Source: Hilda Lewis, Gone to the Pictures (London: Jarrolds, 1946), pp. 23-27
Text: Suddenly Lena stopped. Here was another of those blacked-in shops like the one opposite Mr. Dicks. The window was pasted all over with bills; but they were so dirty and dilapidated, it was impossible to read what they said. A dark and dirty boy was standing and yelling, All the latest … all the lat-est! Every time he bawled late he gave the open door of the shop a thwack with his stick. When he caught sight of Lena and me he changed his tune, bawling out that there was No waiting – ebserlootly no waiting … ending with an invitation to Walk in, walk in. …
We walked in.
It was very dark inside the shop and the smell was horrid. If it had not been for Lena, in spite of all my joyous anticipation I believe I should have turned tail – especially as we had not yet paid.
I stopped at the front row, but Lena said you could see better at the back so we pushed our way through the darkness, stumbling here and there over people’s outstretched legs and finally sat down on two rickety kitchen chairs.
“We haven’t paid yet,” I reminded Lena.
“Don’t you worry” she said, “they’re not here for love!”
In front of us, against the blacked-in window, hung a small greyish sheet on rollers, like a blank and crumpled map. “You keep your eyes on that!” Lena said.
I kept my eyes on that, and since nothing seemed to happen, or even to be about to happen, I looked about the dark shop. I could make out the shapes of people sitting here and there, with sometimes as much as an empty row of chairs between them.
We seemed to be sitting there a long, long time. My chair got harder and harder.
“They say continuous,’ I said fretfully. “It hasn’t begun yet, let alone continue. …”
“Got to wait till it fulls a bit,” Lena said cheerfully and diving into her handbag she produced a twisted paper of fruit-drops. I amused myself by trying to recognize the flavours on my tongue. I recognized lemon, orange, blackcurrant and possibly greengage, and then my palate being somewhat jaded, I turned my attention once more to my surroundings.
“Why don’t they light the gas?” I was bored with the darkness.
“Film might catch fire.” Lena explained.
“Oh,” I said. “Then why do people smoke?” I was coughing a little.
“Not supposed to,” Lena informed me.
“Oh,” I said.
“Shan’t be long now,” she promised after what seemed hours. “Going to collect now.”
The dingy curtain that hung in front of the open door was pushed aside by a man carrying an open cigar-box. He shoved his way through the now-full rows and the fall of clanking coppers went with him.
He retired. And with his retiring came silence. For as though it were a signal, a ray of silver light fell upon the hanging sheet.
I sat there forgetting to breathe, forgetting to finish the sweet that lay unheeded upon my tongue. I sat entranced. I remember how I kept saying to myself, I don’t believe it!
And all the time upon the silver screen people ran and walked and laughed and cried.
Living Pictures. Alive.
I remember every incident of that day. Even now, as I write, if I choose to shut my eyes and send my thoughts backwards, I am again that child sitting in the darkness of Cohen’s shop; and I see every shot in my first living pictures.
The first film is very sad. An old man lies in bed and he is very ill. The room is almost bare except for the bed and a chair and there is no doubt at all that he is very poor. An old lady who is presumably his wife goes to the cupboard and opens it. Empty. Nothing but bare boards. She wrings her hands. She points to the old man. The tears run down her thin old cheeks.
It is all terribly sad. The blurring of the screen is not entirely due to bad projection.
But stay. All is not lost! In the depths of her apron pocket the old lady finds a few coppers. Now she is going out. She is in the street.
It is, I think, a French street. Now the old lady is in the market. She is buying flowers. Why on earth flowers when there isn’t a thing to eat?
Oh, clever! She is going to sell them!
She stands at the corner of the street holding out her flowers. No one will buy them. No one will even stop to look at them. It is a cold day. People hurry by in their good boots, or in their handsome carriages. The old lady in her thin shawl shivers on the pavement.
It begins to rain. The pavements grow greasy. The old lady goes on holding out her bunches; the flowers are beginning to look bedraggled. The rainy street gets emptier and emptier. Rain falls upon the old woman standing in the deserted street holding out her unwanted flowers.
At last she sees it is hopeless. With a sad and helpless gesture she drops the flowers into the gutter. She hurries home. The old man is dying. I have never seen death before, but I know he is dying.
I try to turn my face away. Death is so frightening. But I must look. I have to look. These Living Pictures are so much stronger than my fears… they drag my fascinated eyes from the safety of my hands.
I look again. The old man is still a-dying. His thin chest jerks up and down; in and out it goes like a concertina. Suddenly his head falls backwards.
His eyes are staring, staring in his head.
Do dead people’s eyes stare?
I turn to ask Lena. I am hoping she will say No. But we have started on a new picture. I must try to put those dead eyes out of my mind.
This time it is “a comic.” There are two gentlemen and a lady and they all look what Mamma calls “common.” Lena is smiling already.
The two gentlemen have each a bunch of flowers for the lady. The lady is very fat; she is as tall as a grenadier. She takes the flowers from each of the gentlemen.
But do dead people’s eyes …?
The fat lady invites the two gentlemen to have a piece of an enormous melon that is on the sideboard. She cuts a huge slice for the fat gentleman, a huge slice for the thin gentleman; and then she takes the biggest slice for herself.
They rub their stomachs, they roll their eyes, they grin all over their faces to show how good the melon is. Then they all have another slice. And then another and another. There is no melon left.
They don’t look so happy now. The fat lady gets up and steals away. The thin gentleman gets up and follows her. Then the fat gentleman follows them both.
Now the two gentlemen are standing outside a shed at the bottom of the lady’s garden. There is French writing on the door of the shed. I am not good at French but for all that I know perfectly well that this is a lavatory and the fat lady is inside.
I am beginning to feel uncomfortable; and all the time there is a pricking in my mind…. Do dead people’s eyes …?
