Source: Harry Blacker, Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974), pp. 27-30
Text: On some Saturday evenings my mother would say, ‘Wash your face and hands quick – we are going to the pictures’. In a flurry of soap and water my sister and I would comply with her request and then, with coats buttoned to the neck, walk down the dark stairway that led from our second-floor flat to the street’. The cinema we usually patronised was in Chicksand Street, a narrow dingy turning diagonally opposite Flower and Dean Street, still shuddering from the memory of Jack the Ripper. We crossed Bethnal Green Road at Haltrecht’s corner and walked through the odiferous Brick Lane market …
… Eventually Chicksand Street came into sight and we rushed off to take our place in the queue. My mother would recognise old friends and chat away in Yiddish whilst my sister and I exchanged our spending money for massive bags of peanuts, still warm from their on-the-spot roasting. By twos and threes, the queue dwindled as room became available in the auditorium, and soon it was our turn to be ushered in. On the diminutive screen, the ‘big picture’ had already started. Under it, curtained off from the main audience, Miss Daniels, a heavily made up brunette, played a piano accompaniment to the tragic drama that flickered overhead. The heat was terrific. A perpetual buzz of conversation mingled with the crackle of peanut shells that littered the floor like snow in winter. Every step in any direction crunched.
Having found three seats together, we removed our coats and sat back to enjoy the programme. Nearby, children were reading the titles out loud for the benefit of their foreign parents. Some even translated the words directly into Yiddish. Babies cried, kids were slapped, and an endless procession to the ‘ladies and gents’ was greeted by outraged cries of ‘Siddown’. Only the screen was silent. It was here, and in other cinemas like it, that I saw Pearl White, Eddie Polo (in person), Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Ben Turpin, Pola Negri, Chester Conklin, The Keystone Cops, Nazimova, Louise Fazenda, Harold Lloyd, The Gish Sisters, Mary Pickford, and a host of other luminaries in a fast-developing cinema world.
No air-conditioning disturbed the fug of cigarette smoke and perspiring humanity. From time to time an usher would walk up and down the aisles spraying the air with a perfumed disinfectant that made you smart if you got an eyeful. At the end of each reel, a slide appeared stating ‘end of part one’, or whatever it happened to be. Resuming projection, the operator usually missed the screen by a foot or so above or below. This was greeted with loud cries of ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ until all was well. The peanut crackle and general hubbub was resumed, and the audience settled back in their seats for further enjoyment.
When it was all over and ‘the end’ faded out Miss Daniels played a very spirited National Anthem, somehwat drowned out by the noise of shells crackling underfoot as we stood in respect before the portraits of George V and Queen Mary spanning the silver screen. Attendants walked round and woke up those customers who, still under the influence of the post-Chollant barbiturate, had comfortably snored through the complete programme. Still excitedly chattering about Cowboys or Comedians we had seen in the show, my mother, sister and I would arrive home where father had prepared hot cocoa and buttered cholla for us so that we could go to bed soon after.
Comment: Harry Blacker (1910-1999) was a cartoonist and illustrator. His memoirs describe Jewish life in London’s East End in the 1910s and onwards, for which he defines his ‘Mittel East’ as being Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney. His memories of cinemagoing cover both the 1910s and 1920s. Chollant was a traditional Sabbath meal; cholla a type of bread.
Source: Extracts from Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance VIII’, Close Up vol. II no. 3, March 1928, reproduced in James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus (eds.), Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism (London: Cassell, 1998), pp. 174-176
Text: Amongst the gifts showered upon humanity by the screen and already too numerous to be counted, none has been more eagerly welcomed than the one bestowed upon the young woman who is allowed to shine from its surface just as she is. In silent, stellar radiance, for the speech that betrayeth is not demanded of her and is this she is more fortunate than her fellows upon the stage …
… But it is not only upon the screen that this young woman has been released in full power. She is to be found also facing it, and by no means silent, in her tends of thousands. A human phenomenon, herself in excelsis; affording rich pasture for the spiritual descendants of Messrs Juvenal and Co. And thus far the lady is beneficient. But there are others together with her in the audience. There are for example those illogical creatures, who, while they respectfully regard woman as life’s supreme achievement, capping even the starfish and the stars, are still found impotently raging when in the presence of the wonders of art she remains self-centred and serenely self-expressive. Such, meeting her at her uttermost, here where so far there is not even a convention of silence to keep her within bounds, must sometimes need more than all their chivalry to stop short of moral homicide.
