Impressions of America

Source: T.C. Porter, Impressions of America (London: C. Arthur Pearson, Limited, 1899), pp. 193-194

Text: At dinner, some printed notices laid by our plates reminded us that the kinematoscope was at work in the town, showing in several separate scenes the fight between Fitz-Simmons and Corbett. Wishing to see how such exhibitions in America compared with those at home, I took a seat, perhaps rather too near the screen, and witnessed the struggle between the two athletes. The flicker was unpleasant throughout, which means that somehow or other more pictures should be thrown on the screen per second; and what is more trying to the eyes is the want of correct register in successive views, which causes the whole view on the screen to wobble up and down through a small distance, perhaps two or three inches. This often made it impossible to follow any rapid action, and I should think might be partly due to the nature of the film on which the pictures are taken. On the whole, I do not think this particular show was nearly so good as the “Biograph” entertainment in London.

One thing interested me a good deal. I noticed that a man sitting next to me viewed the pictures through two small holes, cut out in a sheet of dark-coloured paper. He told me it notably lessened the flicker. I tried the plan, and found it work, as my informant said: but it cut off too much light to my mind, so I did not use it long. Several of the scenes which happened just after the wrestling were shown. A man passing in the foreground looked up for an instant towards the audience with a tragically woe-begone expression, whilst the conductor or expositor, whichever he should be called — simply remarked, “That is Mr. So-and-so; he has just lost 70,000 dollars!” Perhaps that is not the exact sum mentioned; in any case it was large enough to provoke most unfeeling mirth on the part of the spectators.

Comments: Thomas Cunningham Porter (1860-1933) was a British physicist and Eton schoolmaster, member of the Royal Astronomical Society and the Physical Society of London. The world heavyweight boxing championship between James Corbett and Bob Fitzsimmons was held at Carson City, Nevada on 17 March 1897. The full fight was filmed by the Veriscope company using a 63mm-wide film format and was widely exhibited, the full film being 11,000 feet in length and lasting around an hour-and-a-half. There was no projector called a ‘Kinematoscope’. The screening took place in Colorado.

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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.

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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.

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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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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.

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An Englishwoman in the Philippines

Source: Mrs Campbell Dauncey [Enid Campbell Dauncey], An Englishwoman in the Philippines (New York, E.P. Dutton, 1906), pp. 96-99

Text: Well, we went last night to a cinematograph show, which has established itself in a big empty basement in the Calle Real, with a large sign outside, made of glass letters lighted behind with electricity, all in the most approved European style. The “show” lasts for half an hour, going on from six in the evening to about ten o’clock at night, and the proprietor makes about 300 pesos a week out of it, for he has very few expenses, and it is the sort of thing these people love. They come out when the show is over, stand about and expectorate for a few minutes, and then pay their cents and go in again and enjoy the same thing about five times running, probably without the faintest idea what it is all about from start to finish. You remember the dreadful extent of the habit of expectoration in Spain? You have heard about this failing in America? The Filipino is the epitome and concentration of the two.

Everything in the hall was boarded up to prevent any stray, non-paying enthusiast from getting a free peep; but all the same I saw several little brown forms in fluttering muslin shirts, outside, where the wall formed a side street, with eyes glued to the chinks of a door in rapt attention; though I don’t suppose the little chaps could really see anything but the extreme edge of the back row of benches.

In the hall we were saved from suffocation by two electric fans, and kept awake by a Filipino playing a cracked old piano with astonishing dexterity, rattling out the sort of tunes you hear in a circus and nowhere else on earth. I could not help wondering where he had picked them up, till it suddenly dawned on me that one, at least, gave me a faint hint that perhaps the performer might once have heard “Hiawatha” on a penny flute; so I concluded that he was playing “variations.” Pianos never sound very well out here, and I am told it is difficult to keep them bearable at all, for the chords have an unmusical way of going rusty in the damp season, or else snapping with a loud ping.

The moving pictures were not at all bad, rather jumpy at times, but the subjects really quite entertaining, and all the slides, from the appearance of the figures on them, made in Germany, I imagine. The series wound up with an interminable fairy tale in coloured pictures, really a sort of short play, and in this one could see the German element still more apparent, in the castles, the ancient costumes, and the whole composition of the thing. I don’t suppose the natives in the audience had the wildest idea what it was all about, or what the king and queen, the good fairy, and the wicked godmother, were meant to be, probably taking the whole story for some episode in the life of a Saint.

The audience were really more amusing to me than the pictures, and I was quite pleased each time the light went up so that I could have a good look at them. In the front rows, which were cheap, as they were so close to the screen, sat the poorer people in little family groups, with clean camisas and large cigars, the women’s hair looking like black spun glass. Our places were raised a little above them, and were patronised by the swells who had paid 40 cents — a shilling. Amongst the elect were one or two English and other foreigners; some fat Chinamen, with their pigtails done up in chignons, and wearing open-work German straw hats, accompanied by their native wives and little slant-eyed children; a few missionaries and schoolma’ams in coloured blouses and untidy coiffures à la Gibson Girl; and one or two U.S.A. soldiers, with thick hair parted in the middle, standing treat to their Filipina girls – these last in pretty camisas, and very shy and happy. A funny little Filipino boy near us, rigged up in a knickerbocker suit and an immense yellow oil-skin motor-cap, was rather frightened at old Tuyay, who had insisted on coming to the show and sitting at our feet. When she sniffed the bare legs of this very small brown brother, he lost all his dignity and importance, and clung blubbing to his little flat-faced mother. Poor old Tuyay was dreadfully offended; she came and crawled right under C—-‘s chair, where she lay immovable till the performance was over.

