Light Visible and Invisible

Children at Play no. 1 (R.W. Paul, 1896)

Source: Silvanus Thompson, Light Visible and Invisible: a series of lectures delivered at the Royal institution of Great Britain, at Christmas, 1896, with additional lectures (London: Macmillan, 1912, 2nd ed. [orig. pub. 1897]), pp. 97-99

Text: Another example of effects produced by persistence of the optical impressions in the eye is afforded by an old toy, the zoetrope, or wheel of life; in which the semblance of motion is given to pictures by causing the eye to catch sight, in rapid sequence, through moving slits, of a series of designs in which each differs slightly from the one preceding. Thus if you want to make the sails of a windmill seem to go round, the successive pictures must represent the sails as having turned round a little during the brief moment that elapses between each picture being glimpsed and the next being seen. These intervals must be less than a tenth of a second, so that the successive images may blend properly, and that the movement between each picture and the next may be small. Mr. Muybridge has very cleverly applied this method to the study of the movements of animals. Anschutz’s moving pictures, illuminated by intermittent sparks, were the next improvement. And the latest triumph in this development of the subject has been reached in the animatograph, which the inventor, Mr. R. Paul, has kindly consented to exhibit.

The animatograph pictures are photographed upon a travelling ribbon of transparent celluloid; the time which elapses between each picture being taken and the next being about one-fiftieth of a second. A scene lasting half a minute will, therefore, be represented by about 1500 pictures, all succeeding one another on a long ribbon. If these pictures are then passed in their proper order through a special lantern, with mechanism that will bring each picture up to the proper place between the lenses, hold it there an instant, then snatch it away arid put the next in its place, and so forth, the photograph projected on the screen will seem to move. You see in a street scene, for example, the carts and omnibuses going along; the horses lift their feet, the wheels roll round, foot passengers and policemen walk by. Everything goes on exactly as it did in the actual street. Or you see some children toddling beside a garden seat. A big dog comes up, and the boy jumps astride of him, but falls off, and rises rubbing his bumps. Or a passenger steamer starts from Dover pier: you see her paddles revolve, the crowd on the pier wave farewells with handkerchiefs or hats, the steamer wheels round, you see the splash of foam, you note the rolling clouds of black smoke proceeding from her funnel, then she goes out of sight round the corner. The reality of the motions is so great that you feel as though you had veritably seen it all with your own eyes. And so you have. You have just as truly seen the movements of the scene as when you have listened to the phonograph you have heard the voice which once impressed the record of its vibrations. Of all the animatograph pictures those that appeal most to me are the natural scenes, such as the waves rolling up into a sea-cave and breaking on the rocks at its mouth, and dashing foam and spray far up into its interior. Nothing is wanting to complete the illusion, save the reverberating roar of the waves.

Comments: Professor Silvanus Phillips Thompson (1851-1916) was a British professor of physics and member of the Royal Society. The above passage comes from a series of lectures Thompson gave at the Royal Institution over Christmas 1896. The Animatograph was a projector produced by British engineer and film producer Robert William Paul. The films mentioned include Children at Play [no.1] (1896, frmes reproduced here from Thompson’s book) and A Sea Cave Near Lisbon (1896).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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The “Theatrograph” in Court

Source: ‘The “Theatreograph” in Court’, The Era, 18 July 1896, p. 7

Text: At the Clerkenwell County Court, on Tuesday, Robert William Paul, of 44, Hatton-garden, inventor and patentee of the “theatrograph,” and well known for his exhibitions at Olympia, Earl’s-court, and the principal music halls, was the plaintiff in an action to recover from “Wonderland, Limited,” a music hall company conducting their business in Whitechapel-road, £22 10s., three weeks’ rent of electric accumulators supplied to the defendants on hire. The defendants counterclaimed for £15 damages. Mr Gill, barrister, was for the plaintiff; and Mr Dodd, barrister, for the defendants.

The plaintiff’s case was that in April last he was engaged by the defendants, through their managing director, Mr Jonas Woolf, to give performances with his theatrograph at “Wonderland.” For these the plaintiff was to receive £20 a-week, in addition to £7 10s. a-week for supplying accumulators on lire, the defendants to provide the electric current. The plaintiff exhibited for three weeks, and was paid his salary, but had received nothing for the hire of the accumulators.

