Source: Anon., ‘A Democratic Art’, The Nation, vol. 97 no. 2513 (28 August 1913), p. 193
Text: If Tolstoy were alive to-day, it is not unlikely that he would ﬁnd in the “movies” a close approximation to his ideal of art. A direct and universal appeal to the elementary emotions — that was the standard which Tolstoy held up in opposition to the exaggerations, the aberrations, and the obscurities of the Shakespeares, the Goethes, and Richard Wagners. The Russian’s ultimate test of a work of art was its appeal to the untutored but unspoiled peasant. The cinematograph meets this test completely. The Russian mujik is under the spell of the ﬁlms. India’s millions are deserting the story-tellers and the jugglers of the bazaar for the moving-picture shows. China, Peru, and Washington Heights have succumbed to the photo-play. All nations, all ages, all classes, both sexes — it is inconceivable how art can be more popular than that.
But the moving-picture show is something more than popular. It is intimate. To an extraordinary extent it is entering into the daily thought of the masses. The good men and women who are fond of writing on literature and life, who are devoting themselves to the task of bringing the drama into touch with the life of the people, must be amazed, and slightly chagrined, at the intensity with which the ﬁlm-play has seized upon the popular imagination. The crowds not only throng to the shows; they talk about them, on street corners, in the cars, and over the hoods of baby carriages. From time to time there have been plays in the regular theatre which have become the theme of general discussion. There have been players whom the public has made its favorites. But the theatre as an institution has hardly impressed itself upon the popular mind in this country. A show was either good or bad, and there it ended with the ordinary theatre-goer. The technique of the theatre was a subject for professionals and “high-brows.” But the crowd discusses the technique of the moving-picture theatre with as much interest as literary salons in Paris or London discuss the minutiae of the higher drama. The crowd knows how the ﬁlms are made, and what it costs to make them, and who the leading actors in the show are. The producers of these shows have achieved an extraordinary triumph. They have converted their entire audience into first-nighters.
The interest of the masses in the moving-picture show is even more personal than that. They are not only spectators and critics, but to a very considerable extent they are the authors. Everybody is writing moving-picture scenarios. In part it may have been a real dearth of ideas which induced the film-producers to appeal for contributions to the nation at large. In part it may be excellent business to inoculate the audiences, not excluding children of the grammar grades, with the virus of authorship. The regular theatre draws a not inconsiderable part of its revenue from “students” of the drama who go to the theatre in order to learn how to write plays. The number of those thus directly interested in the moving-picture plays must be enormous. In a very real sense the photo-play then becomes a truly popular art. The operatic composer will strive to give reality — and popularity — to his music by incorporating folk-themes into his score. To the extent that the music of the masses enters into the finished product the composer‘s art is a popular art. The moving-picture showman goes much further than the composer can go by throwing upon the screen the very ideas supplied him by the crowd in the seats.
It is not a very high art, this art of the photo-play as created for the masses and largely by them. The authors of the benches reveal the common predilection of the popular taste for the lurid and the fantastic. But in this the moving-picture show merely takes the place of the old-fashioned melodrama. And it has the added advantage of realism. The setting of the photo-play is incomparably more real than anything even a Belasco can give us. It reproduces action in real deserts, on real oceans, in real forests. The heroine walks out of a very actual cottage, down actual steps, and takes a perfectly authentic trolley car to a real department store. The audience knows that these things and the trees, rocks, bridges, boats, and guns are absolutely true to life, because it has often seen the man with the camera at work. To watch one of these exhibitions is like seeing an animated popular magazine without the labor of turning the pages. And like the picture magazine it requires no thought and little attention.
Comments:The Nation was, and continues to be, a leading progressive American journal. Invitations to submit ideas for film scenarios were not uncommon at this time, from the smaller film concerns, and publications on how to write film scripts were legion – though it is doubtful that many, if any, of those who read such books ever produced something that a film company would have accepted. David Belasco was an American theatre producer renowned for the naturalistic effects employed in his stage productions.
