Report from a Chinese Village

Source: Chang Chung-liang, interviewed for Jan Myrdal, Report from a Chinese Village (London: Picador, 1975, orig. Rapport från kinesisk, pub 1963), trans. Maurice Michael, p. 99

Text: I can now read the newspaper and write letters. I can also read simpler books of fiction. I stick most to serial stories in parts with lots of pictures and a few simple characters on each page. The pictures make it possible to understand the characters I don’t know.

I am very fond of films. Opera and that sort of things doesn’t appeal to me so much. Opera is a bit old-fashioned. Films have much more variety, more themes, more reality, and much more that is funny and makes you laugh. I usually go to the cinema or opera once every ten days. We often have films in Liu Ling; but mostly I take myself into the town. Sometimes I go with my wife and my eight -year-old son, my other children are far too small to appreciate going to the cinema. But, sometimes, when we have finished work for the day, someone will say: ‘Come on, let’s ride into town and go to the cinema.’ Then we jump on our bicycles and ride off.

Comments: Chang Chung-liang (c.1928-?) was a thirty-three-year old book-keeper from the North Chinese village of Liu Ling, near Yenan (the town referred to here). He was interviewed and profiled in a study by Swedish sociologist Jan Myrdal during a month’s study of the village undertaken in 1961, which resulted in his Report from a Chinese Village. Opera here refers to Chinese opera.

We Can't Have Everything

Source: Rupert Hughes, We Can’t Have Everything (New York: Harper & Bros, 1917), pp. 58-61

Text: At length she reached a center of what she most desired – noise and mob and hurry. At 164th Street she came to a star of streets where the Third Avenue Elevated collaborated with the surface-cars and the loose traffic to create a delicious pandemonium. She loved those high numbers—a hundred and eighty streets! Beautiful! At home Main Street dissolved into pastures at Tenth Street.

She wanted to find Main Street in New York and see what First Street looked like. It was probably along the Atlantic Ocean. That also was one of the things she must see – her first ocean!

But while Kedzie was reveling in the splendors of 164th Street her eye was caught by the gaudy placards of a moving-picture emporium. There was a movie-palace at home. It was the town’s one metropolitan charm.

There was a lithograph here that reached out and caught her like a bale-hook. It represented an impossibly large-eyed girl, cowering behind a door on whose other side stood a handsome devil in evening dress. He was tugging villainously at a wicked mustache, and his eyes were thrillingly leery. Behind a curtain stood a young man who held a revolver and waited. The title of the picture decided Kedzie. It was “The Vampire’s Victim; a Scathing Exposure of High Society.”

Kedzie studied hard. For all her gipsy wildness, she had a trace of her father’s parsimony, and she hated to spend money that was her very own. Some of the dimes and quarters in that little purse had been there for ages. Besides, her treasury would have to sustain her for an indefinite period.

But she wanted to know about high society. She was not sure what scathing meant, or what the pronunciation of it was. She rather inclined to “scat-ting.” Anyway, it looked important.

She stumbled into the black theater and found a seat among mysterious persons dully silhouetted against the screen. This was none of the latter-day temples where moving pictures are run through with cathedral solemnity, soft lights, flowers, orchestral uplift, and nearly classic song. This was a dismal little tunnel with one end lighted by the twinkling pictures. Tired mothers came here to escape from their children, and children came here to escape from their tired mothers. The plots of the pictures were as trite and as rancid as spoiled meat, but they suited the market. This plot concerned a beautiful girl who came to the city from a small town. She was a good girl, because she came from a small town and had poor parents.

She was dazzled a little, however, by the attentions of a swell devil of great wealth, and she neglected her poor – therefore honest – lover temporarily. She learned the fearful joys of a limousined life, and was lured into a false marriage which nearly proved her ruin. The villain got a fellow-demon to pretend to be a minister, put on false hair, reversed his collar, and read the wedding ceremony; and the heroine was taken to the rich man’s home.

The rooms were as full of furniture as a furniture-store, and so Kedzie knew it was a swell home. Also there was a butler who walked and acted like a wooden man.

The heroine was becomingly shy of her husband, but finally went to her room, where a swell maid put her to bed (with a proper omission of critical moments) in a bed that must have cost a million dollars. Some womanly, though welching, intuition led the bride to lock her door. Some manly intuition led the hero to enter the gardens and climb in through a window into the house. If he had not been a hero it would have been a rather reprehensible act. But to the heroes all things are pure. He prowled through the house heroically without attracting attention. Every step of his burglarious progress was applauded by the audience.

The hero hid behind one of those numberless portières that hang everywhere in the homes of the noveaux riches, and waited with drawn revolver for the dastard bridegroom to attempt his hellish purpose.

The locked door thwarted the villain for the time, and he decided to wait till he got the girl aboard one of those yachts which rich people keep for evil purposes. Thus the villain unwittingly saved the hero from the painful necessity of committing murder, and added another reel to the picture.

It is not necessary and it might infringe a copyright to tell the rest of the story. It would be insulting to say that the false minister, repenting, told the hero, who told the heroine after he rescued her from the satanic yacht and various other temptations. Of course she married the plain-clothes man and lived happily ever after in a sin-proof cottage with a garden of virtuous roses.

