time for the class to be dismissed, some news in slides would be shown. Naturally at that time they were all about the Japanese victories over the Russians. But in these lantern slides there were also scenes of some Chinese who had acted as spies or the Russians and were captured by the Japanese and shot while other Chinese looked on. And there was I, too, in the classroom.

“Banzai” the students clapped their hands and cheered.

They cheered everything we saw; but to me the cheering that day was unusually jarring to my ear.

It is most likely that he saw a lantern slide of the incident, though Chinese beheading films, both actuality and fictionalised, had been made in Britain around this time. My thanks to Dawid Glownia for having brought these passages to my attention, and for providing background information.

Links: Copy at BannedThought.net

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British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), p. 238

Text: AGE: 64 SEX: M. NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: BRICKLAYER
MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HELPMATE TO FATHER

I am going to mention the titles of four films. First The Common Touch. I cannot remember ever enjoying a film so much as this as regards a film for what I call a working class audience. To me there were no special ‘stars’ all actors and actress’s were of equal value, it was a very human, sensibly and elevating story, very well acted. The second picture or film is Smiling Through featuring Jeannette MacDonald and other ‘stars’. As I sat watching and listening to this film story I seemed to be taking part in it myself, and each time I saw it (and I saw it many times) I enjoyed it more and more. The singing was superb, the acting was such that it made the story very real, the facial expressions of all taking part was very convincing although I saw it during war time, it made me forget war, and lifted my thoughts to higher levels, this was a clean, decent and elevating film, and time well spent seeing it and also well worth the money paid.

Sentimentally yes, upholding that most beautiful of all things Love, yes, and if these two things were to die out, I think this world, would be even a poorer place than it is to day. Love is ridiculed far too much in some pictures or films and on the ‘stage’ yes I know that I am old fashioned, but let us have more films like these two. And now from the sublime to the most ridiculous, I refer to two films, in which I got up out of my seat to leave the cinema, I was that disgusted, but I saw them through. First The Miracle of Morgans Creek a film that was anything but elevating, in fact, if the producer had been sitting with me, and had heard what some children were saying about it I think his face would have gone very red, a film that was of no use to the world, in fact not even a good moral film. The other film was Cassonova Brown [sic] perhaps, it was with seeing Gary Cooper in such stirring films before, and then to see him in a dud film such as this, another film that I think could have been done without. Yes let us have ‘Decent’ films like the first two I have mentioned. If anyone should have had an Oscar award, I think all the leading ‘stars’ in Smiling Through should have one each. As I am getting on in years, perhaps I shall never have the chance to travel, so I would like to see more travel films, which are a delight, and also good education. Films with Jazz and Swing bands I do not like, they are far too harsh.

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 The Common Touch (UK 1941), Smiling Through (USA 1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (USA 1944) and Casanova Brown (USA 1944).

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Mexican Odyssey

Source: Heath Bowman and Stirling Dickinson, Mexican Odyssey (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1935), pp. 150-151

Text: We join the people walking around the square. French sailors in their immaculate white dress uniforms and pith helmets eye the pretty girls. Are they more beautiful here just for these sailors’ delectation, and do they ever escape their ever-present dueñas? And are their dresses with the big middy-blouse collars in the seamen’s honor, or simply the latest style? For the girls are dressed well in bright summer clothes, and the northern fad for bare legs is really sensible and beautiful here.

From the movie house an amplified victrola is competing with the music outside. Already people are going in, and we find seats in the luneta, half-way back (the best place to see). To us, the people are more fascinating even than the persuasive melody of “Pienselo Bien,” a beguiling, plaintive tune. But to the Mexicans, the center of interest is Ken Maynard, a favorite Western movie star, who is here tonight in person! He has to stand up and bow and smile before they are satisfied.

Always in Mexico there are two movies, almost invariably imported from Hollywood. Westerns are the favorites, but the audience goes wild when their hero, José Mojica, sings for them, as he does tonight. They do not even mind that the newsreel shows the opening of the baseball season in the States, just ten months before, and they cannot understand a picture of a Chicago blizzard, snow swirling about pedestrians. What is snow? Something like ice cream?

Mojica’s picture is laid in the South Seas, and absorbs the Mexicans, although the scenes might have been taken on their own coast. . . . For, as we drive back along their ocean, weaving along the edge where we can look down upon a full moon throwing its wake clear to the breakers below, and as we round the last curve and see our house, black against the shining beach, we wonder what more they could ask.

The jungle is quiet now, it is as if the darkness had obliterated it. But the sea continues to moan. The oldest cry on earth. . . .

Comments: Frederick Heath Bowman (1910-1993) was an American travel writer and later a US Department of State public affairs officer. With his friend and fellow Princeton graduate, the artist Stirling Dickinson (1909-1998), he travelled through Mexico over 1934-35 in a 1929 Ford Model A convertible named ‘Daisy’. Bowman wrote the text and Dickinson provided the illustrations for their popular travel book. The cinema they visited was in Acapulco. José Mojica was a Mexican actor and singer who provided a foreword to Bowman and Dickinson’s book. He later became a Franciscan friar.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Magic Moments

Source: John Sutherland, Magic Moments: Life-Changing Encounters with Books, Films, Music … (London: Profile Books, 2008), pp. 1-2, 5, 8

Text: I could see stories before I could read them. And the first narrative I recall seeing is the film Tarzan’s Desert Mystery. I was around five years old. I’d had my Lacanian moment, in front of my mother’s dressing-table mirror. I knew I was I. Whatever that was.