The defendants admitted their indebtedness for two weeks only. In support of their counterclaim they alleged they had bet heavily through the neglect of the plaintiff, whose performances were a complete failure. It was his duty to provide the electric current, but he had not done so, contenting himself with the use of weak batteries obtained from the defendants, and afterwards of limelight apparatus. The result was that the illusions presented by the “Theatrograph” were blurred and indistinct. The audience, it was said, used to hiss the performance, and many people had demanded and received back their money. The “Theatrograph” was the “star attraction” and, owing to its failure, the takings of “Wonderland (Limited)” fell in one week from £128 to £73, and in the next to £58.

Mr Gill (to Mr Woolf) – You say the “Theatrograph” was your star attraction, and that the losses of your music hall were due to its failure? Witness – The rest of the programme was mere padding.

Mr Gill (reading from a poster) – Do you call the Bear Lady padding – “A native of Africa, full grown, whose arms and legs are formed in exactly the same manner as the animal after which she is named?” Witness – Yes, the Bear Lady was padding.

Mr Gill – And the Fire Queens, “who have appeared before the Prince of Wales, the King and Queen of Italy, and King and Queen of Portugal, who pour molten lead into their mouths, lick red-holt pokers, and remain several minutes enveloped in flames and fire?” Witness – Yes, the Fire Queens were also padding.

Mr Gill – I am not surprised that these monstrous exaggerations damaged your business. It was not the theatrograph.

Judge Meadows White held that it was the duty of the defendants to have supplied a proper light, the absence of which had caused the failures of which they complained. He gave judgment for the plaintiff, with costs, and disallowed the counter-claim.

Comments: Wonderland was an entertainment venue in Whitechapel in London’s East End. It was best-known for hosting boxing bouts, but included other kinds of entertainment, including the Theatrograph projector of British inventor Robert Paul, whose poor reception in April (two months after its public debut) Clerkenwell County Court decided was due to poor illumination from the venue’s accumulators, at a hearing on 14 July 1896.

Links: Copy at British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

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The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 161-162

Text: Damascus boasts of three theatres — all cinemas, as the “movies” are called in the Orient. I chose the Palace Theatre, near the hotel, because on its billboards it announced a troupe of dancers in addition to its photo plays. Twenty piasters (80 cents) bought a box, which was located in the balcony overlooking one of the strangest audiences in the world. The entire lower floor was filled with turbaned Arabs and befezed Syrians smoking “hobble bobbles,” as the Turkish water pipes are called in Syria. When you take your seat in a Damascus theatre, you are asked by the usher if you want a “hobble bobble,” and if so one is provided for a trifling tip.

Nearly five hundred men were puffing away downstairs, while thirty or forty smart looking Turkish officers were in the tier of boxes when I took my place. The pictures — mostly French made films — were shown without musical accompaniment, and when the lights were turned on after forty minutes of darkness a third of the audience was asleep.

Under the guidance of my dragoman I visited two cafes chantants, where the few unattached European women in Damascus make their headquarters, and where the “night life” of the officers and higher officials centers. One of the cafes — known as the American bar — proved quite gay. Its guests were being entertained by a phonograph, and I was informed that there would be muscle dancing as soon as the performers could leave the Palace Theatre.

That sent me back to the Victoria Hotel in a hurry, where I found real “night life” under my mosquito bar. But that, as Kipling says, is another story.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. His book The Night Side of Europe documents his experiences of theatres across Europe, Russia and the Near East. In 1914, Syria was part of the Ottoman empire.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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A Pound of Paper

Source: John Baxter, A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict (London: Doubleday, 2002), pp. 103-106

Text: But then, around 1965, whatever it was that made the Sixties such a distinctive decade began to work its liberating magic on Australia. Hints of other lifestyles and different points of view drifted across our skies like UFOs. Some saw them in the literature of the Beat Generation, others in rock music, but for me the vehicle of revelation was the movies.

Most Saturdays, I’d stop book hunting around noon, buy a slab of roast pork-belly at the Chinese takeaway on Campbell Street, watch the owner hack it into slices with his cleaver, then carry it with a bottle of Coke across the road to the Capitol Cinema. There I would pay, in those pre-decimal days, 2s 6d for a ticket and search the empty circle for a seat without protruding springs to spike my backside, and where I could munch the deliciously greasy spiced meat with no risk of being rousted by some officious usher.

A few moments usually remained before the start of the first film in the day’s double bill to contemplate John Eberson’s flaking midnight-blue ceiling, and wonder how it would look with its tiny stars illuminated — a feature rusted up long before I discovered the place. Since then, the Capitol has been restored and even its stars shine once more, but in those days its greatest appeal resided in its shabbiness, offering as it did both cheapness and anonymity. One could lose oneself in the warm dark — ‘lie low,’ as Leonard Cohen said, ‘and let the hunt go by’.

