Source: Ann Featherstone (ed.), The Journals of Sydney Race 1892-1900: A Provincial View of Popular Entertainment (London: The Society for Theatre Research, 2007), p. 50
Text: February 1895
During this month Edison’s last greatest invention – the Kinetoscope showing living figures – has been on exhibition in a shop on the Long Row. The figures were contained in a big box and one looked down through a glass and saw them within.
I saw at different times a dancer and a barbers [sic] shop the latter with several figures and everything was true to life. The figures appear a brilliant white in outline on a black background but in the barber shop it was possible to distinguish a negro from the white man. The figures have been photographed continuously and two or three thousand of them are whirled before your eyes by Electricity in less than a minute.
Comment: Sydney Race (1875-1960) was the working-class son of a cotton mill engineer and worked as an insurance clerk in Nottingham. His private journal documents the different kinds of entertainment he witnessed in Nottingham. The Edison film he describes, Barber Shop (1893) (or its 1895 remake New Barber Shop), does not feature a black character.
Entry on Sydney Race at Who’s Who of Victorian Cinema
Source: C. Day Lewis, ‘Newsreel’, from Overtures to Death, and other poems (London: Jonathan Cape, 1938)
Text: Enter the dream house, brothers and sisters, leaving
Your debts asleep, your history at the door:
This is the home for heroes, and this loving
Darkness a fur you can afford.
Fish in their tank electrically heated
Nose without envy the glass wall: for them
Clerk, spy, nurse, killer, prince, the great and the defeated,
Move in a mute day dream.
Bathed in this common source, you gape incurious
At what your active hours have willed —
Sleep walking on that silver wall, the furious
Sick shapes and pregnant fancies of your world.
There is the mayor opening the oyster season:
A society wedding: the autumn hats look swell:
An old crocks’ race, and a politician
In fishing waders to prove that all is well.
Oh, look at the warplanes! Screaming hysteric treble
In the long power dive, like gannets they fall steep.
But what are they to trouble —
These silvery shadows to trouble your watery, womb-¬deep sleep?
See the big guns, rising, groping, erected
To plant death in your world’s soft womb.
Fire bud, smoke-¬blossom, iron seed projected —
Are these exotics? They will grow nearer home:
Grow nearer home — and out of the dream house stumbling
One night into a strangling air and the flung
Rags of children and thunder of stone niagaras tumbling,
You’ll know you slept too long.
Comment: Cecil Day-Lewis (1904-1972) was Poet Laureate, and father of the actor Daniel Day-Lewis. The poem’s subject is the audience’s response (or lack of it) to newsreels showing the Spanish Civil War.
Source: John Blake, Memories of Old Poplar (London: Stepney Books Publications, 1977), pp. 34-36
Text: Round about 1908 there appeared something new in the field of entertainment. This was during our childhood days, when after school hours the streets were poorly lit. Fogs were everywhere in the winter months, and naturally the youngsters, and their parents, were eagerly seeking anything that would brighten up their outlook in the drab surroundings of those days. On the scene, then, came a wonderful idea. The Reverend Tyldesley [sic], the pastor at the Poplar and Bromley Tabernacle, in Brunswick Road, commenced showing pictures on Thursday evenings in the Chapel. These were Magic Lantern with still slides, or a very early model of a cinematograph show. Children were admitted to the first performance, and parents the second. A large sheet was hung on the rostrum, which could be pulled up and down, before and after the show. There was a gallery, running the length of the hall, and at the far end of the gallery, a projection box had been erected, which housed the cinematograph. During the summer months, the Reverend Gentleman had curtains installed in the windows, so that light could not penetrate, to spoil the view of the films. He always gave a speech before the show commenced, and went to great lengths to impress the children, of the tremendous expense that had been entailed to enable this to be done, so that they would still have their entertainment in the summer. He asked us not to kick the backs of the seats in front, in excitement at the adventures of Lt Rose, one of the prevailing heroes of the time. Their few coppers of admission would not allow for payments of any damage. For us children the excitement was intense and we were glad when the introductory prayers had been completed. For many years the Music Halls and Theatres enjoyed the popularity of the public with no opposition, but suddenly a rival entertainment appeared on the horizon. I refer to the silent films appearing at ‘Picture Palaces’. Some had a white sheet, suspended tightly, over which water was squirted before the show commenced, or even a white painted wall. The seating consisted of forms, and flooring all concrete. The first Picture Palace I remember was the ‘Empire’ in East India Dock Road, opposite Woolmore Street. Then there was ‘The Star’ in High Street Poplar. It was a case of lining up outside, where the attendant on duty was periodically shouting out at the top of his voice, ‘Standing only in the ha’pennies’. This form of entertainment was springing up everywhere such as ‘Grand Palace’, ‘Poplar Pavilion’, ‘The Gaiety’, all in East India Dock Road, and the interior decorations were improving rapidly. Better screens, improved fireproofed projection boxes, spring-backed covered seats, lady ushers with hand torch, to guide you to your seat, piano accompaniment to the silent film. Usually there were two feature films, and a News Reel and the performance was continuous. Chocolates and ices were sold by attendants from trays on wheels. The pianist had to operate in a curtained off enclosure. The music had to be adapted to the theme of the film, such as exciting, or sad and tearful passages, and the timing was important. As time went on, a violin was added, even a cello. In some of the sad moments of a film the musicians must have been crying their eyes out and too upset to eat or drink their lunch, during a break.