I must confess to having at least one foot in their camp. I evade the lady whenever it is possible and, in the cinema, as far as it gloom allows, choose a seat to the accompaniment of an apprehensive consideration of its surrounding, lest any of her legion should be near at hand. Nevertheless I have learned to cherish her. For it’s she at her most flagrant that has placed the frail edifice of my faith in woman at last upon a secure foundation. For this boon I thank her, and am glad there has been time for her fullest demonstrations before the day when the cinema audience shall have established a code of manners.
That day is surely not far off. One of the things, perhaps so far, the only thing, to be said for the film that can be heard as well as seen is that it puts the audience in its place, reduces it to the condition of being neither seen nor heard. But it may be that before the standard film becomes and audible entertainment it will occur to some enterprising producer, possibly to one of those transatlantic producers who possess so perfectly the genial art of taking the onlookers into their confidence and not only securing but conducting their collaboration, to prelude his performance by a homily on the elements of the technique of film-seeing: a manual of etiquette for the cinema in a single caption, an inclusive courteous elegant paraphrase of the repressed curses of the minority:
Don’t stand arguing in the gangway, we are not deaf. Crouch on your way to your seat, you are not transparent. Sit down the second you reach it. Don’t deliver public lectures on the film as it unfolds. Or on anything else. Don’t be audible in any way unless the films brings you laughter. Ceases, in fact, to exist except as a contributing part of the film, critical or otherwise, and if critical, silently so. If this minimum of decent consideration for your neighbours is beyond you, go home.
An excellent alternative would be a film that might be called A Mirror of Audiences, with many close-ups.
Meanwhile here we are, and there she is. In she comes and the screen obediently ceases to exist. If when she finally attends to it – for there is first her toilet to think of, and then her companion, perhaps not seen since yesterday – she is disappointed, we all hear of it. If she is pleased we learn how and why. If her casual glance discovers stock characters engrossed in a typical incident of an average film, well known to her for she has served her enthralled apprenticeship and is a little blasé, her conversation proceeds uninterrupted …
… Let us attend to her, for she can lead her victim through anger to cynicism and on at last to a discovery that makes it passing strange that no male voice has been raised save in condemnation, than no man, film-lover and therefore for years past helplessly at her mercy, has risen up and cried Eureka. For she is right. For all her bad manners that will doubtless be pruned when the film becomes high art and its temple a temple of stillness save for the music that at present inspires her to do her worst, she is innocently, directly, albeit unconsciously, upon the path that men have reached through long centuries of effort and of thought. She does not need, this type of woman clearly does not need, the illusions of art to come to the assistance of her own sense of existing. Instinctively she maintains a balance, the thing perceived and herself perceiving. She must therefore insist that she is not unduly moved, or if she be moved must assert herself as part of that which moves her. She takes all things currently …
… Down through the centuries men and some women have pathetically contemplated art as a wonder outside themselves. It is only in recent years that man has known beauty to emanate from himself, to be his gift to what he sees. And the dreadful woman asserting herself in the presence of no matter what grandeurs unconsciously testifies that life goes on, art or no art and that the onlooker is a part of the spectacle.
Comment: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves.
Source: Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (London: William Heinemann, 1986), pp. 90-91
Text: There was a cinema at Chantilly. There were local cinemas everywhere in those days. Chantilly was not a large town, but I think it had two. The one near us was down a side street and advertised that it was open for business by an electric buzzer which rang until the show started. I can hear that remorseless bell shattering the calm under the plane trees whenever I think of Chantilly. It is curious how the French, most sensitive of nations, are insensitive to noise, particularly if it is a new and splendid noise that stands for Progress.
The films were mostly serials, like the French films I had seen at the Palais de Luxe in Canterbury. One of my earliest movie images is of Fantomas, the Master Crook of Paris. When he wasn’t wearing white tie and tails, a can, a top hat, and an opera-cloak, he was in black tights with a black mask, performing incredible feats of hide-and-seek with the police. The image that stays with me is of an open cistern of water in the attic of some house. The police dash in, in pursuit of Fantomas, and find nobody. Baffled, they withdraw, but the Chief takes one last look at the cistern, sees a straw floating on the surface of the water, gives it an idle flush. Aha! we all think. And sure enough! As the last policeman goes, the water stirs and bubbles and the black form of Fantomas appears from the depths, between his lips the straw through which he has been breathing! I can see now his black figure, glistening like a seal’s, smiling triumphantly at the camera. For, in silent films, one learnt to “register” to the camera.
