Illustration accompanying New York Sun article on the debut of the Panoptikon
Source: ‘Magic Lantern Kinetoscope’, The Sun [New York], 22 April 1895, p. 2
Text: MAGIC LANTERN KINETOSCOPE
Edison Says Latham’s Device is Old and Promises to Beat It
An exhibition of what Edison considers a Kinetoscope so arranged as to throw pictures, enlarged, upon a screen was given yesterday afternoon at 35 Frankfort street by Woodville Latham. He calls his arrangement the Pantoptikon. The illustration gives a very good idea of what it looks like. The continuous film of photographic pictures with slots cut in the edges to catch the teeth of a sprocket that keep it from slipping is reeled in front of the electric light of a sort of magic lantern and so the pictures are thrown successively on the screen with sufficient rapidity to produce the well-known kinetoscope or zoetrope effect of animated pictures.
The pictures shown yesterday portrayed the antics of some boys at play in a park. They wrestled, jumped, fought and tumbled over one another. Near where the boys were romping a man sat reading a paper and smoking a pipe. Even the puffs of smoke could be plainly seen, as could also the man’s movements when he took a handkerchief from his pocket. The whole picture on the screen yesterday was about the size of a standard window sash but the size is a matter of expense and adjustment. Mr. Latham’s camera will take forty pictures a second and it can be set up anywhere in the street or on the top of a house.
Mr. Latham says that he will try to obtain a patent on his apparatus which thus enables the exhibitor to show kinetoscope effects to a large audience at one time.
A Sun reporter saw Mr Edison last evening and described the Latham machine to him. Hearing the description, Mr. Edison said:
“That is the kinetoscope. This strip of film with the pictures, which you have here, is made exactly as the film I use. The holes in it are for the spokes of the sprocket, which I devised.
“The throwing of the pictures on a screen was the very first thing I did with the kinetoscope. I didn’t think much of that, because the pictures were crude and there seemed to me to be no commercial value in that feature of the machine.
“In two or three months, however, we will have the kinetophone perfected, and then we will show you screen pictures. The figures will be life size and the sound of the voice can be heard as the movements of the figures are seen.
“If Mr Latham can produce life-size pictures now as we will do with the kinetophone that’s a different matter.
“When Latham says he can set up his kinetograph anywhere and take the pictures for his machine, he means that he has simply a portable kinetograph.
“We have had one of those for six months. The reasons that our pictures all had to be taken here at first was that our kinetograph was unwieldy.
“If they exhibit this machine, improve on what I have done, and call it a kinetoscope, that’s all right. I will be glad of whatever improvements Mr. Latham may make.
“If they carry the machine around the country, calling it by some other name, that’s a fraud, and I shall prosecute whoever does it. I’ve applied for patents long ago.”
Comments: Major Woodville Latham and his sons Grey and Otway exhibited the first public demonstration of motion pictures projected on a screen in the United States on 21 April 1895. Their machine, billed as the Panoptikon, took place at their company offices at 35 Frankfort Street, New York. The film they exhibited had been taken on the roof of the shop (not in a park as this account states), with Woodville Latham portraying the man with a newspaper and pipe. Thomas Edison’s chief engineer on his own motion picture work with the Kinetoscope peepshow, William Kennedy-Laurie Dickson, had been secretly aiding the Lathams. Edison was only able achieve film projection on 23 April 1896, with his Vitascope projector (devised by Thomas Armat and Charles Jenkins). The Lathams began commercial exhibition of what was renamed the Eidoloscope on 20 May 1895, but the projection quality was poor and it was not a success.
Albert Smith lecturing at the Egyptian Hall, London: ‘The Ascent of Mont Blanc’, Illustrated London News, 25 December 1852, p. 565
Source: Anon., ‘Mr Albert Smith’s “Ascent of Mont Blanc”‘, Illustrated London News, 10 April 1852, p. 291
Text: Mr. Smith’s Lecture at the Egyptian Hall, on his now celebrated ascent of Mont Blanc, with Mr. Beverley’s magnificent illustrations, increases daily and nightly in attraction. They are to be classed among the few things that turn out better than expected, and are thus more highly valued on acquaintance than before. We this week give another of Mr. Beverley’s pictures. It takes the story of the adventurous tourists further in advance, and presents them on the Grands Mulets rocks by sunset. We have to imagine the travellers safely passed over the dangerous crevice in the Glacier du Tacconay, by means of the ladder, and then scrambling up the steep ice-cliff, tied together, and pulled up by a cord one after the other, until, braving much peril, they attained a desirable station. Here they came to the scene of our Illustration—two or three conical rocks which rise from island peaks from the snow and ice at the head of the Glacier des Bossons, and which, were they loftier, would probably be termed aiguilles. They are chosen for a halting-place, not less from their convenient station on the route than from their situation out of the way of the avalanches. The scene and the sunset are powerfully delineated and painted in the following fine piece of description:—
The Grand Mulets
Below us, and rising against our position, was the mighty field of the glacier—a huge prairie, if I may term it so, of snow and ice, with vast irregular undulations, which gradually merged into an apparently smooth unbroken tract, as their distance increased. Towering in front of us, several thousand feet higher, and two or three miles away, yet still having the strange appearance of proximity that I have before alluded to, was the hugs Dône du Goûté—the mighty cupola usually mistaken by the valley travellers for the summit of Mont Blanc. Up the glacier, on my left, was an enormous and ascending valley of ice, which might have been a couple of miles across; and in its course were two or three steep banks of snow, hundreds of feet in height, giant steps by which the level landing-place of the Grand Plateau was to be reached.
The sun at length went down behind the Aiguille du Goûté, and then, for two hours, a scene of such wild and wondrous beauty—of such inconceivable and unearthly splendour—burst upon me, that, spell-bound and almost trembling with the emotion its magnificence called forth—with every sense, and feeling, and thought absorbed by its brilliancy, I saw far more than the realisation of the most gorgeous visions that opium or hasheish could evoke, accomplished. At first, everything about us—above, around, below—the sky, the mountain and the lower peaks—appeared one uniform creation of burnished gold, so brightly dazzling, that, now our veils were removed, the eye could scarcely bear the splendour. As the twilight gradually crept over the lower world, the glow became still more vivid; and presently, as the blue mists rose in the valleys, the tops of the higher mountains looked like islands rising from a filmy ocean—an archipelago of gold. By degrees this metallic lustre was softened into tints—first orange, and then bright, transparent crimson, along the horizon, rising through the different hues, with prismatic regularity, until, immediately above us, the sky was a deep pure blue, merging towards the east into glowing violet. The snow took its colour from these changes; and every portion on which the light tell was soon tinged with pale carmine, of a shade similar to that which snow at times assumes, from some imperfectly explained cause, at high elevations—such, indeed, as I had seen, in early summer, upon the Furka and Faulhorn. These beautiful hues grew brighter as the twilight below increased in depth ; and it now came marching up the valley of the glaciers until it reached our resting-place. Higher and higher still, it drove the lovely glory of the sunlight before it, until at last the vast Dône du Goûté and the summit itself stood out, icelike and grim, in the cold evening air, although the horizon still gleamed with a belt of rosy light.