Source: Ivan Butler, Silent Magic: Rediscovering the Silent Film Era (London: Columbus Books, 1987), pp. 27-31
Text: During the early part of the 1920s my own cinema-going was restricted by the confinements of boarding-school during term time, and in the holidays (to a lesser extent) by the fact that at least in our neighbourhood ‘the pictures’, though tolerated and even enjoyed, were still regarded as a poor and slightly dubious relative of the live theatre, the picture gallery and the concert hall. Their passage towards respectability was not helped by scandals in Hollywood such as the ‘Fatty Arbuckle Affair’. I can still recollect the atmosphere of something sinister and shuddersome that surrounded the very word ‘Arbuckle’ long after the trials (and complete acquittal) of the unfortunate comedian, even though my innocent ideas of what actually took place in that San Francisco apartment during the lively party on 5 September 1921 were wholly vague and inaccurate – if tantalizing. In his massive history of American cinema, The Movies, Richard Griffith writes, “During the course of the First World War the middle class, by imperceptible degrees, became a part of the movie audience.’ ‘lmperceptible’ might be regarded as the operative word. However, when it comes to paying surreptitious visits a great many obstacles can be overcome by a little guile and ingenuity, and I don’t remember feeling particularly deprived in that respect. I managed to see most of what I wanted to see.
Our ‘local’ was the cosy little Royal in Kensington High Street, London – a bus journey away. The Royal has been gone for half a century, its demise hastened by the erection of a super-cinema at the corner of Earl’s Court Road. To the faithful it was known not as the Royal but as the Little Cinema Under the Big Clock in the High Street. The clock itself is gone now, but on a recent visit I though I could spot its former position by brackets that remain fixed high in the brick wall. The entrance to the cinema was through a passageway between two small shops, discreetly hidden except for two frames of stills and a small poster. A pause at the tiny box-office, a turn to the left, a step through a swing door and a red baize curtain, and one was in the enchanted land – not, however, in sight of the screen, because that was flush with the entrance, so you saw a grossly twisted pulsating picture which gradually formed itself into shape as, glancing backwards so as not to miss anything, you groped your way up to your seat. To the right of the screen was the clock in a dim red glow, an indispensable and friendly feature of nearly all cinemas in those days, and a warning – as one was perhaps watching the continuous programme through for the second run, that time was getting on. Prices were modest: from 8d (3p), to 3s (15p). This was fairly general in the smaller halls; cheaper seats were available in some, particularly in the provinces, others – slightly more imposing demanded slightly more for the back rows, possibly with roomier seats and softer upholstery, but such elitism was not, to my memory, practised at the Royal.
Projection was to our unsophisticated eyes generally good, preserving the often marvellously crisp and well graded black-and-white photography. Programmes were changed twice weekly (but the cinemas were closed on Sundays, at any rate during the early years) and continuous from about 2 o’clock. They consisted as a rule of a newsreel such as the Pathé Gazette with its proudly crowing cockerel (silent, of course), a two-reel comedy (sometimes the best part of the entertainment), Eve’s Film Review, a feminine-angled magazine the high spot of which was the appearance of Felix the Cat walking, and, finally, the feature film. This was before the days when the double-feature programme became general. Somewhere between the items there would be a series of slide advertisements – forerunner of Messrs Pearl and Dean – which always seemed to include a glowing picture of Wincarnis among its local and ‘forthcoming’ attractions. The average moviegoer of those days (much as today, though perhaps to a greater extent) went to see the star of a film rather than the work of its director; Gish rather than Griffith, Bronson more than Brenon, Bow more than Badger, Swanson more than DeMille though as the years went by the names of the directors became more familiar and their importance more fully recognized. Criticism was often surprisingly informed and uncompromising.
Musical accompaniment at the Royal was provided by a piano during the less frequented hours, supplanted by a trio who arrived at a fixed time regardless of what was happening on the screen. I remember well the curious uplift we felt as the three musicians arrived, switched on their desk lights, tuned up and burst into sound, perhaps at a suitable moment in the story, perhaps not. Meanwhile the pianist (always, I recollect, a lady) packed up and left for a well deserved rest and cup of tea. The skill of many of these small cinema groups, even in the most modest conditions, was remarkable; their ability to adapt, week after week, often with two programmes a week and with little or no rehearsal, to events distortedly depicted a few feet before them, was beyond praise. The old joke about William Tell for action, ‘Hearts and Flowers’ for sentiment, the Coriolan overture for suspense and that’s the lot, was an unfair and unfunny gibe.
I have described the old Kensington Royal in some detail as it was fairly typical of modest cinemas everywhere in Britain at that time. Most were at least reasonably comfortable and gave good value for little money, maintaining decent standards of presentation. Very few deserved the derogatory term ‘flea-pit’, though ‘mouse parlour’ might sometimes have been an accurate description. On one occasion the scuttering of mice across the bare boards between the rows of seats rather disturbed my viewing of a W.C. Fields film (Running Wild, I think it was), though the print was so villainously cut and chopped about that the story was difficult to follow in any case. But such cases were infrequent. I have forgotten the name of the cinema, and the town shall remain anonymous.
