Gilbert Frankau’s Self-Portrait

Source: Gilbert Frankau, Gilbert Frankau’s Self-Portrait: A Novel of His Own Life (London: Hutchinson, 1940), pp. 143-146

Text: In the fullness of time Chambers departed, leaving me and Wilson in dual glory at the Grand Hotel, Rome. My main mission was to convince the Italians that we had several men fighting in France and Flanders – the Hun propaganda machine denying this daily, through a secretly subsidised press. “No War Here”, said a Welsh miners’ leader addressing a home audience – and the headline appeared in a Naples paper next day.

The battle films with which I had been supplied might have proved convincing. But Chambers hadn’t been able to sell them; and I could hardly persuade invited audiences to sit through them in free seats.

After some four fruitless weeks of travel I again took counsel with our ambassador; and dashed back to London.

There, I looted every scrap of official film I could find, including several priceless feet of General Cadorna, then generalissimo of the Italian armies, Lord Kitchener, and a sausage balloon taking the air at Queen’s Club.

With these, Muirhead Bone’s etching of a tank in action and complete orchestra scores for “The British Grenadiers”, “Tipperary” and other martial music, I returned to Italy, and took up my headquarters at the Hotal Cavour, Milan.

What Luca Comerio, the Italian cinema man, and I did to the official British war films in the solitude of his studio is nobody’s business but our own.

The very first caption thrown on the screen over the facsimile signature of “Capitano Gilbert Frankau, Stato Maggiore Inglese” (English General Staff) guaranteed the story of “La Battaglia dei Tanks” completely authentic.

And what a story! We printed twelve copies. Within ten minutes of the private preview we sold them all – my instructions were to make the thing pay if I could – to five renters whose theatres covered the whole of Italy.

Tears blinded even those hardboiled renters when a shell burst obscured the entire screen, and the film seemed to break, and that most telling of all our captains [captions] read, “Alas – alas, for the too-intrepid cameraman”. With muted music the effect on large audiences had to be seen to be believed.

Among the believers in the death of that mythical cameraman – for I never had the heart to disillusion Her Excellency – was Lady Rodd …

…That night in 1917 I took Rudyard Kipling – and two charming American women whose names escape the memory – to the theatre where my film had been showing since noon. Gerald Tyrrwhit, unpaid attaché at the Embassy, now Lord Berners, had trained the orchestra for me. They struck up “Rule, Britannia” – by pure coincidence – as we seated ourselves in the box.

Kipling watched the screen. I watched Kipling.

The tunes and that first captional guarantee of authenticity surprised him a little. But he did not even blink when he saw Marconi inventing the tank, or General Cadorna arriving for a conference with Lord Kitchener at which it was decided that the English army should attack on the Somme.

“Good work”, whispered my master. “How did you come to think of that fiction?”

Modesty kept silence. Our troops, tinted blue and brown, massed by night. The London Scottish appeared complete with band to “Auld lang syne” and “A wee doch and doris”. Then “Came the dawn of battle”; and my Queen’s Club sausage balloon rose to survey the German trenches.

Promptly the enemy planes – ours from Salisbury Plain – swooped to the attack, their machine guns chattering. (Tyrrwhit managed that rather well with his drums.) Down fell the balloon (tinted red, and two out of every three pictures excised, to say nothing of the men on the ropes, giving the effect of speed) in real flames.

“Gorgeous”, whispered Kipling. “Cost you a truss of hay, I expect.”

Our plans counter-attacked. A German Fokker, which looked a little like one of our own B.E.2C’s to Kingscote’s pupil in anti-aircraft gunnery, also fell in flames.

The crashed plane, I think, was a real picture. Then, it had no British circles under its wings. If anyone faked the Iron Crosses there, it was not done in Milan.

“But where are the tanks?” whispered Kipling. “We must live up to our titles.”

Again his fan kept silence while superimposed shell-bursts – the damn things never looked quite real, they waggled about too much – rained on our advancing infantry.

“Meanwhile…” read the next caption; and suddenly Kipling chuckled.

“Tanks to the rescue. The Devastating Blinders, eh! Grand”.

They were my own words, my very own dictionary-dredged Italian words; and I could not refrain from displaying my erudition.

“Blindati Devastatori means armoured devastators”, I corrected, as the tank-noses reared high to crush walls I could have sworn built in England, and swept on to the apocryphal attack.