Comment: John Blake was born in 1899, one of seven children of a plumber’s mate. The Reverend Alfred Tildsley was Baptist pastor of the Poplar and Bromley Tabernacle. Tildsley came to the Tabernacle in 1898, and turned round a debt-ridden and neglected mission through an energetic programme of activities, which included what he called the Pleasant Thursday Evening series. These weekly meetings combined music, stories, lantern slides, and – from 1900 onwards – films. See Dean R. Rapp, ‘A Baptist Pioneer: The exhibition of film to London’s East End working classes 1900-1918,’ Baptist Quarterly vol. 40 (2003), pp. 6-10. Lieutenant Rose was a character who featured in a series of films made by British film company Clarendon.
Source: Min-Ch’ien T. Z. Tyau, London Through Chinese Eyes; or, My Seven and a Half Years in London (London: The Swarthmore Press, 1920), pp. 142-143
Text: If the music halls are popular, the cinema shows are perhaps even more popular. Not only are the prices of admission exceedingly low, but the performance itself is continuous from eleven or twelve in the morning to eleven or twelve in the evening. In a theatre or music hall the hours for the performance are definitely fixed; here the exhibition goes on uninterruptedly for twelve hours. When the pictures are finished, the series will commence all over again. Therefore, one can drop in at any time and, for a matter of sixpence or a shilling, enjoy the pictures for two or three hours. Moreover, there is also here all the freedom and unconventionality of a music hall; so one can smoke through the performance or come however dressed.
As in the stage, so in the cinema world, each has its admirers and heroes. But in the popular mind the cinema profession is perhaps more romantic. Not only are the lives of a cinema actor and actress more strenuous and exciting but the tricks of the cinema photographer make their adventures look most realistic and sensational. When we see a man fall from the top of a cliff or being burned to death, we know that the tragedy is faked and that he will soon appear again, safe and sound, in another part of the film. But for the moment our senses run riot, and we watch the result with bated breath and palpitating hearts. We half believe and half disbelieve, and we cry and laugh like children. Can a romance ask for more response?
Comment: This travel guide to London by a Chinese writer describes a visit to a London cinema in 1917. Min-Ch’ien T. Z. Tyau was a student in London during the First World War, during which time he set up a Chinese newspaper. On returning to China he became a noted writer on law and politics.
Source: ‘Female, 17, Negro, high-school senior’, quoted in Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 146
Text: It seems to me that every picture picturing a Negro is just to ridicule the race. When a Negro man or woman is featured in a movie they are obliged to speak flat southern words, be superstitious, and afraid of ghosts and white men. They have to make themselves as ugly and dark as possible. The bad things are emphasized and the good characteristics left out. This is very unfair to the race. All Negroes are not alike; there are different types as in other races. Why must they be portrayed as ignorant, superstitious animals instead of decent people that are just as capable of doing great things as any other race; all they need is the chance. It is the same with other dark races besides the Negro. They are always the loser, the shrinking coward, and never the victor. It is very unjust of the white race to make every nation appear inferior compared to them.
Comment: American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. Most of the evidence relates to picturegoing in the 1920s. The interview extract is given in the chapter ‘Schemes of Life’ under the section ‘Stereotyped views’.
Links: Copy on Internet Archive
Source: Michael Davie (ed.), The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976)
Text: Saturday 31 January 1931
Went to Indian cinema with commercial traveller. Old Charlie in transition stage Keystone – Goldrush. Polishes his nails before meals. Food stolen. Eats grass with salt and pepper and delicacy, rinses fingers. In the end handsome lover turns up and Charlie goes off. Followed Indian film; fairy story; very ornamental. Beautiful girl greeted with shouts (no women in building) and is led from her bed to a precipice and thrown over. ‘That is her dream.’ Supposedly beautiful youth gazes at her. ‘He wants to take her into the bushes.’ Later elephant with drunken attendant. ‘That is an elephant.’ Elephant escapes, wicked robber attempts entrap heroine. Her father dies saying he has never kept promise to irrigate desert, etc.
Comment: The writer Evelyn Waugh was a regular cinemagoer (as noted in his diaries), particularly in the 1920s when he also experimented with producing amateur dramatic films. This screening took place in Tabora, then in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) during Waugh’s expedition to Abyssinia to cover the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie. There was a small Indian population in Tanganyika. The quoted comments in the diary entry are made by Waugh’s Indian companion. The Chaplin film shown is The Gold Rush (USA 1925), but I have not been able to identify the Indian film.
Source: Journal of Queen Victoria, 23 November 1896
Text: After tea went to the Red drawing-room, where so-called “animated pictures” were shown off, including the groups taken in September [sic] at Balmoral. It is a very wonderful process, representing people, their movements and actions as if they were alive.