The lady is still inside the lavatory and the two gentlemen are walking up and down quickly as if they dare not stand still. And all the time they are holding their stomachs and making uncomfortable faces. Now they begin to thump upon the lavatory door.
It is queer seeing the thumps and yet not hearing them… .
Tt is all rather horrid and quite stupid. I begin to think that perhaps Mamma is right. And yet everyone else is enjoying it.
Someone behind me is stamping on the rungs of my chair and jarring my spine. And Lena, even Lena is laughing … and … Do dead people’s eyes …?
There are three or four more pictures. There is no writing to explain, and no one to tell you what is happening. But then the stories are so simple.
There is one that I like best of all. It is another French one and very exciting. It is about the Devil; and it has the most lovely colours.
The Devil in a gorgeous red cloak and long black tights does magic tricks; and it is a thousand times more mysterious than Maskelyne’s. He sprinkles magic powder in a bowl and great flames leap up. He waves his hands over the flames and there are tiny people dancing — fairies and elves.
The Devil keeps walking about and his red cloak flows out behind him. Suddenly he begins to walk towards us and all the time he gets larger and larger; and nearer and nearer … it begins to look as if he will walk right out of the picture, right into the dark shop where I sit clutching hold of Lena. …
The earliest close-up in the world! I know that now. And it wasn’t accidental, either. Old Méliés who made it knew all the tricks.
It is absolutely terrifying seeing the Devil walk straight towards us – possibly my guilty conscience has something to do with it. I sit there, clutching, until the Devil moves slowly backwards, getting smaller and smaller as he goes … I am not at all sorry when he proves himself too clever and, pop—up he goes in flames himself!
And that is the end of the show. The screen goes dark. Lena says that when it lights up again it will start with the dying man in the place that perhaps is France: if we stay, Lena says, we shall have to pay again.
Pay or not, I don’t want to see that one again … and the question is back again, teasing at me, Do dead people’s eyes …?
Comments: Hilda Lewis (1896-1974) was a London-born author of children’s and historical fiction. Her 1946 novel Gone to the Pictures tells of a young girl growing up in London’s East End, where she is entranced by motion pictures. The film show described (recalled?) here is set in the East End (‘east of Aldgate’); from the description of the films the date would be the early 1900s. The novel has several subsequent accounts of film exhibition in London, as the heroine goes from film fan to cinema owner and then film director and producer in the period before the First World War. Méliés is the French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliés. Lewis’s 1947 novel The Day is Ours was adapted into the feature film Mandy (1952) about the education of a deaf child (Lewis’s husband Michael Lewis specialised in the education of the deaf at the University of Nottingham).
Source: Simon Nelson Patten, Product and Climax (The Art of Life series) (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1909), pp. 45-48
Text: The next higher form of climax lies in the melodrama and its allied cheap shows of which the newest kind, the nickel theatre, has a novel importance. It is the first amusement to occupy the economic plane that the saloon has so long exclusively controlled. Its enormous popularity is proof that it appeals to the foundation qualities of men. It is moreover upbuilding, for the pictures of exciting adventures rouse the imagination and concentration which have lapsed in humdrum toil. It is accused of immoral suggestion: the suggestion however is chiefly in the wording of the titles, and the real test of immorality, which is destruction or construction of power, altogether fails. Such a test, naturally, lies in the later effects. If the man goes to the saloon he is “let down” and debilitated afterward; he becomes irritable or confused. There is no such reaction after the cheap show; the glow lasts, subsiding slowly as the memory of the thrilling rescue or the bad man’s capture is overlaid by new sensations. The watcher thinks with purpose, following a story which either has a plot or else holds his attention by showing novel scenes of travel among alien people. He can rest, be warmed, find the companionship of the like minded, and spend half an hour in either the nickel theatre or the saloon for the same price. A conservative estimate puts the number of people in New York City who daily visit the Nickelodeon at 200,000. On one New York street there are five Nickelodeons each having a capacity of 1,000 persons per hour and open from morning until midnight. In the crowded quarters they are almost as numerous as the saloons, and if their popularity continues they will soon out number them. Saloon keepers, says an investigator, are already complaining that their trade is injured by them.
Miss Jane Addams would give to physical sport the place which I have as signed to cheap shows. And this would be the natural place for it, I agree. Primitive men thought through their bodies before they thought through their imaginations; that is, they acted events before they sat down to watch others perform. Physical sport out of doors to-day would also be the natural corrective of the sedentary life of indoor workers. But we are confronted by then fact that there is not now, and is not likely to be for many years, any system of sport that will compare with the theatre in its present organization and accessibility. Great numbers of people easily obtain and are continually influenced by the cheap theatre; comparatively few are stimulated by its natural forerunner, physical play, because there is so scanty equipment for it. To make it a persuasive influence we must first secure an improved general organization of the city — in fact, a geographical reorganization of it, fundamental enough to replace whole areas of dwellings with parks, narrow streets by boulevards, shipping ways with boating courses and construct gymnasiums and baths extensive enough for many thou sand people. In the meantime the actual lift is made by the existing well organized and numerous centers of mimic deeds of virtue and prowess. To close them would be to leave the five-cent pleasure seekers with no alternative but the saloon or street.
Comments: Simon Nelson Patten (1852-1922) was an American economist. Jane Addams was an American social worker and reformer.
Source: Joseph Medill Patterson, ‘The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama’ The Saturday Evening Post, 23 November 1907, pp. 10-11, 38.
Text: Three years ago there was not a nickelodeon, or, five-cent theatre devoted to moving-picture shows, in America. To-day there are between four and five thousand running and solvent, and the number is still increasing rapidly. This is the boom time in the moving-picture business. Everybody is making money- manufacturers, renters, jobbers, exhibitors. Overproduction looms up as a certainty of the near future; but now, as one press-agent said enthusiastically, “this line is a Klondike.”