But Kipling preferred his own translation, repeating to himself “devastating blinders”, till that thrilling moment when the mine blew, and spotless Highlanders stormed forward, bayonets flashing, at no double ever seen in France or Flanders to victory or death. We faded out on coloured flags and “Long Live the Allies” to a complete symphony of national anthems.

“What do you think of it?” I asked, as we walked the undarkened streets. (Even the Huns of 1914-1918 never dared to bomb the Eternal City.)

“Superb”, chuckled Kipling, “But you will be slain for this, my friend. Most indubitably you will be slain.”

Comments: Gilbert Frankau (1884-1952) was a British novelist and poet. His book Self-Portrait describes itself as a novel, but it is effectively an autobiography. Like many of the British literary intellgensia during World War I, he was recruited by the covert War Propaganda Bureau to promote British interests during the First World War. Frankau was sent to Italy to oversee the presentation of British official war films, starting in 1916 with the documentary feature Britain Prepared (1915). Behind the comic detail lies some useful and occasionally convincing detail about the presentation of war films. He may be referring to the British documentary feature The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917), though that film in its original state had no fakery. Luca Comerio was a prominent Italian film producer. Rudyard Kipling, another War Propaganda Bureau recruit, was in Italy around May 1917 in preparation for writing an account of the Italian campaign, The War in the Mountains. Lady Rodd was the wife of the British ambassador to Italy.

Plain-towns of Italy

Source: Egerton R. Williams, Plain-towns of Italy: The Cities of Old Venetia (London: J. Murray, 1912), pp. 142-143

Text: After a dinner in company with various gentlemen who ate with their hats on (according to the peasant’s manner), consumed alarming quantities of meat and macaroni with the sole aid of their knives, and roared continuously at each other with deafening bellows, I solaced my nerves with some caffè nero at a sidewalk table in the main piazza; and then found a cinematograph exhibition, which gave a performance of five numbers for the modest sum of thirty centesimi, in the first class.

Moving pictures are now the one great amusement of the Italians. There is hardly a town so small as not to possess at least one such show; and the prices are usually twenty centesimi for the second class, thirty or forty for the first. Here the national love of tragedy is prominently manifested; the popular piece must have plenty of blood-letting, and above all a harrowing finis, that leaves most of the characters upon the ground. Especially successful this evening was the story of Parasina; when it ended with the death of herself and Ugo upon the block, a united sigh of satisfaction arose from the excited populace. The concluding number, as always, was supposed to be very funny – “comicissima,” – and consisted of the usual chase of one person by many others, at whose clearly intentional tumbles the audience roared with delight.

Footnote: In the cities there is often also a third class, costing ten centesimi; at which rate children and private soldiers are nearly everywhere admitted, the latter proving the mainstay of the business in garrison-towns. As a teacher for them of general information, it is invaluable; and one sees them, night after night, drinking in with open mouths the wonders of this world.

Comments: Egerton Ryerson Williams (?-?) was a British travel writer. The film show he attended was in the town of Bassano (now Bassano del Grappa) in the Veneto region of Northern Italy. Parasina was a poem by Lord Byron which was turned into an opera by Donizetti and based on the 15th century historical figure Parisina Malatesta. The film was probably Parasina (Italy 1909), production company SAFFI-Comerio.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Cinema-Goer's Autobiography

Source: Extracts from Italo Calvino (trans. Tim Parks), ‘A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography’, in The Road to San Giovanni (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993), pp. 37-41, 43-45

Text: There were years when I went to the cinema almost every day and maybe even twice a day, and those were the days between ’36 and the war, the years of my adolescence. It was a time when the cinema became the world for me. A different world from the one around me, but my feeling was that only what I saw on the screen possessed the properties required of a world, the fullness, the necessity, the coherence, while away from the screen were only heterogeneous elements lumped together at random, the materials of a life, mine, which seemed to me utterly formless.

The cinema as evasion, it’s been said so many times, with the intention of writing the medium off – and certainly evasion was what I got out of the cinema in those years, it satisfied a need for disorientation, for the projection of my attention into a different space, a need which I believe corresponds to a primary function of our assuming our place in the world, an indispensable stage in any character formation. Of course there are other more profitable and personal ways of creating a different space for oneself: the cinema was the easiest and most readily available, and then it was also the one that instantaneously took me further away than any other. Every day, walking up and down the main street of my small town, I’d only have eyes for the cinemas, three that showed new films and changed programmes every Monday and Thursday, and a couple of fleapits with older or trashier films that changed three times a week. I would already know in advance what films were showing in all five theatres, but my eye would be looking for the posters they put up to announce the next film, because that was where the surprise was, the promise, the anticipation that would keep me excited through the days to come.

