An Evening at the Cinema

Source: Miss Johnson, ‘An Evening at the Cinema’, St Helena Diocesan Magazine, Vol. XXVIII, no. 350, May 1929, p. 61 (originally published in South African journal The Outspan)

Text: We arrived back at the hotel about 4-30 pm feeling really tired, but as we had reserved seats at the cinema for that evening we simply had to go. We sat upstairs on armchairs with cushions, on one side of the gallery, while the Governor with his party sat on the other. They were all in evening dress! The cinema did not start until the Governor had arrived, which was about 8-30 pm. In the meantime we just looked on at those St. Helena people and wondered if the six little girls who had hovered round since our arrival selling beads were there. They had said they were too poor even to go to the cinema – they had never been to the cinema. So we gave them each six pence for the express purpose of celebrating. Then the St Helena band started, a string band consisting of three players. They had no sooner started to play than the whole audience took up the tune and sung lustily. We’ll never forget, ‘I’m Sitting on Top of the World,’ or ‘I’ll be Loving You Always,’ or ‘Show Me The Way to Go Home.’

Comments: The first film shows on the South Atlantic island of St Helena began in January 1921. This account from a South African tourist could be describing either the Theatre Royal Bioscope or the New Store Theatre, which were adjacent to one other in the Grand Parade area of Jamestown, the island’s capital. Sound films did not come to St Helena until 1940.

St Helena Island Info – a history of cinema in St Helena

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The Raven

Source: Harris Merton Lyon, extract from ‘The Raven’, in Graphics (St. Louis: William Marion Reedy, 1913), pp. 40-42

Text: “Where yuh going?” said the one brought up as a lady.

“To the movin’ pitcher show. It’s only five cents.

“I aint’ got it just now.”

“Well, go get a nickel from your ma and come along.”

So Alicia went back and got the nickel. Her mother never even asked her what it was for.

A cheap, tinsel edifice, formerly a shoe store. Inside, a pitch dark, low-ceilinged box of a room. Wooden benches. A disgusting smell of multiple-breathed human breath, ammoniac reek of perspiration on the unbathed. A dim red light to the left, indicating a doubtful and rusty exit. In front the dingy screen upon which the mottled and galvanized pictures rippled off the story of some classic sweetheart carried away at dawn by her passionate lover. The heroine threw a riding-cloak over her night dress and was borne down a ladder from the window of a castle. The hero wore doublets, hose, sword, a feather in his hat, spurs. A great iron-grey horse awaited them. They mounted, wheeled and started off. The chase began. Lure! Romance! Adventure! Dare and do! Love! Passion! Lure!

Others followed.

It was all action, feverish action, cut to the very quick and kept there. No explanations were offered, save those which each unskilled brain in the rapt audience could give itself. Men whipped out revolvers, shot each other; women suddenly kissed men; and so on. Act followed act rapidly without leaving time for digestion, even if those who watched had any powers of digesting such miraculous scenes. Thus for three-quarters of an hour the fantastic, dazzling display gave them sensation after sensation; and the gaping crowd, absorbed, forgot them; absorbed new ones, immediately forgot them—craving endlessly more. More bowing, smiling, kissing, shooting, trickery, disguises, thievery, pantomime passion, slapstick comedy, runaways. The grotesque. The ignoble. The dramatic.

Then, with a violent final click the machine stopped. Lights were turned on. The two front doors thrown open. Voices bawled: “Out this way, ladies and gents. This way out!” The show was over.

Comments: Harris Merton Lyon (1882-1916) was an American short story writer. His moralistic short story ‘The Raven’, originally published in a newspaper, centres around a visit to a New York moving picture show and the dangers that ensue for a naive young girl seeing films for the first time (she ends up a victim of White Slavery and commits suicide). Many ‘nickelodeons’ in the early years of cinemagoing were shop conversions, as here.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Our Eunuch Dreams

Source: Dylan Thomas, ‘Our Eunuch Dreams’, 18 Poems (London: Sunday Referee; Parton Bookshop, 1934)


Our eunuch dreams, all seedless in the light,
Of light and love the tempers of the heart,
Whack their boys’ limbs,
And, winding-footed in their shawl and sheet,
Groom the dark brides, the widows of the night
Fold in their arms.

