Just Like it Was

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.

Continuous Performance

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.

A Life in Movies

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).