Comments: Rupert Hughes (1872-1956) was an American novelist, playwright, biographer and screenwriter. He was also uncle to business magnate and film producer Howard Hughes. His novel of marital disharmony We Can’t Have Everything was turned into a film (of the same title), directed by Cecil B. DeMille, in 1918. Many other of his works were also filmed.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

We Can’t Have Everything

Source: Rupert Hughes, We Can’t Have Everything (New York: Harper & Bros, 1917), pp. 58-61

Text: At length she reached a center of what she most desired – noise and mob and hurry. At 164th Street she came to a star of streets where the Third Avenue Elevated collaborated with the surface-cars and the loose traffic to create a delicious pandemonium. She loved those high numbers—a hundred and eighty streets! Beautiful! At home Main Street dissolved into pastures at Tenth Street.

She wanted to find Main Street in New York and see what First Street looked like. It was probably along the Atlantic Ocean. That also was one of the things she must see – her first ocean!

But while Kedzie was reveling in the splendors of 164th Street her eye was caught by the gaudy placards of a moving-picture emporium. There was a movie-palace at home. It was the town’s one metropolitan charm.

There was a lithograph here that reached out and caught her like a bale-hook. It represented an impossibly large-eyed girl, cowering behind a door on whose other side stood a handsome devil in evening dress. He was tugging villainously at a wicked mustache, and his eyes were thrillingly leery. Behind a curtain stood a young man who held a revolver and waited. The title of the picture decided Kedzie. It was “The Vampire’s Victim; a Scathing Exposure of High Society.”

Kedzie studied hard. For all her gipsy wildness, she had a trace of her father’s parsimony, and she hated to spend money that was her very own. Some of the dimes and quarters in that little purse had been there for ages. Besides, her treasury would have to sustain her for an indefinite period.

But she wanted to know about high society. She was not sure what scathing meant, or what the pronunciation of it was. She rather inclined to “scat-ting.” Anyway, it looked important.

She stumbled into the black theater and found a seat among mysterious persons dully silhouetted against the screen. This was none of the latter-day temples where moving pictures are run through with cathedral solemnity, soft lights, flowers, orchestral uplift, and nearly classic song. This was a dismal little tunnel with one end lighted by the twinkling pictures. Tired mothers came here to escape from their children, and children came here to escape from their tired mothers. The plots of the pictures were as trite and as rancid as spoiled meat, but they suited the market. This plot concerned a beautiful girl who came to the city from a small town. She was a good girl, because she came from a small town and had poor parents.

She was dazzled a little, however, by the attentions of a swell devil of great wealth, and she neglected her poor – therefore honest – lover temporarily. She learned the fearful joys of a limousined life, and was lured into a false marriage which nearly proved her ruin. The villain got a fellow-demon to pretend to be a minister, put on false hair, reversed his collar, and read the wedding ceremony; and the heroine was taken to the rich man’s home.

The rooms were as full of furniture as a furniture-store, and so Kedzie knew it was a swell home. Also there was a butler who walked and acted like a wooden man.

The heroine was becomingly shy of her husband, but finally went to her room, where a swell maid put her to bed (with a proper omission of critical moments) in a bed that must have cost a million dollars. Some womanly, though welching, intuition led the bride to lock her door. Some manly intuition led the hero to enter the gardens and climb in through a window into the house. If he had not been a hero it would have been a rather reprehensible act. But to the heroes all things are pure. He prowled through the house heroically without attracting attention. Every step of his burglarious progress was applauded by the audience.

The hero hid behind one of those numberless portières that hang everywhere in the homes of the noveaux riches, and waited with drawn revolver for the dastard bridegroom to attempt his hellish purpose.

The locked door thwarted the villain for the time, and he decided to wait till he got the girl aboard one of those yachts which rich people keep for evil purposes. Thus the villain unwittingly saved the hero from the painful necessity of committing murder, and added another reel to the picture.

It is not necessary and it might infringe a copyright to tell the rest of the story. It would be insulting to say that the false minister, repenting, told the hero, who told the heroine after he rescued her from the satanic yacht and various other temptations. Of course she married the plain-clothes man and lived happily ever after in a sin-proof cottage with a garden of virtuous roses.

Comments: Rupert Hughes (1872-1956) was an American novelist, playwright, biographer and screenwriter. He was also uncle to business magnate and film producer Howard Hughes. His novel of marital disharmony We Can’t Have Everything was turned into a film (of the same title), directed by Cecil B. DeMille, in 1918. Many other of his works were also filmed.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Mass-Observation at the Movies

Source: Mrs E. Skellen, quoted in Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (eds.), Mass-Observation at the Movies (London/New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 121

Text: Mrs E. Skellen, 5 Roseberry St (aged 27), regular cinema-goer (5-6 times a month), preference – American films

Comments: When I go to the pictures I go to be entertained. For this reason I don’t like seeing what producers fondly imagine are true to life films, simply because they are not true to life. I know far more about my own problems than film producers do or ever will do, so that when I go to the pictures I don’t want to see these problems solved (to the satisfaction of the producers) in what are called true to life pictures. I like seeing historical romances i.e. Charge of the Light Brigade, Captain Blood or such films as Queen Victoria etc. Failing this, I like Musical Comedies or a really good Detective Picture because they take my mind off everyday things, and going to the pictures is a change and a tonic if I can see the films that I have mentioned.

Comments: Mass-Observation carried out a series of studies in 1930s and 1940s into how people in the UK lived, through a mixture of observation, diaries and invited comments. This comment comes from Mass-Observation’s research programme into cultural life in Bolton, Lancashire. The study began in 1938, and this comment is a response to a questionnaire issued in March 1938 asking Do you go to the cinema regularly? How many times a month do you go? Do you go regularly on the same day, if so which day? Do you think you see people on the screen who live like yourself? Which are the best films, British or American, or do you think both are the same? People were also asked to number the types of films they best, and to list what they would like to see more of in films. This respondee was a regular of the Odeon, Ashburner Street. The films she refers to are The Charge of the Light Brigade (USA 1936), Captain Blood (USA 1935) and Victoria the Great (UK 1937).