But what drew me back every week was the films. Mostly black and white and Italian or French, invariably dubbed into English, cut down to a jerky ninety minutes, and further hacked by the film censor, they reflected lives utterly alien to someone who’d never eaten an olive, seen a subtitled film, spoken to a Frenchman or kissed a girl, let alone slept with one.

Occasionally, during my adolescence, a foreign film had reflected back some flashes of my own experience — a 1954 movie called The Game of Love, for instance (a title attached by British distributors to almost anything French where the heroine removed a garment more intimate than a cardigan). Two teenagers, friends since infancy, meet at the same resort every year. They’re too shy to do anything about their mutual attraction until an older woman seduces the boy. The experience frees him to see his childhood friend for the first time, but undermines their uncomplicated love. An adaptation, in short, of Colette’s Le Blé en herbe — Ripening Seed. But its world of the beach and holidays was familiar enough to hint at lessons I might put into practice, some time, with some woman, if I ever got to know any.

Anybody in Australia hoping to learn about life from the cinema faced an uphill struggle in the Sixties. Nudity, violence, horror, obscenity, blasphemy and sedition — the censors cut them all. In the film of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8, Liz Taylor, explaining to Eddie Fisher how she came to be a ‘party girl’ — i.e., part-time prostitute — traces it back to childhood, when a boyfriend of her mother’s, whom she regarded as a sort of uncle, took her on his knee and ‘interfered with’ her. Liz goes on, ‘But the worst thing was…’ At which point the film hiccuped, the sure sign of a cut. The next shot was of Fisher, looking bemused. Only much later did we discover that Liz said, ‘But the worse thing was, I enjoyed it.’ Enjoying sex? Obviously that had to go.

Interesting as I found the occasional flashes of eroticism in foreign films, the one that got me thinking most had no sex at all. The version presented at the Capitol was known as The Bandit’s Revenge, though it was actually called Salvatore Giuliano. Set in the rocky landscape of Sicily, it was a half documentary / half drama about a young man — face never seen — who, dressed in an incongruous grey dustcoat and with a World War II machine gun over his shoulder, led his gang against … who exactly? I couldn’t make that out. It would be years before I decoded the film, but Francesco Rosi’s darting direction remade my sense of how a story is told, as did the near-operatic behaviour of the characters – the old man who walks to a hilltop, for instance, and apostrophizes his native land like a character from Greek tragedy. Above all, the ink black and lime white of Gianni di Venanzo’s photography prepared me for Antonioni and the French new wave, just as the content lured me to history, politics, and, above all, to Europe.

Comments: John Baxter (1939- ) is an Australian writer of science fiction, film criticism and memoir. The cinema to which he refers is the Capitol Theatre, Sydney. The films he mentions are Le Blé en herbe (France 1954), Butterfield 8 (1960) and Salvatore Giuliano (Italy 1954).

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Industrial Town

Source: Charles Forman, Industrial Town: Self Portrait of St Helens in the 1920s (London: Paladin Books, 1979 [orig. pub. 1978]), pp. 120-121

Text: THE JOINER, BORN c. 1905

My brother and I used to get 1½d every Saturday to go to the picture palace. There was one film and lantern slides. It used to be a gymnasium. You climbed on the bars to get a better spec. There was a cinema at the top of Helena House, the Co-op building. It was 1d to go in and ½d for two ounces of toffee. We used to give one of the halfpennies to a friend. He had no money, there were too many of them, seven in the family. If we gave the two halfpennies to him, the three of us could go in. The children’s idol was a fellow called ‘Pimple’ – in the same year as Flora Finch. He was a fellow like a clown. He came on in a series each week – ‘Pimple at the North Pole’. Then there wasn’t enough film to go round all afternoon. The lantern slides used to come on – pictures of plants, flowers and birds, the drawing-room scenes. Sometimes they told a story.

Comments: Charles Forman’s Industrial Town is a collection of eye-witness accounts of life in the Lancashire town of St Helens in 1920s (and earlier, as with this account). ‘Pimple’ was a character played by British comedian Fred Evans, who plays the character in a long series of short films in the 1910s. The film referred to was Lieutenant Pimple’s Dash for the Pole (UK 1914). Flora Finch was a British comic actress popular in American films.

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Leaves from a Greenland Diary

Source: Ruth Bryan Owen, Leaves from a Greenland Diary (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1935), pp. 162-164

Text: Julianehaab has been out in boats and kayaks all day, circling around the ship, and when the Danes and the principal Greenlanders and their wives came on board, for a moving picture show this evening, all the rest of Julianehaab was grinning genially through the portholes and feeling equally a part of the unprecedented festival.

