Magic Moments

Source: John Sutherland, Magic Moments: Life-Changing Encounters with Books, Films, Music … (London: Profile Books, 2008), pp. 1-2, 5, 8

Text: I could see stories before I could read them. And the first narrative I recall seeing is the film Tarzan’s Desert Mystery. I was around five years old. I’d had my Lacanian moment, in front of my mother’s dressing-table mirror. I knew I was I. Whatever that was.

All that ‘I’ can remember of the narrative of Tarzan’s Desert Mystery – stored haphazardly in the basement level of my sensibility – is a handful of vivid but disconnected snapshots. One such is the pulsing-beeping RKO logo (it carried one back, I now hypothesise, to the womb, and that life-sustaining maternal heartbeat). I had left that foetal haven just sixty months earlier. the only other residue is some scraps from the ten-minute chase scene which the makers of Tarzan’s Desert Mystery tacked on to the end of the movie.

That, alas, is it.

The Colchester Gazettte for that week in 1944 informs me that the film (which ran something under seventy minutes) was shown at the Hippodrome in a double bill with a cowboy film. Whether I sat through that other film, I don’t recall.

The narrative of the Tarzan movie, as I have recently re-experienced it (on DVD, after an interval of six decades), is bizarre …

… What stuck in my five-year-old mind (the only thing that, as it happens, did stick) were deadly sticky Venus flytraps, whose stamens shot up, without warning, nine feet out of the ground, creating a cage with quivering snake bars in which the victim was fatally imprisoned. Cheeta, I vividly recall, escapes by outjumping the deadly stamens. the less nimble Tarzan – Venus flytrapped – is assisted in his escape by his trusty, but bored-looking, pachyderm pals, summoned from their elephant grove by the famous Weissmullerian yell …

Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, as I experienced and archived it in my pinched little tabula rasa, squirming excitedly on my one-and-ninepenny seat, was all man-eating, octopoid vegetables, Triffids avant la lettre. the brain is very strange. I would carry those veggy-killers with me through life. Even now, I never look at fried calamari without thinking of them and somewhere deep inside, shuddering.

I remember where I saw the film film in more concrete detail than the flickering narrative itself. It was at the Hippodrome, in Colchester High Street. More precisely, in the downstairs stalls alongside my mother, who intended the outing as a treat for me. Her own treats at the time were more adult, and involved Americans who were carnal rather than celluloid. She, in her Colcestrian way, was a Venus flytrap.

Comments: John Sutherland (1938 – ) is a British literary critic and newspaper columnist, known for the literary puzzle books Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? His father had died the year before in a wartime accident when he was four. His childhood and early adulthood memoir is told through the books and films that made a vivid impression on him. Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (US 1943) starred the former Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. His chimpanzee companion was called Cheeta.

Candles, Carts & Carbolic

Source: Jim Callaghan, Candles, Carts & Carbolic: A Liverpool Childhood Between the Wars (Lancaster: Palatine Books, 2001), pp. 35-36

Text: The Saturday afternoon visit to the pictures was our one and only treat, twopence in the Balcony, penny in the Pit. Balcony patrons, as befitted their status, queued under a covered walkway, the Pit rabble submitting themselves to the open air. Attired in an ankle-length coat, adorned with brass epaulettes and a gold~braided cap held in place by his ears, Old Soupy-Eyes, armed with a long cane, stands at the top of the steps, guarding the entrance to the Pit, now and then administering a thwack to some youngster attempting to break ranks. Up and down the queue shuffles the Chewing Gum man, ‘Ere y’ar now; he intones, ‘everybody’s doing it, everybody’s chewing it, Wrigley’s spearmint, five sticks a penny,’ his doleful litany drowned in a rousing cheer as the projectionist is seen climbing the iron ladder to his box. Sounds of doors opening reach the ears of the waiting mob. Soupy-Eyes braces himself for the rush but he is swept aside, overwhelmed.