Although this superb spectacle had faded away, the scene was still even more than striking. The fire which the guides had made, and which was now burning and crackling on a ledge of rock a little below us, threw its flickering light, with admirable effect, upon our band. The men had collected round the blaze, and were making some chocolate, as they sang patois ballads and choruses: they were all evidently as completely at home as they would have been in their own chalets. We had arranged ourselves as conveniently as we could so as not to inconvenience one another, and had still nothing more than an ordinary wrapper over us: there had been no attempt to build the tent with batons and canvas as I had read in some of the Mont Blanc narratives— the starry heaven was our only roofing. F. and P. were already fast asleep. W. was still awake, and I was too excited even to close my eyes in the attempt to get a little repose. We talked for awhile, and then he also was silent.
The stars had come out, and, looking over the plateau, I soon saw the moonlight lying cold and silvery on the summit, stealing slowly down the very track by which the sunset glories had passed upward and away. But it came too tardily that I knew it would be hours before we derived any actual benefit from the light. One after another the guides fell asleep, until only three or four remained round the embers of the fire, thoughtfully smoking their pipes. And then silence, impressive beyond expression, reigned over our isolated world. Often and often, from Chamouni, I had looked up at evening towards the darkening position of the Grands Mulets, and thought almost with shuddering, how awful it must be for men to pass the night in such a remote, eternal, and frozen wilderness, And now I was lying there—in the very heart of its ice-bound and appalling solitude. In such close communion with nature in her grandest aspect, with no trace of the actual living world beyond the were speck that our little party formed, the mind was carried far away from its ordinary trains of thought—a solemn emotion of mingled awe and delight, and yet self-perception of abject nothingness, alone rose above every other feeling. A vast untrodden region of cold, and silence, and death, stretched out, far and away from us, on every side; but above, heaven, with its countless, watchful eyes, was over all!
We may safely leave the picture and this glowing description to commend themselves to the intelligent reader. Both, in their way, are right excellent works of art, and Mr. Smith rises in our estimation as an author, for having delivered himself so nobly on a theme requiring and tasking the higher faculties for its due treatment. He has indeed written eloquently on the sublime.
Comments: Albert Richard Smith (1816-1860) was a British entertainer, novelist and mountaineer. In 1851 he successfully ascended Mont Blanc, and a show devised and presented by Smith the following year about the expedition, at London’s Egyptian Hall, became one of the most renowned and popular entertainments of its time. The show, entitled Mr Albert Smith’s Ascent of Mont Blanc, opened on 15 March 1852. Smith’s talk of his adventures was illustrated by moving panoramas, painted by William Beverley, which moved horizontally for the section covering Smith journey to the Alps, and vertically for the ascent. The show ran for seven seasons six years, with each new season changing elements of of the presentation. The text describes the first season of the show; the illustration at the top of this entry depicts the first season, though it was published at the time of the second season (when a Swiss chalet was added to the staging, framing the panorama). The image within the text shows the Grand Mulets and was originally published with the article (on the following page), referred to in the opening paragraph.
Source: S[amuel] Begg, ‘A Hospital-Ceiling as a Screen for Moving Pictures: a Cinema for Bedridden Wounded Soldiers at a Base in France’, The Illustrated London News, 10 August 1918, p. 1, reproduced at http://www.illustratedfirstworldwar.com/item/a-hospital-ceiling-as-a-scren-for-movig-pictures-a-cinema-for-bedridde-iln0-1918-0810-0001-002/
Comments: Samuel Begg (1854-1936) was a British artist, who was raised in New Zealand, and who became well-known as an illustrator for the British magazine The Illustrated London News. The text that accompanied it says:
A novel use of the cinematograph has been introduced into certain American base hospitals in France. For the amusement of wounded men who are unable to sit up or leave their beds, pictures are thrown on the ceiling above their beds by means of portable projectors. Thus they are enabled to enjoy the antics of Charlie Chaplin and other heroes and heroines of the “movies,” like their more fortunate comrades, who can move about and attend the ordinary type of cinema entertainment. How great a boon this ingenious device has proved to bedridden patients may be easily realised by anyone who has ever spent long and tedious hours in bed watching the vagaries of flies crawling on a ceiling.
The image and text were based on this original published in the American magazine Popular Mechanics, July 1918 p. 163 (unnamed artist):
Source: Walter Anthony, extract from ‘The Growth of the Silent Drama’, The San Francisco Call, 30 April 1911, p. 29
Insert from the illustration that accompanies this article, showing nickelodeon audience types, drawn by the theatre’s manager, Art Hickman
Text: A matinee audience at a nickelodeon is interesting. I noticed at the Garrick five baby buggies, three of them occupied by pretty youngsters sound asleep, and over in a dark corner the mother of another was rendering such substantial consolation as infants cry for. An invalid chair was at the end of the aisle set so that the wan occupant, while not in the way of the passerby, could still see the pictures. Hickman said, “he comes every other day.” The “audience” was quiet and well behaved. It applauded its favorites, laughed at John Bunny, was curious at the exhibition of a picture showing what a drop of water contains – mightily magnified bugs of nightmare forms. It traveled to India for 15 minutes and watched a tragedy develop to a conclusion. “Strangely enough,” said Hickman, “a nickelodeon audience doesn’t necessarily want a play to end happily. It wants it to end logically, and it doesn’t especially care for spectacles involving hundreds of supers, but is content with a quick story told plainly and with a point to it, well worked out. Travel scenes are popular; outdoor cowboy pictures go well, but mostly the people seem to want stories, and so the nickelodeon has given a new lease of life to popular plays of 15 years ago, like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘The Octoroon,’ which are put on in tabloid form and explained, here and there, with a flash paragraph which puts the observer in touch with the action.”
Comments: Walter Anthony (1872-1945) was an American journalist who went on to become a screenwriter and film title writer (The Man Who Laughs, The Cat and the Canary, The Phantom of the Opera). Art Hickman (1886-1930) was manager of the Garrick Theatre, San Francisco. He went on to become a big band leader. John Bunny was a highly popular American film comedian. This is an extract from a longer article which also covers motion picture history, production and the cinema business.
Saturday afternoon at the Biograph, Victoria [book illustration]
Source: Geoffrey Fletcher, The London Nobody Knows (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966) [orig. pub. 1962], pp. 112-114
Text: Early cinemas of the Edwardian period and up to the Great War occurred in all the London suburbs; these, often family owned, have been less able to stand up to the competition of television than the larger circuits, and consequently many have disappeared or else been modernized and spoiled like the Classic in King’s Road, Chelsea. Many of these cinemas were of a delightfully ham-fisted Baroque, with fat Tuscan columns that appeared to be in danger of being squashed by the loads that they supported. This exaggerated entasis was equalled by an exaggerated abundant decorations – swags, festoons, and the like carried out in stucco or terracotta. I have never been fortunate enough to find a Gothic cinema, though Tudor-style ones occurred. Cinemas followed the pattern of shapes evolved by the theatre and were naturally built in the prevailing style of the day, i.e. Edwardian Baroque, redolent of Imperial expansion and big cigars. Fortunately the earliest cinema in London – the earliest in the country, in fact – still survives in Wilton Road, Victoria – the Biograph, originally the Bioscope. My drawing of it is reproduced on p. 113. Pimlico people have been ‘going to the Bio’ since it was built in 1905 by an American, George Washington Grant. The Bio still has its classical façade, and apart from changes in the equipment, the only alteration was when the auditorium was enlarged, the new wall being a replica of the old. But the gas jets have gone and the commissionaires with heavy moustaches – gone like the horse buses that used to run along the Vauxhall Bridge Road. When my drawing was made, the customers were watching The Fiend from Outer Space instead of Mary Pickford as the little slavey with a heart of gold.
