The Spell of China

Source: Archie Bell, The Spell of China (Boston: Page Co., 1917), pp. 102-104

Text: Charlie Chaplin has “invaded” the Orient and he is winning friends for the “American drama,” where acting and singing companies have failed to do so. They told me of an American comic opera company that visited Shanghai some time ago. My informant declared that the troupe gave creditable performances, but the Chinese ears were tortured by the singing. At first the audience calmly endured it, thinking that the agony would soon be over. Then they looked at one another absent-mindedly, and, finally, before the evening was over, most of the men had folded their coat sleeves over their mouths, so their laughter would not be audible. But they all have heard about the popularity of Chaplin in America, and for once in their lives Orient agrees with Occident. Chaplin is a great entertainer! The Chinese enjoy him, because his antics coincide exactly with their ideas of what comedy should be; and think he is the funniest man who ever lived. It is amusing to attend a theater in China where a Chaplin exhibition is in progress. When I first saw him in the country it was in a rather imposing theatre and “Our Best People” were said to be in attendance. The first glance at them, however, was rather shocking. Here was “full dress” with a vengeance; “full dress” that quite put into the shade any similar effort at undress in the Metropolitan horseshow in New York. Many Chinese were stripped to the waist and wore either a pair of bathing trunks—the idea was borrowed from America—or the long, baggy Chinese trousers that are tied around the ankles with ribbons. As I looked out over the audience from the back of the house, the bathing trunks, trousers and ribbons were invisible. What I saw was an ocean of bare backs and shoulders. I took a seat among this strangely costumed multitude, and finally recovered sufficiently to note that a Charlie Chaplin comedy was being shown. Bang! Something came down and hit him on the head. Zipp! He tripped his toe and fell headlong. The audience laughed as I had never seen Chinese laugh. There were few ladies present, because it is not yet considered quite the “proper” thing for a Chinese matron or her daughters to attend a cinema exhibition, but I carefully observed the perspiring gentlemen close to me. They seemed to be having the time of their lives, sometimes laughing so violently that it seemed to pain them, doubtless because it pained them to realize that they were so far forgetting themselves. Whenever “Our Charlie” took a particularly heavy fall, or whenever something fell on his head, apparently causing him great suffering, the Chinese closed their eyes, sat back on their benches and laughed facially and inwardly. It was a typical July night and it was very warm. The perspiration flowed down their backs in streams as they literally undulated with glee.

Comments: Archie Bell was an American travel writer. The racially questionable piece goes on to argue that “no better exhibition could be devised for the entertainment of the Chinese audience. He is supposed to have a ‘heart,’ but the Chinaman derives much satisfaction when he sees another man suffering, particularly if there is a remote possibility that he deserves it.”

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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The Social Influence of the Moving Picture

Source: Rev. H.A. Jump, The Social Influence of the Moving Picture (New York: Playground and Recreation of America, 1911), pp. 3-4. Reprinted from The Playground, June 1911; originally given as a talk to the People’s Institute, Cooper Union, March 12, 1911, New York City

Text: Recently I was conversing with a group of Persians who are employed in my city. Desirous of ascertaining how American life had impressed them, I put this question: “What was the most amazing experience that came to you after your arrival in the United States?” One man answered, “the subway,” another replied, “a black woman,” a third confessed that it was “the moving picture.” And I observed by the nodding of heads among other members of the company that they were saying amen to his verdict. Further inquiries brought out the fact that practically every one of these foreigners had the habit of going to moving picture shows. One man declared, “I like them because they make me forget that I am tired.” Another said, “I like them because I learn so much from them without knowing the English language.” Evidently the motion picture looms large in the experience of the immigrant.

A few weeks ago I visited the public library and had a chat with some three dozen children in the Children’s Room. “How many of you visit the moving picture shows?” I asked, and every hand went up. “What kind of pictures do you like best?” was my second inquiry. “I like the sad pictures,” answered one pale-faced little girl. “I like the kind where they get married,” replied a jolly miss. “I like the pictures of American soldiers marching down the street with the flags going on before,” came from a dark skinned lad. I asked him his name. He answered, “Guiseppi Calderoni.” The librarian of the Children’s Room told of a Hebrew boy who had recently inquired for a story called “The Bride of Lammermoor.” When asked where he had ever heard of that story, he replied, “I saw it in a moving picture show” Before he was through patronizing the library he had read every novel of Sir Walter Scott and much other good fiction besides. Evidently the motion picture occupies a large place in the experience of the school child.

College professors sometimes surprise us by their humanity. One of them told me not long ago that he patronized the moving picture show as often as he could find the time to do so. I expressed surprise, and asked him why he followed up the practice. He answered, “I always find something human in moving pictures; they seem to bring me close to the life of humanity.” Evidently there are educated men who are not above enjoying this marvelous invention.

In short, a new form of entertainment for the people has grown up without our realizing its extent. It appeals to all races, all ages, all stages of culture. In fact, it is one of the most democratic things in modern American life, belonging in a class with the voting booth and the trolley car.

