Gone to the Pictures

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.

Dead.

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).

Bad Blood

Source: Lorna Sage, Bad Blood (London: Fourth Estate, 2000), pp. 42-43

Text: Grandma eked out her visits with other fantasy gratifications. She could hoard wherever she was and, although Shrewsbury and Chester were in her view not a patch on Cardiff, they would help recapture the security of streets, and their cafés and cinemas would cocoon her against the hostile whispers of the trees and the whiffs of manure. These outings were all-female, too, and involved hours of getting ready, then a lift to the train from a blaspheming Grandpa, or sometimes a taxi, all so that she’d be able to repose in the life-giving fug of a matinée at the Gaumont or the Majestic. The plush seats, the dimming of the lights and the sheen they caught on the swagged curtain as it rose, the box of chocolates, were as important as the film itself, almost. Although she loved the whole thing and entered into the spirit of the illusion so enthusiastically that she swept aside the dimension of fiction altogether. The latest Ava Gardner movie was just the most recent report on what promiscuous Ava had been up to since you saw her last: the changes of costume and setting and name were feeble disguises, and didn’t fool Grandma for a minute. She was there to witness when Joan Fontaine, for all her icy blondness, fell for Harry Belafonte and would (she said) never trust Joan again. Grace Kelly she watched like a hawk for signs of similar leanings and was semi-confirmed when Grace married an Eye-tie (She herself wouldn’t touch dark chocolates, even, and anyone who acquired a suntan was suspected of a touch of the tar brush.) Once television arrived in our lives she became an addict of soap operas and in particular Emergency Ward 10, which saved her life day after dreary rural day. The box eventually became her babysitter, the last, many times removed substitute for her mother. By then I was treating her with contempt, as a senile infant, although she scared me a lot, in truth, because she represented the prospect of never growing up.

Comments: Lorna Sage (1943-2001) was an English literary academic and writer. Her memoir Bad Blood includes a description of her childhood in a Welsh borders village with grandparents who loathed one another. Joan Fontaine and Jamaican-American actor Harry Belafonte appeared together in Island in the Sun (US 1957), which caused some controversy on account of its inter-racial love scenes. Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. British medical soap opera was broadcast by ITV 1957-1967.

Product and Climax

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.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Time and Chance

Source: Alexander Black, Time and Chance: Adventures with People and Print (New York/Toronto: Farrar and Reinhardt, 1937), pp. 117-118

Text: I was witness to one blunder in translating an audience sound that may have had a parallel under other circumstances, yet scarcely with a setting so unique. Edouard [sic] Muybridge was lecturing at the Oxford Club in Brooklyn on his experiments in photographing the horse in motion – experiments which resulted in startling the artists of the world. By the aid of a primitive projector he was displaying his studies on a screen. The action pictures showed not only horses but human figures, some of which were not merely novel but strikingly beautiful. While Muybridge was projecting and describing the dance of a girl model with floating draperies that glittered in the sunlight, someone in the audience, impatient at the prevalence of too-audible comment, uttered a ‘Sh-h-h!’ Muybridge mistook the shush for a hiss. It was astounding that he should mistake the intention behind the sound, but he blurted out a quick-tempered protest. ‘I am amazed,’ he said, ‘that from an intelligent audience there should be any misjudgement of a picture which I think has been rightly recognized as a work of art. It is a sad humiliation to discover that prudery can go so far.’ The shusher said nothing. Perhaps only in an American audience could Muybridge’s rebuke have been heard in silence. The silence was not only a cruelty to him, but a saddening confession of stupidity if not on the part of the whole audience, on the party of the committee – not to mention the shusher. Of course Muybridge was enlightened when he got through, but the mischief had been done. At least one after-comment insisted that the incident ‘made a monkey of Muybridge and cowards of the crowd.’