I would go to the cinema in the afternoon, slipping out of the house on the sly, or with the excuse that I was going to study with some friend or other, since during the school term my parents allowed me very little freedom. The proof of my passion was my determination to get into the theatre as soon as it opened, at two. Seeing the first showing had a number of advantages: the half-empty theatre, apparently entirely reserved for me, which meant I could lie back in the middle of the third-class seats with my legs stretched out on the back of the seat in front; the hope of getting back home without anybody realizing I’d left, so as then to get permission to go out again (and maybe even see another film); and the slight daze I would be in for the rest of the afternoon, bad for studying but good for daydreaming. Then apart from these motives, none of them things one would really want to confess to, there was a more serious one: getting into the cinema when it opened meant I was sure to enjoy the rare good fortune of seeing the film from the beginning and not from some arbitrary moment near the middle or the end as usually happened when I arrived at the cinema mid-afternoon or early evening.

Of course arriving when the film had already started was to conform with what is a barbarously common habit among Italian cinemagoers, and one that still persists today. You might say that even in those early days we Italians were looking forward to the more sophisticated narrative techniques of contemporary cinema, breaking up the temporal thread of the narrative and transforming it into a puzzle to be put back piece by piece or accepted in the form of a fragmentary body. To console ourselves further, I might add that watching the beginning of the film after one had already seen the end offered additional pleasures: that of discovering not the resolution of the film’s mysteries and dramas, but their genesis; and that of a confused sense of premonition vis-à-vis the characters. Confused: in precisely the way a clairvoyant’s must be, since the reconstruction of the mangled plot was not always easy, and would be even less so if it happened to be a detective story, where the identification first of the murderer and then of the crime left an even murkier area of mystery in the middle. What’s more, there would sometimes be a bit missing between the beginning and the end, since suddenly looking at my watch I’d realize I was late and that if I didn’t want to incur my parents’ wrath I’d have to leave before the sequence I’d come in at reappeared on the screen. So that many films were left with a hole in the middle, and even today, after thirty years – what am I saying? – almost forty, when I find myself watching one of those films – on television for example – I’ll recognize the moment I walked into the cinema, the scenes I watched without understanding, and I’ll retrieve the lost pieces and complete the puzzle as if I’d left it unfinished only the day before.

[…]

When, on the other hand, I went into the cinema at four o’clock or five, what hit me on coming out was the sense of time having passed, the contrast between two different temporal dimensions, inside and outside the film. I had gone in in broad daylight and came out to find it dark, the lamp-lit streets prolonging the black-and-white of the screen. The darkness softened the contrast between the two worlds a little, and sharpened it a little too, because it drew attention to the passing of those two hours that I hadn’t really lived, swallowed up as I was in a suspension of time, or in the duration of an imaginary life, or in a leap backwards to centuries before. Especially exciting was finding that the days had got shorter or longer: the sense of the passing seasons (always bland in the temperate clime we lived in) caught up with me as I came out of the cinema. When it rained in the film, I would listen hard to hear whether it had started raining outside too, whether I had been surprised by a downpour, having left home without an umbrella: it was the only moment when, while still immersed in that other world, I remembered the world outside; and it made me anxious. Even today, rain in film triggers the same reaction, a sense of anxiety.

If it wasn’t time for dinner yet, I’d join my friends trooping up and down the pavements of the main street. I’d go back past the cinema I’d just come out of and hear lines of dialogue echoing out of the projection room onto the street, and rather than the indentification [sic] I’d felt earlier, hearing them now would instill a feeling of unreality, because by now I was firmly in the outside world, and a feeling akin to nostalgia too, as one one who turns back at a frontier.

I’m thinking of one cinema in particular, the oldest one in the town and connected with my earliest memories of the days of silent films, a cinema that had preserved from those days (and did so right up until a few years ago) both its liberty-style street sign decorated with medals and the structure of the theatre itself, a long hall sloping downwards flanked by a corridor with columns. The projectionist’s room had a small window that opened onto the main street and would blare out the absurd voices of the film, metallically distorted by the technology of the period, and all the more absurd thank to the affectations of the Italian dubbing which bore no relation to any language ever spoken, past or future. And yet the very falseness of those voices must have possessed a communicative power all its own, like the sirens’ song, and every time I passed that little window I would sense the call of that other world that was the world.