Comments: The Reverend H.A. Jump, of the South Congregational Church, New Britain, Connecticut published the text of a talk he gave in New York City on the new phenomenon of the motion picture show, of which the above are the opening paragraphs. It is a markedly more positive assessment of the effect of motion pictures on audiences, especially the young, than was common from similar social guardians at this time. There had been four film adaptations of Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, some by way of Donizetti’s opera version, by 1911.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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The Legion of Decency

Source: Extracts from Mary J. Breen, ‘The Legion of Decency: Running a Movie Theater in the 1950s’, http://the-toast.net/2015/11/10/the-legion-of-decency-running-a-movie-theater-in-the-1950s/, originally published as ‘The Legion of Decency’, The Windsor Review, 48:1, Spring 2015

Text: In 1949, when I was five, my cautious Catholic parents bought a movie theatre in a Lutheran-Mennonite village in southern Ontario. My mother later told me they were trying to give my father a break from teaching high school—a rest from the long hours, the conscientious prep and marking, and the stress of dealing with unruly teenagers. What it doesn’t explain is why he of all people agreed to buy a theatre of all things that depended on movies from, of all places, Hollywood.

But I was much too young to ask any of those questions. All I knew was that The Regent Theatre was a wonderful place. I didn’t care that “our show,” as my parents called it, was a low, dark hall that had once been a hotel livery stable. I didn’t care that it was nothing like the grand movie palaces in Toronto that my mother took me to every summer. I didn’t care that the marquee lights didn’t flash, and the maroon curtains covering the screen were heavy with dust, and the plush seats were half-bald and prickled our bare legs in the summer. I didn’t care that we had no snack bar or velvet ropes or uniformed ushers. Instead of perfumed bathrooms, we had smelly outhouses out the back. Instead of soft carpets, we had concrete floors sticky with gum, candy wrappers, and cigarette butts. I didn’t care. I loved being there. I loved helping my father unfurl the loud, garish posters and tack them into the display boxes out front. I loved helping him sweep up on Saturday afternoons. I loved roller-skating fast down one aisle, across the front, and seeing how far I could coast up the other aisle, knowing all the while that the gunfights and runaway stagecoaches would be back in just a few hours.

All of us kids loved the movies, whether they were tales of cowboys or soldiers, pirates or sultans. We also understood them as they echoed the familiar justice of the playground and the Bible: the bad were always punished, and the good always inherited the earth. As soon as Mighty Mouse or Heckle & Jeckle ended and we heard the opening bars of the newsreel, most of us kids would run out past my mother yelling, “We’ll be back!” We’d race to the corner store where we’d cram little paper bags with gum, jaw breakers, banana marshmallows, red licorice sticks, and black liquorice pipes, and then tear back in time for the double bill. My parents never cared if someone without a quarter slipped in with the rest of us. Back in our seats we’d figure out who the good guys were, and then set about helping them by yelling things like, “Look out!” or “Run!” or “Behind the door!” We’d also clap and holler when help arrived, often the US Cavalry charging over the same hill the silent Indians had lined up on minutes before. The fun of it came back to me years later when I was watching Apollo 13 on TV. I cheered out loud when Tom Hanks’ voice came crackling through the clouds. The heat shields had held! That’s what it felt like at our show, week after week after week.

[…]

Then, in 1953, things changed. One night as my father was getting me ready for bed, I started raving on about how, when I grew up, I was going to be either a real cowgirl or a cowgirl in the movies where I’d get paid to play Maple Leaf with great costumes and real horses. He turned to me, his face dark and sober. “I don’t want to hear about Hollywood. It’s a heathen, godless place where everyone is divorced and has far too much money for their own good!” I was stunned. It was the very first time he’d ever scolded me. Then he went on to say I needed to start adding Three Hail Marys for Purity to my nightly prayers. “Remember,” he said, “God knows your every thought, word, and deed. With Almighty God we have no secrets.” I had no idea what he was talking about except that I had better keep my thoughts about the movies to myself.

Comments: Mary J. Breen is a Canadian author who has written two books on women’s health and has published widely in newspapers, magazines and online. Her father was a member of the Christian Brothers order but married before taking his final vows. Her parents ran a cinema despite the Catholic Church’s strong objections to aspects of the film industry, exemplified by the National Legion of Decency and its blacklisting of films to which it objected on moral grounds. After giving up the cinema her father never saw another film. My thanks to Mary J. Breen for permission to reproduce these extracts from her essay on her parents and their cinema venture.

Links: Full article at The Toast

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How to Enjoy the Movies

Source: Anon., ‘How to Enjoy the Movies’, Peterborough Examiner, Oct. 12, 1921, p.14

Text: You think you will drop in to the “movies” for a few minutes, and if happens to be the [theatre where] they have those luxurious wicker chairs, you choose a handy one, right near the aisle, and settle back. There is a nasty rain outside, but in here it is nice and warm and comfortable.