Comments: Alexander Black (1859-1940) was an American photographer, journalist and novelist. He became a pioneer of cinematic-style narrative through his 1894 lecture Miss Jerry, which combined staged slides (using professional actors) with some illusion of movement and live commentary. The English chronophotographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose sequence photographs did so much to inspire cinema, lectured across America and Europe in the 1880s. The lecture described hear may have taken place in early 1889 (early film history Terry Ramsaye refers to the incident in his book A Million and One Nights). My thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing this passage to my attention.

Brother Robert

Source: Annye C. Anderson (with Preston Lauterbach), Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson (New York: Hachette Books, 2020), pp. 51-52

Text: Once I got to go to Beale Street, I’d tag along with Brother Robert, Brother Son, and Sister Carrie to the movies at the Palace Theater. They liked to see Mae West and Bette Davis, and I was a nuisance, always running to the bathroom and wanting popcorn.

Most of the movies we saw at the Palace were Westerns. Buck Jones and Tom Mix were Brother Robert’s favorite cowboys. He wore that big Stetson, like them. All of the young men in our family wore Stetson—that was on the go. My father and Uncle Will wore Dobbs.

At the Palace, Son and Brother Robert saw Gene Autry in Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Gene and another guitar player did a song called “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.”

That piece became a part of Son and Brother Robert’s repertoire whenever they entertained.

All the top bands, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, and Jimmie Lunceford played at the Palace. We could see big entertainment for a small price. These acts also played the Orpheum, the grand opera theater on Main Street at Beale, one of the few integrated venues in the city, though blacks sat in the balcony.

It’s my understanding that Brother Robert would hang out at the Palace while waiting on his next gig. Mr. Barrasso, the owner, let you stay all day on one ticket price. Brother Robert would sleep while the movie played over and over, and the Looney Tunes, shorts, and newsreels ran. He’d sit with the guitar across his chest, watching the old-time cowboy movies. He’d cool off in there on a hot day or warm up on a cold day until the time to meet up with his friends or return to Sister Carrie’s.

Comments: Annye C. Anderson (1926 – ) is the step-sister of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the legendary American blues guitarist and singer. Her memoir provides much personal detail of the life of the step-brother, who was murdered when she was twelve years old, as well as a vivid account of black lives in the American south in the 1930s. Charles ‘Son’ Spencer was his (and her) musician step-brother and Carrie Spencer his (and her) step-sister.

A Wonderful Invention

M. Trewey (photograph from The Sketch article)

Source: ‘A Wonderful Invention: The Cinématographe of M. Lumière’, The Sketch, 18 March 1896, p. 323

Text:
A WONDERFUL INTENTION.

THE CINÉMATOGRAPHE OF M. LUMIÈRE.

Although unwilling to quarrel with William Shakspere about his statement that the rose would smell as sweet under any other name, I can’t help thinking that “Cinématographe” is a nasty word for busy people. It has a terrifying effect upon the man in the street who calls an entertainment a “show.” But it must be confessed that, despite its name, M. Lumière’s invention is one that will ultimately emulate the telegraph and telephone in usefulness. Instantaneous photography developed to a surprising extent is, apparently, the secret of the Cinématographe. Photographs of a moving scene taken at the rate of fifteen per second, and thrown on to a screen through the machine at the same rapid rate, enable the eye to retain one image until the successor is presented. The result is a moving picture of the event, scrupulously exact in detail, whose importance it would be difficult to overestimate.

The columns of The Sketch are my confessional, and I do not hesitate to say that its long name kept me away from the hew invention when the scribes of London were bidden to its reception.

I saw the Cinématographe worked for the first time at the Empire Theatre last Monday week. Ten pictures were presented. I take one, “The Arrival of the Paris Express,” as a type. A railway-station is the subject of the first photograph thrown on the screen, and, from flashes in all directions, it is evident that the effect is sustained by rapidly continued exposures. In the distance there is some smoke, then the engine of the express is seen, and in a few seconds the train rushes in so quickly that, in common with most of the people in the front rows of the stalls, I shift uneasily in my seat and think of railway accidents. Then the train slows down and stops, passengers alight, the bustle of the station is absolutely before us the figures are life-size. Old country women ascend and descend some man jumps on to the platform, and then looks about helplessly, until other passengers elbow him aside. It is such a scene as I have often witnessed on a journey to or from the Riviera and, in the darkened house, it stands out with a realism that seemingly defies improvement. Granting, for the sake of argument, that this picture took one minute to present, it represented nine hundred photographs originally taken at the station in the same space of time, and there was no palpable break in the continuity of the series. The effect on the audience was shown by the applause that would not be silenced until the picture was presented again.