Sometimes, in early days, films would be shown in old disused churches, and it is supposedly through this that the employment of an organ for accompaniment in larger cinemas became general. The first exponent was probably Thomas L. Talley, who in 1905 built a theatre with organ specifically for the screening of movies in Los Angeles. It was soon discovered that such an organ could be made to do many things an orchestra could not: it could fit music instantaneously to changes of action, and simulate doorbells, whistles, sirens and bird-song, as well as many percussive instruments. On one later make of organ an ingenious device of pre-set keys made available no fewer than thirty-nine effects and even emotions, including Love (three different kinds), Anger, Excitement, Storm, Funeral, Gruesome, ‘Neutral’ (three kinds), and FULL ORGAN. This last effect, with presumably all the above, plus Quietude, Chase, China, Oriental, Children, Happiness, March, Fire, etc. all sounding together, must have been awesome indeed. […] Before long the organ interlude became an important part of any programme, as the grandly ornate and gleaming marvel rose majestically from the depths of the pit in a glowing flood of coloured light.
Nothing, however, could equal the effect of a large orchestra in a major cinema, which could be overwhelming. The accompaniment (of Carl Davis conducting the Thames Silents Orchestra) to the 1983 screening of The Wind, for instance, was a revelation that will never be forgotten by those who had never before ‘heard’ a silent film in all its glory, particularly at the climax of the storm.
Admittedly, at times, particularly from the front seats, the presence of a busy group of players could be distracting; their lights would impinge on the screen, their busy fiddle bows and occasionally bobbing heads would make concentration on what the shadows behind them were up to a little difficult. In general, however, their mere presence, apart from the music, added immeasurably to the sense of occasion and until one got used to it the cold vacancy below the screen in the early days of sound had a chilling effect. Those cinema musicians are surely remembered with warm affection and regard by all of us who were fortunate enough to have heard them.
In these days of multi-screen conglomerates it is difficult to imagine the awe and excitement that could be aroused by the greatest of the old-style movie palaces; the thick-piled carpets into which our feet sank, the powdered flunkies and scented sirens who took our tickets with a unique mixture of welcoming smile, condescending grace and unwavering dignity, the enormous chandelier-lit entrance halls, the statues, the coloured star portraits, the playing fountains, the rococo kiosks – all leading through cathedral-dim corridors to the dark, perfumed auditorium itself, the holy of holies where we would catch our first glimpse of Larry Semon plastering Fatty Arbuckle with bags of flour.
Prices, of course, were rather grander than in the smaller, humbler houses, roughly (for variations were wide) from about 1s 3d (6p) or 2s 4d (12p) to 8s 6d (43p) or even 11s 6d (57p); but once you had paid your tribute to the box-office every effort was made to see that you felt you were welcome, were getting your money’s worth and were someone of importance – that this whole occasion was especially for you.
Comments: Ivan Butler (1909-1998), after a career as an actor, went on to become a notable writer on the art and history of cinema. His Silent Magic is a particularly evocative memoir of the silent films he could remember when in his eighties. The American comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was accused of the rape and manslaughter minor actress and model Virginia Rappe. Though acquitted, thanks to lurid reporting his career was ruined. The scandal helped lead to the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to self-govern the American motion picture industry. The Eve’s Film Review cinemagazine was produced by Pathé, who also made Pathé Gazette. Thames Silents was the name given to a series of theatrical screenings and broadcasts of restored silent films with orchestral scores by Carl Davis, produced by Photoplay Productions and Thames Television over 1980-1990.
Source: Richard Carr, ‘From Monmouth to Movies’, World Film and Television Progress vol. 2 no. 5 (August 1937), pp. 12-13
Text: Lyme Regis not Movie-mad says Richard Carr
The cinema is not a vital element in the leisure-time of Lyme Regis people. In this little sea-town, described by Macaulay as a “small knot of steep and narrow alleys, lying on a coast, wild, rocky and beaten by stormy seas,” neither young nor old are movie mad; the cinema seem comparatively unimportant.
* * * *
Lyme was once an important town in the West, a wool and weaving centre and a seaport doing a considerable trade in wines and tobacco. Its industry and commerce made it a stronghold of puritanism. In the Civil War it stood out for Parliament when all the West, save Poole, was held by the Royalists, resisting siege by Prince Maurice of the Rhine for two months. It stood strongly for Protestantism against the “Papists,” for Parliament against Absolutism.