The shades of girls, all flavoured from their shrouds,
When sunlight goes are sundered from the worm,
The bones of men, the broken in their beds,
By midnight pulleys that unhouse the tomb.


In this our age the gunman and his moll
Two one-dimensional ghosts, love on a reel,
Strange to our solid eye,
And speak their midnight nothings as they swell;
When cameras shut they hurry to their hole
down in the yard of day.

They dance between their arclamps and our skull,
Impose their shots, showing the nights away;
We watch the show of shadows kiss or kill
Flavoured of celluloid give love the lie.


Which is the world? Of our two sleepings, which
Shall fall awake when cures and their itch
Raise up this red-eyed earth?
Pack off the shapes of daylight and their starch,
The sunny gentlemen, the Welshing rich,
Or drive the night-geared forth.

The photograph is married to the eye,
Grafts on its bride one-sided skins of truth;
The dream has sucked the sleeper of his faith
That shrouded men might marrow as they fly.


This is the world; the lying likeness of
Our strips of stuff that tatter as we move
Loving and being loth;
The dream that kicks the buried from their sack
And lets their trash be honoured as the quick.
This is the world. Have faith.

For we shall be a shouter like the cock,
Blowing the old dead back; our shots shall smack
The image from the plates;
And we shall be fit fellows for a life,
And who remains shall flower as they love,
Praise to our faring hearts.

Comments: Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet. ‘Our Eunuch Dreams’ was included in his first published collection of poems, in 1934. He later scripted films for the Ministry of Information. The phrase ‘The Dream That Kicks’ has been used for a book on cinema by Michael Chanan and a 1986 television history of Welsh cinema.

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Gilbert Frankau’s Self-Portrait

Source: Gilbert Frankau, Gilbert Frankau’s Self-Portrait: A Novel of His Own Life (London: Hutchinson, 1940), pp. 143-146

Text: In the fullness of time Chambers departed, leaving me and Wilson in dual glory at the Grand Hotel, Rome. My main mission was to convince the Italians that we had several men fighting in France and Flanders – the Hun propaganda machine denying this daily, through a secretly subsidised press. “No War Here”, said a Welsh miners’ leader addressing a home audience – and the headline appeared in a Naples paper next day.

The battle films with which I had been supplied might have proved convincing. But Chambers hadn’t been able to sell them; and I could hardly persuade invited audiences to sit through them in free seats.

After some four fruitless weeks of travel I again took counsel with our ambassador; and dashed back to London.

There, I looted every scrap of official film I could find, including several priceless feet of General Cadorna, then generalissimo of the Italian armies, Lord Kitchener, and a sausage balloon taking the air at Queen’s Club.

With these, Muirhead Bone’s etching of a tank in action and complete orchestra scores for “The British Grenadiers”, “Tipperary” and other martial music, I returned to Italy, and took up my headquarters at the Hotal Cavour, Milan.

What Luca Comerio, the Italian cinema man, and I did to the official British war films in the solitude of his studio is nobody’s business but our own.

The very first caption thrown on the screen over the facsimile signature of “Capitano Gilbert Frankau, Stato Maggiore Inglese” (English General Staff) guaranteed the story of “La Battaglia dei Tanks” completely authentic.

And what a story! We printed twelve copies. Within ten minutes of the private preview we sold them all – my instructions were to make the thing pay if I could – to five renters whose theatres covered the whole of Italy.

Tears blinded even those hardboiled renters when a shell burst obscured the entire screen, and the film seemed to break, and that most telling of all our captains [captions] read, “Alas – alas, for the too-intrepid cameraman”. With muted music the effect on large audiences had to be seen to be believed.

Among the believers in the death of that mythical cameraman – for I never had the heart to disillusion Her Excellency – was Lady Rodd …

…That night in 1917 I took Rudyard Kipling – and two charming American women whose names escape the memory – to the theatre where my film had been showing since noon. Gerald Tyrrwhit, unpaid attaché at the Embassy, now Lord Berners, had trained the orchestra for me. They struck up “Rule, Britannia” – by pure coincidence – as we seated ourselves in the box.