M. Lumiere’s five-syllabled invention is yet in its infancy its possibilities are almost awe-inspiring. At present the photographs are no bigger than postage-stamps, and, thrown life-size on to the screen, they inevitably lose certain details. When practice has brought about perfection, where will the invention stop? Imagine it worked in connection with the phonograph. The past will become annihilated; our great Parliamentary debates, our monster meetings, our operatic and theatrical performances, will remain for ever, or even longer. I do not dare to think of the scientific and medical possibilities, but am content to dwell on the more popular ones. While the phonograph preserves the sounds, the Cin., &c., will do the rest. A trifle of about forty-five thousand exposures will preserve an Empire ballet intact for ever. Why did not M. Lumière arrange his invention before the exquisite Katrina became a thing of the past? Soon nothing that is beautiful will be mortal, and as the song has become immortal through the phonograph, the exquisite graces of the dance will be preserved by the new invention. Would not Horace have modified his famous ode to Postumus had he dreamt of such things as will soon be regarded as ordinary? I have for the last week been imagining some of the many things that will be represented or later. How splendidly a Spanish bull fight could be shown!

The present exhibition at the Empire Theatre, where, by the way, breathing-space is almost at a premium, is directed by M. Trewey, and I felt that I must call on him, in the interests of humanity at large, or rather, that large part of humanity given to Sketch reading.

I found M. Trewey on the stage of the Empire, smiling for all he is worth which is probably a large amount. No wonder he looked pleased. A few hours before he had been visited at the Polytechnic by the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, who had expressed their delight with his entertainment.

“M. Lumiere, of Lyons,” he said, is my oldest friend, and he gave me the choice of the country in which I would show his invention. Of course, I chose England. I had intended to retire from work altogether, for” – and his eyes twinkled – “I have been a careful man But I thought this work would be very light, so I took it. Now, I never know a moment’s rest, and I have promised the directors here to give at least one new picture every week. As soon as the fine weather sets in again,” he went on, we shall do fresh work on the racecourse, river, and similar places. We are not going to be idle.”

And, as though to prove his words, M. Trewey, with a hurried apology, bustled off to the centre of the stage with all the energy and enthusiasm of a very young man. I noticed that the machine was being rapidly prepared, and that one or two of the charming corps de ballet had evidently obtained permission to see the performance from the stage. Unfortunately for me, I was very much overdue at another house of entertainment. I could but sigh for the delight of the few occasions when my visits to Empire stageland have been longer. Then I departed.

Comments: The Lumière Cinématographe film show opened at the Empire variety theatre in London on 9 March 1896, having made its UK debut on 20 February. The entertainer Félicien Trewey, a friend of the camera-projector’s inventors Auguste and Louis Lumière, was the host of the show. Ten or so of the one-minute films were shown (sometimes with repeats, as indicated here). Such was its popularity that it was shown several times a day. This unsigned report is of particular interest for its first-hand account of the unease felt by some attendees of the first screenings at films featuring an oncoming train.

Links: Copy at British Newspaper Archive (subscription site)

Damon Runyon Finds Some Foreign-Made Pictures Make Him Forget His Patriotism

Source: Damon Runyon, ‘Damon Runyon Finds Some Foreign-Made Pictures Make Him Forget His Patriotism’, The Miami Herald, 7 January 1939, p. 6

Text: As a cash customer of the movies, we are such a rooter for the American pictures as opposed to the foreign-made films that the latter have to be even better than stupendous or colossal to win a decision from us over the home growns. The best we usually give them is a draw. We are 100 per cent patriotic to Sam Goldwyn.