The strength of its opinions were again shown when Monmouth made his bid for the throne of England in the name of the Protestant religion. He landed at Lyme and a large part of the town’s male working population marched out with him. They were marched aimlessly around Somerset until, armed only with scythes and staves and rough swords, they were slaughtered at Sedgemoor or taken to grace the gibbets of the Bloody Assize.
This was the last event of national importance in the history of Lyme. From then on its chronicles tell of decline in its industries. But the people held stubbornly to their opinions and, in a smaller way, went on fighting for them.
Out of centuries of such struggle its people achieved a character and strength of their own. It is written all over the counties of Dorset and Devon, this struggle and its later phase, the struggle against squire and parson is mutely testified by the scores of chapels, around the right to build and to worship in which many a bitter fight waged. And, in the nineteenth century, Dorset gave to trade unionism its most celebrated martyrs.
* * * *
To-day Lyme is a seaside resort, small, and, as such places go, unimportant. Its past gives it and its people a character not to be found at the popular seaside resort: the film of the Monmouth Rebellion, once proposed but banned by authority, could be made in its streets, acted and spoken by its people; and with scarcely a change in clothing would be more eloquent of the subject and the times than most of the expensive costume dramas of the studio. A great deal of the character remains; but its industries have gone. There is now but one important industry: the direct or indirect catering for visitors and summer residents. The town reflects this change in its livelihood-making but slowly; it begins to cater slightly for the visitor. A pin-table amusement saloon has made a nervous appearance on the sea-front, but is regarded with heavy disapproval by the authorities, who, by banning the giving of prizes, have recently struck at the basis of its business. The one cinema in the town is soon to have a “luxury” companion.
Lyme’s one cinema is perched high on the sea wall, and in the winter rough seas swamp over the entrance giving many a patron a soaking. Films have been shown in this building for eight years; before then they were shown in the eighteenth century assembly rooms, now demolished. The present home of the movies was once the Volunteers’ Drill Hall, a name which takes it well back into the nineteenth century. Then it served as a theatre. Underneath the cinema, in the high sea wall, are deep vaults, once Roman baths.
A visit to this cinema is a strange experience to anyone used to London “supers” and their audiences. It seats about three hundred. Its smallness, its setting — the queer old town, the rugged cliffs, and the sea breaking on the rocky shore beneath — make it seem most unreal. The audience too seemed apathetic to the films and certainly not willing to applaud or to praise. It being summer according to the calender [sic], the audience was mixed: the sixpennies — right bang in the front and almost close enough to the screen to take part in the films — and the ninepennies, only a few rows behind, were occupied by local people, mainly young, though here and there a labouring man and his wife, dressed for the visit and clearly uncomfortably conscious of being at the cinema. In the one-and-threes and the balcony were visitors. The mixed nature of the audience made clear-cut impressions difficult.
All these facts, the setting, the smallness of the cinema, the audience, made a hard test for the films. Many of them seemed fantastic in these surroundings. The first, for example, was the magazine-interest film. We were shown how champagne was made, from the field to the table; the latest fashions in women’s clothes, some of the garments costing more apiece than many of these people earned in a twelvemonth; finally two young Americans climbing Monte Blanc, in great danger according to the commentator though this was by no means obvious. As the people of Lyme Regis live all their lives at an angle of forty-five degrees, or so it looks to a stranger, this climbing up and down must have seemed very commonplace. A Secrets of Nature film was next; it seemed to interest the swells greatly, but the front seats hardly at all. It was about seagulls, again hardly a novelty to the locals.
Then the newsreel. This is bad enough when one sees it in London, sandwiched in a long programme, but here its triviality seemed outrageous. It was all Royalty and parades with one of the usual obscure and meaningless motorbike-races-round-the-houses thrown in. It brought nothing of the events pounding the world to pieces, nothing of the happenings and men of our day. Its dullness and uselessness was never so striking as in this place where real, vital news of the outside world could mean so much.
The main feature film in the first half of the week was Men of Yesterday. This film was not well liked on its London showing, being condemned for its sentimentality. It was a film about the efforts of ex-servicemen to promote peace by giving a dinner to ex-servicemen from allied and ex-enemy countries. It had all the faults of this conception and all the features of the ex-servicemen’s appeal and movements. It was overwhelmingly sentimental and, set against the stream of world events, its solution of the war problem seemed astonishingly trivial and foolish.
Yet it made some impression. It had an uncomfortable sincerity; the people were more real than is usual in British films. It was about ex-servicemen and they were very much like ex-servicemen. There were no stars, apart from the almost forgotten Stewart Rome and a short appearance by George Robey. It was obviously liked, though this liking was tempered by the objection to war films which, it seems, is as strong here as elsewhere.
