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.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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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.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Hugh Smith, C707/393/1-2, 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, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q. Did you ever manage to go to the town to go to the theatre, music halls or concerts or the cinema? Nothing at all, not even a cinema?

A. Well you – I you go back – when I left school I used to – I had this bicycle you see and I used to to go into Braintree. And I’ll tell you this as I think I told you before, the first time I went to the cinema, you went in, you paid your sixpence and they sat you in the front. Sat you at the back, away from the picture then. The next time I went they sat you in the front. You see, they thought that – they thought that – that’s in the ordinary con – concert hall you used to – the – the – the highest prices were in the front if you remember, nearest the – nearest the people, and they thought the same thing was in the cinema but that – that didn’t act that way.

Q. The first time they’d shown the film you mean?

A. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Comments: Hugh Smith (1898-19??) was the son of a farmer from Kelvedon, Essex. A number of venues in the early days of cinema organised pricing in line with theatre practice before realising that the optimum seats were to the back rather than to the front. His memory probably dates from the late 1900s. Smith 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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The Other Americans

Source: Arthur Ruhl, The Other Americans; the cities, the countries, and especially the people of South America (New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp. 110-112 [orig. pub. 1908 as series of articles in Collier’s magazine]

Text: On Arequipa, too, broods the spell of the ancient Church. By the time I had dined the evening I arrived and started forth to look at the town, it lay dead and silent under its cold stars, the only sound the rush of mountain water in the open drains. But there was light in the cathedral, and within on the floor — for there were no pews — knelt, it seemed, all the women in the town, like so many black-birds in their sable mantos, whispering and crossing themselves. Here were the lights and the ambitious glitter and the antiphonal choruses echoing through the arches, yet outside no background of noise and busy worldliness to put it in its place. It was as though all the town were turned into a cloister; as though, having no opportunity to sin, it were determined to carry out the other end of the bargain at any rate, and fancy itself condemned.

The flesh was not altogether neglected, however, that night, and toward nine o’clock, a few squares away, a lonely little band, muffled in ponchos and neck-scarfs, tooted in the frosty air, calling the men-folks and the irreligious to an exhibition of the American biograph.

The latter has become almost an institution in parts of South America. Where no other theatrical entertainment is to be had, one will generally find a biograph show. “All the world ought to have one,” an advertisement in the paper read that night — “I. Families: For its modern repertoire of operas, zarzuelas, etc., to pass happy and diverting moments without going out of the house in the evening. II. Merchants: To attract the attention of the public to their establishments. III. Proprietors of haciendas: To amuse their workmen on Sundays.”

There was so much Indian blood in the audience that night, as is always the case in the interior, that it suggested a crowd of Japanese soldiers. Broad- cheeked and stolid they sat while the great world flickered before them. From Norway to Damascus we jumped, from Jerusalem to Paris and Madrid — the fountains playing at Versailles, Hebrews kissing the Wall of Lamentations, a “pony” ballet in a musical comedy, skeeing in Norway, with fresh-cheeked girls sweeping almost out of the picture and into the auditorium, the snow spraying from the skees, the wind blowing their hair across their faces, laughing as they came. There was a royal bull-fight at Madrid — even the sweating flanks of the bull panting up and down, the pretty bonnet of some tourist which, in the excitement, had insisted in bobbing in front of the camera.
I am not an agent for any picture-machine, but I must confess that it seemed rather wonderful to me, this very glitter and pulse-beat of Europe up here in a stoveless theatre among a lot of Indians. And I regret that the audience showed much more enthusiasm over a Byronic young man who gave an imitation of the battle of the Yalu on a guitar, and stood in the cobbled court outside wrapped in a velveteen cloak and gazed at us superciliously as we started home.

Comments: Arthur Brown Ruhl (1876-1935) was an American sports journalist and travel writer. Arequipa is in Peru.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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A Death in the Family

Source: James Agee, A Death in the Family (London: Peter Owen, 1965 – orig. pub. 1957), pp. 11-14

Text: At supper that night, as many times before, his father said, “Well, spose we go to the picture show.”

“Oh, Jay!” his mother said. “That horrid little man!”

“What’s wrong with him?” his father asked, not because he didn’t know what she would say, but so she would say it.

“He’s so nasty!” she said, as she always did. “So vulgar! With his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty little walk!”

His father laughed, as he always did, and Rufus felt that it had become rather an empty joke; but as always the laughter also cheered him; he felt that the laughter enclosed him with his father.

They walked downtown in the light of mother-of-pearl, to the Majestic, and found their way to seats by the light of the screen, in the exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume and dirty drawers, while the piano played fast music and galloping horses raised a grandiose flag of dust.