Presently a party of young people come in and settle directly behind you. They appear to be a great many of them. They make a loud noise and spend some time selecting seats. After two or three bumps, you sit forward until they are all settled. A cautious look around reveals that there are only four, two of each sex. One of the girls is powdering her nose and the other seems to be looking for something on the floor. She wriggles around, finally locates it, and settles down. Then they begin in earnest. The girls read the titles aloud and make remarks about them in half-whisper. They giggle about every little while and tell all they know about the actors in various pictures. It is a good deal. The vaudeville arrives, and they recognise one of the performers as an old acquaintance who visited the town some years ago. They know a good deal about his private life and tell each other. The young man directly behind you appears to have some difficulty with his knees. Every once in so often he changes their position and makes you get it in the back. He makes no excuse however. You look around. There are no other aisle seats vacant, so you resolve to endure to the bitter end. The young fellow at the farther end is very silent. The girls decide that he has gone to sleep and start to “kid” him. Their voices are louder now, and they giggle at every remark. Suddenly something descends upon your head. You have been contemplating the picture, and it is rather a shock. You are surprised. No excuse is made. Then whispering ensues. Then the young man directly behind proffers some information about the dancer, but is contradicted immediately by the girl next him who says she knows all about that young lady. He subsides into a morose silence, and gives you another vicious jab in the rear with his replaced knee. You shift your chair a little. The girls think they want some place to rest their feet, so turn to two vacant chairs around and in doing so knock your elbow. No excuse is made. They arrange their two pairs of feet on the cushioned chairs, and another era of whispering, giggling, fussing, conversation starts in. The comedy provides some situations which give them a chance to snicker. They do so. The young man re-adjusts his feet once more, and nearly capsizes your chair. No excuse is made. You move a couple of feet, and quiet down a bit. Then the girl says she wants to go and sit beside “Jack,” who is at the farther end, and the other one won’t let her. A slight scuffle ensues. The young men say nothing. You can hear him just behind re-arranging his feet once more, but this time you are out of range, so it doesn’t matter. The feature unrolls its romantic story, and the girls whisper and giggle some more. They are talking about another girl now, and enjoying themselves immensely. Finally the hero embraces the heroine, the young man changes his position for the last time, and you all go home.

Comments: This article appears in a Canadian newspaper, but may originate from another source. My thanks to Robert Clarke for bringing this piece to my attention.

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Mr. Wells Reviews a Current Film

Source: H.G. Wells, ‘Mr. Wells Reviews a Current Film: He Takes Issue With This German Conception of What The City of One Hundred Years Hence Will Be Like’, New York Times, 17 April 1927, p. 4

Text: I have recently seen the silliest film.

I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.

And as this film sets out to display the way the world is going, I think The Way the World is Going may very well concern itself with this film.

It is called Metropolis, it comes from the great Ufa studios in Germany, and the public is given to understand that it has been produced at enormous cost.

It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own.

It is a German film and there have been some amazingly good German films, before they began to cultivate bad work under cover of a protective quota. And this film has been adapted to the Anglo-Saxon taste, and quite possibly it has suffered in the process, but even when every allowance has been made for that, there remains enough to convince the intelligent observer that most of its silliness must be fundamental.

Possibly I dislike this soupy whirlpool none the less because I find decaying fragments of my own juvenile work of thirty years ago, The Sleeper Awakes, floating about in it.

Capek’s Robots have been lifted without apology, and that soulless mechanical monster of Mary Shelley’s, who has fathered so many German inventions, breeds once more in this confusion.

Originality there is none. Independent thought, none.

Where nobody has imagined for them the authors have simply fallen back on contemporary things.

The aeroplanes that wander about above the great city show no advance on contemporary types, though all that stuff could have been livened up immensely with a few helicopters and vertical or unexpected movements.

The motor cars are 1926 models or earlier. I do not think there is a single new idea, a single instance of artistic creation or even intelligent anticipation, from first to last in the whole pretentious stew; I may have missed some point of novelty, but I doubt it; and this, though it must bore the intelligent man in the audience, makes the film all the more convenient as a gauge of the circle of ideas, the mentality, from which it has proceeded.

The word Metropolis, says the advertisement in English, ‘is in itself symbolic of greatness’- which only shows us how wise it is to consult a dictionary before making assertions about the meaning of words.

Probably it was the adapter who made that shot. The German ‘Neubabelsburg’ was better, and could have been rendered ‘New Babel’. It is a city, we are told, of ‘about one hundred years hence.’ It is represented as being enormously high; and all the air and happiness are above and the workers live, as the servile toilers in the blue uniform in The Sleeper Awakes lived, down, down, down below.

Now far away in the dear old 1897 it may have been excusable to symbolize social relations in this way, but that was thirty years ago, and a lot of thinking and some experience intervene.