Candy and the movies have always gone together, and in the intervals at Chantilly girls moved up and down the aisle chanting “pochettes surprises! … esqimaubriques!” There were frequent intervals. In 1919 most films were short comedies. In addition they were playing an interminable serial in fifteen episodes of The Three Musketeers, and there was another serial staring the famous French boxer Georges Carpentier. I believe that d’Artagnan was Aimé Simon-Girard, and as a movie historian I ought to check it with the dates, but I really don’t think it matters. Aimé Simon-Girard was in practically every romantic French costume film of that decade and the Musketeers serial may have been a year later. The Carpentier film I remember well. He was not an actor of any kind, but he was charming, and his flattened nose on his pretty face gave him a different look. The film was full of stunts, of course. All serials had to be full of stunts: jumping on and off moving trains. onto moving automobiles, flights on the edge of high buildings, all the tricks of the trade, from Georges Méliès to Superman. Carpentier moved obligingly (he had a pleasant smile) through the scenes, and we all thought he was splendid. Films were tinted then: the predominant colour of the Carpentier serial seemed to be green. The Musketeers did their stuff in a sort of Old Master yellowish-brown, suitable for cloak and rapier adventures. Night scenes, of course, were blue.
Comment: Michael Powell (1905-1990) was a British film director. His family stayed for a time immediately after the First World War at Chantilly in France, where his father had a share in a hotel. Les Trois Mosquetaires with Aimé Simon-Girard was made in 1921; the Georges Carpentier serial is probably Le trésor de Kériolet (France 1920).
Source: Michael Davie (ed.), The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976), p. 176.
Text: Hampstead, Monday 1 September 1924 Most of the day writing this diary. In the afternoon to a cinema. Resolved to go to no more cinemas promiscuously.
Wednesday 3 September 1924 In spite of my earnest resolution never again to waste time at a cinema I have spent both yesterday and this afternoon in that unprofitable way. I am ashamed and more than ever strengthened in my resolution …
Thursday 4 September 1924 Last night I slept ill; I think through excess of cinemas. I went to two yesterday. One, alone, to fill in the time until dinner, and one after dinner with Adrian …
Comment: Evelyn Waugh (1903-1966) was at this stage in his life an unknown, struggling to complete a first novel (The Temple of Thatch, which he would eventually abandon). He was a regular cinemagoer and had made several amateur dramatic films with friends.
Source: Extract from Virginia Woolf, ‘The Cinema’, Arts, June 1926, reproduced in Virginia Woolf (ed. Rachel Bowlby), The Crowded Dance of Modern Life – Selected Essays: Volume Two (London: Penguin, 1993), pp. 554-58
Text: People say that the savage no longer exists in us, that we are at the fag-end of civilization, that everything has been said already, and that it is too late to be ambitious. But these philosophers have presumably forgotten the movies. They have never seen the savages of the twentieth century watching the pictures. They have never sat themselves in front of the screen and thought how for all the clothes on their backs and the carpets at their feet, no great distance separates them from those bright-eyed naked men who knocked two bars of iron together and heard in that clangour a foretaste of the music of Mozart.
The bars in this case, of course, are so highly wrought and so covered over with accretions of alien matter that it is extremely difficult to hear anything distinctly. All is hubble-bubble, swarm and chaos. We are peering over the edge of a cauldron in which fragments of all shapes and savours seem to simmer; now and again some vast form heaves itself up and seems about to haul itself out of chaos. Yet at first sight the art of the cinema seems simple, even stupid. There is the king shaking hands with a football team; there is Sir Thomas Lipton’s yacht; there is Jack Horner winning the Grand National. The eye licks it all up instantaneously, and the brain, agreeably titillated, settles down to watch things happening without bestirring itself to think. For the ordinary eye, the English unaesthetic eye, is a simple mechanism which takes care that the body does not fall down coal-holes, provides the brain with toys and sweetmeats to keep it quiet, and can be trusted to go on behaving like a competent nursemaid until the brain comes to the conclusion that it is time to wake up. What is its purpose, then, to be roused suddenly in the midst of its agreeable somnolence and asked for help? The eye is in difficulties. The eye wants help. The eye says to the brain, ‘Something is happening which I do not in the least understand. You are needed.’ Together they look at the king, the boat, the horse, and the brain sees at once that they have taken on a quality which does not belong to the simple photograph of real life.