Inside, two Corinthian columns (illustrated at the head of this page), wallpapered with Anaglypta below, support the projection box, the width of which is that of the cinema in 1905. Below the ‘ceiling’ formed by the box runs and Edwardian egg and dart moulding – a typical early cinema decorations. In the foyer a framed copy of the Biograph Weekly News, distributed gratis. This forms rich reading at the present day. The issue in the frame is that for the week commencing 16 September 1929, and has the headline: ‘Talkies Coming Here!!’ A letter from the manager announces ‘our first talking picture’ – Show Boat on 30 September. Elsewhere in the paper a newsy item states that ‘workmen were labouring day and night to bring you the greater talkies as soon as possible’. Other forthcoming attractions of that period included William Boyd in The Cop and a supporting film called The Mystery of the Louvre. Betty Balfour was to appear in Paradise and Rin Tin Tin in The Million Dollar Collar. Prices were 2s., 1s. 3d., and 9d., children at reduced rates, ‘special children’s matinee 4d.’ (I remember those children’s 4d. matinees; how noisy they were and the way the films rained! And those serials, ending each installment on a fantastic note of drama – the heroine hanging by her finger-tips over a well of crocodiles. The week which had to elapse before her fate could be known was unendurable, but next time she simply had got out, one never knew how, and we were building up to a new crisis even more hair-raising than last week’s dilemma.)
Comments: Geoffrey Fletcher (1923-2004) was a British artist and illustrator, best know for his elegiac 1962 book The London Nobody Knows which was turned into a documentary film in 1967. However, the Biograph was not London’s oldest cinema, nor the country’s oldest, nor was it founded in 1905 – and it was never known as the Bioscope. It was founded in June 1909 as one of the Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd chain. It changed its name from the Electric Theatre to Biograph at some point in the 1910s. As Allen Eyles and Keith Skone point out, in their London’s West End Cinemas (1984), the mistake comes from a wholly erroneous plaque displayed in its foyer. The Biograph closed on 4 August 1983. There was no film entitled The Fiend from Outer Space (possibly he may be thinking of the 1958 film Fiend Without a Face).
Illustration that accompanies the original article
Source: Charles Darnton, ‘This City has over 500 Moving Picture Shows: Do YOU Know WHY?’ The Evening World [New York], 16 January 1909, p. 9
Text: “I like to see a story.”
A long tramp bad led to a short answer. And the woman with a shawl about her head and a wide-eyed child clutching her hand was probably right about the appeal of the moving picture.
How wide this appeal has become may be judged from the fact that there are more than 500 moving picture shows in New York. From one end of the town to the other the “manager,” with little more than a lantern to his name, is holding the screen up to nature and occasionally turning a trick that goes nature one better. Although vaudeville audiences take the moving picture as their cue to move toward home, true lovers of art in action take all they can get for five or ten cents and then come back for more next day.
They like to see a story.
That’s the explanation – thanks to the woman with a shawl over her head. They feed upon mechanical fiction. They read as they look. Sensational melodrama, with the villain doing his worst in a plug hat, is an old story to them. They know it by heart. And so, theatres in which virtue used to take a back seat until the last act have felt the power of moving pictures. Only one remains to tell the blood-and-thunder tale in all Manhattan and it was obliged to get down to “workingmen’s prices” before it could compete with its noiseless rivals. From the start the moving picture show had a double advantage – lower prices and a daily change of bill. Then it went further and produced “talking pictures,” but in most cases this feature has been done away with audiences preferring to take their plays in peace and not be disturbed by the man behind the megaphone. What they want is action. Their attitude goes to show that it is always well to leave something to the imagination. They like to see a story from their own point of view.
In New York nearly every neighborhood has its “show,” and the craze has spread throughout the country until no town is too small to do the moving picture honor. Here, according to the word of a Sixth avenue showman, “picture fiends,” who keep a record of what they have seen and protest against “repeaters,” are an outgrowth of the craze. Their criticism of the Sunday exhibitions at which only educational pictures may be shown, in accordance with the stupid law, is often expressed in the simple term “Rotten!” They insist upon getting action for their money. The pictures must get “a move on” to win success. Patrons of the picture-drama want to see a story with plenty of action in it. From the Bowery to the Bronx tastes and pictures are much the same.
Bowery Wants Bank Robberies
But hero and there of course individual taste asserts itself. The proprietor of a little hall on the Bowery confessed that while his clientele showed a due appreciation of comedy and tragedy they had from time to time expressed a deep yearning for bank robberies. Unfortunately safe-cracking is not included in the picture-maker’s repertoire, and so the regretful “manager” has not been able to supply the demand for that particular form of art. However his audience made the best of things on a recent afternoon and seemed rather pleased with “A Corsican Revenge.”
The Corsican who caused all the trouble by killing a fellow fisherman and then got knifed by his victim’s wife, a husky lady with a fine stroke, looked like Caruso in “Cavalleria Rusticana.” According to the hospitable custom of the country, she was obliged to entertain her husband’s slayer when he sought refuge in her home. But once she got him outside she made short work of him. The lively little tragedy was worked out with neatness and dispatch. Five or six Chinamen who could qualify as Broadway first-nighters without putting on boiled shirts watched “A Corsican Revenge” without the slightest change of expression. In fact, the audience made no sign until two energetic gentlemen were flashed upon the scene and began kicking each other in the stomach. This light comedy was received with roars of laughter. The drummer emphasized each kick with a thump and the “professor” came down hard on the piano. “Comedy” won the occasions.
A placard on the wall warned the visitor to “Beware of Pickpockets.” Another made this polite request: Gentlemen Will Please Refrain from using Profane Language. The gentlemen did.
Accordion Breathes Hard.
In front of another temple of art across the street was the sign: “Positively No Free List During This Engagement.” You had to have a nickel to get inside. Down in front sat a Bowery artist with an accordion that was drawing its breath with great difficulty. During the overture he addressed facetious remarks to the audience.
“Hey, there!” yelled one of the crowd. “Cut out that comedy and give us some music.”
“Anyt’ing doin’?” inquired the performer, holding out his hat. “Come on, now,” he urged, ” trow in a little sumt’in fer de dear ones wot are dead and gone.”
“Ferget it!” yelled the unsympathetic mob.