And there was William S. Hart with both guns blazing and his long, horse face and his long, hard lip and the great country rode away behind him as wide as the world. Then he made a bashful face at a girl and his horse raised its upper lip and everybody laughed, and then the screen was filled with a city and with the sidewalk of a side street of a city, a long line of palms and there was Charlie; everyone laughed the minute they saw him squattily walking with his toes out and his knees wide apart, as if he were chafed; Rufus’ father laughed, and Rufus laughed too. This time Charlie stole a whole bag of eggs and when a cop came along he hid them in the seat of his pants. Then he caught sight of a pretty woman and he began to squat and twirl his cane and make silly faces. She tossed her head and walked away with her chin up high and her dark mouth as small as she could make it and he followed her very busily, doing all sorts of things with his cane that made everybody laugh, but she paid no attention. Finally she stopped at a corner to wait for a streetcar, turning her back to him, and pretending he wasn’t even there, and after trying to get her attention for a while, and not succeeding, he looked out at the audience, shrugged his shoulders, and acted as if she wasn’t there. But after tapping his foot for a little, pretending he didn’t care, he became interested again, and with a charming smile, tipped his derby; but she only stiffened, and tossed her head again, and everybody laughed. Then he walked back and forth behind her, looking at her and squatting a little while he walked very quietly, and everybody laughed again; then he flicked hold of the straight end of his cane and, with the crooked end, hooked up her skirt to the knee, in exactly the way that disgusted Mama, looking very eagerly at her legs, and everybody laughed very loudly; but she pretended she had not noticed .Then he twirled his cane and suddenly squatted, bending the cane and hitching up his pants, and again hooked up her skirt so that you could see the panties she wore, ruffled almost like the edges of curtains, and everybody whooped with laughter, and she suddenly turned in rage and gave him a shove in the chest, and he sat down straight-legged, hard enough to hurt, and everybody whooped again; and she walked haughtily away up the street, forgetting about the streetcar, “mad as a hornet!” as his father exclaimed in delight; and there was Charlie, flat on his bottom on the sidewalk, and the way he looked, kind of sickly and disgusted, you could see that he suddenly remembered those eggs, and suddenly you remembered them too. The way his face looked, with the lip wrinkled off the teeth and the sickly little smile, it made you feel just the way those broken eggs must feel against your seat, as queer and awful as that time in the white pekay suit, when it ran down out of the pants-legs and showed all over your stockings and you had to walk home that way with people looking; and Rufus’s father nearly tore his head off laughing and so did everybody else, and Rufus was sorry for Charlie, having been so recently in a similar predicament, but the contagion of laughter was too much for him, ang he laughed too. And then it was even funnier when Charlie very carefully got himself from the sidewalk, with that sickly look even worse on his face, and put his cane under one arm, and began to pick at his pants, front and back, very carefully, with his little fingers crooked, as if it were too dirty to touch, picking the sticky cloth away from his skin. Then he reached behind him and took out the wet bag of broken eggs and opened it and peered in; and took out a broken egg and pulled the shell disgustedly apart, letting the elastic yolk slump from one half shell into the other, and dropped it, shuddering. Then he peered in again and fished out a whole egg, all slimy with broken walk, and polished it off carefully on his sleeve, and looked at it, and wrapped it in his dirty handkerchief, and put it carefully into the vest pocket of his little coat. Then he whipped out his cane from under his armpit and took command of it again, and with a final look at everybody, still sickly but at the same time cheerful, shrugged his shoulders and turned his back and scraped backward with his big shoes at the broken shells and the slimy bag, just like a dog, and looked back at the mess (everybody laughed again at that) and started to walk away, bending his cane deep with every shuffle, and squatting deeper, with his knees wider apart, than ever before, constantly picking at the seat of his pants with his left hand, and shaking one foot, then the other, and once gouging deep into his seat and then pausing and shaking his whole body, like a wet dog, and then walking on; while the screen shut over his small image a sudden circle of darkness: then the player-piano changed its tune, and the ads came in motionless color. They sat on into the William S. Hart feature to make sure why he had killed the man with the fancy vest – it was as they had expected by her frightened, pleased face after the killing; he had insulted a girl and cheated her father as well – and Rufus’ father said, “Well, … this is where we came in,” but they watched him kill the man all over again; then they walked out.

Comments: James Agee (1909-1955) was an American novelist, journalist and film critic. The passage above is the opening to chapter one of his posthumously-published novel A Death in the Family, which is set in 1915 in his home town of Knoxville, Tennessee. Despite the great detail given, the Charlie Chaplin film described is imaginary. The family had attended a continuous show, which is why the William S. Hart western comes round again. Player-pianos were not infrequently used in early cinema shows.

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Symbols of Science

Source: John Hall Ingham, ‘The Kinetoscope’, part of ‘Symbols of Science’, Pompeii of the West & other poems, (Philadelphia/London: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1903), pp. 159-160

Text: IV – THE KINETOSCOPE

See how the marble of the Phidian day,
The canvas warmed by Raphael,—embalm
A moment’s action in eternal calm:
This look, this gesture that the human clay
Hath long resigned,—will thus forever stay,
But motionless. Then wonder at this glass,
Wherein a thousand scenes that swiftly pass
Make one scene that will live for us alway.

The hours, days, years sweep on: each minute’s birth
Blends weal and woe, the bitter and the sweet.
Deem not thy own nor yet thy fellow’s worth
Weighed in a single triumph or defeat,—
One deed or one misdeed of sense or soul.
Flash Life’s full cycle forth: judge by the whole!

Comments: John Hall Ingham (1860-1931) was a American poet. The above poem is one part of ‘Symbols of Science’, whose seven sections are devoted to the Telephone, the Phonograph, the Trolley, the Kinetoscope, the Röntgen Ray (i.e. X-rays), Liquid Air and Wireless Telegraphy. It must be one of the first poems devoted to the subject of motion picture films.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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