We sometimes think the seats may prejudice us to some extent against the foreigners. The seats in some of those hideaway side street theaters where the foreigners generally show in New York are harder than a politician’s heart. Against those seats a picture has to be practically a miracle to gain our grudging approval.

The larger theaters where the American pictures are shown have nice soft-cushioned seats. The way we like to look at a picture is to slump down in one of those seats until our head is slightly below the level of the back of the seat. That puts us reclining on our spinal column, a most restful attitude, indeed.

Then with our knees propped against the seat in front of us and our sack of candy in our lap, we can really enjoy the screen proceedings. You try propping your knees against the back of a seat in one of the hard-seat theaters and you will get your shin bones all skinned up. Besides the occupant of the seat in front of you is thrown out of plumb by the pushing at his back, and sometimes he, or she, as the case may be, gets right stuffy about the matter.

Thus figuring in the discomfort we generally have two strikes called on a foreign film before it even starts unraveling. Add to that our patriotism to Sam Goldwyn, you can see that we are a dead tough audience. en we go out admitting that the foreigner was a fair picture it must have been a regular lily.

On several occasions during the past semester after seeing a foreign picture in a hard-seat theater we realized that we were thinking, not of the hard seats, but of the picture. It was a symptom that alarmed us. It indicated that the picture must have had many points of excellence to act as an anesthesia to our memory of those seats.

We saw some of the pictures a second time to teat this reaction, and all the while the films were unwinding we forced ourself to keep repeating “Remember old Sam,” that our patriotism might remain flaming throughout the display. The result was the same as before. We not only forgot our discomfort in the hard seats, but there were periods when we could not keep Sam in mind.

We have decided that they must have been good Pictures—so good, in fact, that we are wondering if it is not a portent of some nature to Hollywood. When those foreign picture makers can smack us cash customers between the eyes with at least half a dozen good pictures in a season, it may be time for Hollywood to investigate and see what makes them tick.

“Pygmalion,” “The Lady Vanishes,” “The Citadel,” “The Beachcomber,” “To the Victor,” “Grand Illusion,” “Pearls of the Crown,” “Carnet De Bal” and “Professor Mamlock” are among the foreigners and some of our fellow cash customers say that five of them are entitled to place among the 10 best pictures of the year. We are not so sure of that, but we are sure that “Pygmalion” and “Grand Illusion” are as good as any pictures we saw during 1938, if not better.

As we have said before, Hollywood still has a pretty neat answer to a number of these pictures, which is they will not make a white quarter in this country. They are just artistic triumphs and artistic triumphs are no good for the bankroll. However, we are wondering what is going to happen if those foreign picture makers eventually hit the combination of popular American appeal with the artistic excellence they have already attained?

We are told that most of the foreign pictures lack the technical perfection of the Hollywood pictures, but we have been inquiring around among our fellow cash customers and we find that few of them pay much attention to technique if the picture has a good story, well told. The strength of the foreigners, as we gather from the cash customers, is story, and, of course, direction of story.

Comments: Damon Runyon (1880-1946) was an American journalist and short-story writer, best known for the musical adaptation of his stories, Guys and Dolls. The films he mentions are Pygmalion (UK 1938), The Lady Vanishes (UK 1938), The Citadel (UK 1938), Vessel of Wrath (UK 1938), Owd Bob (UK 1938), La Grande Illusion (France 1937), Les Perles de la couronne (France 1937), Un carnet de bal (France 1937) and Professor Mamlock (USSR 1938). My thanks to Carol O’Sullivan for bringing this piece to my attention.

The Devil Finds Work

Source: James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976), included in Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), p. 479

Text: Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.

I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and which is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath the water.

I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.