They have become not more beautiful in the sense in which pictures are beautiful, but shall we call it (our vocabulary is miserably insufficient) more real, or real with a different reality from that which we perceive in daily life? We behold them as they are when we are not there. We see life as it is when we have no part in it. As we gaze we seem to be removed from the pettiness of actual existence. The horse will not knock us down. The king will not grasp our hands. The wave will not wet our feet. From this point of vantage, as we watch the antics of our kind, we have time to feel pity and amusement, to generalize, to endow one man with the attributes of the race. Watching the boat sail and the wave break, we have time to open our minds wide to beauty and register on top of it the queer sensation — this beauty will continue, and this beauty will flourish whether we behold it or not. Further, all this happened ten years ago, we are told. We are beholding a world which has gone beneath the waves. Brides are emerging from the abbey — they are now mothers; ushers are ardent — they are now silent; mothers are tearful; guests are joyful; this has been won and that has been lost, and it is over and done with. The war sprung its chasm at the feet of all this innocence and ignorance but it was thus that we danced and pirouetted, toiled and desired, thus that the sun shone and the clouds scudded, up to the very end.
But the picture-makers seem dissatisfied with such obvious sources of interest as the passage of time and the suggestiveness of reality. They despise the flight of gulls, ships on the Thames, the Prince of Wales, the Mile End Road, Piccadilly Circus. They want to be improving, altering, making an art of their own — naturally, for so much seems to be within their scope. So many arts seemed to stand by ready to offer their help. For example, there was literature. All the famous novels of the world, with their well-known characters and their famous scenes, only asked, it seemed, to be put on the films. What could be easier and simpler? The cinema fell upon its prey with immense rapacity, and to the moment largely subsists upon the body of its unfortunate victim. But the results are disastrous to both. The alliance is unnatural. Eye and brain are torn asunder ruthlessly as they try vainly to work in couples. The eye says ‘Here is Anna Karenina.’ A voluptuous lady in black velvet wearing pearls comes before us. But the brain says, ‘That is no more Anna Karenina than it is Queen Victoria.’ For the brain knows Anna almost entirely by the inside of her mind—her charm, her passion, her despair. All the emphasis is laid by the cinema upon her teeth, her pearls, and her velvet. Then ‘Anna falls in love with Vronsky’ — that is to say, the lady in black velvet falls into the arms of a gentleman in uniform and they kiss with enormous succulence, great deliberation, and infinite gesticulation, on a sofa in an extremely well-appointed library, while a gardener incidentally mows the lawn. So we lurch and lumber through the most famous novels of the world. So we spell them out in words of one syllable, written, too, in the scrawl of an illiterate schoolboy. A kiss is love. A broken cup is jealousy. A grin is happiness. Death is a hearse. None of these things has the least connexion with the novel that Tolstoy wrote, and it is only when we give up trying to connect the pictures with the book that we guess from some accidental scene — like the gardener mowing the lawn — what the cinema might do if left to its own devices. …
Comment: The British novelist and essayist Virginia Woolf (1881-1942) was a member of the Film Society, the London-based society which organised screenings of artistic films. Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina would be filmed the following year, with Greta Garbo as Anna, under the title Love (USA 1927 d. Edmund Goulding). The series of news topics would have been shown in the form of a newsreel. Jack Horner (a racehorse) won the Grand National in 1926.
Source: ‘Handling the Visitor’, Moving Picture World, 9 October 1909, pp. 482-483
Text: The first impressions are the most durable. When we enter a moving picture house the impression formed on our minds at the threshold of the theater is the one that lasts. If we meet a polite and courteous usher, who shows us to our seats, we are disposed ab initio to take a favorable view of the entertainment. If there is not too much light in the auditorium but just light enough to enable us to distinguish surrounding objects and persons, then we are disposed to compliment the management upon its adroitness in striking the happy mean between darkness and light. For the proper lighting of a moving picture house is a problem of adjustment. You do not want total darkness; you do not want too much light. You want just enough to be able to see your way about without impairing the brilliancy of the picture.
Sometimes you are allowed to find your seat as best you may ; then you run the risk of treading upon a man’s corns or a lady’s dress, and then are proportionately cursed. As a rule, however, it is to the credit of moving picture theater owners that they have courteous ushers and attendants. The more vigorous these latter are in excluding undesirable visitors, the better for the reputation of the house. We have more than once had to complain of the presence of people under the influence of strong waters or who go to sleep and snore, thus disturbing the enjoyment of their fellow visitors. But moving picture theaters are rising so much in popular esteem that this sort of thing is rapidly becoming a feature of the past. Many picture theater exhibitors are vying with each other in the proper care of their audiences.