The nickelodeon in tapping an entirely new stratum of people, is developing into theatregoers a section of population that formerly knew and cared little about the drama as a fact in life. That is why “this line is a Klondike” just at present.
Incredible as it may seem, over two million people on the average attend the nickelodeons every day of the year, and a third of these are children.
Let us prove up this estimate. The agent for the biggest firm of film renters in the country told me that the average expense of running a nickelodeon was from $175 to $200 a week, divided as follows:
Wage of manager $25 Wage of Operator 20 Wage of doorman 15 Wage of porter or musician 12 Rent of film (two reels changed twice a week) 50 Rent of projecting machine 10 Rent of building 40 Music, printing, “campaign contributions,” etc. 18 Total $190
Merely to meet expenses then, the average nickelodeon must have a weekly attendance of 4000. This gives all the nickelodeons 16,000,000 a week, or over 2,000,000 a day. Two million people a day are needed before profits can begin, and the two million are forthcoming. It is a big thing, this new enterprise.
The nickelodeon is usually a tiny theatre, containing 199 seats, giving from twelve to eighteen performances a day, seven days a week. Its walls are painted red. The seats are ordinary kitchen chairs, not fastened. The only break in the red color scheme is made by half a dozen signs, in black and white, NO SMOKING, HATS OFF and sometimes, but not always, STAY AS LONG AS YOU LIKE.
The spectatorium is one story high, twenty-five feet wide and about seventy feet deep. Last year or the year before it was probably a second-hand clothiers, a pawnshop or cigar store. Now, the counter has been ripped out, there is a ticket-seller’s booth where the show-window was, an automatic musical barker somewhere up in the air thunders its noise down on the passersby, and the little store has been converted into a theatrelet. Not a theatre, mind you, for theatres must take out theatrical licenses at $500 a year. Theatres seat two hundred or more people. Nickelodeons seat 199, and take out amusement licenses. This is the general rule.
But sometimes nickelodeon proprietors in favorable locations take out theatrical licenses and put in 800 or 1000 seats. In Philadelphia, there is, perhaps, the largest nickelodeon in America. It is said to pay not only the theatrical license, but also $30,000 a year ground rent and a handsome profit.
To-day there is cutthroat competition between the little nickelodeon owners, and they are beginning to compete each other out of existence. Already consolidation has set in. Film-renting firms are quietly beginning to pick up, here and there, a few nickelodeons of their own; presumably they will make better rates and give prompter service to their own theatrelets than to those belonging to outsiders. The tendency is early toward fewer, bigger, cleaner five-cent theatres and more expensive shows. Hard as this may be on the little showman who is forced out, it is good for the public, who will, in consequence, get more for their money.
Who the Patrons Are
The character of the attendance varies with the locality, but, whatever the locality, children make up about thirty-three per cent. of the crowds. For some reason, young women from sixteen to thirty years old are rarely in evidence, but many middle-aged and old women are steady patrons, who never, when a new film is to be shown, miss the opening.
In cosmopolitan city districts the foreigners attend in larger proportion than the English speakers. This is doubtless because the foreigners, shut out as they are by their alien tongues from much of the life about them can yet perfectly understand the pantomime of the moving pictures.
As might be expected, the Latin races patronize the shows more consistently than Jews, Irish or Americans. Sailors of all races are devotees.
Most of the shows have musical accompaniments. The enterprising manager usually engages a human pianist with instructions to play Eliza-crossing-the-ice when the scene is shuddery, and fast ragtime in a comic kid chase. Where there is little competition, however, the manager merely presses the button and starts the automatic going, which is as apt as not to bellow out, I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill, just as the angel rises from the brave little hero-cripple’s corpse.
The moving pictures were used as chasers in vaudeville houses for several years before the advent of the nickelodeon. The cinemetograph or vitagraph or biograph or kinetoscope (there are seventy-odd names for the same machine) was invented in 1888-1889. Mr. Edison is said to have contributed most toward it, though several other inventors claim part of the credit.
The first very successful pictures were those of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight at Carson City, Nevada, in 1897. These films were shown all over the country to immense crowds and an enormous sum of money was made by the exhibitors.
The Jeffries-Sharkey fight of twenty-five rounds at Coney Island, in November, 1899, was another popular success. The contest being at night, artificial light was necessary, and 500 arc lamps were placed above the ring. Four cameras were used. While one was snapping the fighters, a second was being focused at them, a third was being reloaded, and a fourth was held in reserve in case of breakdown. Over seven miles of film were exposed, and 198,000 pictures, each 2 by 3 inches, were taken. This fight was taken at the rate of thirty pictures to the second.
The 500 arc lamps above the ring generated a temperature of about 115 degrees for the gladiators to fight in. When the event was concluded, Mr. Jeffries was overheard to remark that for no amount of money would he ever again in his life fight in such heat, pictures or no pictures. And he never has.
Since that mighty fight, manufacturers have learned a good deal about cheapening their process. Pictures instead of being 2 by 3 inches are now 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches, and are taken sixteen instead of thirty to the second, for the illusion to the eye of continuous motion is as perfect at one rate as the other.
By means of a ratchet each separate picture is made to pause a twentieth of a second before the magic-lantern lens, throwing an enlargement to life size upon the screen. Then, while the revolving shutter obscures the lens, one picture is dropped and another substituted, to make in turn its twentieth of a second display.
The films are, as a rule, exhibited at the rate at which they are taken, though chase scenes are usually thrown faster, and horse races, fire-engines and hot-moving automobiles slower, than the life-speed.
How the Drama Is Made
Within the past year an automatic process to color films has been discovered by a French firm. The pigments are applied by means of a four-color machine stencil. Beyond this bare fact the process remains a secret of the inventors. The stencil must do its work with extraordinary accuracy, for any minute error in the application of color to outline made upon the 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches print is magnified 200 times when thrown upon the screen by the magnifying lens. The remarkable thing about this automatic colorer is that it applies the pigment in slightly different outline to each successive print of a film 700 feet long. Colored films sell for about fifty per cent. more than black and whites. Tinted films – browns, blues, oranges, violets, greens and so forth – are made by washing, and sell at but one per cent. over the straight price.