I give these impressions for what they are worth because it is almost impossible to find out what people here like or dislike in films. The box-office does not show it, save in rare cases; the people express few opinions, occasionally one or two will say the film was bad. The first show decides the attendance on the next two evenings; opinions are reported among friends, work-mates and neighbours. The fantastic and far-fetched are not popular. Neither is the educational. Musical films are; Rose Marie was one of this year’s successes. The other was Mutiny on the Bounty, which did great business.
Other films which have done fairly well this year have been: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Strangers on Honeymoon, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Three Maxims, When East Meets West. In so far as attendance provides any sort of guide here, George Arliss has some following, as have the Lynn-Walls team. War films are as unpopular here as elsewhere; educationals are disliked; “near the knuckle” films frowned upon; Westerns and action pictures fairly popular with the men; musicals with the women.
In the summer the cinema gets a great deal of its support from visitors; in the winter it depends on the local people. It is the only form of amusement for winter evenings in this town, but during the winter there is a great deal of unemployment. The money earned in the short summer season has to be eked out over the long winter and visits to the cinema are therefore few and far between for most. Through the winter the cinema does a fair business, but very rarely indeed does it have to turn people away, small though the seating capacity be.
It must be remembered too that the intense interest in pictures, fed by the “fan” magazines, by the press reviews and stories, has little effect here — the number of films that can be seen is limited. With one cinema there is no choice. Film papers are something which the local people do without. The reviews of the films in the Press, even the “current release” reviews are useless to these people, for only a small — and not always the best — part of the releases ever reach them and then only long after the reviews have appeared.
Allowing for all these factors; for the poor selection opportunity, for the smallness of the cinema, for the poverty of the people over the greater part of the year, the comparative unimportance of the movies here is not completely explained.
The truth is that, though it has been in and around Lyme for many years, the cinema has not driven itself into the lives of these people as it has done in the towns. The only leisure-time entertainment for the young in the rough winters it is not a vital part of their lives. Perhaps it is as important to them as it was to most people twenty years ago; a way of passing an evening, a place to go to, a chance to see places, people and events occasionally. They live under conditions that have changed but little in external environment; they are tied to ways of life and of thought much more than are the young in the towns.
It should be emphasised too that there is a community of life and of interest in places like Lyme which is not found in the towns. Chapel-going, the gossiping in the streets and in the neighbour’s house — in the quiet, warm summer evenings the streets are alive with groups of men and women gossiping — and a common dependance [sic] upon summer “lets.” Life in these places is harder, more in contact with natural dangers, more built around the seasons and the tides, more bound up with the past, its thinking and living, and less affected by the new and the novel, than in the urban district.
In any case much of the youth is drawn away to brighter employment prospects in neighbouring towns; those left find their occupation around the parasitical job of providing for visitors. Yet these people have a character and strength that prevents them from ever becoming a race of boarding-house keepers. If they ever get the cinema-going habit, not any film will get by. Circumstances, environment, plus a deeply critical nature, a hatred of artifice and showyness — these factors will prevent the movie which is unreal and false being successful among these people.
Comments: Richard Carr was a film journalist. The Marine cinema at Lyme Regis was built as a drill hall in 1894, and started showing films in the 1920s. It continued showing films into the 1940s but a larger cinema, the Regent, was built in 1937 (it burnt down in 2016). The building continues as the Marine Theatre. The films shown during Carr’s visit were the British feature film Men of Yesterday (1936), directed by John Baxter; one of the 1922-1933 Secrets of Nature documentaries made by British Instructional Films; and a cinemagazine and a newsreel.
Source: D.S. Higgins (ed.), The Private Diaries of Sir Henry Rider Haggard 1914-1925 (London: Cassell, 1980), p. 261
Text:27th July, 1923
This morning I went to Pathé’s to see the cinematograph film which their representative made of me here a week or two ago. It was very good, especially of my poor old spaniel, Jeekie, but as the bright sunlight seemed to turn my hair snow-white, it made me look even older than I am. These cinemas, however, go so fast that it is difficult to take in details. In future generations they will form interesting records of persons of our age, that is if they are kept as Pathé people told me they were. It seems that these photographic interviews go all over the world and are very popular with the masses.
Comments: Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) was a British novelist, who had a strong interest in cinema following the film adaptations of his popular novels such as She and The Lost World. Pathé was as good as its word – the film ‘interview’ with Haggard at his Ditchingham home survives and can be found on its website.