Comments: Mrs Campbell Dauncey (born Enid Rolanda Gambier) (1875-1939) was an English travel writer and magazine contributor. She visited the Philippines over 1904-05, at the time of the American occupation following the Philippine–American War of 1899-1902. Her book is written as a series of letters; the above extract comes from a letter dated 4 February 1905, written from Iloilo. ‘Hiawatha’ refers to the The Song of Hiawatha cantatas written by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.

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Old Glory

Source: Jonathan Raban, Old Glory: An American Voyage (London: Collins, 1981), pp. 94-95

Text: I tried the wardrobe, a handsome reproduction piece of pine colonial. The drawers, when I pulled at them, turned out to be doors, and opened on an enormous colour television. I found my weather report. Nothing does so much justice to the gargantuan scale of American life as its national weather maps. In Europe, one is allowed to see the weather only as scraps and fragments: a cake-slice of a depression here; a banded triangle of a ridge of high pressure there. In the United States I was enthralled by the epic sweep of whole weather systems as they rolled across the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic, or coasted down from the Arctic Circle, or swirled up from Mexico and Cuba. The weathermen tapped their maps with sticks. Without betraying the slightest flicker of wonder or concern, they announced that people were being frozen to death in Butte, roasted in Flagstaff and blown off their feet in Tallahassee. Each day they rattled off every conceivable variety of climactic extremity in a blasé drawl. I’d never seen so much weather at once, and was deeply impressed. I shivered vicariously for the Montanans, sweated for the Texans and ran for shelter with the Floridans.

Comments: Jonathan Raban (1942 – ) is a British travel writer and novelists. Old Glory records a journey he takes down the Mississippi River, including this visit to a Minneapolis hotel.

Mornings in Mexico

Source: D.H. Lawrence, Mornings in Mexico (London: Martin Secker, 1927), pp. 98-100

Text: The audience in the theatre is a little democracy of the ideal consciousness. They all sit there, gods of the ideal mind, and survey with laughter or tears the realm of actuality.

Which is very soothing and satisfying so long as you believe that the ideal mind is the actual arbiter.

So long as you instinctively feel that there is some supreme, universal Ideal Consciousness swaying all destiny.

When you begin to have misgivings, you sit rather uneasily on your plush seat.

Nobody really believes that destiny is an accident. The very fact that day keeps on following night, and summer winter, establishes the belief in universal law, and from this to a belief in some great hidden mind in the universe is an inevitable step for us.

A few people, the so-called advanced, have grown uneasy in their bones about the Universal Mind. But the mass are absolutely convinced. And every member of the mass is absolutely convinced that he is part and parcel of this Universal Mind. Hence his joy at the theatre. His even greater joy at the cinematograph.

In the moving pictures he has detached himself even further from the solid stuff of earth. There, the people are truly shadows: the shadow-pictures are thinkings of his mind. They live in the rapid and kaleidoscopic realm of the abstract. And the individual watching the shadow-spectacle sits a very god, in an orgy of abstraction, actually dissolved into delighted, watchful spirit. And if his best girl sits beside him, she vibrates in the same ether, and triumphs in the same orgy of abstraction. No wonder this passion of dramatic abstraction becomes a lust.

That is our idea of entertainment.

Comments: The British novelist and short story writer David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930) makes numerous references to the cinema in his writings, usually from a hostile point of view but clearly based on knowledge of cinemagoing. The essays were written during his time in Mexico, but the picturegoing described in this essay – which goes on to analyse the Pueblo Indian concept of entertainment – seems to relate to moving pictures anywhere, not Mexico as such.

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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.”

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An American Lady in Paris

Source: Mary Mayo Crenshaw (ed.), An American Lady in Paris, 1828-1829: The Diary of Mrs. John Mayo (Boston, Houghton Mifflin company, 1927), pp. 50-51

Text: One fine morning we went to see the Diorama. This novel exhibition is intended to show correct delineations of nature and art, and differs from a panorama in that, instead of a circular view of the objects represented, you have the whole picture at once in perspective. The interior of the building resembles a small theatre and such is the effect of the various modifications of light and shade that the optical deception is complete. Four different pieces are at present exhibited: The passage of the Alps by Mount Saint Gothard. Nothing can be more picturesque and romantic, it is the most perfect representation of nature that can be conceived. You behold in the distance a part of Saint Gothard, covered with eternal snows, the blue summit of Val Briditto on the left and on the right a part of Monte Piottino. The length seems immeasurable, and now and then an eagle is seen wheeling round and round until it is lost in the clouds, which is done by some sort of machinery which we cannot discover. There is water really falling down the cataract, and you hear the noise of it and see the mist rising from it. I am convinced the reality can be no more stupendous than this representation. The next piece is a view of the interior of a cathedral at Rome, the third is a part of the ruins of the Coliseum, which Mr. Mahan (one of the gentlemen who went with us) said was perfect. He had recently returned from Italy, where he had seen it, and he was struck with the truth of the execution. The fourth and last was a beautiful exhibition of the Place of Saint Mark in the city of Venice. They were all extremely fine, but nothing in my opinion could be compared to the scene in the Alps.

Comments: Mrs. John Mayo, born Abigail De Hart (1761-1843) was the daughter of promiment US lawyer John De Hart and was married to Virginia planter John Mayo. Although her publication is given to be a ‘diary’ there are no dates and really a travel book. The diorama was a visual spectacle presented in an elaborate theatre, able to accommodate around 350 people. The audience would viewed a large-scale landscape painting on a screen 70ftx45ft whose appearance would alter through the manipulation of lighting and scenic effects. A turntable would then rotate the audience around to view a second painting. The Diorama premiered in Paris in 1822 and remained on show to 1828.

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