The films are obtained in various ways. “Straight” shows, where the interest depends on the dramatist’s imagination and the setting, are merely playlets acted out before the rapid-fire camera. Each manufacturing firm owns a studio with property-room, dressing rooms and a completely-equipped stage. The actors are experienced professionals of just below the first rank, who are content to make from $18 to $25 a week. In France a class of moving-picture specialists has grown up who work only for the cameras, but in this country most of the artists who play in the film studios in the daytime play also behind the footlights at night.
The studio manager orders rehearsals continued until his people have their parts “face-perfect,” then he gives the word, the lens is focused, the cast works rapidly for twenty minutes while the long strip of celluloid whirs through the camera, and the performance is preserved in living, dynamic embalmment (if the phrase may be permitted) for decades to come.
Eccentric scenes, such as a chalk marking the outlines of a coat upon a piece of cloth, the scissors cutting to the lines, the needle sewing, all automatically without human help, often require a week to take. The process is ingenious. First the scissors and chalk are laid upon the edge of the cloth. The picture is taken. The camera is stopped, the scissors are moved a quarter of an inch into the cloth, the chalk is drawn a quarter of an inch over the cloth. The camera is opened again and another picture is taken showing the quarter-inch cut and quarter-inch mark. The camera is closed, another quarter inch is cut and chalked; another exposure is made. When these pictures so slowly obtained we run off rapidly, the illusion of fast self-action on the part of the scissors, chalk and needle is produced.
Sometimes in a nickelodeon you can see on the screen a building completely wrecked in five minutes. Such a film was obtained by focusing a camera at the building, and taking every salient move of the wreckers for the space, perhaps, of a fortnight. When these separate prints, obtained at varying intervals, some of them perhaps a whole day apart, are run together continuously, the appearance is of a mighty stone building being pulled to pieces like a house of blocks.
Such eccentric pictures were in high demand a couple of years ago, but now the straight-story show is running them out. The plots are improving every year in dramatic technique. Manufacturing firms pay from $5 to $25 for good stories suitable for film presentation, and it is astonishes how many sound dramatic ideas are submitted by people of insufficient education to render their thoughts into English suitable for the legitimate stage.
The moving-picture actors are becoming excellent pantomimists, which is natural, for they cannot rely on the playwright’s lines to make their meanings. I remember particularly a performance I saw near Spring Street on the Bowery, where the pantomime seemed to me in nowise inferior to that of Mademoiselle Pilar-Morin, the French pantomimist.
The nickelodeon spectators readily distinguish between good and bad acting, though they do not mark their pleasure or displeasure audibly, except very rarely, in a comedy scenes by a suppressed giggle. During the excellent show of which I have spoken, the men, woman and children maintained steady stare of fascination at the changing figures on the scene, and toward the climax, when forgiveness was cruelly denied, lips were parted and eyes filled with tears. It was as much a tribute to the actors as the loudest bravos ever shouted in the Metropolitan Opera House.
To-day a consistent plot is demanded. There must be, as in the drama, exposition, development, climax and denouement. The most popular films run from fifteen to twenty minutes and are from five hundred to eight hundred feet long. One studio manager said: “The people want a story. We run to comics generally; they seem to take best. So-and-so, however, lean more to melodrama. When we started we used to give just flashes- an engine chasing to a fire, a base-runner sliding home, a charge of cavalry. Now, for instance, if we want to work in a horse race it has to be as a scene in the life of the jockey, who is the hero of the piece – we’ve got to give them a story; they won’t take anything else – a story with plenty of action. You can’t show large conversation, you know, on the screen. More story, larger story, better story with plenty of action- that is our tendency.”
Civilization, all through the history of mankind, has been chiefly the property of the upper classes, but during the past century civilization has been permeating steadily downward. The leaders of this democratic movement have been general education, universal suffrage, cheap periodicals and cheap travel. To-day the moving-picture machine cannot be overlooked as an effective protagonist of democracy. For through it the drama, always a big fact in the lives of the people at the top, is now becoming a big fact in the lives of the people at the bottom. Two million of them a day have so found a new interest in life.
The prosperous Westerners, who take their week or fortnight, fall and spring, in New York, pay two dollars and a half for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Broadway theatre. The stokers who have driven the Deutschland or the Lusitania from Europe pay five cents for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Bowery nickelodeon. What in the difference?
The stokers, sitting on the hard, wooden chairs of the nickelodeon, experience the same emotional flux and counter-flux (more intense is their experience, for they are not as blase) as the prosperous Westerners in their red plush orchestra chairs, uptown.
The sentient life of the half-civilized beings at the bottom has been enlarged and altered, by the introduction of the dramatic motif, to resemble more closely the sentient life of the civilized beings at the top.
Take an analogous case. Is aimless travel “beneficial” or not? It is amusing, certainly; and, therefore, the aristocrats who could afford it have always traveled aimlessly. But now, says the Democratic Movement, the grand tour shall no longer be restricted to the aristocracy. Jump on the rural trolley-car, Mr. Workingman, and make a grand tour yourself. Don’t care, Mr. Workingman, whether it is “beneficial” or not. Do it because it is amusing; just as the aristocrats do.
The film makers cover the whole gamut of dramatic attractions. The extremes in the film world are as far apart as the extremes in the theatrical world- as far apart, let us say, as The Master Builder and The Gay White Way.