All that ‘I’ can remember of the narrative of Tarzan’s Desert Mystery – stored haphazardly in the basement level of my sensibility – is a handful of vivid but disconnected snapshots. One such is the pulsing-beeping RKO logo (it carried one back, I now hypothesise, to the womb, and that life-sustaining maternal heartbeat). I had left that foetal haven just sixty months earlier. the only other residue is some scraps from the ten-minute chase scene which the makers of Tarzan’s Desert Mystery tacked on to the end of the movie.

That, alas, is it.

The Colchester Gazettte for that week in 1944 informs me that the film (which ran something under seventy minutes) was shown at the Hippodrome in a double bill with a cowboy film. Whether I sat through that other film, I don’t recall.

The narrative of the Tarzan movie, as I have recently re-experienced it (on DVD, after an interval of six decades), is bizarre …

… What stuck in my five-year-old mind (the only thing that, as it happens, did stick) were deadly sticky Venus flytraps, whose stamens shot up, without warning, nine feet out of the ground, creating a cage with quivering snake bars in which the victim was fatally imprisoned. Cheeta, I vividly recall, escapes by outjumping the deadly stamens. the less nimble Tarzan – Venus flytrapped – is assisted in his escape by his trusty, but bored-looking, pachyderm pals, summoned from their elephant grove by the famous Weissmullerian yell …

Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, as I experienced and archived it in my pinched little tabula rasa, squirming excitedly on my one-and-ninepenny seat, was all man-eating, octopoid vegetables, Triffids avant la lettre. the brain is very strange. I would carry those veggy-killers with me through life. Even now, I never look at fried calamari without thinking of them and somewhere deep inside, shuddering.

I remember where I saw the film film in more concrete detail than the flickering narrative itself. It was at the Hippodrome, in Colchester High Street. More precisely, in the downstairs stalls alongside my mother, who intended the outing as a treat for me. Her own treats at the time were more adult, and involved Americans who were carnal rather than celluloid. She, in her Colcestrian way, was a Venus flytrap.

Comments: John Sutherland (1938 – ) is a British literary critic and newspaper columnist, known for the literary puzzle books Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? His father had died the year before in a wartime accident when he was four. His childhood and early adulthood memoir is told through the books and films that made a vivid impression on him. Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (US 1943) starred the former Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. His chimpanzee companion was called Cheeta.

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Candles, Carts & Carbolic

Source: Jim Callaghan, Candles, Carts & Carbolic: A Liverpool Childhood Between the Wars (Lancaster: Palatine Books, 2001), pp. 35-36

Text: The Saturday afternoon visit to the pictures was our one and only treat, twopence in the Balcony, penny in the Pit. Balcony patrons, as befitted their status, queued under a covered walkway, the Pit rabble submitting themselves to the open air. Attired in an ankle-length coat, adorned with brass epaulettes and a gold~braided cap held in place by his ears, Old Soupy-Eyes, armed with a long cane, stands at the top of the steps, guarding the entrance to the Pit, now and then administering a thwack to some youngster attempting to break ranks. Up and down the queue shuffles the Chewing Gum man, ‘Ere y’ar now; he intones, ‘everybody’s doing it, everybody’s chewing it, Wrigley’s spearmint, five sticks a penny,’ his doleful litany drowned in a rousing cheer as the projectionist is seen climbing the iron ladder to his box. Sounds of doors opening reach the ears of the waiting mob. Soupy-Eyes braces himself for the rush but he is swept aside, overwhelmed.

I honestly believe that no generation ever enjoyed the pictures much as we did. Wrapped in the warmth of hundreds of young bodies, the tang of peeling oranges in our nostrils, we sat under the dust-laden beam of the projectionist’s lamp in total darkness and in complete harmony with our idols on the screen. The airless cinema became a place of wonder: no sweet-wrappers rustled, no ice-cream sellers broke the spell; howls of derision greeted the occasional breakdown and when at times the screen appeared to dissolve in flames we knew it was all part of the magic.

Art Accord, William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, Lou Tellegan, J. Farrell McDonald (trapped in the miner’s shack at the head of the canyon and aware that the posse was getting closer: ‘Where was Moses when the light went out? he said, dropping his smouldering corncob into the barrel of dynamite). These were our heroes. Then there was Mary Miles Minter, Nazimova of whom we sang rather a rude song, Louise Fazenda, Polly Moran and once a glimpse of the Divine Sarah Bernhardt, her wooden leg tucked out of sight and the Queen of them all, Pearl White, who had a song written about her:

My little pearl of the army,
Pearl of the picture screen
You’re the Queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a pearl of a girl like you.

Anyway, that’s what it sounded like in 1917.

Comments: Jim Callaghan (1911-2001), one of eleven children, grew up among the working-class, Irish-Catholic neighbourhood of Scottie Road, Liverpool. In adult life he became a personnel officer. My thanks to Jenny Callaghan (his daughter, I believe) for having once recommended this passage from his memoirs on my Bioscope site.

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