Kipling watched the screen. I watched Kipling.

The tunes and that first captional guarantee of authenticity surprised him a little. But he did not even blink when he saw Marconi inventing the tank, or General Cadorna arriving for a conference with Lord Kitchener at which it was decided that the English army should attack on the Somme.

“Good work”, whispered my master. “How did you come to think of that fiction?”

Modesty kept silence. Our troops, tinted blue and brown, massed by night. The London Scottish appeared complete with band to “Auld lang syne” and “A wee doch and doris”. Then “Came the dawn of battle”; and my Queen’s Club sausage balloon rose to survey the German trenches.

Promptly the enemy planes – ours from Salisbury Plain – swooped to the attack, their machine guns chattering. (Tyrrwhit managed that rather well with his drums.) Down fell the balloon (tinted red, and two out of every three pictures excised, to say nothing of the men on the ropes, giving the effect of speed) in real flames.

“Gorgeous”, whispered Kipling. “Cost you a truss of hay, I expect.”

Our plans counter-attacked. A German Fokker, which looked a little like one of our own B.E.2C’s to Kingscote’s pupil in anti-aircraft gunnery, also fell in flames.

The crashed plane, I think, was a real picture. Then, it had no British circles under its wings. If anyone faked the Iron Crosses there, it was not done in Milan.

“But where are the tanks?” whispered Kipling. “We must live up to our titles.”

Again his fan kept silence while superimposed shell-bursts – the damn things never looked quite real, they waggled about too much – rained on our advancing infantry.

“Meanwhile…” read the next caption; and suddenly Kipling chuckled.

“Tanks to the rescue. The Devastating Blinders, eh! Grand”.

They were my own words, my very own dictionary-dredged Italian words; and I could not refrain from displaying my erudition.

“Blindati Devastatori means armoured devastators”, I corrected, as the tank-noses reared high to crush walls I could have sworn built in England, and swept on to the apocryphal attack.

But Kipling preferred his own translation, repeating to himself “devastating blinders”, till that thrilling moment when the mine blew, and spotless Highlanders stormed forward, bayonets flashing, at no double ever seen in France or Flanders to victory or death. We faded out on coloured flags and “Long Live the Allies” to a complete symphony of national anthems.

“What do you think of it?” I asked, as we walked the undarkened streets. (Even the Huns of 1914-1918 never dared to bomb the Eternal City.)

“Superb”, chuckled Kipling, “But you will be slain for this, my friend. Most indubitably you will be slain.”

Comments: Gilbert Frankau (1884-1952) was a British novelist and poet. His book Self-Portrait describes itself as a novel, but it is effectively an autobiography. Like many of the British literary intellgensia during World War I, he was recruited by the covert War Propaganda Bureau to promote British interests during the First World War. Frankau was sent to Italy to oversee the presentation of British official war films, starting in 1916 with the documentary feature Britain Prepared (1915). Behind the comic detail lies some useful and occasionally convincing detail about the presentation of war films. He may be referring to the British documentary feature The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917), though that film in its original state had no fakery. Luca Comerio was a prominent Italian film producer. Rudyard Kipling, another War Propaganda Bureau recruit, was in Italy around May 1917 in preparation for writing an account of the Italian campaign, The War in the Mountains. Lady Rodd was the wife of the British ambassador to Italy.

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Berlin Alexanderplatz

Source: Alfred Döblin (trans. Eugene Jolas), [Berlin] Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974 – orig. pub. 1929, English translation orig. pub. 1931), pp. 25-26


It was raining. To the left in Münzstrasse signs sparkled in front of the movies. At the corner he was unable to pass, the people were standing in front of a fence where there was a deep hole, the tram-car tracks ran on planks laid across the space, a car was just riding slowly over them. Aha, they are building an underground station, must be work to be had in Berlin. Another movie. Children under seventeen not allowed. On the huge poster a beet-red gentleman was standing on a staircase, while a peach of a young girl embraced his legs, she lay on the stairs, and he stood up above with a leering expression on his face. Undeneath was written: No Parents, Fate of an Orphaned Child, in Six Reels. Yes, I’ll take a look at that. The orchestrion was banging away. Price sixty pfennigs.