Too much attention cannot be erven to the cleanliness of the house; to its proper ventilation, and, then to the preservation of quiet and order amongst the audience. Again the sale of candies, with the noisy vocal accompaniments of the vendors is, we think, generally to be deprecated. Many high class moving picture theater exhibitors refuse to do this on the ground that the better kind of visitor is excluded by these cheap jack methods. Others again have objected to the lantern slide advertisements of candies which are put on the screen. Personallv we object to this sort of thing, as we think it tends to lower the dignity of a moving picture theater.
The eternal feminine hat is always a source of much irritation to mere man. It is difficult to see how the admonition to the fair creatures to remove their hats can be dispensed with, for in this regard the average woman is quite a savage person. It is a matter of pure indifference to her as to how much inconvenience the person sitting behind her may be put to by the wearing of her hat. She bought it to wear; to be looked at; to be admired and envied on all and any occasion, and if she has to remove it “hell hath no fury like a woman” deprived of her pet hat.
We have sat behind rows of these things in a church, as well as in a moving picture theater, and our profanity has been too deep for vocal expression. Clergymen anathematize them; caricaturists make fun of them; men curse and criticise them. So what are we to do, except suggest that wherever possible before a woman enters a moving picture theater she must be made to understand that she must remove her hat. He will be a brave moving picture exhibitor who always successfully does this.
On general principles, therefore, we put it that the less advertising matter there is thrown on the screen, the less an audience is made to feel that the object of a moving picture theater exhibitor in getting them into his house is to extract something more than the admission money from them, the more likely that house will find public favor and continuous support. It is annoying, to say the least of it, to an average person of refinement to have a considerable part of his time taken up in reading announcement slides about ladies’ hats, candies and the like. What we are insisting upon is the exclusion as far as possible of the mere huckstering element of a moving picture entertainment, and the making for everything possible in the way of orderliness, neatness, good sanitation, plenty of light, but not too much of it, courtesy on the part of the ushers and in short the general atmosphere of comfort, if not luxury, which the public at large always looks for in a place of entertainment and pleasure. There is one little convenience which we think the public would always appreciate, and we are surprised that it is not taken up, namely the circulation amongst the audience of synopses of the stories of the films shown. Of course, these things could not be read in a dark house, but there is no reason why even in a continuous performance there should not be brief intermissions when the programme, if such we may call it, could be read by the audience. Some moving picture houses we know supply programmes, but none that we are aware of print anything about the stories of the films. This is a point we commend to the enterprising moving picture exhibitor. Anything which makes for the comfort of an audience is bound to result in a continuous patronage and the building of the family support which is one of the surest roads to success in conducting places of public entertainment.
Comment: This article in chapter four in a Moving Picture World series, ‘The Modern Moving Picture Theatre’.
Source: Excerpt from interview with Mrs Alfreda Elicia Holmes, C707/4002, 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: A: Oh but now I must tell you something that might interest you, do you know – do you know the – that cinema in Drayton Gardens. The Barons. The Paris Pullman now, it used to be called the Bolton cinema you see. Well on a Saturday morning, they did – they did a marvellous thing. From ten o’clock ’til twelve – they used to have a childrens – do, and you could get in for threepence. And – many a Saturday morning when I’d saved up – I’d take the children.
Q: What kinds of things would they have on?
A: Oh cowboys of course, cowboys and Indians and things like that and somebody playing the piano you know. Whathaveyou you see. And of whenever the – whenever the – cowboys looked like – you know, we used to sort of – shout out you see. We were quite convinced that that – it was because they could hear us through the screen, that that’s why they – that’s why they moved quickly you see, and – and of course the cowboys always won of course, I mean the Indian spears, you know, never – never sort of – hit them properly you know. And – and – but of course we used to walk – we used to walk from – where we were living then, in Knightsbridge, to – you know, so it didn’t cost us anything in bus fares you see. And – I used to try and contrive to get, you know, a little bag of sweets to have in between, ’cos it was typically a children’s do you know, and you had to be doing something you know, during the time. But that was the result of our – that was – that was our – our main – and – and every Christmas – I remember – my mother always used to take us to the Chelsea Palace here, that is now – it’s this big – huge building you know, the Granada people had it, and – we used to go to pantomime. We used to go up in the gods, we used to love it. That also used to be threepence in those days, most things used to be about threepence you know, in those days.
Comment: Alfreda Holmes was born in 1902 in Kensington, London, the eldest of five. Her father was a restaurant manager, the mother was a lady’s maid. She was interviewed on 18 July 1972 and 20 July 1973, 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). The Bolton Picture Playhouse was at 65 Drayton Gardens, South Kensington.