Derby Castle

Source: ‘Derby Castle’, The Isle of Man Times and General Advertiser, 4 June 1895, p. 2

Text: One of the wonders of the age is on view at Derby Castle in the shape of the Kinetoscope, one of Edison’s latest inventions. Really, the capabilities of the thing are appalling. By its means the following, all working as if in life before the spectator, are shown: – Blacksmith’s shop, contortionist, cock fight, Highland dance, saloon (where a loafer raises a disturbance and is unceremoniously put out), Armand d’Ary (French chanteuse and danseuse, the latest Paris and New York “rage”), wrestling match, prize fight, tumbler, Carmencita, Sandow, reproduction of Buffalo Bill’s Wild West scenes, prize fights &c. Perhaps the simplest method of explanation will be to describe an actual scene. Among the many subjects thus far secured for the Kinetoscope is the interior of a barber’s shop. The beholder, who is looking down through the window of the Kinetoscope cabinet, sees the interior of a barber’s shop. A man is reclining upon a barber’s chair about to be shaved. The barber goes to his case, secures his cup, makes a lather with which he proceeds to lather the man’s face. Meanwhile, a coloured gentleman, who is probably acting in the capacity of a porter, boot-black, and Jack-of-all-trades, is moving about the room. He picks up a newspaper and sits down to read it. Another customer comes in; pulls off hat and coat; the smoke is plainly seen rising from his pipe; picks up a paper to read and await his turn. The coloured gentleman, aforesaid, finds something very funny in the newspaper he is reading, and thereupon he crosses the room and points out the amusing article to the waiting customer. They both laugh and show every sign of amusement. Meanwhile the barber has begun shaving his man, and both the “shaver” and the “shavee” have been going through many motions, the one plainly evincing his desire to hurry through the work of shaving and be ready for the “next”. Now, it should be understood that this is not an imaginary scene, emanating from the pencil or brush of some artist; but it is an accurate photograph of a scene which has actually taken place. Every movement, from the walking of the man across the floor, to the sweep of the razor, is recorded, and is witnessed by the beholder through the window of the Kinetoscope.

Comments: Derby Castle was a dance hall and entertainment venue in Douglas, Isle of Man. The Edison films mentioned include New Blacksmith Shop (1895), The Cock Fight (1894), Highland Dance (1894), A Bar Room Scene (1894), Armand D’Ary (1894), Wrestling Match (1894), Carmencita (1894), The Barber Shop (1893), Sandow (1894) and one of the series of Buffalo Bill films. My thanks to Deac Rossell for alerting me to this article.

The Sense of Touch

senseoftouch

Source: ‘Ole Luke-Oie’ [Ernest Dunlop Swinton], extract from ‘The Sense of Touch’, The Strand Magazine, December 1912, pp. 620-631. Illustrations by John Cameron.

Text: ‘Pon my word, I really don’t know what made me go into the place. I’ve never been keen on cinemas. The ones I went to when they first came out quite choked me off. The jiggling of the pictures pulled my eyes out till they felt like a crab’s, and the potted atmosphere made my head ache. I was strolling along, rather bored with things in general and more than a bit tired, and happened to stop as I passed the doors. It seemed just the ordinary picture palace or electric theatre show – ivory-enamelled portico, neuralgic blaze of flame arc-lights above, and underneath, in coloured incandescents, the words, “Mountains of Fun.”

Fun! Good Lord!

An out-sized and over-uniformed tout, in dirty white gloves and a swagger stick, was strolling backwards and forwards, alternately shouting invitations to see the “continuous performance” and chasing away the recurring clusters of eager-eyed children, whose outward appearance was not suggestive of the possession of the necessary entrance fee. There were highly-coloured posters on every available foot of wall-space – sensational scenes, in which cowboys, revolvers, and assorted deaths predominated – and across them were pasted strips of paper bearing the legend, ” LIFE-REPRO Novelty This Evening.”

I confess that, old as I am, it was that expression which caught me – ” LIFE-REPRO.” It sounded like a new metal polish or an ointment for “swellings on the leg,” but it had the true showman’s ring. I asked the janitor what it meant. Of course he did not know – poor devil! – and only repeated his stock piece: “Splendid new novelty. Now showing. No waiting. Continuous performance. Walk right in.”

I was curious; it was just beginning to rain; and I decided to waste half an hour. No sooner had the metal disc – shot out at me in exchange for sixpence – rattled on to the zinc counter of the ticket-window than the uniformed scoundrel thrust a handbill on me and almost shoved me through a curtained doorway. Quite suddenly I found myself in a dark room, the gloom of which was only accentuated by the picture quivering on a screen about fifty feet away. The change from the glare outside was confusing and the atmosphere smote me, and as I heard the door bang and the curtain being redrawn I felt half inclined to turn round and go out. But while I hesitated, not daring to move until my eyes got acclimatized, someone flashed an electric torch in my eyes, grabbed my ticket, and squeaked, ” Straight along, please,” then switched off the light.