A man to the woman cashier: “Say, Fraulein, is it any cheaper for an old territorial without a belly?” “No, only for children under five months with a teat.” “Good. That’s our age. New-born on the instalment plan.” “All right, make it fifty then, get along in.” Behind him there meandered a young chap, slim of build, with a muffler on: “Hey, lady, I’d like to get in free.” “You’d like a lot. Does your mother know you’re out?” “Well, can I get in?” “In where?” “The movie.” “There’s no movie here.” “You really mean it, there’s no movie here?” She called through the window of the ticket-office to the watchman at the door: “Say Max, come here a minute. Here’s a fellow wants to know if there’s a movie here. He’s got no money. Go ahead and show him what we’ve got here.” “What we’ve got here, young fellow? You ain’t noticed it yet? This is the poor-box, Münzstrasse division.” He pushed the slim fellow out of the ticket-office, showed him his fist: “If you want me to, I’ll give you what’s comin’ to you right off the bat.”

Franz pushed on in. It just happened to be an intermission. The long room was packed full, 90 per cent men with caps on, they don’t take them off. The three lamps on the ceiling are covered with red. In front, a yellow piano with packages on top of it. The orchestrion makes a continuous racket. Then it gets dark and the film starts. A goose-girl is to be turned into a lady, just why, is not made so clear, at least not right in the middle. She wiped her nose with her hand, she scratched her behind on the staircase, everybody in the movie laughed. Franz thought it was quite wonderful, when the tittering began around him. Just people, free people, amusing themselves, nobody has a right to say anything to them, simply lovely, and I right here among ’em! It went on. The high-toned Baron had a sweetheart who lay in a hammock and stretched her legs vertically in the air. The girl had drawers on. That’s something. Wonder why people get so excited about that dirty goose-girl and her licking the platters clean? Again the girl with the slim legs flashed by. The Baron had left her alone, now she toppled out of the hammock, and flopped into the grass, lay there a long time. Franz stared at the screen, there was already another picture, but he still saw her toppling out and lying there for a long while. He gnawed his tongue, cripes, what was that? But when finally the one who had been the goose-girl’s lover embraced this fine lady, the skin of his chest felt hot as if he had been embracing her himself. It went all over him and made him weak.

Comments: Bruno Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a German doctor and novelist, famed for his modernist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which was filmed in 1931 and 1980. It follows the fortunes of Franz Biberkopf, a murderer released from prison, as he experiences Berlin amid the rise of Nazism. An orchestrion was a machine that played multi-part music automatically by means of a cylinder or music rolls. No Parents is a fictitious title.

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In Darkest London

Source: Mrs Cecil Chesterton, In Darkest London (New York: The Macmillan company, 1926), pp. 186-187

Text: We did some business together. I made a shilling or two, and then my friend suggested we should go to a cinema, she standing treat. Now I have never been keen on films, except when Charlie Chaplin is on the screen, and I felt quite indifferent at the prospect of such enjoyment. She took two of the cheaper seats in a house near Shaftesbury Avenue, and I waited for the show to begin, quite incurious and even depressed. It was a story of the conventional type, in which a poor girl becomes a leader of society, following a round of luxurious enjoyment, but I found myself suddenly watching the pictures with eagerness, positive pleasure! I dwelt with rapture on her dinner with the hero in an expensive restaurant. I noted with extraordinary precision everything she ate. I enjoyed with her the roses he bought, and thrilled to the music the orchestra was playing. I would not have missed an inch of film. I would not have forfeited any one of the thousand mechanical sensations she enjoyed. It was not until it was all over that I asked myself why this change had come about, why it was that I, and the people in the cheap seats around me, had been wrought up to such excitement, almost ecstasy.