“The Gallant Guardsman” presently drew attention from the accordion artist. At the first appearance of a Spanish soldier on the screen the accordion began wheezing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” When the guardsman rescued a dancing girl from the embraces of a low-browed citizen the tune changed to “Marching Through Georgia.” A dash of “Trovatore” cheered the guardsman on his way. The low-browed citizen waited behind a wall and killed the first soldier that came along. But he got the wrong man and the hero was about to be shot when the barefooted dancing girl ran to the rescue and explained the situation in a few hand-made gestures.
The audience followed the story with intense interest, and only the accordion was heard until a picture showing a young man who was carried off in a wardrobe appealed to the Bowery sense of humor. The hero of this adventure found himself in the bedroom of a loving couple who finally accepted his explanation and then had him sit down to supper with them.
French but Chaste.
All of the pictures seen on the lower east and west sides were French but chaste. Nothing more shocking than a murder occurred in any of them.
At a place in Grand street “The Peasant’s Love” was the chief feature of the bill. All went well until the peasant’s sweetheart promised to meet a newly arrived sailor “down by the pond.” His note to her was revealed on the screen. But the jealous peasant got to the pond first and when the girl came along he sneaked up behind her and threw her into the pond. The inevitable gendarmes first arrested the sailor, of course, but after a long chase they nabbed the guilty peasant.
Nearly all of the pictures showed gendarmes in pursuit of somebody. The principal figure was usually obliged to “run for it,” and suspense was kept up until the capture of the fugitive. The “story” was kept on the jump.
In “The Magic Boots” a happy individual was seen eluding his pursuers by walking on water, telegraph wires – wherever his fancy led him. His wonderful boots defied the French and all other laws. But down in Grand street it was the serious pictures that gripped the spectators.
“Dremma,” answered one manager when asked what appealed to his patrons most of all. And a woman whom he described as one of his best customers said: “I like to see a story. The funny pictures – they are funny, yes, but you don’t remember them. I like to remember what I see. You don’t forget a story – it goes home with you.”
Take Them Seriously.
This serious interest in story-pictures was apparent in other halls along Grand street. But a desire to be cheerful under all circumstances was suggested by this announcement over the door of one place: “The Bride of Lammermoor – A Tragedy of Bonnie Scotland.”
In a Mulberry street “theatre,” conducted under Italian auspices, the pictures were similar to those in Grand street. A coal stove filled the place with gas but no one seemed to notice it. Another Italian place in West Houston street sported this sign: “Caruso Moving Pictures.” But Caruso wasn’t among those present on the screen. The name, apparently, was merely a delicate tribute to the Metropolitan’s sobbing tenor.
Bessie Wynn’s name was prominently displayed in front of an imposing theatre in Fourteenth street. But Bessie was there only in voice and picture. You could recognize her picture but her voice had to be taken for granted. When they canned Bessie’s voice they evidently forgot to screw down the lid, and so it had soured and curdled and lost its flavor.
“The Wild Horse” filled up on oats at the Manhattan Theatre and developed from a weak skinny nag into a fat and fearful animal that kicked everything to pieces. It was the “big laugh.”
Harlem Likes to Laugh.
But here as elsewhere serious pictures with now and then a shooting or stabbing incident for excitement outnumbered the comic subjects. Harlem showed the greatest fondness for funny pictures. The Bronx appeared to be more serious minded.
Some of the places open their doors as early as 9 in the morning and keep going until after 11 at night. The shows are continuous and so are the privileges that go with a ticket. Only the pictures are compelled to move.
Comment: Among the films described are Âmes corses [The Corsican’s Revenge] (France 1908 p.c. Eclair) and Le galant garde français [The Gallant Guardsman] (France 1908 p.c. Pathé Frères). Bessie Wynn was an American singer and stage comedienne. The mention of ‘talking pictures’ presumably refers to a short vogue in a few theatres for having actors speak behind the screen rather than synchronised sound films (i.e. films, usually of singers, synchronised to a gramophone recording).
Source: ‘The Picture-Palaces of London’, The Daily Chronicle, 9 April 1910
Text: The Picture-Palaces of London. Have They Comes to Stay?
Pricked out in electric lights, on an imposing brand new structure of white stucco, you read the words “Cinematograph Theatre.” You wonder where the thing has come from. Like Aladdin’s Palace, it seems to have sprung up in a single night. On yesterday there was a block of old houses on that very spot. You remember looking in a the greengrocer’s window as you sauntered home to dinner, wondering what kind of fruit the children would like.
Well, no, it could not have been yesterday, but it was certainly the week before last!
A few weeks later the white stucco erection appears to have budded. There are two of the now, side by side. The matter is worth further enquiry, so you cross over, and read the “bill of fare” at either door. The rival attendants, gorgeously arrayed, glance at you with enticing eyes, but you regard not their mute entreaties. Then you are probably taken by surprise. The charm of the things catches you. Perhaps it is best set down as a free-and-easiness. Go when you will, after the door is opened, you are never late; never in anxiety over a seat. The show goes on continuously. There is a set of pictures for the day – six perhaps, or eight – and if you miss numbers one and two, why, you will see them for certain after number eight.
Entertainment Ad Lib.
The set may last an hour, to an hour and a half, but you need not go out at that time unless you have a mind to. You may sit still, if you choose, and see the whole set over again. I dare say you won’t, unless it is pouring wet outside, and you have forgotten your umbrella, but it is something to know that you can.
The cinematograph theatre fills a gap in our scheme of amusement. It may be a small gap, but still it was there, and now it is filled. It catches the leakage from the theatres and halls, the unfortunately who are sent sorrowfully away by the unwelcome announcement of “House full.”
It gives the tired sightseer an hour’s respite from the noise and fatigue of the streets, and in some cases it dangles the tempting bait of “afternoon tea[“] gratis before this type of prospective patron. To the regular theatre it stands in the same relationship as a “snack” does to a formal luncheon. It is the resource of the man with only an hour to spare, the lady who doesn’t like to be out late, the girl whose papa doesn’t approve of theatres, the little boy who must be in bed at six, the hospital nurse who only has two hours off duty, and the family party from the provinces, whose train starts at ten sharp.
Oh, and one must not forget the lovers! Humble lovers, perhaps, with a few shillings to spare. one sees them often in the sixpenny seats, holding hands in the friendly dark. They watch the films go spinning on, with absent eyes and beatific smiles. They haven’t come there for the show, but to find a corner to sit in, out of the wet. One can’t always go round and round the Inner Circle with a penny ticket without catching the eye of the cute conductor!
The Aristocratic Sixpence.
There are differences in the quality of these as of all other types of amusement. There are the second-raters in the outlying streets, just beyond the radius of West-end style. The modest sum of threepence will gain you admittance here, and if you indulge yourself to the tune of sixpence you are “a swell.” The pictures are usually quite up to the average, but the environment is not. The dark is not friendly, but apprehensive. One is suspicious of one’s neighbour, and keeps a tight clutch on one’s belongings. There is every prospect of carrying away with you less than you ought, and more than you bargained for. Reminiscences of the place are forced upon you next day by the odour of stale and indifferent tobacco that clings to your clothes. As you near the vicinity of Oxford-street there is a decided attempt at luxury in the internal appointments of the “Palaces.” The goods are not all in the shop window. Decidedly, too, the “orchestra” plays better. It consists usually of a girl with a piano, the latter very much at her mercy. In some of the theatres visited by the writer, it would be only charitable to suppose that the lady pianist had fallen a victim to the prevalent disease newly christened by a London daily as “The Hump.” She played in spasms, with a reckless disregard of time and tune, and an obvious idea that her function was merely to drown out the silence.