That vertical city of the future we know now is, to put it mildly, highly improbable. Even in New York and Chicago, where the pressure on the central sites is exceptionally great, it is only the central office and entertainment region that soars and excavates. And the same centripetal pressure that leads to the utmost exploitation of site values at the centre leads also to the driving out of industrialism and labour from the population center to cheaper areas, and of residential life to more open and airy surroundings. That was all discussed and written about before 1900. Somewhere about 1930 the geniuses of Ufa studios will come up to a book of Anticipations which was written more than a quarter of a century ago. The British census returns of 1901 proved clearly that city populations were becoming centrifugal, and that every increase in horizontal traffic facilities produced a further distribution. This vertical social stratification is stale old stuff. So far from being ‘a hundred years hence,’ Metropolis, in its forms and shapes, is already, as a possibility, a third of a century out of date.

But its form is the least part of its staleness. This great city is supposed to be evoked by a single dominating personality. The English version calls him John Masterman, so that there may be no mistake about his quality. Very unwisely he has called his son Eric, instead of sticking to good hard John, and so relaxed the strain. He works with an inventor, one Rotwang, and they make machines. There are a certain number of other people, and the ‘sons of the rich’ are seen disporting themselves, with underclad ladies in a sort of joy conservatory, rather like the ‘winter garden’ of an enterprising 1890 hotel during an orgy. The rest of the population is in a state of abject slavery, working in ‘shifts’ of ten hours in some mysteriously divided twenty-four hours, and with no money to spend or property or freedom. The machines make wealth. How, is not stated. We are shown rows of motor cars all exactly alike; but the workers cannot own these, and no ‘sons of the rich’ would. Even the middle classes nowadays want a car with personality. Probably Masterman makes these cars in endless series to amuse himself.

One is asked to believe that these machines are engaged quite furiously in the mass production of nothing that is ever used, and that Masterman grows richer and richer in the process. This is the essential nonsense of it all. Unless the mass of the population has the spending power there is no possibility of wealth in a mechanical civilization. A vast, penniless slave population may be necessary for wealth where there are no mass production machines, but it is preposterous with mass production machines. You find such a real proletariat in China still; it existed in the great cities of the ancient world; but you do not find it in America, which has gone furtherest in the direction of mechanical industry, and there is no grain of reason in supposing it will exist in the future. Masterman’s watchword is ‘Efficiency,’ and you are given to understand it is a very dreadful word, and the contrivers of this idiotic spectacle are so hopelessly ignorant of all the work that has been done upon industrial efficiency that they represent him as working his machine-minders to the point of exhaustion, so that they faint and machines explode and people are scalded to death. You get machine-minders in torment turning levers in response to signals – work that could be done far more effectively by automata. Much stress is laid on the fact that the workers are spiritless, hopeless drudges, working reluctantly and mechanically. But a mechanical civilization has no use for mere drudges; the more efficient its machinery the less need there is for the quasi-mechanical minder. It is the inefficient factory that needs slaves; the ill-organized mine that kills men. The hopeless drudge stage of human labour lies behind us. With a sort of malignant stupidity this film contradicts these facts.

The current tendency of economic life is to oust the mere drudge altogether, to replace much highly skilled manual work by exquisite machinery in skilled hands, and to increase the relative proportion of semi-skilled, moderately versatile and fairly comfortable workers. It may indeed create temporary masses of unemployed, and in The Sleeper Awakes there was a mass of unemployed people under the hatches. That was written in 1897, when the possibility of restraining the growth of large masses of population had scarcely dawned on the world. It was reasonable then to anticipate an embarrassing underworld of under-productive people. We did not know what to do with the abyss. But there is no excuse for that today. And what this film anticipates is not unemployment, but drudge employment, which is precisely what is passing away. Its fabricators have not even realized that the machine ousts the drudge.

‘Efficiency’ means large-scale productions, machinery as fully developed as possible, and high wages. The British Government delegation sent to study success in America has reported unanimously to that effect. The increasingly efficient industrialism of America has so little need of drudges that it has set up the severest barriers against the flooding of the United States by drudge immigration. ‘Ufa’ knows nothing of such facts.

A young woman appears from nowhere in particular to ‘help’ these drudges; she impinges upon Masterman’s son Eric, and they go to the ‘Catacombs,’ which, in spite of the gas mains, steam mains, cables, and drainage, have somehow contrived to get over from Rome, skeletons and all, and burrow under this city of Metropolis. She conducts a sort of Christian worship in these unaccountable caverns, and the drudges love and trust her. With a nice sense of fitness she lights herself about the Catacombs with a torch instead of the electric lamps that are now so common.

That reversion to torches is quite typical of the spirit of this show. Torches are Christian, we are asked to suppose; torches are human. Torches have hearts. But electric hand-lamps are wicked, mechanical, heartless things. The bad, bad inventor uses quite a big one. Mary’s services are unsectarian, rather like afternoon Sunday-school, and in her special catacomb she has not so much an altar as a kind of umbrella-stand full of crosses. The leading idea of her religion seems to be a disapproval of machinery and efficiency. She enforces the great moral lesson that the bolder and stouter human effort becomes, the more spiteful Heaven grows, by reciting the story of Babel. The story of Babel, as we know, is a lesson against ‘Pride.’ It teaches the human soul to grovel. It inculcates the duty of incompetence. The Tower of Babel was built, it seems, by bald-headed men. I said there was no original touch in the film, but this last seems to be a real invention. You see the bald-headed men building Babel. Myriads of them. Why they are bald is inexplicable. It is not even meant to be funny, and it isn’t funny; it is just another touch of silliness. The workers in Metropolis are not to rebel or do anything for themselves, she teaches, because they may rely on the vindictiveness of Heaven.