Useful, wasn’t it? I couldn’t see an inch. You know, I’m not very touchy as a rule, but I was getting a bit nettled, and a good deal of my boredom had vanished. I groped my way carefully down what felt like an inclined gangway, now in total darkness, for there was at the moment no picture on the screen, and at once stumbled down a step. A step, mind you, in the centre of a gangway, in a place of entertainment which is usually dark! I naturally threw out my hands to save myself and grabbed what I could. There was a scream, and the film then starting again, I discovered that I was clutching a lady by the hair. The whole thing gave me a jar and threw me into a perspiration – you must remember I was still shaky after my illness. When, as I was apologizing, the same, or another, fool with the torchlight flashed it at my waistcoat and said, “Mind the step,” I’m afraid I told him, as man to man, what I thought of him and the whole beastly show. I was now really annoyed, and showed it. I had no notion there were so many people in the hall until I heard the cries of “Ssshh! ” “Turn him out! ” from all directions.

When I was finally led to a flap-up seat – which I nearly missed, by the way, in the dark – I discovered the reason for the impatience evinced by the audience. I had butted in with my clatter and winged words at the critical moment of a touching scene. To the sound of soft, sad music, all on the black notes, the little incurable cripple child in the tenement house was just being restored to health by watching the remarkably quick growth of the cowslips given to her by the kind-hearted scavenger. Completely as boredom had been banished by the manner of my entrée it quickly returned while I suffered the long-drawn convalescence of ” Little Emmeline.” As soon as this harrowing film was over and the lights were raised I took my chance of looking round.

The hall was very much the usual sort of place – perhaps a bit smaller than most – long and narrow, with a floor sloping down from the back. In front of the screen, which was a very large one, was an enclosed pit containing some artificial palms and tin hydrangeas, a piano and a harmonium, and in the end wall at its right was a small door marked ” Private.” In the side wall on the left near the proscenium place was an exit. The only other means of egress, as far as I could see, was the doorway through which I had entered. Both of these were marked by illuminated glass signs, and on the walls were notices of “No smoking,” “The management beg to thank, those ladies who have so kindly removed their hats,” and advertisement placards – mostly of chocolate. The decorations were too garish for the place to be exactly homely, but it was distinctly commonplace, a contrast to the shambles it became later on. What?

Yes! I daresay you know all about these picture palaces, but I’ve got to give you the points as they appealed to me. I’m not telling you a story, man. I’m simply trying to give you an exact account of what happened. It’s the only way I can do it.

The ventilation was execrable, in spite of the couple of exhaust fans buzzing round overhead, and the air hung stagnant and heavy with traces of stale scent, while wafts of peppermint, aniseed, and eucalyptus occasionally reached me from the seats in front. Tobacco smoke might have increased the density of the atmosphere, but it would have been a welcome cloak to some of the other odours. The place was fairly well filled, the audience consisting largely of women and children of the poorer classes – even babies in arms – just the sort of innocent holiday crowd that awful things always happen to.

By the time I had noticed this much the lights were lowered, and we were treated to a scene of war which converted my boredom into absolute depression. I must describe it to you, because you always will maintain that we are a military nation at heart. By Jove, we are! Even the attendants at this one-horse gaff were wearing uniforms. And the applause with which the jumble of sheer military impossibility and misplaced sentiment presented to us was greeted proves it. The story was called “Only a Bugler Boy.” The first scene represented a small detachment of British soldiers ” At the Front” on ” Active Service” in a savage country. News came in of the “foe.” This was the occasion for a perfect orgy of mouthing, gesticulation, and salutation. How they saluted each other, usually with the wrong hand, without head-covering, and at what speed ! The actors were so keen to convey the military atmosphere that the officers, as often as not, acknowledged a salute before it was given.

Alter much consultation, deep breathing exercise, and making of goo-goo eyes, the long-haired rabbit who was in command selected a position for “defence to the death” so obviously unsuitable and suicidal that he should have been ham-strung at once by his round-shouldered gang of supers. But, no! In striking attitudes they waited to be attacked at immense and quite unnecessary disadvantage by the savage horde. Then, amid noise and smoke, the commander endeavoured to atone for the hopeless situation in which he had placed his luckless men by waving his sword and exposing himself to the enemy’s bullets. I say “atone,” for it would have been the only chance for his detachment if he had been killed, and killed quickly. Well, after some time and many casualties, it occurred to him that it would be as well to do something he should have done at first, and let the nearest friendly force know of his predicament. The diminutive bugler with the clean face and nicely-brushed hair was naturally chosen for this very dangerous mission, which even a grown man would have had a poor chance of carrying out, and after shaking hands all round, well in the open, the little hero started off with his written message.

Then followed a prolonged nightmare of crawling through the bush-studded desert.

Bugler stalled savage foe, and shot several with his revolver. Savage foe stalked bugler and wounded him in both arms and one leg. Finally, after squirming in accentuated and obvious agony for miles, bugler reached the nearest friendly force, staggered up to its commander, thrust his despatch upon him, and swooned in his arms. Occasion for more saluting, deep breathing, and gesticulation, and much keen gazing through field-glasses – notwithstanding the fact that if the beleaguered garrison were in sight the sound of the firing must have been heard long before ! Then a trumpet-call on the harmonium, and away dashed the relief force of mounted men.

Meanwhile we were given a chance of seeing how badly things had been going with the devoted garrison at bay. It was only when they were at their last gasp and cartridge that the relief reached them. With waving of helmets and cheers from the defenders, the first two men of the relieving force hurled themselves over the improvised stockade. You know what they were? I knew what they must be long before they appeared. And it is hardly necessary to specify to which branches of His Majesty’s United Services they belonged. The sorely-wounded but miraculously tough bugler took the stockade in his stride a very good third. He had apparently recovered sufficiently to gallop all the way back with the rescuers – only to faint again, this time in the arms of his own commanding officer. Curtain! “They all love Jack,” an imitation of bagpipes on the harmonium, and “Rule Britannia” from the combined orchestra. As I say, this effort of realism was received with great applause, even by the men present.