In the West they have changed all that, and, incidentally, the prices have gone up. We may now pay two shillings for a “fauteuil” (which is a horrid, awkward word to spell, and means exactly the same as seat, anyway!). Along with the fauteuil we have the advantage of being shone upon by rose-shaded electric lights, vastly improving to the complexion, and of feasting our eyes on the artistic decorations of the walls when we tire of the pictures.
People do not laugh so boisterously here as they do in the north and east. At most they chuckle. On the whole, there is a remarkable absence of all kinds of noise in these cinematograph theatres. Applause seems to be a thing unknown. It is a relief to hear the voice of a child imperiously demanding, as the name of the film appears, “Read it, mother. Read it quick!”
Child’s Living Picture Book.
The little folks are mostly to be found at the afternoon performances. It must all seem a kind of glorified picture book to them. How they roar over the man who knocks down everything, or the fat old lady pursued by some strange fatality, who is knocked down by everybody! They have a wonderful aptitude, too, for following the “story” in some of the more ambitious pictures. The kidnapped child is one of their favourites. “Did they find him, mother? Are you sure?” a little lad asks in a tearful voice, to the kindly amusement of all who sit near by. The tragic subjects find favour with young ladies, one fancies, and indeed they are sometimes admirably conceived – real dramas, in which the words are hardly missed. The marvellous power of facial expression to convey an emotion in all its subtle shades is brought home to the mind with striking force by the intense interest one feels in these “mimed” plays. Of course it is hard to forget that the pictures are “faked.” One could never for a moment admit the possibility of pictorial drama affecting the taste for the drama of the regular stage. Too much talk may be bad, as was instanced in a recent much-criticised production, but no talk at all is the worse evil of the two.
Perhaps most successful of all are the travel pictures, where the scenery is absolutely realistic, and the sense of motion admirably conveyed. No “book of views,” however beautiful, can fascinate as this moving panorama does. It is as good as a holiday – and somewhat cheaper!
Have the pictures come to stay? Yes, they have filled a gap. It will be long before anything more novel or more entertaining appears to fit that precise niche in the House of Pleasure.
Comment: The inner Circle refers to a London underground train line.
Illustration by Wilson C. Dexter that accompanies the original article
Source: Olivia Howard Dunbar, ‘The Lure of the Films’, Harper’s Weekly, 18 January 1913, pp. 20, 22
Text: Adventures to discover how and where the rest of the world amuses itself are rarely as jocund as they sound. But the adventurer of proper spirit is usually content in witnessing the riotous joy of the multitude, however grimly unmoved his own less facile springs of mirth. Oddly enough, an attempt to share in the delights of “moving pictures,” widely accepted as the most popular of amusements, can scarcely be counted upon to produce even this vicarious satisfaction. For if the adventurer himself gives no sign of being entertained by the “photoplay” or the “art-film,” neither, to his amazement, does the close-packed audience that surrounds him – a fact that is at ﬁrst inexplicable.
Does all the world demand the “ﬁlm-show” and then withhold its approval from sheer caprice? And why does it throng so steadily today to the very performance whose lack of stimulus it must have discovered yesterday and the day before?
On the other hand, if a random assemblage of this sort gives mysteriously few evidences of active enjoyment, it gives fewer still of displeasure or ennui. To watch it is to discover that it is inﬁnitely tolerant; completely and blessedly immune to boredom. It even betrays no annoyance on being gently approached from behind by some deputy of the management, and sprayed, as a festal touch, with strong. inalienable scent. Daily and hourly – for their patronage is so great that they open either at noon or at nine in the morning — these theaters offer thousands of cases in disproof of all that has been fallaciously said in regard to the restless energy of the American. You wonder how it can be possible, in an alleged busy world, to secure this magniﬁcent total of leisure – to assemble daily, and for long, blank periods, so many people who have nothing to do and who are obviously not worrying about it. Every day, under these roofs, has the stagnant and misleading air of a holiday. And while it may be true that shirking housewives and truant children are never missing, it is nevertheless an interesting fact that three-fourths of the spectators are always men.
Rarely does such an audience betray animation, scarcely ever awareness. Its posture is indifferent and relaxed; its jaws moving unconcernedly in tune with the endlessly reiterated ragtime ground out by some durable automaton — at least, one prefers to believe it an automaton; its dull eyes unresponsively meeting the shadowy grimaccs on the ﬂickering “ ﬁlm.”
Are these pleasure-seekers resolutely disguising their enjoyment? Or are they, as they appear to be, half asleep? It is true that all the conditions conduce to semi-somnolence – the unbroken whine of the ragtime; the unnatural “continuousness” of the exhibition, hour after hour, without a moment’s interval; the lack of sequence or climax, as of one oddly literal dream succeeding another — varied, at long intervals, by a bolder picture that introduces the strange, noiseless turbulence of nightmare.
In spite of the lack of enthusiasm, there is an indeﬁnable atmosphere of experience and accustomedness. Nobody but yourself is unfamiliar and inquiring. There is rather less suspense and excitement than you will encounter in a trolley-car. You begin to suspect that the phlegmatic audience, having come a great many times before, is quite prepared for the fact that nine-tenths of the programme will be padding and that it does not mind in the least. There is not so much as a change of its expression, much less a sign of applause, as companies of shadow-soldiers are assembled and drilled; parades of a dozen kinds trail their blurred length across the curtain; foreign cities ﬂash out glimpses of their characteristic scenes; ships are launched, cornerstones are laid, medals are presented, and laboratory experiments demonstrating some feature of popular science are painstakingly performed. All “films,” in fact, that may be classed as educational or even indirectly instructive, as well as the occasional ones that are of a genuinely artistic interest, meet with frank but unrcbellious indifference.
For an hour this may continue. Then you are conscious of a stir in the chairs behind you, and a man’s didactic voice begins to enlighten the woman who is with him, in precisely the same fashion that the couple who have sat behind you at the theater all your life have gratuitously explained and perfunctorily listened. You rouse yourself, look about, even glance at the forgotten curtain to discover what it is that has relieved an apathy so general and so profound; and discover that, far from being some unimagined marvel, it is merelv a street scene in New York. And you wonder why the “Film Trust” should go to the trouble of contriving historical “playlets” in costume, through which audiences sleep contentedly, when what really stirs them is the representation of something that they see every day of their lives – the life-size ﬁgure of a policeman, a trolley-car, a crowd on Broadway. But this is not, after all, a new phenomenon. The ecstasy experienced by persons of a certain degree of simplicity in recognizing on the stage a familiar object or character has never been explained, although producers must long have realized and catered to it, as an incident in many kinds of drama. It has so often been apparent that audiences betrayed a keener delight in the introduction into a play of a cow or a horse than in the exploits of the most accomplished actor. During one long afternoon of widely varied cinematographic devices, the only genuine success was achieved by a youth who came out before the curtain made a sound like an automobile! This bit of simple realism did wake the sleeping audience from its dreams and gave them an unmistakably poignant pleasure which they expressed without restraint.