I wondered what the Greenlanders, who were having their first experience with moving pictures, must have thought. Even if the first film, a drama of the covered wagon days in the West may have been a little incomprehensible to people who have never seen horses or a wagon, the antics of Mickey Mouse were well within the range of everyone’s understanding. One Eskimo nudged his wife so violently at Mickey’s vagaries that he almost pushed her off the slippery bench. Certainly Mickey Mouse never had more rapt attention or more whole-hearted appreciation!

There were Bestyrrer Ipsen and his wife and Landsfoged Svane on the front seat, of course; and there were Walsoe and Froken Sabroe, the school-teacher, and the telegraph operator and his wife and children, and the young clergyman who is heading the Julianehaab high school of 24 pupils. And there were Pavia, in his white anorak, and the Eskimo village councilmen and their wives.

After the movie show, they all came into the wardroom for coffee and cakes and music from the big electric gramophone. All of the blaze of electric lights was actually there in their harbor, close to their candles and blubber-lamps. The big searchlight of the Champlain played around over the hills, picking out here a little red painted house and there a boatload of Greenlanders who screamed with amusement as the blinding light fell upon them. All the shining brass and gleaming paint of the ship, all the leather and silver in the wardroom, all of the bit of America, for that incredible hour in their harbor, was being absorbed, along with the coffee and cakes.

Comments: Ruth Bryan Owen (1885-1954) was an American politician. In 1933 she became the first women to be appointed a US ambassador, when President Franklin Roosevelt assigned her to Denmark and Iceland. Greenland had been owned by Denmark since 1814. Owen had been a filmmaker herself, writing and directing a self-funded feature film, Once Upon a Time aka Scheherazade (1922), an ambitious undertaking for an amateur. which gained some distribution through the Society for Visual Education.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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The New China

Source: Henri Borel, The New China (New York: Dodd, Mead and company, 1912), p. 77

Text: The bioscope films—Tien ying or “lightning shadows”—have become immensely popular in China, and here and there even begin to supplant the ancient, very popular Chinese theatre. In the large Ta-Sha Lärl Street, in the Chinese City, some theatres where special Chinese plays used to be given have been entirely re-arranged for bioscope productions, although only in very exceptional cases are Chinese scenes reproduced. The bioscope seems an invaluable instrument for giving the Chinese people some idea of life in Europe, of which they used to have not the slightest notion; and the Chinese also forms by its means a clear conception of modern inventions. I positively saw in Peking good films of balloon ascents and aviation. It is certainly a sharp contrast to visit the Chinese City in the evening, to go through the sombre mediaeval Ch‘ien Mên Gate, to walk along the wide Ch‘ien Men Street, where not a single European can be seen at that time of day, to pass into the crowded Ta-Sha Lärl Street and traversing a long, dark passage, to enter a Chinese theatre and see on the canvas a Paris Boulevard with Parisian gentlemen and girls, clearly on the spree, sitting, half seas over, in front of a café. Shade of Confucius, how is it possible?

Comments: Henri Borel (1869-1933) was a Dutch travel writer, journalist, novelist and diplomat. He was an authority on Chinese affairs. This account of Chinese film shows refers to Beijing.

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America Day By Day

Source: Simone de Beauvoir (trans. Patrick Dudley), America Day by Day (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1952), pp. 62-63

Text: And how easy it was to take part in New York life! From early morning people on Broadway queued up for the movies. At any time of the day, with an hour to kill, you can go to see animated cartoons or newsreels. But above all it is at night, in crowded Forty-second Street, that the movies have the dual attraction of fairs in foreign countries and national rejoicings. On Times Square you can see the latest Hollywood films; on Forty-second Street they show old Westerns, comedies and pictures that give one goose-flesh: I mean the thrillers. In a small cinema on one of the grands boulevards of Paris they used to show one of these horror films weekly twenty years ago. Now that they have become talkies they have scarcely altered. Once more I watched the murdered mummies finally stabbed through the heart with hunting knives; vampires greedily drinking up fresh blood; robots charged with uncontrollable forces, sowing death and terror …. Every time the mummy appears the audience shouts, not with terror, of course, but with delight, for they no longer believe it.

But the animated cartoons disappointed me; they have become set and mechanical. And the films I saw did not reveal New York to me as I had hoped they would one evening. But they helped to bind me to America. I no longer looked at the screen in the same way that I did at home; the exotic drugstores, the streets, the elevators and the press-bells had disappeared; they were now just realistic details. But this realism had poetry all the same. The screen transfigured everyday objects and reimposed that distance between me and the drugstore which was abolished every time I drank an orange juice, although continuing to exist nevertheless. It was by means of these black and white pictures that I had come to know America, and still they seemed to me to be its real substance; the screen is a platonic heaven where I find my concept in all its purity. The houses built of stone are but doubtful embodiments of it.