The side doors of the theatre opened onto an alleyway; in the intervals the usher with the braiding on her jacket would open the red velvet curtains so that the colour of the air outside appeared discreetly at the threshold, and the passersby and the people sitting in the cinema would look at each other a little uneasily, as though facing an intrusion equally inconvenient to both. The interval between the first and second reel in particular (another strange custom practised only in Italy and inexplicably current even today) would come as a reminder that I was still in this town, on this day at this time: and depending on how I felt, my satisfaction at knowing that in just a moment I’d be plunging back into the China Sea or the San Francisco Earthquake would grow; or alternatively I would be oppressed by this warning not to forget that I was still here, not to lose myself in far-off lands.

Comments: Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was an Italian journalist and novelist, author of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Invisible Cities. He was born in Havana, Cuba, but his childhood years were spent in Sam Remo, Liguria, on Italy’s north-western coast. The above extracts are from a long piece on his memories of cinemagoing, included in a posthumously-published volume of autobiographical essays.

Bioscoop

Source: Louis Couperus, ‘Bioscoop’, Haagsche Post, 2 December 1916, English translation by Ivo Blom in ‘North and South: two early texts about cinema-going by Louis Couperus’, Film History vol. 20, issue 2 (2008), pp. 127-132

Text: The contrast between North and South manifests itself in many different ways. At the Bioscoop, too. First of all, in the South the Bioscoop is called Cinematografo in Italy or Cine in Spain. Well, this difference is negligible. But in both southern countries the difference is great as compared with cinema in Germany and the Netherlands. As soon as we go North, the cinema becomes something of a theater, becomes pretentiously heavy. You are received by employees in braided frocks, your coat and stick are taken from you, you are allocated a certain, fixed seat, you are not allowed to stand up, you notice everyone around you in the shimmering darkness in their seats for hours, there is an intermission … Nothing of all this in Italy or Spain. Not only is the cinematografo or the cine much cheaper than the bioscoop, but the whole interior is more light-hearted, comfortable, accommodating. The illuminated foyer which you can see from the street is inviting, with a salon orchestra (albeit not very attractive to me personally), and a reading table. To enter when it rains, when I don’t want to go to a bar, when I have paraded around enough, when I am tired, bored … I pay 30 centimes and whenever I want to look rich, 50 centimes. I cannot go above that, unless for a world famous film such as Quo Vadis? Even for 50 centimes – both in Italy and Spain – my seat is too chic, so terribly chic, that I prefer to pay 30 centimes … Around me are casual, very decent people, so decent that if I want to see the less decent, I need to descend into places where I pay only 20 or 15 or 10 centimes. I see the same films, but … one week later. But everywhere the experience is light and capricious, an ephemeral joy, while in the North cinema has shut itself inside an impenetrable shell. Really, when I walk into a cinema I want to do it in a light-hearted and casual way. I’ll stand up for a quarter of an hour if necessary, just to see Max Linder or a scene of the war, and then leave again. Dear heavens, you really notice when you are in the North, as soon as you are away from Italy: in Munich or … The Hague. There is no question of standing up; everything is so solemn and heavy, that your first casual impulse to see a film is immediately crushed. In Italy I saw the whole war in Tripoli screened before me, surrounded by a decent officer-with-family audience, without reserving seats and always for 30 centimes each day. Here, I am hesitant to go and see The Battle of the Somme because I don’t want to reserve a seat. I want to keep my coat on, even keep my wet umbrella with me; I’d rather stand than sit; in particular I don’t want to turn my cinema joy into a solemn visit; rather I desire an unpretentious, casual ‘walking in’, a passing pleasure, which should not last more than twenty minutes at the most.

Oh North and South, not even in the bioscoop and cinematograph do you have anything in common.

But now the analysis. Why is it so different in the North and the South? Because of the heavy soul of the Northerners? Of course, but also because ‘street life’ does not exist in the North and because in the South ‘walking into a cinema’ is a part of everyday life. Just as in the North it is not allowed in a lunchroom bar to toss off a little glass of vermouth standing up, so it is not normal to consider the cinema as a short halt in your flanerie, as a shelter from the rain, as a short, oh, so short, distraction from the melancholy which can so affect the flaneur when he is lonely, wandering among the busy crowd. And so he longs for Max Linder or Charles Prince; yes, even some lively pictures of actuality, whose photographic ugliness, teasing and screeching, scratch the silently suffering soul of the purposeless street wanderer when the winter twilight hour nears, when the shopping lights and street lanterns are starting to flame and the pain of wistfulness hurts him, without really knowing why …

It is then that you lose yourself – not in a bar where the electric light shines mercilessly – and where you need to drink something; it is then that you lose yourself, in the South, in the cinematograph, where you can watch pictures as if still on your mother’s lap.