If you look up the moving-picture advertisements in any vaudeville trade paper you cannot help being struck with this fact. For instance, in a current number, one firm offers the following variety of attractions:
Romany’s Revenge (very dramatic) 300 feet Johnny’s Run (comic kid chase) 300 ” Roof to Cellar (absorbing comedy) 782 ” Wizard’s World (fantastic comedy) 350 ” Sailor’s Return (highly dramatic) 535 ” A Mother’s Sin (beautiful, dramatic and moral) 392 ” Knight Errant (old historical drama) 421 ” Village Fire Brigade (big laugh) 325 ” Catch the Kid (a scream) 270 ” The Coroner’s Mistake (comic ghost story) 430 ” Fatal Hand (dramatic) 432 “
Another firm advertises in huge type, in the trade papers:
LIFE AND PASSION OF CHRIST Five Parts, Thirty-nine Pictures, 3114 feet Price, $373.78 Extra for coloring $125.10
The presentation by the picture machine of the Passion Play in this country was undertaken with considerable hesitation. The films had been shown in France to huge crowds, but here, so little were even professional students of American lower-class taste able to gauge it in advance, that the presenters feared the Passion Play might be boycotted, if not, indeed, indeed, in some places, mobbed. On the contrary, it has been the biggest success ever known to the business.
Last year incidents leading up to the murder of Stanford White were shown, succeeded enormously for a very few weeks, then flattened out completely and were withdrawn. Film people are as much at sea about what their crowds will like as the managers in the “legitimate.”
Although the gourdlike growth of the nickelodeon business as a factor in the conscious life of Americans is not yet appreciated, already a good many people are disturbed by what they do know of the thing.
Those who are “interested in the poor” are wondering whether the five-cent theatre is a good influence, and asking themselves gravely whether it should be encouraged or checked (with the help of the police).
Is the theatre a “good” or a “bad” influence? The adjectives don’t fit the case. Neither do they fit the case of the nickelodeon, which is merely the theatre demociatized.
Take the case of the Passion Play, for instance. Is it irreverent to portray the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension in a vaudeville theatre over a darkened stage where half an hour before a couple of painted, short-skirted girls were doing a “sister-act”? What is the motive which draws crowds poor people to nickelodeons to see the Birth in the Manger flashed magic-lanternwise upon a white cloth? Curiosity? Mere mocking curiosity, perhaps? I cannot answer.
Neither could I say what it is that, every fifth year, draws our plutocrats to Oberammergau, where at the cost, from first to last, of thousands of dollars and days of time, they view a similar spectacle presented in a sunny Bavarian setting.
It is reasonable, however, to believe that the same feelings, whatever they are, which drew our rich to Oberammergau, draw our poor to the nickelodeons. Whether the powerful emotional reactions produced in the spectator by the Passion Play are “beneficial” or not is as far beyond decision as the question whether a man or an oyster is happier. The man is more, feels more, than the oyster. The beholder of the Passion Play is more, feels more, than the non-beholder.
Whether for weal or woe, humanity has ceaselessly striven to complicate life, to diversify and make subtle the emotions, to create and gratify the new and artificial spiritual wants, to know more and feel more both of good and evil, to attain a greater degree of self-consciousness; just as the one fundamental instinct of the youth, which most systems of education have been vainly organized to eradicate, is to find out what the man knows.
In this eternal struggle for more self-consciousness, the moving-picture machine, uncouth instrument though it be, has enlisted itself on especial behalf of the least enlightened, those who are below the reach even of the yellow journals. For although in the prosperous vaudeville houses the machine is but a toy, a “chaser,” in the nickelodeons it is the central, absorbing fact, which strengthens, widens, vivifies subjective life; which teaches living other than living through the senses alone. Already, perhaps, touching him at the psychological moment, it has awakened to his first, groping, necessary discontent the spirit of an artist of the future, who otherwise would have remained mute and motionless.
The nickelodeons are merely an extension course in civilization, teaching both its “badness” and its “goodness.” They have come in obedience to the law of supply and demand; and they will stay as long as the slums stay, for in the slums they are the fittest and must survive.
Comments: Joseph Medill Patterson (1879-1946) was an American journalist and newspaper publisher, founder of the New York Daily News. Nickelodeons (a nickname given in America to the shop-conversions that preceded purpose-built cinemas) came to the interest on general newspapers and magazines in 1907. The illustrations come from the original publication.
Source: Extract from interview with Hugh Smith, C707/393/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1
Text: Q. Did you ever manage to go to the town to go to the theatre, music halls or concerts or the cinema? Nothing at all, not even a cinema?
A. Well you – I you go back – when I left school I used to – I had this bicycle you see and I used to to go into Braintree. And I’ll tell you this as I think I told you before, the first time I went to the cinema, you went in, you paid your sixpence and they sat you in the front. Sat you at the back, away from the picture then. The next time I went they sat you in the front. You see, they thought that – they thought that – that’s in the ordinary con – concert hall you used to – the – the – the highest prices were in the front if you remember, nearest the – nearest the people, and they thought the same thing was in the cinema but that – that didn’t act that way.
Q. The first time they’d shown the film you mean?
A. Yes. Yes. Yes.
Comments: Hugh Smith (1898-19??) was the son of a farmer from Kelvedon, Essex. A number of venues in the early days of cinema organised pricing in line with theatre practice before realising that the optimum seats were to the back rather than to the front. His memory probably dates from the late 1900s. Smith was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).
Source: Arthur Ruhl, The Other Americans; the cities, the countries, and especially the people of South America (New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp. 110-112 [orig. pub. 1908 as series of articles in Collier’s magazine]
Text: On Arequipa, too, broods the spell of the ancient Church. By the time I had dined the evening I arrived and started forth to look at the town, it lay dead and silent under its cold stars, the only sound the rush of mountain water in the open drains. But there was light in the cathedral, and within on the floor — for there were no pews — knelt, it seemed, all the women in the town, like so many black-birds in their sable mantos, whispering and crossing themselves. Here were the lights and the ambitious glitter and the antiphonal choruses echoing through the arches, yet outside no background of noise and busy worldliness to put it in its place. It was as though all the town were turned into a cloister; as though, having no opportunity to sin, it were determined to carry out the other end of the bargain at any rate, and fancy itself condemned.