And then the solution came. When you are hungry and cold, without a home and without hope, the “Pictures” warm your imagination, heat your blood and somehow vitalise your body. The blank shutters that hem you in from enjoyment are suddenly down, and you look into a world of light and colour, expectancy and romance — that eternal longing for romance which dies so hardly. This is one of the things that I discovered in my experience. For the same reason this is, I think, why the inhabitants of drab homes in mean streets flock to the cinema. I do not think it has any educational value, nor does it generally stimulate the imagination. But it supplies a lack, and to those whose horizon is bounded by the four walls of a room, badly distempered, or hideously papered, the contemplation of the garish hotel, the spacious restaurant, or impossible heroines of the screen is compensation. This also accounts, I suppose, for the unending supply of this kind of picture. Commerce always caters for a steady public, and while the taste of the artistic is soon surfeited, the intelligence of the thinking easily annoyed, the vast residuum of the patient poor, who unendingly bear the burden of monotony, is a sure and certain market in a world of shifting values.

Comments: Ada Chesterton (1869-1962), who wrote as Mrs Cecil Chesterton, was a British journalist and philanthropist. She was married to the brother of the author G.K. Chesterton. Her book of social investigation, In Darkest London, was based on a series of newspaper articles on the life of London’s poor.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Jean McKillop, C707/306/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000,

Text: Q. What about cinemas?

A. Mm hm, they – we used to go to – the cinema and you sat on a wooden seat. And -when we were young and – you paid a cop – copper to get in. Sometimes we’d – we’d to take a jam jar back to the – grocers, Galbraith’s the grocer, and get a ha’penny on it to get into – the pictures. Mm hm.

Q. Was that a matinee?

A. Uh huh. Matinee. And then we used to go – my chum and I used to go to – any – shoemakers shops and they would be showing the bill – for the pictures, and they always had passes. And we used t o get a pass off them and away to the pictures for nothing.

Q. Because your father was a shoemaker himself?

A. No, just – we just asked them. Uh huh.

Q. Why did shoemakers get the passes, do you know?

A. They were just advertise it for them. A lot of shops did but – mostly – these were shoemakers shops tha t did it. And if they had any passes they would give you them. Mm hm.

Comments: Mrs Jean McKillop (1894-??) was one of seven children, daughter of a Glasgow shoemaker. She was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).

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Play All

Source: Clive James, Play All: A Bingewatcher’s Notebook (New Haven/London: Yale University Press, 2016), pp. 43-44

Text: The natural modus operandi of the binge watcher, having selected Play All in order to view a whole bunch of episodes on a disc, is to skip through the standard opening title sequence on each episode, especially when watching a show for the second or third time. But for at least two shows I have never done this, and have always watched the title sequence right through. One is The Sopranos, where the opening music – a piece of British rock and roll, oddly enough – is perpetually renewable in its pulse and color. The cutting from skyline to skyline of the drive through New Jersey seems part of the score, and you get to know its every bar so well that you know exactly where the twin towers should have been when they disappeared after the 9/11 disaster. The other is Band of Brothers. The opening sequence is so authoritative that Lucinda and I watch the whole thing every time. We are agreed that the way the stills and slo-mo clips are matched to the music couldn’t be improved, and that the music is uncannily beautiful. Thus the range of tragic lyricism in which the young men, the airborne brothers in arms, will risk their lives together in combat, and some will die and some will not, is established at the start of each episode. For my generation, who were infants when our fathers left us behind at home and went away to fight, this pictured music, or musical picture, is intensely recognizable, as deeply serious as something so aesthetically satisfactory could be. But I was surprised to find that Lucinda felt the same. Her knowledge of World War II is all from books – Anthony Beevor’s book The Battle of Stalingrad was her idea of a birthday present – but it is detailed and nuanced, and her standards of authenticity are high. It was from her reaction, not my own, that I reached a proper measure of the show’s success in transmitting, without dilution or trivilization, the texture of the past into the future.