Comments: Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was a Dutch novelist and poet and is considered one of the leading figures in Dutch literature. He wrote about films in his regular ‘Bioscoop’ column for the Dutch newspaper Haagsche Post. The films referred to are Quo Vadis? (Italy 1913) and The Battle of the Somme (UK 1916). Max Linder and Charles Prince were French film comedians, the latter known on-screen as Rigadin. Bioscoop is the Dutch word for a cinema building, taken from the English word Bioscope. My thanks to Ivo Blom for his permission to reproduce his translation, and to Deac Rossell for alerting me to the Film History article. Ellipses are as given in the Film History translation.

Il Cinematografo

Source: Louis Couperus, ‘Il Cinematografo’, Het Vaderland, 22 April 1911, pp. 1-2, English translation by Ivo Blom in ‘North and South: two early texts about cinema-going by Louis Couperus’, Film History vol. 20, issue 2 (2008), pp. 127-132

Text: The following night, while my wife is exchanging small talk with the German Generals’ wives and Majors’ widows – in the drawing room of the pension house – I am walking around at a loose end, ‘with my soul under my arm’, and with that same soul I walk into a cinematografo, for the sum of 20 Centesimi. I just happen to like contrasts. I just happen to like to sit one night, chic, with my wife, on a rather expensive poltrone in a gala performance, and the next night visit those public amusements where the common man for a few Soldi gives himself the illusion of something very beautiful sad, gay, and in particular sentimental. I once read that Edison invented the cinema to give the common-man his theater. I entirely agree with that, but … But what I want to say, I won’t say right away. First I will describe what the waiting room looks like … because, if you have paid 30 Centesimi, you don’t wait: there are always places, however, if you want something cheaper, for two Soldi less, you need to wait … in the waiting room. You’ll understand, dear reader, that I am frugal that I will wait, right … [e]specially because the waiting amuses me, or rather interest me … This waiting room is very dirty. People often spit on the ground with great gobs, and nobody minds. The ground is covered not only with saliva but also with tangerine peel, used matches, cigarette butts and torn entrance tickets. On a platform is a palm-court orchestra of some pale girls dressed in white. All around are test-your-strength machines, shooting galleries, candy automats …Chairs are against the wall; every chair is taken; the place is full to the brim. Look at all those tired faces that sharply light up like ghosts in the cruel and stark electric light. These are not the Roman marchionesses, princesses, loaded with their family jewels; these are not gentlemen in tails and elegant lieutenants shining in gold; this is not the noble spawn of the Duke of the Abruzzi. This is the tired waiting of the ‘common man’ – with wife and kids, often with babies – after the common man has finished working. He is out, he is going to amuse himself; he wants above all to see something. When he is out with his family, it easily costs him almost a Lira. But he gets a lot in return. He starts with resting on a chair, in front of an enormous ‘mirror’, which, ghostlike, reflects to him his pale, tired face. He also perceives electric light on walls with art nouveau patterns and he hears the din of the palm-court orchestra. When he is finally allowed to enter, then he, his worn-out wife and worldly-wise children, first see a dal vero: a parade or an instructive industry film or a trip through Norway or Switzerland. Secondly, a sentimental drama, which moves their petty bourgeois souls to tears in such a marvellous way: stolen children, noble little chimney sweeps, virtue especially rewarded … And now and then something of opera or true comedy, but without the words and with no more music thank the plonky piano accompaniment. And as life is so merry and gay, the delicious show ends with a farce, which often consists of drunken men and people tumbling over each other and running after one other through fields and roads: oh such merry farces, drawn from lovely merry life! The little citizen, for his four soldi, is educated, has a tear squeezed from the eye, and has his ‘laughing muscle’ tickled. Alright, I allow him that. I allow him this cheap theater of Edison. But … And now I will say it … Why, after he is educated, cannot the tear be squeezed from his eye with beauty; the laughing muscle tickled … with grace? Does it have to happen – is it not possible to let it happen – but with coarse, false, weepy sentimentality … and with an even more coarse, more false, drunkard’s burlesque?