As soon as the light went up I had a look at my neighbours. The seats on each side of me were empty, and in the row in front, about a couple of seats to my right, there was one occupant. He was a young fellow of the type of which one sees only too many in our large towns – one of the products of an overdone industrialism. He was round-shouldered and narrow-chested, and his pale thin face suggested hard work carried out in insanitary surroundings and on unwholesome food. His expression was precocious, but the loose mouth showed that its owner was far too unintelligent to be more than feebly and unsuccessfully vicious. He wore a yachting cap well on the back of his head, and on it he sported a plush swallow or eagle – or some other bird – of that virulent but non-committal blue which is neither Oxford nor Cambridge. It was Boat-Race week. He was evidently out for pleasure – poor devil! – and from his incidental remarks, which were all of a quasi-sporting nature, I gathered that he was getting it. I felt sorry for him and sympathized in his entire absorption in the strange scenes passing before his eyes – scenes of excitement and adventure far removed from the monotonous round of his squalid life. How much better an hour of such innocent amusement than time and money wasted in some boozing-ken – eh?

Well, I’m not quite sure what it means myself – some sort of a low drinking-den. But, anyway, that’s what I felt about it. After all, he was a harmless sort of chap, and his unsophisticated enjoyment made me envious. I took an interest in him – thought of giving him a bob or two when I went out. I want you to realize that I had nothing but kindly feelings towards the fellow. He comes in later on – wasn’t so unsuccessful after all.

Then we had one of those interminable scenes of chase in which a horseman flies for life towards you over endless stretches of plain and down the perspective of long vistas of forest, pursued at a discreet distance by other riders, who follow in his exact tracks, even to avoiding the same tree-stumps, all mounted on a breed of horse which does forty-five miles an hour across country and fifty along the hard high road. I forget the cause of the pursuit and its ending, but I know revolvers were used.

The next film was French, and of the snowball type. A man runs down a street. He is at once chased by two policemen, one long and thin and the other fat and bow-legged with an obviously false stomach. The followers very rapidly increase in number to a mixed mob of fifty or more, including nurses with children in perambulators. They go round many corners, and round every corner there happens to be a carefully arranged obstacle which they all fall over in a kicking heap. I remember that soot and whitewash played an important part, also that the wheels of the passing vehicles went round the wrong way.

Owing to the interruption of light, was it? I daresay. Anyway, it was very annoying. Then we had a bit of the supernatural. I’m afraid I didn’t notice what took place, so I’ll spare you a description. I was entirely engrossed with the efforts of the wretched pianist to play tremolo for ten solid minutes. I think it was the ghost melody from “The Corsican Brothers ” that she was struggling with, and the harmonium did not help one bit. The execution got slower and slower and more staccato as her hands grew tired, and at the end I am sure she was jabbing the notes with her aching fingers straight and stiff. Poor girl! What a life!

At about this moment, as far as I remember, a lady came in and took the seat in front of mine. She was a small woman, and was wearing a microscopic bonnet composed of two strings and a sort of crepe muffin. The expression of her face was the most perfect crystallization of peevishness I’ve ever seen, and her hair was screwed up into a tight knob about the size and shape of a large snail-shell. Evidently not well off – probably a charwoman. I caught a glimpse of her gloves as she loosened her bonnet-strings, and the fingertips were like the split buds of a black fuchsia just about to bloom. Shortly after she had taken her seat my friend with the Boat-Race favour suddenly felt hungry, cracked a nut between his teeth, spat out the shell noisily, and ate the kernel with undisguised relish. The lady gathered her mantle round her and sniffed. I was not surprised. The brute continued to crack nuts, eject shells, and chew till he killed all my sympathy for him, till I began to loathe his unhealthy face, and longed for something to strike him dead. This was absolutely the limit, and I should have cleared out had not the words LIFE-REPRO” on the handbill caught my eye. After all it must come to that soon, and I determined to sit the thing out. After one or two more films of a banal nature there was a special interval – called “Intermission” on the screen – and signs were not wanting of the approach of the main event of the show.

Two of the youths had exchanged their electric torches for trays, and perambulated the gangways with cries of “Chuglit— milk chuglit.” A third produced a large garden syringe and proceeded to squirt a fine spray into the air. This hung about in a cloud, and made the room smell like a soap factory. When the curtain bell sounded the curtain was not drawn nor were the lights lowered. A man stepped out of the small door and climbed up on to the narrow ledge in front of the screen, which served as a kind of stage or platform, and much to my disgust made obvious preparation to address the audience. He was a bulky fellow, and his apparent solidity was increased by the cut of his coat. His square chin added to the sense of power conveyed by his build, while a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles gave him an air of seriousness and wisdom. I at once sized him up as a mountebank, and thought I knew what sort of showman’s patter to expect. He did not waste much time before he got busy. Looking slowly all round the room, he fixed my sporting friend with a baleful glare until the latter stopped eating, then cleared his throat and began …

Comments: Ernest Dunlop Swinton (1868-1951) was a British military officer (influential in the development of tanks in the First World War) and a writer, producing fiction under the pseudonym O’le Luk-Oie. The story continues with an announcer promising a natural history film of unsurpassed life-like realism. The film shows a praying mantis and a scorpion which come out of the screen giant-sized and attack the audience, killing those that the narrator disliked before turning on him (see illustration below). In the end it turns out to have been a dream. The description of a cinema show, though sardonic, is filled with useful documentary detail. The garden syringe is a reference to the disinfectant sprays commonly used on cinema audiences at this time.