The flesh was not altogether neglected, however, that night, and toward nine o’clock, a few squares away, a lonely little band, muffled in ponchos and neck-scarfs, tooted in the frosty air, calling the men-folks and the irreligious to an exhibition of the American biograph.
The latter has become almost an institution in parts of South America. Where no other theatrical entertainment is to be had, one will generally find a biograph show. “All the world ought to have one,” an advertisement in the paper read that night — “I. Families: For its modern repertoire of operas, zarzuelas, etc., to pass happy and diverting moments without going out of the house in the evening. II. Merchants: To attract the attention of the public to their establishments. III. Proprietors of haciendas: To amuse their workmen on Sundays.”
There was so much Indian blood in the audience that night, as is always the case in the interior, that it suggested a crowd of Japanese soldiers. Broad- cheeked and stolid they sat while the great world flickered before them. From Norway to Damascus we jumped, from Jerusalem to Paris and Madrid — the fountains playing at Versailles, Hebrews kissing the Wall of Lamentations, a “pony” ballet in a musical comedy, skeeing in Norway, with fresh-cheeked girls sweeping almost out of the picture and into the auditorium, the snow spraying from the skees, the wind blowing their hair across their faces, laughing as they came. There was a royal bull-fight at Madrid — even the sweating flanks of the bull panting up and down, the pretty bonnet of some tourist which, in the excitement, had insisted in bobbing in front of the camera. I am not an agent for any picture-machine, but I must confess that it seemed rather wonderful to me, this very glitter and pulse-beat of Europe up here in a stoveless theatre among a lot of Indians. And I regret that the audience showed much more enthusiasm over a Byronic young man who gave an imitation of the battle of the Yalu on a guitar, and stood in the cobbled court outside wrapped in a velveteen cloak and gazed at us superciliously as we started home.
Comments: Arthur Brown Ruhl (1876-1935) was an American sports journalist and travel writer. Arequipa is in Peru.
Source: John Hall Ingham, ‘The Kinetoscope’, part of ‘Symbols of Science’, Pompeii of the West & other poems, (Philadelphia/London: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1903), pp. 159-160
Text: IV – THE KINETOSCOPE
See how the marble of the Phidian day, The canvas warmed by Raphael,—embalm A moment’s action in eternal calm: This look, this gesture that the human clay Hath long resigned,—will thus forever stay, But motionless. Then wonder at this glass, Wherein a thousand scenes that swiftly pass Make one scene that will live for us alway.
The hours, days, years sweep on: each minute’s birth Blends weal and woe, the bitter and the sweet. Deem not thy own nor yet thy fellow’s worth Weighed in a single triumph or defeat,— One deed or one misdeed of sense or soul. Flash Life’s full cycle forth: judge by the whole!
Comments: John Hall Ingham (1860-1931) was a American poet. The above poem is one part of ‘Symbols of Science’, whose seven sections are devoted to the Telephone, the Phonograph, the Trolley, the Kinetoscope, the Röntgen Ray (i.e. X-rays), Liquid Air and Wireless Telegraphy. It must be one of the first poems devoted to the subject of motion picture films.
Source: Mrs Campbell Dauncey [Enid Campbell Dauncey], An Englishwoman in the Philippines (New York, E.P. Dutton, 1906), pp. 96-99
Text: Well, we went last night to a cinematograph show, which has established itself in a big empty basement in the Calle Real, with a large sign outside, made of glass letters lighted behind with electricity, all in the most approved European style. The “show” lasts for half an hour, going on from six in the evening to about ten o’clock at night, and the proprietor makes about 300 pesos a week out of it, for he has very few expenses, and it is the sort of thing these people love. They come out when the show is over, stand about and expectorate for a few minutes, and then pay their cents and go in again and enjoy the same thing about five times running, probably without the faintest idea what it is all about from start to finish. You remember the dreadful extent of the habit of expectoration in Spain? You have heard about this failing in America? The Filipino is the epitome and concentration of the two.
Everything in the hall was boarded up to prevent any stray, non-paying enthusiast from getting a free peep; but all the same I saw several little brown forms in fluttering muslin shirts, outside, where the wall formed a side street, with eyes glued to the chinks of a door in rapt attention; though I don’t suppose the little chaps could really see anything but the extreme edge of the back row of benches.
In the hall we were saved from suffocation by two electric fans, and kept awake by a Filipino playing a cracked old piano with astonishing dexterity, rattling out the sort of tunes you hear in a circus and nowhere else on earth. I could not help wondering where he had picked them up, till it suddenly dawned on me that one, at least, gave me a faint hint that perhaps the performer might once have heard “Hiawatha” on a penny flute; so I concluded that he was playing “variations.” Pianos never sound very well out here, and I am told it is difficult to keep them bearable at all, for the chords have an unmusical way of going rusty in the damp season, or else snapping with a loud ping.
The moving pictures were not at all bad, rather jumpy at times, but the subjects really quite entertaining, and all the slides, from the appearance of the figures on them, made in Germany, I imagine. The series wound up with an interminable fairy tale in coloured pictures, really a sort of short play, and in this one could see the German element still more apparent, in the castles, the ancient costumes, and the whole composition of the thing. I don’t suppose the natives in the audience had the wildest idea what it was all about, or what the king and queen, the good fairy, and the wicked godmother, were meant to be, probably taking the whole story for some episode in the life of a Saint.