But Rotwang, the inventor, is making a Robot, apparently without any license from Capek, the original patentee. It is to look and work like a human being, but it is to have no ‘soul.’ It is to be a substitute for drudge labour. Masterman very properly suggests that it should never have a soul, and for the life of me I cannot see why it should. The whole aim of mechanical civilization is to eliminate the drudge and the drudge soul. But this is evidently regarded as very dreadful and impressive by the producers, who are all on the side of soul and love and suchlike. I am surprised they do not pine for souls in the alarm clocks and runabouts. Masterman, still unwilling to leave bad alone, persuades Rotwang to make this Robot in the likeness of Mary, so that it may raise an insurrection among the workers to destroy the machines by which they live, and so learn that it is necessary to work. Rather intricate that, but Masterman, you understand, is a rare devil of a man. Full of pride and efficiency and modernity – all those horrid things.

Then comes the crowning absurdity of the film, the conversion of the Robot into the likeness of Mary. Rotwang, you must understand, occupies a small old house, embedded in the modern city, richly adorned with pentagrams and other reminders of the antiquated German romances out of which its owner has been taken. A quaint smell of Mephistopheles is perceptible for a time. So even at Ufa, Germany can still be dear old magic-loving Germany. Perhaps Germans will never get right away from the Brocken. Walpurgis Night is the name-day of the German poetic imagination, and the national fantasy capers insecurely for ever with a broomstick between its legs. By some no doubt abominable means Rotwang has squeezed a vast and well-equipped modern laboratory into this little house. It is ever so much bigger than the house, but no doubt he has fallen back on Einstein and other modern bedevilments. Mary has to be trapped, put into a machine like a translucent cocktail shaker, and undergo all sorts of pyrotechnic treatment in order that her likeness may be transferred to the Robot. The possibility of Rotwang just simply making a Robot like her, evidently never entered the gifted producer’s head. The Robot is enveloped in wavering haloes, the premises seem to be struck by lightning repeatedly, the contents of a number of flasks and carboys are violently agitated, there are minor explosions and discharges. Rotwang conducts the operations with a manifest lack of assurance, and finally, to his evident relief, the likeness is taken and things calm down. The false Mary then winks darkly at the audience and sails off to raise the workers. And so forth and so on. There is some rather good swishing about in water, after the best film traditions, some violent and unconvincing machine-breaking and rioting and wreckage, and then, rather confusedly, one gathers that Masterman has learnt a lesson, and that workers and employers are now to be reconciled by ‘Love.’

Never for a moment does one believe any of this foolish story; for a moment is there anything amusing or convincing in its dreary series of strained events. It is immensely and strangely dull. It is not even to be laughed at. There is not one good-looking nor sympathetic nor funny personality in the cast; there is, indeed, no scope at all for looking well or acting like a rational creature amid these mindless, imitative absurdities. The film’s air of having something grave and wonderful to say is transparent pretence. It has nothing to do with any social or moral issue before the world or with any that can ever conceivably arise. It is bunkum and poor and thin even as bunkum. I am astonished at the toleration shown it by quite a number of film critics on both sides of the Atlantic. And it costs, says the London Times, six million marks! How they spent all that upon it I cannot imagine. Most of the effects could have been got with models at no great expense.

The pity of it is that this unimaginative, incoherent, sentimentalizing, and make-believe film, wastes some very fine possibilities. My belief in German enterprise has had a shock. I am dismayed by the intellectual laziness it betrays. I thought Germans even at the worst could toil. I thought they had resolved to be industriously modern. It is profoundly interesting to speculate upon the present trend of mechanical inventions and of the reactions of invention upon labour conditions. Instead of plagiarizing from a book thirty years old and resuscitating the banal moralizing of the early Victorian period, it would have been almost as easy, no more costly, and far more interesting to have taken some pains to gather the opinions of a few bright young research students and ambitious, modernizing architects and engineers about the trend of modern invention, and develop these artistically. Any technical school would have been delighted to supply sketches and suggestions for the aviation and transport of A.D. 2027. There are now masses of literature upon the organization of labour for efficiency that could have been boiled down at a very small cost. The question of the development of industrial control, the relation of industrial to political direction, the way all that is going, is of the liveliest current interest. Apparently the people at Ufa did not know of these things and did not want to know about them. They were too dense to see how these things could have been brought into touch with the life of today and made interesting to the man in the street. After the worst traditions of the cinema world, monstrously self-satisfied and self-sufficient, convinced of the power of loud advertisement to put things over with the public, and with no fear of searching criticism in their minds, no consciousness of thought and knowledge beyond their ken, they set to work in their huge studio to produce furlong after furlong of this ignorant, old-fashioned balderdash, and ruin the market for any better film along these lines.