Source: Leslie Halliwell, Seats in All Parts (London: Granada, 1985), pp. 17-18
Text: On the whole, however, the Hippodrome brings back only the happiest of memories. There was something very satsifying about seeing music-hall comedy in an old music-hall. We always sat in the fourpenny stalls, which meant entry through a little side street pay box. The cashier was a maiden lady of uncertain age; she had tight marcelled hair, and repeatedly told us (and presumably everybody else) how terrified she was of a recurrence of the night she was attacked by ‘footpads’ while the commissionaire was inside. I liked to pay for my own ticket, using pennies handed to me by Mum as we walked briskly through the back streets from Victoria Square; but when an ‘A’ film was the attraction, the law said she must get the tickets for both of us and hand them to the doleful old doorkeeper, the one with the drooping moustaches and the dirty white gloves. He would then lift the dust-filled red velour curtain which allowed us to enter the inner sanctum by the doorway to the left of the screen. Invariably we arrived towards the end of the shorts, but sometimes there was a cartoon just before the news, and of course I always insisted on seeing that through twice. The shorts in fact were very often the best part of the programme. Since main features then seldom ran more than 75 minutes, there was room in a two-hour programme not only for a two-reel comedy and a cartoon but often for a couple of ‘interests’ as well, selected from such series as Stranger than Fiction, Speaking of Animals, Sportslight (with Grantland Rice), Screen Snapshots and Unusual Occupations. Then there was the news. World events at my age were a bit of a bore and I often went for a stroll to the Gents as they unfurled, but I did like Gaumont British News for its cheerful signature tune and its fancy title sequence where a gallery of rapidly changing news items centred on a bell-ringing town crier whom I used to insist was the comedian Sidney [sic] Howard in disguise. (Perhaps it was.)
The best vantage-point for a small boy was obviously the middle of the front row, and Mum sometimes agreed to sit there; although it can’t have done her eyes any good, and people making their way to the toilets used to tread on her feet, which were tender at the best of times. There was now rowdyism, however: the front stalls at the Hippodrome were occupied chiefly by respectable middle-aged couples or family parties, and any hooligan elements would have been quickly and firmly dealt with by the patrons themselves if the commissionaire had chosen to be otherwise engaged. Wherever we sat, it was always a thrilling moment when the lights dimmed and the censor’s certificate for the main feature flashed on to the dividing, floodlit red curtain, to be laboriously and audibly deciphered by an eager audience.
The stars whose adventures we watched on the Hippodrome’s milky-textured screen seemed always more real, more vital, than those observed elsewhere. This may have been partly because it was such an intimately shaped hall, but mainly I suspect because low vaudeville comics most easily found a level on which to meet audiences whose roots were in cotton spinning and who had lived, generation after generation, in the long shadow of the mills. In Lancashire they worked hard, and they liked to laugh hard, sometimes at subjects which southerners might have thought in poor taste, like drunkenness, underwear, and funerals. Beefy Leslie Fuller might have been my uncle, George Formby a comical cousin and Gracie Fields a young spinster aunt. It required no effort of imagination for us to be interested in their doings; they were only a slight exaggeration of our everyday life.
Comment: Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) was a film historian and programme buyer for ITV and Channel 4. Seats in All Parts is his memoir of cinemagoing, including his Bolton childhood. Bolton had 47 cinemas in the 1930s; the Hippodrome was a former music hall and existed as a cinema until the 1940s, being demolished in 1961. ‘A’ certificates were introduced in 1912 and stood for ‘Adult’; from 1923 a child attending an ‘A’ film had to be accompanied by an adult.
Source: Gloria Swanson, Swanson on Swanson (London: Michael Joseph, 1980), p. 25
Text: She asked us if we had ever seen any motion pictures in Puerto Rico. We said yes, and they were terrible. Most of them were made in Sweden or Denmark. They flashed them on a white sheet in the hot little movie house that used to be a store. First you saw a picture of a polar bear on a globe. Then you could see people moving around waving their arms, and then some words printed in Swedish, and then more people making faces. In ten minutes it was all over. Once you’d see how it worked, you never needed to waste another nickel to see it again.
“Well, you haven’t seen Quo Vadis?, then,” Aunt Inga said, grandly exhaling a thin stream of smoke.
“What’s that?” my mother asked, through a mouthful of pins.