These ﬂashes of sympathetic response are rare and ﬂeeting, but may always be evoked by one other element – the broadly farcical. And it is perhaps unnecessary to explain that, the more nearly this unliteral comedy (for realism plays no part_here) approaches that of the comic supplement, the wilder and more immediate its success. An altercation, a practical joke, a chase, are of course the unvarying themes, a chase of anything by anybody, however meaningless, being the acknowledged favorite. Unfailingly popular are the pictured disputes between an impossible mistress and an unnatural servant, in which the maid tumultuously triumphs; or farcical interruptions of the love-making of an ill-suited couple; or rowdy street scenes in which people tumble over each other and somebody gets beaten for an offense he didn’t commit, while the culprit leers from a. neighboring corner. All this is, of course, more or less vulgar, but in the highly unrealistic sense that the comic supplement is vulgar — a harsh, unlovely, shadow-land, repellent, one would suppose, to intelligence and sanity.
The merriment that was set free by the pictured conﬂict of boy and policeman subsides again into apathy when the ﬁrst scene in the more ambitious “photoplay” is ﬂashed upon the curtain. For these fragmentary echoes of melodrama seem to be accepted merely as echoes, dim and undisturbing. Their warmed-over quality enables the spectator to remain entirely cool and disillusioned. And yet these plays often present not only the same type of heroine and villain that the old plays did, but the same actors — one would swear to it. The villain’s throwing back his head in cruel, contemptuous laughter is a trick he must have learned and often practised on Fourteenth Street. And the malign deliberation of his walk is full of an ancient theatric signiﬁcance that could scarcely be felt by any traditionless cub, hired to play in pantomime before the camera. On the other hand, that intemperate use of the telephone that characterizes the moving-picture play was of course unknown to melodrama.
The “Indian play ” – indeed, the Wild West drama generally — is understood to be a commodity that is ordered in large quantities for contemporary audiences; but the result produces no apparent excitement. While a red man discovers a child left alone in a prairie cabin, and, brandishing cruel weapons, pursues the child through various shadow-scenes, the audience contentedly chews its gum. Further scenes are revealed in which the child’s father appears, rescues the child and slays the Indian — but the onlookers are still unmoved. Even the dramatic adventures of the simpering young girl who is menaced by a nondescript villain and rescued at the critical moment by the humble but hitherto neglected suitor are accepted with complete nonchalance. Endangered girlhood is, however, so frequently and persistently presented that the theory must exist that it is a favorite stimulus with these stodgy audiences.
‘There is not so much as a change of expression, much less a sign of applause.’ Illustration by Wilson C. Dexter that accompanies the original article, with caption
Yet these apathetic groups who now appear, except for their occasional bursts of unjoyous mirth, emotionless, are the same men and women who only a few years ago thronged constantly to the melodramas at the urge of what seemed to be an elemental need, the need of wholesome emotional exercise. No audience was ever disappointed in one of these eminently reliable performances; none was ever bored or critical or sleepy. One knew what one had come for and settled down comfortably to enjoy it. It was of relatively little importance whether the central ﬁgure in the tangle of love, danger, sacriﬁce, villainy, heroism, disaster, and triumph was Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model, or Bertha, the Sewing-Machine Girl — the succession of thrills was of practically the same character and intensity. What these audiences unconsciously demanded was an excuse to laugh, weep, pity, resent, condemn, and admire, all in strict conformity with the orthodox moral code; and it was this that was abundantly furnished them. It would surely be a psychological marvel if so deep a need could have vanished as the coincidence of a mere change of fashion in entertainments.
But the best and most satisfying feature of the melodramas was their imaginative scope, their denial of logical limitations. The simple, normal mind while it has felt a childlike delight in the occasional realistic detail, has probably always been charmed by the theater in proportion as its spectacle, as a whole, transcended reality. A world as unfettered as the world of faery, whose characters should have the shape and speech of the ordinary wage-earner, would have at any time a compelling appeal. “What attracted me so strongly to the theater,” Wagner says, speaking of his childhood, “was … the fascinating pleasure of ﬁnding mvself in an entirely different atmosphere, in a world that was purely fantastic and often gruesomely attractive. Thus to me … some costume or a characteristic part of it seemed to come from another world, to be in some way as attractive as an apparition.” There is no doubt that this is the expression of a universal experience; and that if a sensitive, impressionable child of six or seven could deﬁne and express the emotions (too vaguely recalled by the adult) aroused by its ﬁrst theater, this would form a human document of thrilling interest. And it may be that melodrama at its best supplied multitudes of adult children with an approximation of this delicious and memorable experience of infancy.
In comparison with the popular drama that it has succeeded and supplanted, the motion picture of course provides little or no emotional outlet. It is far from attempting to “purge with pity and terror” the casual multitudes that it attracts. In most cases the interest that it excites, when it excites any, is shallow, fleeting, two-dimensional, like the pictures themselves. It offers no illusion and no mystery. What is left to those who have had to accustom themselves to this thin and unsatisfying form of emotion, but to acquire, as they have, a self-protective surface of apparent torpor?
It is easy, of course, to recall conspicuously exceptional cases. There is now and then a feverish desire to see the pictured record of some current event of especial interest, particularly when it has to do with sports. But the kind of excitement that would be aroused by the records of a baseball or football game is a very special thing, and is inﬁnity [sic] removed from the mere normal desire for amusement. Yet it is fully shared, as everybody knows, by sophisticated childhood. Indeed, the overpowering desire felt by youthful East Side citizens to see certain celebrated “movies” has more than once led them into tragic difficulty. Not many months ago, just after a much-advertised prize-ﬁght, two little boys, whose uncontrollable longing for the admission fee to a picture-hall had led them to upset a grocer’s display and barter his goods independently, were brought to the Children’s Court. “The price of admittance was five cents?” inquired the judge, examining them. The smaller boy, who was very small indeed, quickly raised his thin, tense face. “Oh, but it was ten cents to see the big ﬁght, judge!” he cried, hoarsely, the tremendous intensity of his manner and expression at once deﬁning the almost irresistible character of his temptation and what he felt to be the manly magnitude of his crime.
But even though its imagination starve, a disaster of which it can scarcely be conscious, it is not difficult to understand why the vast, simple, unexigent public so faithfully follows up the moving picture. Almost any institution that cost so little would probably be patronized, even though the most it did was to provide a convenient and often comfortable lounging place, and, in the poorer quarters of the city, to provide an excuse for social contact. After all, there is no question but that the equivalent of a nickel is usually supplied. Beyond this, there is the fascination of never knowing what one is going to see, which is a far greater lure than an exact knowledge of what is forthcoming. But its strongest hold must be the fact that it makes no demand whatever upon its audiences, requiring neither punctuality — for it has no beginning — nor patience — for it has no end — nor attention — for it has no sequence. No degree of intelligence is necessary, no knowledge of our language, nor convictions nor attitude of any kind, reasonably good eyesight being indeed the only requisite. In the world of amusement, no line of less resistance than this has surely yet been offered.