Six million marks! The waste of it!

The theatre when I visited it was crowded. All but the highest-priced seats were full, and the gaps in these filled up reluctantly but completely before the great film began. I suppose every one had come to see what the city of a hundred years hence would be like. I suppose there are multitudes of people to be ‘drawn’ by promising to show them what the city of a hundred years hence will be like. It was, I thought, an unresponsive audience, and I heard no comments. I could not tell from their bearing whether they believed that Metropolis was really a possible forecast or no. I do not know whether they thought that the film was hopelessly silly or the future of mankind hopelessly silly. But it must have been one thing or the other.

Comments: Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) was a British novelist, short story writer, historian and social commentator. He is best known for this works of science fiction, of which When the Sleeper Wakes (1898) is close in theme to Metropolis (Germany 1926), so thoughts of plagiarism may have coloured his attack on Fritz Lang’s film. He presumably saw the film in London. The Way the World is Going was a non-fiction work published by Wells in 1928.

Links: Copy at New York Times archives (subscription site)
Transcription at The Time Machine

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Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters

Source: Harold Owen and John Bell (eds.), Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 162

Text: Letter 158. To Susan Owen, Sunday 22 September 1912, Dunsden Vicarage

On Sat. afternoon I saw Queen Bess by Sarah Bernhardt in Cinematograph, (with Leslie, Uncle, & Vera.) All very well; but it is positively painful to me not to hear speech; worse than the case of a deaf man at a proper Shakespere [sic] play; for all the finer play of mouth, eye, fingers, and so on, is utterly imperceptible, and so are the slower motions of the limbs spoiled, and their majesty lost, in the convulsed, rattling-hustle of the Cinema. Certainly, the old impression of driving through an electric hailstorm on a chinese-cracker is not now so easily got, as of old; but, still, I cannot enthuse over the things as Leslie does. His infatuation would speedily vanish if he knew ‘the real thing’. Which, poor fellow, he hankers to do.

Comments: Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was a British poet and soldier, renowned for this poems of the First World War. Les amours de la reine Élisabeth (France 1912) was a feature film (four reels) developed out of the stage play by Émile Moreau. Its high prestige value and heavy promotion by Aldoph Zukor (who founded Famous Players to distribute it and later formed Paramount Pictures) led to the film’s great commercial success. Owen’s reference to the poor quality of some early film shows indicates that he had seen films on a number of occasions. Susan Owen was his mother. Leslie Gunston was his cousin, also a poet. My thanks to Lucie Dutton for having brought this diary entry to my attention.

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Nights at the Alexandra

Source: William Trevor, Nights at the Alexandra (London: Hutchinson, 1987)

Text: People loved the Alexandra. They loved the things I loved myself – the scarlet seats, the lights that made the curtains change colour, the usherettes in uniform. People stood smoking in the foyer when they’d bought their tickets, not in a hurry because smoking and talking gave them pleasure also. They loved the luxury of the Alexandra, they loved the place it was. Urney bars tasted better in its rosy gloom; embraces were romantic there. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shared their sophisticated dreams, Deanna Durbin sang. Heroes fell from horses, the sagas of great families yielded the riches of their secrets. Night after night in the Alexandra I stood at the back, aware of the pleasure I dealt in, feeling it all around me. Shoulders slumped, heads touched, eyes were lost in concentration. My brothers did not snigger in the Alexandra: my father, had he ever gone there, would have at last been silenced. Often I imagined the tetchiness of the Reverend Wauchope softening beneath a weight of wonder, and the sour disposition of his wife lifted from her as she watched All This and Heaven Too. Often I imagined the complicated shame falling from the features of Mr Conron. ‘I have told her you are happy,’ Herr Messinger said.

Comments: William Trevor (1928-2016) was a Irish novelist and short story writer. His bittersweet novella Nights at the Alexandra concerns a young man who becomes involved with an Englishwoman and her older German husband as they build a cinema in Ireland during the Second World War. Urney chocolates were popular throughout Ireland. All This and Heaven Too is a 1940 American feature film.

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The Film Finds Its Tongue

Don Juan at the Warner Theatre, via Wikipedia

Source: Fitzhugh Green, The Film Finds Its Tongue (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1929), pp. 11-14

Text: Slowly the theatre filled. Every seat was sold, and occupied. It was a curious, speculative audience, there on unfamiliar grounds, uncertain what it was about to see, or how it should be received. It was prepared more to see a scientific marvel than to be entertained.

The four men were prepared—for anything.

Eight-thirty arrived. The lights dimmed; babble of voices hushed. A white beam shot overhead and splashed upon the screen; the beam from the movie projector. But it fell first on the draped curtains on the stage, revealing a subtitle. The curtains parted on a conventional cinema screen. The title gave way, familiarly, to a photograph … a man … Will H. Hays. He advanced to the foreground and there was a little sound. It penetrated through people’s minds that they had “heard” him clear his throat.

Then, suddenly, the picture began to speak!