I don’t remember the film. A child is far too self-centered to relate to any dilemma which does not, somehow, relate to him – to his own evolving dilemma. The child escapes into what we would like his situation to be, and I certainly did not wish to be a fleeing fugitive on a moving train; and, also, with quite another part of my mind, I was aware that Joan Crawford was a white lady. Yet, I remember being sent to the store sometime later, and a colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly like Joan Crawford, was buying something. She was so incredibly beautiful – she seemed to be wearing the sunlight, rearranging it around her from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement of her head, and with her smile – that, when she paid the man and started out of the store, I started out behind her. The storekeeper, who knew me, and others in the store who knew my mother’s little boy (and who also knew my Miss Crawford!) laughed and called me back. Miss Crawford also laughed and looked down at me with so beautiful a smile that I was not even embarrassed. Which was rare for me.

Comments: James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an African-American essayist, novelist and social commentator. His memories of the film Dance, Fools, Dance (USA 1931) come at the start of his long essay on film and race, The Devil Finds Work (1976). His childhood was spent in Harlem, New York City.

Film Matinees for Children

Source: ‘Film Matinees for Children’, The Times (London), 13 May 1920, p. 14

Text:
FILM MATINEES FOR CHILDREN.

AN EXCITED AUDIENCE.

At many picture theatres in the outer zone of London it is the custom to set aside one afternoon a week for the benefit of children. The average film, of course, is admirably suited to the intellect of a child, and all that has to be done is to reduce the price of admission to the level of a child’s pocket. The process is wonderfully simple. The price of admission is reduced from 6d. to 3d. and we have what is triumphantly described as a “Children’s Matinée.” The fact remains, however, that although it is unpretentious, a children’s matinée is a remarkable experience. Thoroughly to enjoy it the intruding grown-up must put on the simple faith of a child. He must be both childlike and bland, and, above all, he must forget to be superior. If he will try to forget for a few hours any theories on the film and crime, or the film and education, and just be content to think of the film as an afternoon’s diversion, he may enter into the company of the elect, who regard a film, a dog fight, a revolution, or a Punch and Judy Show, as created for one purpose, and one purpose only-that of their own personal and private entertainment. If he fails to enjoy the experience he must either be very clever or very foolish. He will almost certainly regret that the cinematograph was not invented when he, too, too, was young enough to live in Arcadia.

Mandarin’s Gold was the title of the principal item at one matineé for children this week. The enormous enjoyment they managed to extract from it was a revelation. The ground floor of the hall was thick with ecstatic and squirming children. They squirmed not only with their bodies but with their tongues, and the result resembled the remarks of the chorus in the Frogs of Aristophanes. The clamour was amazing even before the lights went down, and when the title of the film flickered uncertainly on to the screen the noise changed to a roar of the kind that is usually associated with an “infuriated mob.” The Mandarin then made his appearance. It turned out later that he was an extremely unpleasant person, but his gorgeous costume endeared him to his audience at the outset, and he was received with a hurricane of applause. A sophisticated child, who had apparently seen Chu Chin Chow, informed all those around her that she had obtained the autograph of Mr. Oscar Asche, but her remark was treated with such contumely that she had to be led forth in tears.

As the story developed it became obvious, since the scene was laid in New York, that the Mandarin was really an undesirable Alien, and he began to grow very unpopular. He soon attempted to make violent love to an innocent Chinese maiden, and there was not a child in the audience that managed to retain its seat. They arose and denounced him in good but unusual English, and one almost expected to see him tremble under the wrath that was being poured upon him. When, however, he had first played his part, there was no one more hostile about than the producer, and so the Mandarin continued his dastardly deeds with a phlegm that was more British than Oriental. The plot continued to thicken with surprising rapidity, and the uproar began to get quite alarming.

DRAMATIC IRONY.