The audience were really more amusing to me than the pictures, and I was quite pleased each time the light went up so that I could have a good look at them. In the front rows, which were cheap, as they were so close to the screen, sat the poorer people in little family groups, with clean camisas and large cigars, the women’s hair looking like black spun glass. Our places were raised a little above them, and were patronised by the swells who had paid 40 cents — a shilling. Amongst the elect were one or two English and other foreigners; some fat Chinamen, with their pigtails done up in chignons, and wearing open-work German straw hats, accompanied by their native wives and little slant-eyed children; a few missionaries and schoolma’ams in coloured blouses and untidy coiffures à la Gibson Girl; and one or two U.S.A. soldiers, with thick hair parted in the middle, standing treat to their Filipina girls – these last in pretty camisas, and very shy and happy. A funny little Filipino boy near us, rigged up in a knickerbocker suit and an immense yellow oil-skin motor-cap, was rather frightened at old Tuyay, who had insisted on coming to the show and sitting at our feet. When she sniffed the bare legs of this very small brown brother, he lost all his dignity and importance, and clung blubbing to his little flat-faced mother. Poor old Tuyay was dreadfully offended; she came and crawled right under C—-‘s chair, where she lay immovable till the performance was over.
Comments: Mrs Campbell Dauncey (born Enid Rolanda Gambier) (1875-1939) was an English travel writer and magazine contributor. She visited the Philippines over 1904-05, at the time of the American occupation following the Philippine–American War of 1899-1902. Her book is written as a series of letters; the above extract comes from a letter dated 4 February 1905, written from Iloilo. ‘Hiawatha’ refers to the The Song of Hiawatha cantatas written by Samuel Coleridge-Taylor.
Source: Lu Xun, from the preface to Call to Arms, contained in Selected Works of Lu Hsun vol. 1 (Peking: Foreign Languages Press, 1956), p. 3
Text: [1956 translation] I do not know what advanced methods are now used to teach microbiology, but at that time lantern slides were used to show the microbes; and if the lecture ended early, the instructor might show slides of natural scenery or news to fill up the time. This was during the Russo-Japanese War, so there were many war films, and I had to join in the clapping and cheering in the lecture hall along with other students. It was a long time since I had seen my compatriots, but one day I saw a film showing some Chinese, one of whom was bound, while many others stood around him. They were all strong fellows but appeared completely apathetic. According to the commentary, the one with his hands bound was a spy working for the Russians, who was to have his head cut off by the Japanese military as a warning to the others, while the Chinese beside him had come to enjoy the spectacle. Before the term was over I had left for Tokyo because after this film I felt that medical science was not so important after all.
[1980 translation] I have no idea what improved methods are now used to teach microbiology, but in those days we were shown lantern slides of microbes, and if the lecture ended early, the instructor might show slides of natural scenery or news to fill up the time. Since this was during the Russo-Japanese War, there were many war slides, and I had to join in the clapping and cheering in the lecture hall along with other students. It was a long time since I had seen any compatriots, but one day I saw a news-reel slide of a number of Chinese, one of them bound and the rest standing around him. They were all sturdy fellows but appeared completely apathetic. According to the commentary, the one with his hands bound was a spy working for the Russians, who was to be beheaded by the Japanese military as a warning to the others, while the Chinese beside him had come to enjoy the spectacle. Before the term was over I had left for Tokyo, because this slide convinced me that medical science was not so important after all.
Comments: Lu Xun, also Lu Hsün, the pen name of Zhou Shuren (1881-1936) was a Chinese short story writer, poet and designer. In the preface to his 1922 short story collection Call to Arms (吶喊) he writes about seeing on a screen the beheading of a Chinese while he was a medical student at the time of the Russo-Japanese War (1904-05). The Chinese word ‘diànyǐng’ normally means motion picture, but it can also mean magic lantern slide. The 1956 translation above suggests that what he saw was a film; the 1980 translation suggests that it was a slide. Lu Xun also wrote about the incident in his 1932 memoir Dawn Blossom Plucked at Dusk (朝花夕拾):
In our second year we had a new course, bacteriology. All the bacterial forms were shown in slides, and if we completed one section before it was time for the class to be dismissed, some news in slides would be shown. Naturally at that time they were all about the Japanese victories over the Russians. But in these lantern slides there were also scenes of some Chinese who had acted as spies or the Russians and were captured by the Japanese and shot while other Chinese looked on. And there was I, too, in the classroom.
“Banzai” the students clapped their hands and cheered.
They cheered everything we saw; but to me the cheering that day was unusually jarring to my ear.
It is most likely that he saw a lantern slide of the incident, though Chinese beheading films, both actuality and fictionalised, had been made in Britain around this time. My thanks to Dawid Glownia for having brought these passages to my attention, and for providing background information.
Source: Extract from interview with Edward William Wifen, C707/9/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1
Text: But there’s one thing I put in my other notes, about the cinemas. I can remember when I was ever so young and I suppose I was just at that age when you can remember, that my sister … one of my sisters taking me to the Corn Exchange here to what they call Pools Morama, and that was a kind of a … must have been when the moving pictures was in the very early stages, became I can’t remember very much about it except that they were all horses dashing along and they seemed to be coming towards you. That was called Pools Morama, and I think that that was connected with Ipswich because for years there was a Pools picture house in Ipswich, and I’ve got an idea that that was the same thing, and then eventually they went over to the ordinary pictures. But you don’t hear anything about that sort of thing, but that definitely was so, because I can distinctly remember going and I know that they were horses. They were men on horses and they seemed to be coming to you. Probably that was something to do with the Boer War. The picture may have been, you see, with all the horses, may have been that. But I can’t remember whether they were soldiers on the horses, or not. I couldn’t have been very old, but I do remember that.
Comments: Edward William Wifen (1897-?) was the youngest of eight children of a Colchester gardener, and his memories here relate to Colchester. Poole’s Myriorama was a travelling panorama show, organised by the Poole family, which toured widely across the UK in the late Victorian period and early 1900s. The Myriorama combined scrolling panoramas with cut-out figures, music, lighting effects, and narration, often illustrating military adventures (the Anglo-Boer was was 1899-1902). Ipswich did have a Poole’s Picture Palace, managed by the Poole family business. Wifen was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).