Comments: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a French intellectual. She visited America over a four-month period in 1947. Her account of her journey was first published in France in 1948 as L’Amérique au jour le jour.

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The Child and the Cinema

Source: C.W. Kimmins, ‘The Child and the Cinema’ in The Child’s Attitude to Life; a study of children’s stories (London: Methuen, 1926), pp. 101-102

Text: The moving picture I liked best was a gentleman advertised in a paper for a lady friend, and in a class of young ladies, one read it in the paper and ran out of the room, another also read the article, and also left the room; one by one they all dis appeared and went to the gentleman’s house. When they all came, he did not want every one and he then started to run away. During different pictures it is shown that he runs into woods and hides behind trees, all of them trying to catch him, but not one succeeding. He continues to run up hills, over ragged rocks, sometimes falling over, but always picking himself up and continuing. The women also stumble over many large boulders, but they never seem to mind. It shows him running along a pier, and unable to escape, he dives into the sea, all the women following him. There was quite a band of bobbing heads, all trying to get to him, but as he had a start none succeeded. He swims to land and races across open country, all the others following him. He is then seen climbing on the top of railway carriages with the others behind him. At last tired out he reaches home again, to find that his wife, who had run away, had come back again. The others leave very sorrowful at their disappointment.

Comments: Dr Charles William Kimmins, Chief Inspector under the Education Committee of the London County Council (his son Anthony Kimmins became an actor and film director) supplied evidence to the Cinema Commission Inquiry, instituted by the National Council of Public Morals, whose report on children and cinema was published as The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917). He had 6,701 children of different ages from 25 London schools each write an account of ‘the moving picture they liked most of all those they had seen in the cinema’. They had 15 minutes in which to do so, with no preparatory discussion. The 1917 report includes extracts from the children’s accounts, reproduced on this site, but Kimmins included further examples in his 1926 book The Child’s Attitude to Life, from which the above account comes. The unnamed child, aged 10-12, is recalling, in vivid detail, a chase film close in theme to the much-imitated Biograph film Personal (USA 1904), but which would have been a later production.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust
Kimmins’s evidence to the Cinema Commission Enquiry

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My Twenty Years in Buckingham Palace

Source: Frederick John Corbitt, My Twenty Years in Buckingham Palace: a book of intimate memoirs (New York, D. McKay Co., 1956), pp. 229-230

Text: I found it most amusing in those days to read and to hear of the Princess’s name being linked with this young man or that young man, various officers of the Guards and scions of the nobility who all of them in turn had been invited to join the Royal party at one house or another. I have seen them all come — and go away to wed some other lady or to stay bachelors. People like the Marquess of Blandford, the Earl of Dalkeith, and many others. Always the Group Captain would be among the party, quite content to let the limelight of publicity shine on these other young men, doing his best to help make them happy and comfortable throughout their stay. But to those of us in the background there was never any doubt whatever as to whom the Princess wanted to sit near her during an after-dinner film show in one of the private cinemas at the Royal residences. It was always Peter.

I sat close behind the Royal Family at these cinema shows. I delighted in the rather ceremonious way in which the Royal Family would walk in, headed by the King and the Queen Mother, followed by the two Princesses and the young men of the party. When the King had taken his seat with his Queen beside him, the others would take their seats to the left and right of the Royal couple in the same row and proceed to fill up the rows of chairs behind. Princess Margaret would nearly always take a seat behind the front or second row and keep a chair next to her for the Group Captain who waited rather quietly until the King would call for the lights to go out. Then the Group Captain would slip silently in to take his seat beside Princess Margaret, placing a rug about her knees if it was cold, and putting out an ash tray for her cigarette and holder. There was a definite atmosphere of contentment between the two as they would settle down to watch the film.

I always thought, “Good luck to them.” It used to amuse me a good deal on these occasions to observe the disapproval being expressed among older members of the Household to ward the Group Captain for his manners with the Princess. But that was the way the Princess wanted it; she was happy and so was he.

Comments: Frederick John Corbitt was Deputy Comptroller of Supply at Buckingham Palace. After leaving this employment he published an indiscreet memoir of his time with the British royal family, entitled Fit for a King (1956). The American edition, My Twenty Years at Buckingham Palace, had an extra chapter on the romance between Princess Margaret and Group Captain Peter Townsend, from which the above is taken.

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