It was a new Italian motion picture, Aunt Inga said, and she had positively loved it. They were showing it in the opera house and it cost a dollar to get in. The music alone was worth the price of admission. A live symphony orchestra played all through the picture. There were chariot races and slave galleys and an arena full of lions and you felt as if you were right there. She said Quo Vadis? had proved to her that motion pictures could be very educational. That was why she was ready to take George Spoor up on his invitation and see if Americans were doing anything nearly as good as the Italians.
Comment: Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) was one of the leading American film stars of the silent era. She spent part of her childhood in Puerto Rico. Her visit to George Spoor’s Essanay studios in Chicago in 1914 led to work as a film extra, and subsequently film stardom. Nordisk Films of Denmark had the polar bear logo. Why such films would be available in Puerto Rico with the intertitles not being translated is, if true, unclear. Quo Vadis? (Italy 1913) was directed by Enrico Guazzoni.
Illustration that accompanies the original article
Source: Charles Darnton, ‘This City has over 500 Moving Picture Shows: Do YOU Know WHY?’ The Evening World [New York], 16 January 1909, p. 9
Text: “I like to see a story.”
A long tramp bad led to a short answer. And the woman with a shawl about her head and a wide-eyed child clutching her hand was probably right about the appeal of the moving picture.
How wide this appeal has become may be judged from the fact that there are more than 500 moving picture shows in New York. From one end of the town to the other the “manager,” with little more than a lantern to his name, is holding the screen up to nature and occasionally turning a trick that goes nature one better. Although vaudeville audiences take the moving picture as their cue to move toward home, true lovers of art in action take all they can get for five or ten cents and then come back for more next day.
They like to see a story.
That’s the explanation – thanks to the woman with a shawl over her head. They feed upon mechanical fiction. They read as they look. Sensational melodrama, with the villain doing his worst in a plug hat, is an old story to them. They know it by heart. And so, theatres in which virtue used to take a back seat until the last act have felt the power of moving pictures. Only one remains to tell the blood-and-thunder tale in all Manhattan and it was obliged to get down to “workingmen’s prices” before it could compete with its noiseless rivals. From the start the moving picture show had a double advantage – lower prices and a daily change of bill. Then it went further and produced “talking pictures,” but in most cases this feature has been done away with audiences preferring to take their plays in peace and not be disturbed by the man behind the megaphone. What they want is action. Their attitude goes to show that it is always well to leave something to the imagination. They like to see a story from their own point of view.
In New York nearly every neighborhood has its “show,” and the craze has spread throughout the country until no town is too small to do the moving picture honor. Here, according to the word of a Sixth avenue showman, “picture fiends,” who keep a record of what they have seen and protest against “repeaters,” are an outgrowth of the craze. Their criticism of the Sunday exhibitions at which only educational pictures may be shown, in accordance with the stupid law, is often expressed in the simple term “Rotten!” They insist upon getting action for their money. The pictures must get “a move on” to win success. Patrons of the picture-drama want to see a story with plenty of action in it. From the Bowery to the Bronx tastes and pictures are much the same.
Bowery Wants Bank Robberies
But hero and there of course individual taste asserts itself. The proprietor of a little hall on the Bowery confessed that while his clientele showed a due appreciation of comedy and tragedy they had from time to time expressed a deep yearning for bank robberies. Unfortunately safe-cracking is not included in the picture-maker’s repertoire, and so the regretful “manager” has not been able to supply the demand for that particular form of art. However his audience made the best of things on a recent afternoon and seemed rather pleased with “A Corsican Revenge.”
The Corsican who caused all the trouble by killing a fellow fisherman and then got knifed by his victim’s wife, a husky lady with a fine stroke, looked like Caruso in “Cavalleria Rusticana.” According to the hospitable custom of the country, she was obliged to entertain her husband’s slayer when he sought refuge in her home. But once she got him outside she made short work of him. The lively little tragedy was worked out with neatness and dispatch. Five or six Chinamen who could qualify as Broadway first-nighters without putting on boiled shirts watched “A Corsican Revenge” without the slightest change of expression. In fact, the audience made no sign until two energetic gentlemen were flashed upon the scene and began kicking each other in the stomach. This light comedy was received with roars of laughter. The drummer emphasized each kick with a thump and the “professor” came down hard on the piano. “Comedy” won the occasions.
A placard on the wall warned the visitor to “Beware of Pickpockets.” Another made this polite request: Gentlemen Will Please Refrain from using Profane Language. The gentlemen did.
Accordion Breathes Hard.