Then came the peripeteia. The hero and heroine of the film set out to succour the Oriental maiden. There was a glimpse of them in a large motor-car, into the corners of which were crowded what seemed to be half the New York police force. The scene was switched- back to the wicked Mandarin. He was still gloating over his victim, little thinking of the terrible things the producer had in store for him. Here was dramatic irony as the scenario writer loves it. The children in the audience, however, had very little use for irony, and a very diminutive child somewhere in the neighbourhood of the orchestra informed the villain in a very shrill voice that “The coppers were coming.” As it happened the mandarin turned towards the audience at that moment in order to gnash his teeth. The child seemed to think that retribution was swiftly on his track, and he, too, was led out weeping. The remainder of the children paid no attention to these mishaps, for the New York police force had appeared again. They were greeted with an outburst of cheering that would have made them blush if they had been able, and when they burst into the house of the Mandarin the children rose in a body and delivered three hearty cheers. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and one parent in the audience was seen to shake a very large fist at the unfortunate Mandarin, who was by then lying on the floor in an attitude reminiscent of Pecksniff, while the New York police force struck him on his gorgeously decorated head with their batons.

The lights went up, and the children wiped their brows and tried to sit down. Then the babel began again, for the excitement had been so intense that half the audience had left their seats to encourage the protagonists, and taken up positions in rows far in front. They had not sorted themselves out before the next film was being shown. This indicated the habits of the emu, and there was plenty of time to reorganise before the next comic film appeared.

Comments: The film described was Mandarin’s Gold (USA 1919), directed by Oscar Apfel and starring Warner Oland as Li Hsun, the mandarin. Chu Chin Chow was a 1916 musical comedy based on the story of Ali Baba, written by Oscar Asche. Pecksniff is a character in Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit.

Televiewing

Source: J.B. Priestley, ‘Televiewing’, in Thoughts in the Wilderness (London: Heinemann, 1957), pp. 194-201

Text: Down here on the island, where I have rented a fine large set and where we have a powerful transmitting mast not far away, I am a Viewer. We keep the set in a room originally intended for music, and I can sit in the dark there, viewing and viewing, without disturbing the rest of the household. I lie back in an armchair, put my feet upon a stool, and smoke and view away. Except when there are Test Matches, I do all my viewing after dinner. Wheezing a bit, heavy with food and drink, I waddle along the hall, switch on the set, drop into my chair and put my feet up, then peer into my magic mirror like a fourteen-stone cigar-smoking Lady of Shalott. At first I told myself that I watched the set and its antics for strictly professional and technical reasons, but lately I have not had even a shadow of that excuse. I am simply one of the Viewers. I have already passed uncounted hours half-hypnotised by the jiggling and noisy images. Sometimes I wonder if I am going out of my mind. We have been told that the worst is over after about four years, but long before that my outlook will have been so completely changed that I shall be a different person. I shall probably be removed to an old man’s home. Let us hope these places are equipped with good TV sets.

In my capacity as a Viewer, I have no intention of criticising adversely and in detail the way things are done. Given this strange medium and their own particular responsibilities, the people directing and handling the medium do almost all that can be reasonably expected of them. Most of them, I know, are enthusiasts; if removed from TV they would feel they were in exile. I don’t imagine I could do it better myself. I think I would be far worse than they are. Most of the familiar jeers and sneer sat their efforts seem to me quite unfair. The difficulties they have to face are too lightly disregarded. The critics who attack them make little or no allowance for the black magic of the medium itself, always discussing the entertainment provided as if they had not been staring at a set but sitting in a theatre, a cinema, a concert hall, a cabaret. So not a word that follows must be taken as unfriendly criticism of TV personnel. Good luck to you, boys and girls! Thanks a lot, Mary, Peter, Sylvia, Derek! But I am a Viewer too, one of the regular customers, even though I never ring up to complain that one of my precious prejudices has been ignored, and now I feel I must explain, as honestly as I know how, what the thing is doing to me. The general line about TV—I took it myself before I became a Viewer—is that it is terrifically exciting, immensely powerful, potentially very dangerous. Here is this miraculous medium that pours into the home, hour after hour, night after night, images so dazzling and enticing that it immediately outbids all other media for its tenancy of the mind and imagination. It can transform any licence-holder into a well-informed and thoughtful student of all public affairs. It can turn children into future scholars of Trinity and Girton or into gunmen and molls. So we are playing with fire and dynamite—but what fire, what dynamite! This is the kind of stuff I wrote and talked myself before I became a real Viewer. Now that I know what happens, I can no longer write and talk in this strain. Certainly the medium produces its own particular effects, undoubtedly has an influence all its own; but these effects and this influence are very different from what they are generally imagined to be. Unless I am a very peculiar Viewer, the alarmists have all been looking in the wrong direction. They are like a man who expects a wolf at the door when he ought to be attending to the death watch beetle in the woodwork.