Comment: Olivia Howard Dunbar (1873-1953) was an American biographer and writer of ghost stories.
‘They were permitted to drink deep of oblivion of all the trouble of the world’. The illustration by Wladyslaw T. Benda (and its caption) accompanied Mary Heaton Vorse’s original article for Outlook magazine
Source: Mary Heaton Vorse, ‘Some Picture Show Audiences’, Outlook 98, 24 June 1911, pp. 441-447
Text: One rainy night in a little Tuscan town I went to a moving-picture show. It was market-day; the little hall was full of men in their great Italian cloaks. They had come in from small isolated hamlets, from tiny fortified towns perched on the tops of distant hills to which no road led, but only a salita. I remembered that there was in the evening’s entertainment a balloon race, and a pilgrimage to the Holy Land, and a mad comic piece that included a rush with a baby-carriage through the boulevards of Paris; and there was a drama, ‘The Vendetta,’ which had for its background the beautiful olive terraces of Italy.
I had gone, as they had, to see pictures, but in the end I saw only them, because it seemed to me that what had happened was a latter-day miracle. By an ingenious invention all the wonderful things that happened in the diverse world outside their simple lives could come to them. They had no pictures or papers; few of them could read; and yet they sat there at home and watching the inflating of great balloons and saw them rise and soar and go away into the blue, and watched again the strange Oriental crowd walking through the holy streets of Jerusalem. It is hard to understand what a sudden widening of their horizon that meant for them. It is the door of escape, for a few cents, from the realities of life.
It is drama, and it is travel, and it is even beauty, all in one. A wonderful things it is, and to know how wonderful I suppose you must be poor and have in your life no books and no pictures and no means of travel or seeing beautiful places, and almost no amusements of any kind; perhaps your only door of escape or only means of forgetfulness more drink that is good for you. Then you will know what a moving-picture show really means, although you will probably not be able to put it into words.
We talk a good deal about the censorship of picture shows, and pass city ordinances to keep the young from being corrupted by them: and this is all very well, because a great amusement of the people ought to be kept clean and sweet; but at the same time this discussion has left a sort of feeling in the minds of people who do not need to go to the picture show that it is a doubtful sort of a place, where young girls and mean scrape undesirable acquaintances, and where the prowler lies in wait for the unwary, and where suggestive films of crime and passion are invariably displayed. But I think that this is an unjust idea, and that any one who will take the trouble to amuse himself with the picture show audiences for an afternoon or two will see why it is that the making of films has become a great industry, why it is that the picture show has driven out the vaudeville and the melodrama.
You cannot go to any one of the picture shows in New York without having a series of touching little adventures with the people who sit near you, without overhearing chance words of a naiveté and appreciation that make you bless the living picture book that has brought so much into the lives of the people who work.
Houston Street, on the East Side, of an afternoon is always more crowded than Broadway. Push=carts line the street. The faces that you see are almost all Jewish – Jews of many types; swarthy little men, most of them, looking under-sized according to the Anglo-Saxon standard. Here and there a deep-chested mother of Israel sails along, majestic in shietel and shawl. These are the toilers – garment-makers, a great many of them – people who work ‘by pants,’ as they say. A long and terrible workday they have to keep body and soul together. Their distractions are the streets, and the bargaining off the push-carts, and the show. For a continual trickle of people of people detaches itself from the crowded streets and goes into the good-sized hall; and around the entrance too, wait little boys – eager-eyed little boys – with their tickets in their hands, trying to decoy those who enter into taking them in with them as guardians, because the city ordinances do not allow a child under sixteen to go in unaccompanied by an older person.
In the half-light the faces of the audience detach themselves into little pallid ovals, and, as you will always find in the city, it is an audience largely composed of men.
Behind us sat a woman with her escort. So rapt and entranced was she with what was happening on the stage that her voice accompanied all that happened – a little unconscious and lilting obbligato. It was the voice of a person unconscious that she spoke – speaking from the depths of emotion; a low voice, but perfectly clear, and the unconsciously spoken words dropped with the sweetness of running water. She spoke in German. One would judge her to be from Austria. She herself was lovely in person and young, level-browed and clear-eyed: a beneficent and lovely woman one guessed her to be. And she had never seen Indians before; perhaps never heard of them.
The drama being enacted was the rescue from the bear pit of Yellow Wing, the lovely Indian Maiden, by Dick the Trapper; his capture by the tribe, his escape with the connivance of Yellow Wing, who goes to warn him in his log house, their siege by the Indians, and final rescue by a splendid charge of the United States cavalry; these one saw riding with splendid abandon over hill and dale, and the marriage then and there of Yellow Wing and Dick by the gallant chaplain. A guileless and sentimental dime novel, most ingeniously performed; a work of art; beautiful, too, because one had glimpses of stately forests, sunlight sifting through leaves, wild, dancing forms of Indians, the beautiful swift rushing of horses. One must have had a heart of stone not to follow the adventures of Yellow Wing and Dick the Trapper with passionate interest.
But to the woman behind it was reality at its highest. She was there in a fabled country full of painted savages. The rapidly unfolding drama was to her no make-believe arrangement ingeniously fitted together by actors and picture-makers. It had happened; it was happening for her now.
‘Oh!’ she murmured. ‘That wild and terrible people! Oh boy, take care, take care! Those wild and awful people will egt you!’ ‘Das wildes und grausames Volk,’ she called them. ‘Now – now – she comes to save her beloved!’ This as Yellow Wing hears the chief plotting an attack on Dick the Trapper, and flies fleet-foot through the forest. ‘Surely, surely, she will save her beloved!’ It was almost a prayer; in the woman’s simple mind there was no foregone conclusion of a happy ending. She saw no step ahead, since she lived in the present moment so intensely.
When Yellow Wing and Dick were besieged within and Dick’s hand was wounded –
‘The poor child! how can she bear it? To see the geliebte wounded before one’s very eyes!’
And when the cavalry thundered through the forest –
‘God give that they arrive swiftly – to be in time they must arrive swiftly!’ she exclaimed to herself.
Outside the iron city roared: before the door of the show the push-cart vendors bargained and trafficked with customers. Who is the audience remembered it? They had found the door of escape. For the moment they were in the depths of the forest following the loves of Yellow Wing and Dick. The woman’s voice, so like the voice of a spirit talking to itself, unconscious of time and place, was their voice. There they were; a strange company of aliens – Jews, almost all; haggard and battered and bearded men, young girls with their beaus, spruce and dapper youngsters beginning to make their way. In that humble playhouse one ran the gamut of the East Side. The American-born sat next to the emigrant who arrived but a week before. A strange and romantic people cast into the welter of the terrible city of New York, each of them with the overwhelming problem of battling with strange conditions and an alien civilization. And for the moment they were permitted to drink deep of oblivion of all the trouble in the world. Life holds some compensation, after all. The keener your intellectual capacity, the higher your artistic sensibilities are developed, just so much more difficult is it to find this total forgetfulness – a thing that for the spirit is a life-giving as sleep.
And all through the afternoon and evening this company of tired workers, overburdened men and women, fills the little halls scattered throughout the city and throughout the land.