In front of another temple of art across the street was the sign: “Positively No Free List During This Engagement.” You had to have a nickel to get inside. Down in front sat a Bowery artist with an accordion that was drawing its breath with great difficulty. During the overture he addressed facetious remarks to the audience.
“Hey, there!” yelled one of the crowd. “Cut out that comedy and give us some music.”
“Anyt’ing doin’?” inquired the performer, holding out his hat. “Come on, now,” he urged, ” trow in a little sumt’in fer de dear ones wot are dead and gone.”
“Ferget it!” yelled the unsympathetic mob.
“The Gallant Guardsman” presently drew attention from the accordion artist. At the first appearance of a Spanish soldier on the screen the accordion began wheezing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” When the guardsman rescued a dancing girl from the embraces of a low-browed citizen the tune changed to “Marching Through Georgia.” A dash of “Trovatore” cheered the guardsman on his way. The low-browed citizen waited behind a wall and killed the first soldier that came along. But he got the wrong man and the hero was about to be shot when the barefooted dancing girl ran to the rescue and explained the situation in a few hand-made gestures.
The audience followed the story with intense interest, and only the accordion was heard until a picture showing a young man who was carried off in a wardrobe appealed to the Bowery sense of humor. The hero of this adventure found himself in the bedroom of a loving couple who finally accepted his explanation and then had him sit down to supper with them.
French but Chaste.
All of the pictures seen on the lower east and west sides were French but chaste. Nothing more shocking than a murder occurred in any of them.
At a place in Grand street “The Peasant’s Love” was the chief feature of the bill. All went well until the peasant’s sweetheart promised to meet a newly arrived sailor “down by the pond.” His note to her was revealed on the screen. But the jealous peasant got to the pond first and when the girl came along he sneaked up behind her and threw her into the pond. The inevitable gendarmes first arrested the sailor, of course, but after a long chase they nabbed the guilty peasant.
Nearly all of the pictures showed gendarmes in pursuit of somebody. The principal figure was usually obliged to “run for it,” and suspense was kept up until the capture of the fugitive. The “story” was kept on the jump.
In “The Magic Boots” a happy individual was seen eluding his pursuers by walking on water, telegraph wires – wherever his fancy led him. His wonderful boots defied the French and all other laws. But down in Grand street it was the serious pictures that gripped the spectators.
“Dremma,” answered one manager when asked what appealed to his patrons most of all. And a woman whom he described as one of his best customers said: “I like to see a story. The funny pictures – they are funny, yes, but you don’t remember them. I like to remember what I see. You don’t forget a story – it goes home with you.”
Take Them Seriously.
This serious interest in story-pictures was apparent in other halls along Grand street. But a desire to be cheerful under all circumstances was suggested by this announcement over the door of one place: “The Bride of Lammermoor – A Tragedy of Bonnie Scotland.”
In a Mulberry street “theatre,” conducted under Italian auspices, the pictures were similar to those in Grand street. A coal stove filled the place with gas but no one seemed to notice it. Another Italian place in West Houston street sported this sign: “Caruso Moving Pictures.” But Caruso wasn’t among those present on the screen. The name, apparently, was merely a delicate tribute to the Metropolitan’s sobbing tenor.
Bessie Wynn’s name was prominently displayed in front of an imposing theatre in Fourteenth street. But Bessie was there only in voice and picture. You could recognize her picture but her voice had to be taken for granted. When they canned Bessie’s voice they evidently forgot to screw down the lid, and so it had soured and curdled and lost its flavor.
“The Wild Horse” filled up on oats at the Manhattan Theatre and developed from a weak skinny nag into a fat and fearful animal that kicked everything to pieces. It was the “big laugh.”
Harlem Likes to Laugh.
But here as elsewhere serious pictures with now and then a shooting or stabbing incident for excitement outnumbered the comic subjects. Harlem showed the greatest fondness for funny pictures. The Bronx appeared to be more serious minded.
Some of the places open their doors as early as 9 in the morning and keep going until after 11 at night. The shows are continuous and so are the privileges that go with a ticket. Only the pictures are compelled to move.
Comment: Among the films described are Âmes corses [The Corsican’s Revenge] (France 1908 p.c. Eclair) and Le galant garde français [The Gallant Guardsman] (France 1908 p.c. Pathé Frères). Bessie Wynn was an American singer and stage comedienne. The mention of ‘talking pictures’ presumably refers to a short vogue in a few theatres for having actors speak behind the screen rather than synchronised sound films (i.e. films, usually of singers, synchronised to a gramophone recording).