Links: Copy of the complete story on the Internet Archive

scorpion

Going to the Cinema

Source: Luke McKernan, ‘Going to the Cinema’, from lukemckernan.com, http://lukemckernan.com/2012/12/16/going-to-the-cinema, published 16 December 2012

Text: I am out in London, and it has been a long day. I am walking towards the train station for the journey home, when I pass close by a shopping centre with an art house cinema in the middle of it. It is still early evening, and I think to myself why not see if that film you read about is still screening. I turn up at the cinema and find that its next showing will be in ten minutes’ time.

There are two queues, one for each person manning the the ticket office. I join one of them. The people in the queue are a mixed crowd, some young, some middle-aged, generally of the sort one expects to see queuing for this sort of film. It is to be a cultural treat. We stand by a display of DVDs of other art house films, each with quotations announcing that film’s exceptional qualities. There is nothing average on display here; everything proclaims itself remarkable. I wonder how so many films can all be so good and worry about those that I have not heard of, let alone seen. I feel reassured about those that are familiar to me. I have come to the front of the queue. It will cost £11.50 to see this film, which seems a lot of money to purchase something that you cannot take away with you afterwards. Were it a DVD I would hope to pay less.

I pay the money, take my ticket, and go down a set of stairs, where there is a bar with a few people seated on stools with drinks and snacks. There are posters on the walls for films past and film to come. I go down a second set of stairs. A young man takes my ticket, tears it in two and hands it back to me. It occurs to me that this is not much of an occupation for anyone. I go into a darkened room with seats in rows, each with a letter to differentiate it from the next. There are seats for around 200 people. Probably 50 or so people are arranged at various points, facing a large screen. I calculate how much revenue the cinema may take from a single screening such as this and how this helps pay for the women at the box office and the young man tearing tickets. I find a corner three-quarters of the way back, away from other people and with some leg room. I set down my bag of recently-purchased clothes, take off my coat and switch off my mobile phone. The seat is soft and comfortable. The room itself is sloped so that those at the back are higher than those nearer the front, enabling those behind to see over the heads of those in front, so long as we are all of uniform height.

The screen in front of us is showing advertisements for products. These advertisements help pay for the cinema; we understand this. There is one for a Beetle car, another an animation with young men self-consciously walking down a street with their shoes changing colour – it is advertisement for sports shoes of some kind. Another advertisement attempts to be amusing in a laboured way, and I concentrate on my knees until it is over. Two women behind me laugh at what they see on the screen. Then we are shown trailers for films that the cinema will screen in future days. One trailer tells us that its film is the best produced in Ireland this century. I try to consider what this might mean. I have not heard of any of the films trailed, nor do I feel any compulsion to see any of them. The screen then shows us advertisements for the cinema itself, including its upcoming screenings of live opera from New York. The operas look sumptuously staged. I almost forget that I do not much care for opera. The trailers show the highlights and none of the trials that may come between.

A disembodied voice asks us to switch off our phones. Some rustle with objects in their coat pockets. The film we have paid to see is about to begin. There is a message from the British Board of Film Classification to tell us that this film has been classified as 12A, which means that it is considered unsuitable for children under 12 unless they are accompanied by an adult. There are no children aged 12 or under in the cinema. All is well.

The film has started. It is an earnest work about an elderly couple, one of whom suffers from a stroke, leaving the other one to care for her. Probably we would not normally have chosen to pay money to see a film with such a theme, but it has received awards and many favourable reviews, and the director has made notable films before now, so we expected to be impressed. Certainly we are not expecting fast-paced action or the any of the other kinetic thrills of a cinema film. We are prepared for what we see. A mobile phone goes off five minutes into the proceedings, and I wonder for a moment whether it is part of the film. But it comes from the women behind me and is swiftly turned off. The film rolls on. It is in French, and there are subtitles. It is very accomplished work, with exceptional cinematography capturing interior natural light with a quality that makes me think of Norwegian paintings of the late 19th century. Perhaps this is intentional. The director is clearly very skilled, and nothing seems incidental or without relevance. One cut from close-up to medium shot of the couple jars by its unnaturalness, but that is all. There is no story to speak of. There are incidents, because a film is drama and must have incidents, but they are not important.

We admire the flat where the couple live. It is filled with books and paintings and interesting objects. I wish my own home had some of these books and paintings and interesting objects. Probably others in the audience are thinking the same. The film shows us some of the paintings in close-up, filling the screen. The director knew that we would like to look more closely, and knew when we would want to do so.

The film runs for around two hours, during which time we sit still and watch it. I sometimes arrange my legs to the left, sometimes to the right. Sometimes I think of other things, such as whether I will want to eat after the film or not, but mostly the film holds my attention. Occasionally I wonder when it will end, and how, but I never look at my watch. One of the subtitles has a grammatical error, and this bothers me. The film is filled with significant sounds, such as a tap running, a pigeon flapping or the clink of plates being washed. There is no music, except that which is played on a CD player or by the people who are acting in the film. It is a film about musicians. The main protagonists are more cultured and accomplished than we the audience watching them, but we do not resent or envy them for this. It is simply who they are. This is one of the film’s accomplishments.