There are motion-picture shows in New York that are as intensely local to the audience as to the audience of a Tuscan hill town. Down on Bleecker Street is the Church of Our Lady of Pompeii. Here women, on their way to work or to their brief marketing, drop in to say their prayers before their favourite saints in exactly the same fashion as though it were a little church in their own parish. Towards evening women with their brood of children go in: the children frolic and play subdued tag in the aisles, for church with them is an every-day affair, not a starched-up matter of Sunday only. Then, prayers finished, you may see a mother sorting out her own babies and moving on serenely to the picture show down the road – prayers first and amusement afterwards, after the good old Latin fashion.
It is on Saturday nights down here that the picture show reaches its high moment. The whole neighborhood seems to be waiting for a chance to go in. Every woman has a baby in her arms and at least two children clinging to her skirts. Indeed, so universal is this custom that a woman who goes there unaccompanied by a baby feels out of place, as if she were not properly dressed. A baby seems as much a matter-of-course adjunct to one’s toilet on Bleecker Street as a picture hat would be on Broadway.
every one seems to know everyone else. As a new woman joins the throng other women cry out to her, gayly:
‘Ah, good-evening, Concetta. How is Giuseppe’s tooth?’
‘Through at last,’ she answers. ‘And where are your twins?’
The first woman makes a gesture indicating that they are somewhere swallowed up in the crowd.
This talk all goes on in good north Italian, for the people on Bleecker Street are the Tuscan colony. There are many from Venice also, and from Milan and from Genoa. The South Italian lives on the East Side.
Then, as the crowd becomes denser, as the moment for the show approaches, they sway together, pushed on by those on the outskirts of the crowd. And yet everyone is good-tempered. It is –
‘Not so hard there, boy!’
‘Mind for the baby!’
Though indeed it doesn’t seem any place for a baby at all, and much less so for the youngsters who aren’t in their mothers’ arms but are perilously engulfed in the swaying mass of people. But the situation is saved by Latin good temper and the fact that every one is out for a holiday.
By the time one has stood in this crowd twenty minutes and talked with the women and babies, one had made friends, given an account of oneself, told how it was one happened to speak a little Italian, and where it was in Italy one had lived, for all the world as one gives an account of one’s self when travelling through Italian hamlets. One answers the questions that Italian women love to ask:
‘Are you married?’
‘Have you children?’
‘Then why aren’t they at the picture show with you?’
This audience was an amused, and an amusing audience, ready to laugh, ready to applaud. The young man next me had an ethical point of view. He was a serious, dark-haired fellow, and took his moving pictures seriously. He and his companion argued the case of the cowboy who stole because of his sick wife.
‘He shouldn’t have done it,’ he maintained.
‘His wife was dying, poveretta,’ his companion defended.
‘His wife was a nice girl,” said the serious young man. ‘You saw for yourself how nice a girl. One has but to look at her to see how good she is.’ He spoke as though of a real person he had met. ‘She would rather have died than have her husband disgrace himself.’
‘It turned out happily; through the theft she found her father again. He wasn’t even arrested.’
‘It makes no difference,’ said the serious youth; ‘he had luck, that is all. He shouldn’t have stolen. When she knows about it, it will break her heart.’
Ethics were his strong point, evidently. He had something to say again about the old man who, in the Franco-Prussian War, shot a soldier and allowed a young man to suffer the death penalty in his stead. It was true that the old man’s son had been shot and that there was no one else to care for the little grandson, and, while the critic admitted that that made a difference, he didn’t like the idea. The dramas appealed to him from a philosophical standpoint; one gathered that he and his companion might pass an evening discussing whether, when a man is a soldier, and therefore pledged to fight for his country, he has a right to give up his life to save that of an old man, even though he is the guardian of a child.
Throughout the whole show, throughout the discussion going on beside me, there was one face that I turned to again and again. It was that of an eager little girl of ten or eleven, whose lovely profile stood out in violent relief from the dingy wall. So rapt was she, so spellbound, that she couldn’t laugh, couldn’t clap her hands with the others. She was in a state of emotion beyond any outward manifestation of it.
In the Bowery you get a different kind of audience. None of your neighborhood spirit here. Even in what is called, the ‘dago show’ – that is, the show where the occasional vaudeville numbers are Italian singers — the people seem chance-met; the audience is almost entirely composed of men, only an occasional woman.
It was here that I met the moving-picture show expert, the connoisseur, for he told me that he went to a moving-picture show every night. It was the best way that he knew of spending your evenings in New York, and one gathered that he had early twenties, with a tough and honest countenance, and he spoke the dialect of the city of New York with greater richness than I have ever heard it spoken. He was ashamed of being caught by a compatriot in a ‘dago show.’
‘Say,’ he said, ‘dis is a bum joint. I don’t know how I come to toin in here. You don’t un’erstan’ what that skoit’s singin’, do you? You betcher I don’t!’
Not for worlds would he have understood a word of the inferior Italian tongue.
“I don’t never come to dago moving-picter shows,’ he hastened to assure me. ‘Say, if youse wanter see a real show, beat it down to Grand Street. Dat’s de real t’ing. Dese dago shows ain’t got no good films. You hardly ever see a travel film; w’en I goes to a show, I likes to see the woild. I’d like travelin’ if I could afford it, but I can’t; that’s why I like a good travel film. A good comic’s all right, but a good travel film or an a’rioplane race or a battle-ship review — dat’s de real t’ing ! You don’t get none here. I don’t know what made me come here,’ he repeated. He was sincerely displeased with himself at being caught with the goods by his compatriots in a place that had no class, and the only way he could defend himself was by showing his fine scorn of the inferior race.
You see what it means to them; it means Opportunity — a chance to glimpse the beautiful and strange things in the world that you haven’t in your life; the gratification of the higher side of your nature ; opportunity which, except for the big moving picture book, would be forever closed to you. You understand still more how much it means opportunity if you happen to live in a little country place where the whole town goes to every change of films and where the new films are gravely discussed. Down here it is that you find the people who agree with my friend of the Bowery — that ‘travel films is de real t’ing.’ For those people who would like to travel they make films of pilgrims going to Mecca; films of the great religious processions in the holy city of Jerusalem; of walrus fights in the far North. It has even gone so far that in Melilla there was an order for the troops to start out; they sprang to their places, trumpets blew, and the men fell into line and marched off — all for the moving-picture show. They were angry — the troops — but the people in Spain saw how their armies acted.
In all the countries of the earth — in Sicily, and out in the desert of Arizona, and in the deep woods of America, and on the olive terraces of Italy — they are making more films, inventing new dramas with new and beautiful backgrounds, for the poor man’s theater. In his own little town, in some far-off fishing village, he can sit and see the coronation, and the burial of a king, or the great pageant of the Roman Church.
It is no wonder that it is a great business with a capitalization of millions of dollars, since it gives to the people whoneed it most laughter and drama and beauty and a chance for once to look at the strange places of the earth.
Comment: Mary Heaton Vorse (1874-1966) was a left-wing American journalist and novelist, deeply committed to issues of social justice. Bleecker Street is in Manhattan, within the Greenwich Village area.