Instal a set, turn a switch—and hey presto!—here in a corner of the living-room is an ever-changing image of the whole wide, glittering, roaring world. Or so they say. But that is not quite how my viewing works. To begin with, it does not seem to bring the outside world closer to me but pushes it further away. There are times, after I have played the Lady of Shalott longer than usual, when this world is not here at all; I feel I am taking a series of peeps, perhaps from the darkened smoke room of a giant space-ship, at another planet, with whose noisy affairs I am not involved at all. Let me stare and idly listen long enough and I seem to have arrived at some theosophical astral-body-life-after-death. I am as little involved in or perturbed by all these conferences, departures and arrivals of shadowy Ministers, crashes and floods, strikes and lock-outs, aircraft and racing cars, atomic plants or fishing villages, scientists and film stars, as some Great White Master, a thousand years old, gazing into a crystal ball in Tibet. At most, these are—as one of Yeats’s characters observed in another connection—the dreams the drowsy gods breathe on the burnished mirror of the world. I remember an old retired nannie, rather weak in the head, who when she visited the silent films thought everything she saw was part of one vast confused programme, an astonishing but acceptable mixture of the Prince of Wales and cowboys and Indians and Stanley Baldwin and sinking ships and It-girls and the Lord Mayor of London. She was an early Viewer. I know now exactly what she felt. Perhaps I am rather weak in the head too.

No sooner is any subject under review and discussion on the screen than it is drained of all reality. The instrument itself, probably guided by some satanic intelligence hostile to our species, adds a fatal dream effect. Even what I thought were urgent burning problems stop being problems at all. They are not settled, but their hash is. Somehow I no longer care what happens about Oil or Married Women At Work or Youth And The Churches Today or What We Do With The Old People or Whither Britain. I just view them. They might be bits from untidy and badly acted plays. Sometimes I don’t know—and don’t care—if the gesticulating image of a Foreign Minister belongs to a real Foreign Minister or to an actor in one of those political plays we are always having. Here on the screen the difference between Yugoslavia and Ruritania is hardly worth bothering about. After half-an-hour of The Future Of Our Fisheries or Africa At The Crossroads, the programme personalities, bursting with fisheries or Africa, stare accusingly at me and ask me what I propose to do about it. They might as well know now that, as a Viewer, I don’t propose to do anything about it. After they have given me a final earnest look and asked their last question, I stare at the credit titles, listen dreamily to the end music, wonder idly why Malcolm Muggeridge looks handsomer on the screen than off, where Woodrow Wyatt has acquired his new haughty accent, light another pipe, and float into the next programme.

Perhaps it is Picture Parade or something of the sort, in which all the imbecilities of the film studio hand-outs and the fan magazines are given a kind of idiot dream life, especially—ah what golden moments!—in the foyer at a gala premiére where celebrities of screen and stage consent to smile at us and tell us how exciting it all is, as if we didn’t know, and are wished lots of luck. As a Viewer I try not to miss one of these occasions. To view one, smoking in the darkened room with your feet up, is much better than actually being there, what with all the dressing up, the heat and fuss, the pushing and shoving to get nearer the mike or the Press photographers. It is a dream glimpse, carefully focused and timed, of a dream world. But it is all so exciting, as everybody keeps telling us Viewers. Perhaps that is why I so often find myself laughing—all alone, there in the dark—probably only a nervous excitement.