The ending comes, and end credits follow which tell us all the names of the many talented people who made the film. They roll past in silence. Some of the audience get up, but I stay to the end out of a long habit which says that I must see the name of every person who contributed to this work, even though their names mean nothing to me. When the film has had its final say, we get up and walk out of the auditorium and up the stairs once more. The film has been bleak and sad and all are silent at first, then turn to chatter as they near the open air above.

I come up to the foyer, where a new set of people is gathering to see either a further screening of this film or another film showing on a second screen. I step out of the doors, where the cold air greets me. I do up my coat, head out into the dark and think not so much of the film but rather of the strange rituals involved in seeing a film. Once it was an act of faith, now it is an act of remembrance. What did that film mean, and why did I see it? I knew these things once, but now no more.

The cold wind blows and I head for home.

Comments: Luke McKernan (born 1961) is a film historian, news curator, and editor of the Picturegoing website. This posting from his personal site lukemckernan.com documents a visit to the Renoir Cinema, Bloomsbury, London to see Amour (France/Germany/Austria 2010 d. Michael Haneke).

Unreliable Memoirs

Source: Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980), pp. 43-47

Text: Every Saturday afternoon at the pictures there was a feature film, sixteen cartoons and an episode each from four different serials. The programme just went on and on like Bayreuth. The Margaret Street children would join up with the Irene Street children and the combined mass would add themselves unto the Sunbeam Avenue children and the aggregate would join the swarm from all the other areas all moving north along Rocky Point Road towards Rockdale, where the Odeon stood. In summer the concrete paths were hot. The asphalt footpaths were even hotter: bubbles of tar formed, to be squashed flat by our leathery bare feet. Running around on macadamised playgrounds throughout the spring, by summer we had feet that could tread on a drawing pin and hardly feel it.

When you got to the Odeon the first thing you did was stock up with lollies. Lollies was the word for what the English call sweets and the Americans call candy. Some of the more privileged children had upwards of five shillings each to dispose of, but in fact two bob was enough to buy you as much as you could eat. Everyone, without exception, bought at least one Hoadley’s Violet Crumble Bar. It was a slab of dense, dry honeycomb coated with chocolate. So frangible was the honey comb that it would shatter when bitten, scattering bright yellow shrapnel. It was like trying to eat a Ming vase. The honeycomb would go soft only after a day’s exposure to direct sunlight. The chocolate surrounding it, however, would liquefy after only ten minutes in a dark cinema.

[…]

Everyone either ate steadily or raced up and down the aisles to and from the toilet, or all three. The uproar was continuous, like Niagara. Meanwhile the programme was unreeling in front of us. The feature film was usually a Tarzan, a Western, or the kind of Eastern Western in which George Macready played the grand vizier. At an even earlier stage I had been to the pictures with my mother and been continuously frightened without understanding what was going on – the mere use of music to reinforce tension, for example, was enough to drive me under the seat for the rest of the evening. At a later stage I accompanied my mother to every change of evening double bill both at Ramsgate and Rockdale – a total of four films a week, every week for at least a decade. But nothing before or since had the impact of those feature films at the Rockdale Saturday matinees.

In those days Johnny Weissmuller was making his difficult transfer from Tarzan to Jungle Jim. As Tarzan he got fatter and fatter until finally he was too fat to be plausible, whereupon he was obliged to put on a safari suit and become Jungle Jim. I was glad to to learn subsequently that as Jungle Jim he had a piece of the action and was at last able to bank some money. At the time, his transmogrification looked to me like an unmitigated tragedy. His old Tarzan movies were screened again and again. Many times I dived with Tarz off Brooklyn Bridge during the climactic scene of Tarzan’s New York Adventure. In my mind I duplicated the back somersaults executed by Johnny’s double as he swung from vine to vine on his way to rescue the endangered Jane and Boy from the invading ivory hunters. In one of the Tarzan movies there is a terrible sequence where one lot of natives gives another lot an extremely thin time by arranging pairs of tree trunks so that they will fly apart and pull the victim to pieces. This scene stayed with me as a paradigm of evil. No doubt if I saw the same film today I would find the sequence as crudely done as everything else ever filmed on Poverty Row. But at the time it seemed a vision of cruelty too horrible even to think about.

I can remember having strong ideas about which cartoons were funny and which were not. Mr Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing, with their stylised backgrounds and elliptical animation, had not yet arrived on the scene. Cartoons were still in that hyper-realist phase which turns out in retrospect to have been their golden age. The standards of animation set by Walt Disney and MGM cost a lot of time, effort and money, but as so often happens the art reached it height at the moment of maximum resistance from the medium. Knowing nothing of these theoretical matters, I simply consumed the product. I knew straight away that the Tom and Jerry cartoons were the best. In fact I even knew straight away that some Tom and Jerry cartoons were better than others. There was an early period when Tom’s features were puffy and he ran with a lope, motion being indicated by the streaks that animators call speed lines. In the later period Tom’s features had an acute precision and his every move was made fully actual, with no stylisation at all. Meanwhile Jerry slimmed down and acquired more expressiveness. The two periods were clearly separated in my mind, where they were dubbed ‘old drawings’ and ‘new drawings’. I remember being able to tell which category a given Tom and Jerry cartoon fell into from seeing the first few frames. Eventually I could tell just from the logo. I remember clearly the feeling of disappointment if it was going to be old drawings and the feeling of elation if it was going to be new drawings.