Comment: Queen Victoria (1819-1901) was filmed at Balmoral Castle, Scotland, by the photographic firm W. & D. Downey on 3 October 1896, in the company of her guests Tsar Nicholas and Tsarina Alexandra of Russia. This account from her journal records the screening of the film by Downey, among a selection of other films, at Windsor Castle the following month. The film was billed by Downey as Her Majesty the Queen and TIMs the Emperor and Empress of Russia, TRHs the Duke and Duchess of Connaught, HRH Princess of Battenberg and Royal Children at Balmoral.
Source: Leslie Wood, The Romance of the Movies (London: William Heinemann, 1937), pp. 69-72
Text: Showmen were convinced that despite public apathy there was nothing wrong with the show. What they had to contend with was ignorance. The public was simply unaware of the nature of the entertainment offered. The term ‘Animated Pictures’ did not hold sufficient allure. Several of the hardier spirits persevered, and the ‘barker’, borrowed from the fairground and circus, became an integral part of the early picture shows. His duties were to extol the wonders of the show, attract attention by whacking the billboards with a penny swagger cane and explain the nature of the entertainment as best he could. His descendants are, of course, the immaculate commissionaires who strut before the super-cinemas of to-day.
Then – stroke of genius! – some unknown showman coined the phrase ‘Electric Theatre’ to describe the show. The draughty shops and railway arches which housed these shows were of course in no sense ‘theatres’, but the word indicated the theatrical nature of the entertainment. Neither had electricity much bearing on the subject, but ‘Electric Theatre’ was curiosity-arousing and that was what the movies badly needed.
Before the century was out the converted shop had become the home of the despised flickers. The projector was usually placed in the window and pointed to the far end of the shop, on the end wall of which a sheet was stretched, the window itself being pasted up with bills advertising the show. The seating arrangements consisted of any odd chairs or forms the proprietor could lay hands on, or, when these were not available, up-ended boxes did duty as seats. There was no pay-box, a dingy curtain being the only barrier between the pavement and the auditorium. There were no fixed times for the performances; only when, by the ‘barker’s’ endeavours, the show was full would the films be shown. The admission charge was anything from a penny to threepence, according to the quality of the show or the wealth and gullibility of the neighbourhood. There was no differentiation between front and back seats. Before the programme began, a man would go round with an empty tin or cigar-box and collect the money, and if the collector were not the actual proprietor of the show, a good number of pennies usually found their way into his pockets instead of the box. It was not unusual to hear the proprietor admonishing: “didn’t ’ear the chink of that one going into the box, Albert!” Whereat Albert would look suitably aggrieved and take care to give the collecting-box a rattle next time he concealed a penny in his palm.
I remember one such show at Hackney that was housed in an unusually long shop. The projector was quite unable to ‘throw’ the pictures the whole length of the premises, so the astute proprietor suspended the sheet half-way down the hall. By constantly spraying the latter with oil, it was rendered sufficiently transparent to enable persons sitting behind it, as well as in front, to see the picture. For the front half of the auditorium a penny was charged, and for the rear a halfpenny, this reduction being in the nature of compensation for seeing the pictures reversed! Imagine, then, a hall in which the audience was divided in halves, each facing the other and with only a thin sheet intervening, and those in the rear portion unable to read the reversed explanatory matter shown on the screen. When the hero wrote a note to the heroine, those seated behind the sheet were unable to read it and set up a clamour for those on the opposite side to tell them what it was about, whereupon all those seated in front would chant with one voice: “Dear Agnes, meet me at the railroad depot at three – Jack”.
This was all very well up to a point, but when the action on the screen became particularly exciting, the audience sitting in front could not be bothered to help out their less wealthy neighbours at the other end. Consequently the ‘halfpenny patrons’ would give vent to their annoyance by uncomplimentary remarks, booing, stamping, and other signs of displeasure. Finally an emissary would crawl stealthily over the line of demarcation to take a peep at the screen from the ‘right’ side and report, until such time as he was discovered by the proprietor and chivvied back into the halfpenny fold.
This humble hall must surely have been the birthplace of the obnoxious practice of reading sub-titles aloud.
Comment: Leslie Wood wrote a number of anecdotal film histories including Romance of the Movies (1927) and Miracle of the Movies (1947).
Source: Alexander Verner [Werner], ‘Beglye zametki’ [Fleeting Notes], typescript in Vishnevsky archive, Gosfilmofond, Moscow, quoted in Yuri Tsivian, Early Cinema in Russia and its Cultural Reception (Chicago/London: University of Chicago Press, 1998), p. 16
Text: It was a small, permanently stuffy room crowded with chairs. Down at the front stood some weird apparatus, which we lads found terribly fascinating, but which was jealously guarded by a mysterious man whom we called either ‘the mechanic’ or ‘the technician’. He was both impresario, owner of the ‘theatre of illusions’ and ticket collector. He was the one who cranked the handle and the one who collected the money. On the wall hung a bit of cloth, called the screen, and this was the focus of all our attention. The audience, which usually consisted of children and young people, were pretty unrestrained in their behaviour; they chewed seeds and munched apples, throwing the husks and cores on the floor, and sometimes at one another.
Comment: Russian actor Alexander Werner describes his childhood memories of a cinema in Odessa, dating around 1904-08.