Some nights there seem to be dozens and dozens and dozens of people being interviewed, not just about films but about everything. We go all over the place—inside and outside Ministries, home and abroad, to airports and railway stations, to sports grounds and factories. The organisation of it all, the sheer technical achievements, area credit to our civilisation. The courtesy and friendliness are admirable: all the persons interviewed are for ever being thanked and wished good luck. People under Cabinet rank and sixty years of age are on Christian name terms at once. It is a wonderful and happy world, this of TV interviews. And perhaps that is why it is not a world in which anybody ever says anything. That might spoil it. Between the cordial Hellos and the charming Good-byes nothing much seems to happen. We are either going to the interview or coming away from it. “Let us,”’ they say proudly, “go to Coketown and talk to the Mayor himself—so now It’s Over To Coketown—This is Coketown and herein the studio is the Mayor of Coketown, who has kindly consented to talk to us—Very good of you, Mr. Mayor—er what about this er campaign of yours, Mr. Mayor ?—Well, Reg, I think er I can say er we here in Coketown er hope to get it started fairly soon—Thank you, Mr. Mayor, and the best of luck—Thank you, Reg—And now we return you to London—This is London and that was the Mayor of Coketown being interviewed by our representative, Reg Rowbottom—and now———”

At first, when I was a new Viewer, a stranger in this magic world, I wanted the Mayor to say something, if only to justify all the trouble that had been taken to flash his image across the country. Now I know that this does not matter at all, that what is important is that we should keep jumping around, stare at a fresh face for a moment or two, then be off again. The instrument likes to do this, and it is the instrument that has us in its power. In this world of the magic tube, all the values are different. Here we are more interested in what the interviewer sounds and looks like than we are in what the interviewed person says. Viewing, I accept these topsy-turvy values. It is only afterwards, coming to my senses and thinking things over, I begin to question them. Staring at the set, my mind almost a blank, I am quite ready to believe in TV personalities, the élite and aristocracy of this dream world. I do not ask what they have done, what massive talents they possess. They still have personalities where I, as a Viewer, a captive of the screen, have little or none. Not this Christmas but possibly the next, when I may have said good-bye to reality, I shall have no party of my own, perhaps will no longer understand what arrangements could be made for one; I will attend, as a Viewer, a party of TV personalities, to enjoy the sparkle of the wine in their glasses, to listen with joy to the crunching of their mince pies; and one or two of them may look straight in my direction, to wish me a Merry Christmas Programme, a Happy New Year’s Viewing.

Meanwhile, sitting in the dark with my feet up, I feel I have had Fisheries or Africa or Youth And ‘The Churches Today. I couldn’t agree more about Married Women At Work or What We Do With The Old People or Whither Britain, and could hardly care less. We Viewers know now that we are such stuff as dreams are made on, that all is Maya, that For in and out, above, below, ‘Tis nothing but a magic shadow-show. So it is easy to imagine oneself viewing the next war, dreamily watching whole cities crumble to radioactive dust, catching a last glimpse of Manchester or Leeds in between a thirty-minute detective play and some light music and a gipsy dancer. Never did a medium of information and entertainment arrive more opportunely, to soothe the tormented mind, to ease the bewilderment of the soul. We may emerge from our four or five years’ bondage to it, having at last achieved detachment, for ever untroubled and smiling, finally victorious over the technique and the instrument. Already we Viewers, when not viewing, have begun to whisper to one another that the more we elaborate our means of communication, the less we communicate. Some words on a page can be un-forgettable. The memory of an actor, moving and speaking on a platform, may haunt us all our lives. Then the inventors and technicians arrive, the costs rise prodigiously, the complication sets in, and we get film and radio, far less potent and memorable. The inventors and technicians, in a frenzy, with millions of money behind them, invade the home with TV, adding more and more images to sound, performing miracles with time and space, bringing in colour, stereoscopic sight, everything. And out of this mountain of invention and technique, finance and organisation, comes a little dream mouse. “Not bad,” we Viewers cry. ‘“What next?”

Comments: John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was a British novelist and playwright, known for Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls and The Good Companions. Thoughts in the Wilderness is a collection of essays.