The audience hung on its every word, half expecting something to happen … the machinery would break down. In the first trials of every machine there is a good chance that it will break. One lacks confidence in it.

The phenomenon was like watching a man flying without wings. It was uncanny. The shadow of Will H. Hays was true to life. His lips moved and sound came forth. His was a short speech; when it was done and he stood there, people found themselves clapping, unconsciously. As if he heard them, he bowed. He seemed to be present, and yet he did not seem to be present. No wonder a scientist next day called it: “The nearest thing to a resurrection!”

As the picture disappeared a buzz of talk ran through the theatre. Then silence again as the second number appeared: the Philharmonic Orchestra playing the “Tannhauser” overture. Sweet music reached out from the huge invisible horn behind the screen and wrought its spell upon the listeners. It was familiar music, marvellously played. It swept on through the cadences of the overture; the quiet, half-religious opening, the seductive melody of the Venusberg, the crashing finale … and during it the photographs, leaping from one section of the orchestra to another, focusing on busy musicians bent over their instruments.

As the movie image of Henry Hadley turned to his auditors after the last note he “faced” a theatre full of people applauding spontaneously—yet he wasn’t there!

The ice had been broken: the talking picture had now an audience for the first time in three decades.

Throughout the rest of the first half of the program the audience sat breathlessly drinking the novelty in. It found that it liked film that talked. It found it possible to judge such a film; it liked some of the numbers better than others. It found itself fascinated by the intimacy with which the artist was revealed; found itself watching Elman’s fingering, Martinelli’s tone formation; found itself brought closer to those artists than ever before; even found itself, presently, gaining an illusion that the artists themselves were present!

When the lights went up for intermission the audience cheered, then gave way to a concentrated buzz of excitement. History was being made and they were there to see the event, was the way every one felt.

The second half was a conventional screen drama—also with the new talking-picture attachment. But before its stirring plot was done the little group of men who waited received their verdict. The uncontrollable enthusiasm of the audience gave it:

You win!

Comments: Fitzhugh Green was author of a booklet that documents the development of the sound film by the American studio Warner Bros. The event he documents here is the public debut of the Vitaphone talkie film process (film accompanied by synchronised sound disc) on 6 August 1926 at the Warner Theatre, New York. Eight short films shown on the evening followed by the feature film Don Juan (1926), which had a synchronised music score and sound effects but no spoken dialogue. The short films shown were Hon. Will H. Hays, President of the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, Inc., Who Will Address You (the only ‘talkie’ of the evening), Overture “Tannhauser” featuring conductor Henry Hadley and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, violinist Mischa Elman playing “Humoresque” by Antonín Dvorák and “Gavotte” by François-Joseph Gossec, His Pastimes featuring novelty guitarist Roy Smeck, Beethoven’s The Kreutzer Sonata played by Harold Bauer and Efrem Zimbalist, a selection of Russian songs and dances entitled An Evening on the Don, singer Anna Case and Spanish dancers in La Fiesta, and opera singer Giovanni Martinelli singing Vesti La Giubba (the hit of the evening). The four men were the four Warner brothers.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Under the Volcano

Source: Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962 [orig. 1947]), pp. 30-32

Text: He stood, out of breath, under the shelter of the theatre entrance which was, however, more like the entrance to some gloomy bazaar or market. Peasants were crowding in with baskets. At the box office, momentarily vacated, the door left half open, a frantic hen sought admission. Everywhere people were flashing torches or striking matches. The van with the loudspeaker slithered away into the rain and thunder. Las Manos de Orlac, said a poster: 6 y 8. 30. Las Manos de Orlac, con Peter Lorre.

The street lights came on again, though the theatre still remained dark. M. Laruelle fumbled for a cigarette. The hands of Orlac . . . How, in a flash, that had brought back the old days of the cinema, he thought, indeed his own delayed student days, the days of the Student of Prague, and Wiene and Werner Krauss and Karl Grune, the Ufa days when a defeated Germany was winning the respect of the cultured world by the pictures she was making. Only then it had been Conrad Veidt in Orlac. Strangely, that particular film had been scarcely better than the present version, a feeble Hollywood product he’d seen some years before in Mexico City or perhaps – M. Laruelle looked around him – perhaps at this very theatre. It was not impossible. But so far as he remembered not even Peter Lorre had been able to salvage it and he didn’t want to see it again … Yet what a complicated endless tale it seemed to tell, of tyranny and sanctuary, that poster looming above him now, showing the murderer Orlac! An artist with a murderer’s hands; that was the ticket, the hieroglyphic of the times. For really it was Germany itself that, in the gruesome degradation of a bad cartoon, stood over him. – Or was it, by some uncomfortable stretch of the imagination, M. Laruelle himself?

The manager of the cine was standing before him, cupping, with that same lightning-swift, fumbling-thwarting courtesy exhibited by Dr Vigil, by all Latin Americans, a match for his cigarette: his hair, innocent of raindrops, which seemed almost lacquered, and a heavy perfume emanating from him, betrayed his daily visit to the peluquería; he was impeccably dressed in striped trousers and a black coat, inflexibly muy correcto, like most Mexicans of his type, despite earthquake and thunderstorm. He threw the match away now with a gesture that was not wasted, for it amounted to a salute. ‘Come and have a drink,’ he said.