Source: David Bernstein (trans.), ‘Tolstoy on the Cinema’, New York Times, 31 January 1937, p. 158, supposedly quoting Leo Tolstoy in conversation August 1908
Text: Tolstoy on the Cinema
He Foretold the Future of the Medium While It Was Still in Its Infancy
Although Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina” is one of the four or five novels that have been made into moving pictures more often than any others, the sage of Yasnaya Polyana never had to go through the torture that is scenario writing in Hollywood. But Leo Tolstoy had his own troubles with the movies, nevertheless. All through the last years of his life, when his writings and philosophy were revered the world over, Tolstoy was bothered by an unceasing flow of visitors, who questioned him on all sorts of things, from literature to vegetarianism. And, on the eve of his eightieth birthday, in August, 1908, the motion picture camera men flocked into his home for a few historic shots. Said Tolstoy on that occasion to his friend I. Teneromo and the visitors:
“You will see that this little clicking contraption with the revolving handle will make a revolution in our life-in the life of writers. It is a direct attack on the old methods of literary art. We shall have to adapt ourselves to the shadowy screen and to the cold machine. A new form of writing will be necessary. I have thought of that and I can feel what in coming.”
“But I rather like it. This swift change of scene, this blending of motion and experience – it is much better than heavy, long-drawn-out kind of writing to which we are accustomed. It is closer to life. In life, too, changes and transitions flash by before our eyes, and emotions of the soul are like a hurricane. The cinema has divined the mystery of motion. And that is greatness.
“When I was writing ‘The Living Corpse,’ I tore my hair and chewed my fingers because I could not give enough scenes, enough pictures, because I could not pass rapidly enough from one event to another. The accursed stage was like a halter choking the throat of the dramatist; and I had to cut the life and swing of the work according to the dimensions and requirements of the stage. I remember when I was told that some clever person had devised a scheme for a revolving stage, on which a number of scenes could be prepared in advance. I rejoiced like a child, and allowed myself to write ten scenes into my play. Even then I was afraid the play would be killed.
“But the films! They are wonderful! Drr! and a scene is ready! Drr! and we have another! We have the sea, the coast, the city, the palace – and in the palace there is tragedy (there is always tragedy in palaces, as we see in Shakespeare).
“I am seriously thinking of writing a play for the screen. I have a subject for it. It is a terrible and bloody theme. I am not afraid of bloody themes. Take Homer or the Bible, for instance. How many bloodthirsty passages there are in them- murders, wars. And yet these are the sacred books, and they ennoble and uplift the people. It is not the subject itself that is so terrible. It is the propagation of bloodshed, and the justification for it, that is really terrible! Some friends of mine returned from Kursk recently and told me a shocking incident. It is a story for the films. You couldn’t write it in fiction or for the stage. But on the screen it would be good. Listen – it may turn out to be a powerful thing!”
And Leo Tolstoy related the story in detail. He was deeply agitated as he spoke. But he never developed the theme in writing. Tolstoy was always like that. When he was inspired by a story he had been thinking of he would become excited by its possibilities. If some one happened to be near by, he would unfold the plot in all its details. Then he would forget all about it. Once the gestation was over and his brain-child born, Tolstoy would seldom bother to write about it.
Some one spoke of the domination of the films by business men interested only in profits. “Yes, I know, I’ve been told about that before,” Tolstoy replied. “The films have fallen into the clutches of business men and art is weeping! But where aren’t there business men?” And he proceeded to relate one of those delightful little parables for which he is famous.
“A little while ago I was standing on the banks of our pond. It was noon of a hot day, and butterflies of all colors and sizes were circling around, bathing and darting in the sunlight, fluttering among the flowers through their short – their very short – lives, for with the setting of the sun they would die.
“But there on the shore near the reeds I saw an insect with little lavender spots on its wings. It, too, was circling around. It would flutter about, obstinately, and its circles became smaller and smaller. I glanced over there. In among the reeds sat a great green toad with staring eyes on each aide of his flat head, breathing quickly with his greenish-white, glistening throat. The toad did not look at the butterfly, but the butterfly kept flying over him as though she wished to be seen. What happened? The toad looked up, opened his mouth wide and – remarkable! – the butterfly flew in of her own accord! The toad snapped his jaws shut quickly, and the butterfly disappeared.
“Then I remembered that thus the insect reaches the stomach of the toad, leaves its seed there to developed and again appear on God’s earth, become a larva, a chrysalis. The chrysalis becomes a caterpillar, and out of the caterpillar springs a new butterfly. And then the playing in the sun, the bathing in the light, and the creating of new life, I begin all over again.
“Thus it is with the cinema. In the reeds of film art sits the toad – the business man. Above him hovers the insect – the artist. A glance, and the jaws of the business man devour the artist. But that doesn’t, mean destruction. It is only one of the methods of procreation, of propagating the race; in the belly of the business man is carried on the process of impregnation and the development of the seeds of the future. These seeds will come out on God’s earth and will begin their beautiful, brilliant lives all over again.”
Comments: Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy (1828-1910) was a Russian novelist and political thinker, author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. Tolstoy is known to have gone to the cinema on more than one occasion, and was acutely aware of the new industry because in his last years he was regularly pursued by newsreel cameramen. There are accounts of him reacting to the average cinema fare with disgust, and this interview needs to be treated with caution. It is a record of a conversation supposedly conducted with Tolstoy on his eightieth birthday in August 1908 by Tolstoyan acolyte Isaak Teneromo, but Tolstoy’s daughter told film historian Jay Leyda (in his book Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film) that “there are several aspects of this record that make it suspect, but that it incorporates remarks that Tolstoy may have made, either to Teneromo or others, but not on his eightieth birthday”. Teneromo subsequently wrote the screenplay for Ukhod velikovo startza (The Departure of a Great Man) (Russia 1912), a film dramatising Tolstoy’s life.