But the serials were what caught my imagination most, especially the ones in which the hero was masked. It didn’t occur to me until much later that the producers, among whom Sam Katzman was the doyen, kept the heroes masked so that the leading actors could not ask for more money. At the time it just seemed logical to me that a hero should wear a masked. It didn’t have to be as elaborate as Batman’s mask. I admired Batman, despite the worrying wrinkles in the arms and legs of his costume, which attained a satisfactory tautness only in the region of his stomach. But Robin’s mask was easier to copy. So was the Black Commando’s. My favourite serials were those in which masked men went out at night and melted mysteriously into the urban landscape. Science fiction serials were less appealing at that stage, while white hunter epics like The Lost City of the Jungle merely seemed endless. I saw all fourteen episodes of The Lost City of the Jungle except the last. It would have made no difference if I had only seen the last episode and missed the thirteen leading up to it. The same things happened every week. Either two parties of white hunters in solar topees searched for each other in one part of the jungle, or else the same two parties of white hunters in solar topees sought to avoid each other in another part of the jungle. Meanwhile tribesmen from the Lost City either captured representatives of both parties and took them to the High Priestess for sacrifice, or else ran after them when they escaped. Sometimes white hunters escaping ran into other white hunters being captured, and were either recaptured or helped the others escape. It was obvious even to my unschooled eyes that there was only about half an acre of jungle, all of it composed of papier mâché. By the end of each episode it was beaten flat. The screen would do a spiral wipe around an image of the enthroned High Priestess, clad in a variety of tea-towels and gesturing obdurately with a collection of prop sceptres while one of the good white hunters – you could tell a good one from a bad one by the fact that a bad one always sported a very narrow moustache – was lowered upside down into a pit of limp scorpions.

Comments: Clive James (born 1939) is an Australian broadcaster, critic, poet and essayist. These extracts from his first volume of memoirs cover the period of the late 1940s. The films mentioned include Tarzan’s New York Adventure (USA 1942), Batman (1943, 15 episodes), The Secret Code (USA 1942, 15 episodes, featuring ‘The Black Commando’) and The Lost City of the Jungle (USA 1946, 13 episodes). There were numerous Jungle Jim films from 1948 onwards. Rockdale is a suburb of Sydney.

The Bioscope

Source: ‘The Bioscope’, postcard, stamped Dover 21 August 1904, identified on reverse side as ‘4271 – London, after dark’, Luke McKernan collection

bioscope_posctard

bioscope_postcard_reverse

Comments: This is an unusual example of a cinema-related postcard where the message on the back makes reference to the image on the front. The writer says, “This one is rather amusing I think Don’t you. They are quite the latest style here. Some of them are quite shocking.” The postcard show the audience at the screening of films in a variety theatre. A lecturer points out the image (mistakenly shown as a circle after magic lantern practice) and an orchestra plays while the audience reveal what they are saying to one another in the safety of the dark. The messages include “Kiss me quick, this is the last picture”, “Put your foot on mine, ducky” and “Remember I’m a married man”. The Bioscope was the name of a projector that became a generic name for early film shows. Though the postcard is meant to represent London the writer notes that such film shows are popular in Dover, so this entry has been classified under both places.

Stately pleasure-domes

Source: Steve Woolley, contribution to David Thomson, ‘Stately pleasure-domes: The first cinema opened 100 years ago (arguably)’, The Independent, 17 April 1994, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/film–stately-pleasuredomes-the-first-cinema-opened-100-years-ago-arguably-david-thomson-shows-you-to-your-seat-while-other-film-fans-name-their-favourite-picture-palaces-1370670.html

Text: I was fortunate to grow up in Islington when most of the cinemas were still running. I was mad about films. I’d go to the Odeon Angel and the Rex, which is now the Screen on the Green. My dad or uncles would take me to the ABC in the evenings. I became highly attuned to audiences and the environment a film was shown in. I rate it as highly as the movie itself. If you see Performance, as I did, at three in the morning at the Classic in Victoria, it’s not the same as seeing it on the box. It was one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and coming out and walking from Victoria to Notting Hill Gate afterwards was extraordinary.

There are no character cinemas in London now. Places like the Biograph in Victoria. It was 28p to get in and a huge gay pick-up. It was great, like watching a film in a Baghdad market. The toilet door kept crashing into you. They showed films like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Then there was the Starlight, which just showed Thirties and Forties doubles. They used to serve cucumber sandwiches with the corners cut off – I’d never had them before.

At the Scala I strove to create an atmosphere, because that’s how I saw films when I was young. People say the Scala wasn’t great because not all the seats worked and the trains ran underneath, but who else would show Kenneth Anger films, or do proper late shows? It’s because of videos. People don’t seem to get it any more, they don’t want to see a film on a big screen. There was hardly a ripple when the Scala closed. It’s kind of sad.

The Screen on the Green has a really big place in my heart. I remember it as the Rex, a fleapit. I was forbidden by my parents to go there. Working as an usher there in 1976 was definitely the most exciting time. We put the Sex Pistols on – it was the summer of punk. And there were all-night Marx Brothers films. It would show Duck Soup at four in the morning. The first weekend I worked there the double bill was Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘I’m being paid to watch these films three nights a week, I must be the luckiest person alive’.

There was an atmosphere in London then rivalling France and New York – movies were suddenly hip. I was going to the cinema on my own, thinking I was mad. As I was about to enter my twenties, I realised that all these other people were obsessed too. It was a great time. It was pre-Channel 4 and before BBC 2 got its act together. You really had to search the films out.

Comments: Steve Woolley (born 1956) is a British film producer, who was programmer at The Screen on the Green in Islington, London and managed the Scala at King’s Cross, London, before establishing Palace Video and then moving into film production (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game etc). This is one of a series of memories of favourite cinemas published in an article to mark the centenary of film exhibition (in the USA).