‘The rainy season dies hard,’ M. Laruelle smiled as they elbowed their way through into a little cantina which abutted on the cinema without sharing its frontal shelter. The cantina, known as the Cervecería XX, and which was also Vigil’s ‘place where you know’, was lit by candles stuck in bottles on the bar and on the few tables along the walls. The tables were all full.

Chingar,’ the manager said, under his breath, preoccupied, alert, and gazing about him: they took their places standing at the end of the short bar where there was room for two. ‘I am very sorry the function must be suspended. But the wires have decomposed. Chingado. Every blessed week something goes wrong with the lights. Last week it was much worse, really terrible. You know we had a troupe from Panama City here trying out a show for Mexico.’

‘Do you mind my – ‘

‘No, hombre,’ laughed the other – M. Laruelle had asked Sr Bustamente, who’d now succeeded in attracting the barman’s attention, hadn’t he seen the Orlac picture here before and if so had he revived it as a hit. ‘¿ – uno – ?

M. Laruelle hesitated: ‘Tequila,’ then corrected himself: ‘No, anís – anís, por favor, señor.’

Y una – ah – gaseosa,’ Sr Bustamente told the batman. ‘No, señor,’ he was fingering appraisingly, still preoccupied, the stuff of M. Laruelle’s scarcely wet tweed jacket. ‘Compañero, we have not revived it. It has only returned. The other day I show my latest news here too: believe it, the first newsreels from the Spanish war, that have come back again.’

‘I see you get some modern pictures still though,’ M. Laruelle (he had just declined a seat in the autoridades box for the second showing, if any) glanced somewhat ironically at a garish three-sheet of a German film star, though the features seemed carefully Spanish, hanging behind the bar: La simpatiquísma y encantadora Maria Landrock, notable artista alemana que pronto habremos de ver en sensacional Film.

‘ – un momentito, señor. Con permiso …’

Sr Bustamente went out, not through the door by which they had entered, but through a side entrance behind the bar immediately on their right, from which a curtain had been drawn back, into the cinema itself. M. Laruelle had a good view of the interior. From it, exactly indeed as though the show were in progress, came a beautiful uproar of bawling children and hawkers selling fried potatoes and frijoles. It was difficult to believe so many had left their seats. Dark shapes of pariah dogs prowled in and out of the stalls. The lights were not entirely dead: they glimmered, a dim reddish orange, flickering. On the screen, over which clambered an endless procession of torchlit shadows, hung, magically projected upside down, a faint apology for the ‘suspended function’; in the autoridades box three cigarettes were lit on one match. At the rear where reflected light caught the lettering SALIDA of the exit he just made out the anxious figure of Sr Bustamente taking to his office. Outside it thundered and rained.

Comments: Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957) was a British novelist and poet, best known for his 1947 novel Under the Volcano. The novel is set around the Day of Death in Mexico at the end of the 1930s, and culminates in the wretched death of British ex-consul Geoffrey Firmin. One of the characters is Laruelle, a filmmaker, who has had an affair with Firmin’s film star wife. The novel contains many references to cinema, including pointed mentions of the 1935 American film Mad Love, also known as The Hands of Orlac, starring Peter Lorre. It was a remake of the 1924 Austrian film Orlacs Hände, starring Conrad Veidt.

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All Pals Together

Source: Terry Staples, All Pals Together: The Story of Children’s Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), p. 233

Text: Living as kids in rural Wiltshire, we never had a chance to go to a cinema there. But every summer we were packed off to our grandparents in Falkirk, and they sent us to the ABC every Saturday morning. In my memory of what I saw in those years cinema and telly are all mixed up, but I remember the atmosphere of the cinema clearly enough. There seemed to be hundreds and hundreds in the Falkirk ABC, and a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, but I don’t think things were being thrown around. It was lively, but not rowdy. At home in Wiltshire we watched telly on Saturday mornings – Tiswas or Swap Shop – and doing that I felt essentially alone. In Falkirk I was part of a crowd. I’d get dressed for the ABC, but not for the telly. The queuing and the anticipation were much more exciting than just walking across the room to turn on the telly. We bought lollipops or liquorice or toffees at the cinema, or we might have taken our own tablet (a very sweet kind of fudge, peculiar to Scotland). For us, the cinema was full of strangeness, specialness and fun.

Comments: All Pals Together is a history of children’s cinema in the UK. It contains many evocative memoir passages such as this, mostly conducted for the book, though they are uncredited (there is a list of the names of the interviewees given at the front of the book). The unnamed interviewee here was a member of the ABC Minors club, to which many cinemagoing children belonged. Tiswas (ITV, 1974-1982) and Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (BBC, 1976-1982) were two highly popular children’s television programmes shown on Saturday mornings. They are generally seen as having played a major part in bringing about the long tradition of children’s cinema in the UK to an end.

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