The show is over. I have stayed until the end. And not like yesterday, in the chic Opera, left before the end. It is because I wanted to see that distressing exodus of common men, with their pale, spent faces, arm in arm with their worn-out wives, behind them their worldly-wise children. And they seemed even more tired than when I saw them in the waiting room. They didn’t seem to be cheered up by the vulgar drunkard’s farce. Reader, forgive me that I led you to a gala night of the Cinematografo … I like contrasts, you know.

Comments: Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was a Dutch novelist and poet and is considered one of the leading figures in Dutch literature. He wrote about films in his regular ‘Bioscoop’ column for the Dutch newspaper Haagsche Post, and occasionally elsewhere as in this piece on visiting a Rome cinema for Het Vaderland, which is part of a series ‘Pages from my diary’. The previous ‘diary’ article had covered a visit to the Teatro Costanzi in Rome to see Verdi’s opera Macbeth, alluded to here (the Roman marchionesses etc). My thanks to Ivo Blom for his permission to reproduce his translation, and to Deac Rossell for alerting me to the Film History article. Ellipses are as given in the Film History translation.

Letters

Source: James Joyce, extract from letter to Stanislaus Joyce, 1 ?March 1907, reproduced in Letters (ed. Richard Ellman) (New York: Viking, 1966), vol. 2, p. 217

Text: It is months since I have written a line and even reading tires me. The interest I took in socialism and the rest has left me. I have gradually slid down until I have ceased to take any interest in any subject. I look at God and his theatre through the eyes of my fellow-clerks so that nothing surprises, moves or excites me or disgusts me. Nothing of my former mind seems to have remained except a heightened emotiveness which satisfies itself in the sixty-miles-an-hour pathos of some cinematograph or before some crude Italian gazette-picture.

Comments: James Joyce (1882-1941) was an Irish novelist and briefly (December 1909-January 1910) a cinema manager. In March 1907, years before his first book was published, he was working in a bank in Rome, a low period of his life. Joyce was an occasional cinemagoer from the 1900s through to the 1920s, even when his eyesight became very poor.

Letters

Source: James Joyce, extract from letter to Stanislaus Joyce, 1 ?March 1907, reproduced in Letters (ed. Richard Ellman) (New York: Viking, 1966), vol. 2, p. 217

Text: It is months since I have written a line and even reading tires me. The interest I took in socialism and the rest has left me. I have gradually slid down until I have ceased to take any interest in any subject. I look at God and his theatre through the eyes of my fellow-clerks so that nothing surprises, moves or excites me or disgusts me. Nothing of my former mind seems to have remained except a heightened emotiveness which satisfies itself in the sixty-miles-an-hour pathos of some cinematograph or before some crude Italian gazette-picture.

Comments: James Joyce (1882-1941) was an Irish novelist and briefly (December 1909-January 1910) a cinema manager. In March 1907, years before his first book was published, he was working in a bank in Rome, a low period of his life. Joyce was an occasional cinemagoer from the 1900s through to the 1920s, even when his eyesight became very poor.

Wartime Letters from Italy

Source: Charles Truitt, Wartime Letters from Italy (New York: The Sherwood Press, 1915), pp. 75-76

Text: I saw at a cinematograph the other evening a series of films showing the construction of the Panama Canal. It was a revelation even to me, who as an American am accustomed to seeing machines that in five minutes will do what a hundred men could not do in an hour. The Italian audience sat absolutely quiet, and when five hundred Italians sit in silence it means they are confronted by something that seems to them supernatural. I myself quite understood why the girl in front of me should shrink as out of the air there came a huge bird of steel that swooped down upon a hillside, opened its jaws, took a three thousand ton bite, swooped lower still, almost into the faces of us who sat in the front rows, and disgorged that mass of earth and gravel.

Judging from the films, apparently men at Panama counted for nothing more than intelligences that pressed a button here or a lever there to bring from its lair some monster of steel that carried small mountains from one place to another, wrenched mighty trees from the earth with one twist of their riveted tentacles or lifted bridges and trestles as if they were toys of tin.

The preceding films of love, hate and vendetta had brought forth tears, curses and hisses from the audience, but before these colossi of iron and steel with which the wonderful Americani win peaceful battles the impressionable Italians sat stupefied.

Comment: The US construction of the Panama Canal took place over 1904-1914.

Links:
Copy at Hathi Trust Digital Library

Some Picture Show Audiences

spectators

‘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!’

‘Look out!’

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.