Comments: Clive James (born 1939) is an Australian broadcaster, critic, poet and essayist. Play All is a collection of essays on the ‘boxed set’ phenomenon of television series viewable as DVD sets or through online video services. Lucinda is his daughter, and he lives in Cambridge. Band of Brothers (2001) was a ten-part American miniseries depicting the experiences of an American battalion in Europe during the Second World War. The Sopranos (1999, pilot episode 1997) was an 86-part, six season American series about the American mafia.

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Source: Jennie Erdal, Ghosting: A Memoir (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2004), pp. 110=111

Text: In September 1992, a few weeks after her ninetieth birthday, Leni and Horst came to London to mark the publication of her memoirs in English. I picked them up at Heathrow and took them to their suite in the Mayfair Hotel. She had agreed to do a number of interviews – against Horst’s advice. He was cynical about journalists and very protective of her. ‘They’re all against her,’ he said. ‘They will destroy her.’

She got a mixed reception, and the questions were tough and often offensive. But she answered them sensitively and with dignity, especially on the subject of the responsibility of the artist. She insisted she was ignorant of atrocities and pleaded guilty only to irredeemable naïvety. By the end of the week she was exhausted, and during an interview at the BBC, on being asked yet again about the nature of her friendship with Hitler, and if they had been lovers, she broke down and wept. When we left the studio Horst was waiting outside, clearly furious about the grilling. He took her gently in his arms and held her till she recovered.

The launch party was held at the Museum of the Moving Image on the South Bank, an appropriate venue for someone who had changed the face of film-making. Earlier at the hotel she had laid out clothes on the bed and wanted me to help choose an outfit for the evening. ‘Wie sehe ich aus? – How do I look?’ she asked when I went to pick her up later. She was wearing a silk dress in black and gold, a fur-trimmed jacket and sensational stilettos. ‘Stunning!’ I said. ‘The most elegant ninety-year-old I’ve ever seen.’ We had been laughing and I had meant it lightly, but she turned serious and told me that her longevity was a sort of curse: though she lived to be a hundred she would never be free of the burden of the past. ‘I’m too vain to wear my glasses,’ she said, so she held onto my arm as we went up the steps to the entrance of the Museum of the Moving Image. ‘Count out the steps for me – I want to hold my head high.’ As she entered the crowded room under piercing lights, there was a hushed silence. Adulation was in the air. For one evening at least she was among friends, people who simply admired her artistic excellence and had come to pay tribute. Tiger, resplendent in a blue silk suit with gold lining, made a theatrical salaam before her and kissed her jewelled hand. All round the walls there were giant screens playing Olympia, her film of the 1936 Berlin Olympics: breathtaking black and white shots of runners, pole-vaulters, and long exquisite sequences of divers flying through the air against a darkening sky, one image after another in slow motion like a tone poem. Artistic genius, or fascist celebration of the body beautiful? Whatever the truth – and we can never be absolutely certain – it is unlikely that she fully appreciated the significance of those moments in history in which she played such a prominent part. Perhaps she knew not what she was doing, only how to do it.

Comments: Jennie Erdal is a Scottish writer. Ghosting is a memoir of her time spent as ghostwriter to the publisher Naim Attallah (lightly disguised in the book as ‘Tiger’), whose Quartet Books published the memoirs of the documentarist and propaganda filmmaker Leni Riefenstahl, The Sieve of Time. The Museum of the Moving Image, located in London, closed in 1999.

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Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), p. 222

Text: Miss…

Personally I find a good movie story enriches my memory and have proved that the cinema has educated the community and films have gained far more recruits for literature than the stage ever succeeded in doing.

Also recently when the whole world looked dark after a particularly trying week of hard work, I dropped into a local cinema to see Cover Girl, I left feeling amazingly refreshed, tackled the necessary household duties, and then — I made over one of my very old dresses (inspired by a dress worn by the star) arranged my hair a la Hayworth, and faced the world with new pep! And thanked my lucky stars I was fortunate to be living in this film-mad generation.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’, for which responses were sought via Picturegoer in February 1945 to two questions: Have films ever influenced you with regard to personal decisions or behaviour? and Have films ever appeared in your dreams? The feature film Cover Girl (USA 1944) starred Rita Hayworth.

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