I honestly believe that no generation ever enjoyed the pictures much as we did. Wrapped in the warmth of hundreds of young bodies, the tang of peeling oranges in our nostrils, we sat under the dust-laden beam of the projectionist’s lamp in total darkness and in complete harmony with our idols on the screen. The airless cinema became a place of wonder: no sweet-wrappers rustled, no ice-cream sellers broke the spell; howls of derision greeted the occasional breakdown and when at times the screen appeared to dissolve in flames we knew it was all part of the magic.

Art Accord, William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, Lou Tellegan, J. Farrell McDonald (trapped in the miner’s shack at the head of the canyon and aware that the posse was getting closer: ‘Where was Moses when the light went out? he said, dropping his smouldering corncob into the barrel of dynamite). These were our heroes. Then there was Mary Miles Minter, Nazimova of whom we sang rather a rude song, Louise Fazenda, Polly Moran and once a glimpse of the Divine Sarah Bernhardt, her wooden leg tucked out of sight and the Queen of them all, Pearl White, who had a song written about her:

My little pearl of the army,
Pearl of the picture screen
You’re the Queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a pearl of a girl like you.

Anyway, that’s what it sounded like in 1917.

Comments: Jim Callaghan (1911-2001), one of eleven children, grew up among the working-class, Irish-Catholic neighbourhood of Scottie Road, Liverpool. In adult life he became a personnel officer. My thanks to Jenny Callaghan (his daughter, I believe) for having once recommended this passage from his memoirs on my Bioscope site.

T.V. Talkin' Song

Source: Bob Dylan, ‘T.V. Talkin’ Song’, from Under the Red Sky (1990), lyrics via http://www.bobdylan.com/songs/tv-talkin-song/

Text: One time in London I’d gone out for a walk
Past a place called Hyde Park where people talk
’Bout all kinds of different gods, they have their point of view
To anyone passing by, that’s who they’re talking to

There was someone on a platform talking to the folks
About the T.V. god and all the pain that it invokes
“It’s too bright a light,” he said, “for anybody’s eyes
If you’ve never seen one it’s a blessing in disguise”

I moved in closer, got up on my toes
Two men in front of me were coming to blows
The man was saying something ’bout children when they’re young
Being sacrificed to it while lullabies are being sung

“The news of the day is on all the time
All the latest gossip, all the latest rhyme
Your mind is your temple, keep it beautiful and free
Don’t let an egg get laid in it by something you can’t see”

“Pray for peace!” he said. You could feel it in the crowd
My thoughts began to wander. His voice was ringing loud
“It will destroy your family, your happy home is gone
No one can protect you from it once you turn it on”

“It will lead you into some strange pursuits
Lead you to the land of forbidden fruits
It will scramble up your head and drag your brain about
Sometimes you gotta do like Elvis did and shoot the damn thing out”

“It’s all been designed,” he said, “to make you lose your mind
And when you go back to find it, there’s nothing there to find
Every time you look at it, your situation’s worse
If you feel it grabbing out for you, send for the nurse”

The crowd began to riot and they grabbed hold of the man
There was pushing, there was shoving and everybody ran
The T.V. crew was there to film it, they jumped right over me
Later on that evening, I watched it on T.V.

Comments: Bob Dylan (1941 – ) is an American singer and artist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. The album from which the song comes, Under the Red Sky (generally regarded as one of his weakest) was released in September 1990; prior to that he had last been in London when he played several dates at the Hammersmith Odeon in February 1990.

New York

Source: Paul Morand (trans. Hamish Miles), New York (London: William Heinemann, 1931 [orig. pub. 1930]), pp. 198-199

Text: As for the Roxy, that surpasses the impossible. Find a way through those dense crowds queued up there all day long; pass the tall gold-laced ushers, at once door-keepers and custodians of order; enter this Temple of Solomon. The overheated air is unbreathable, the din of the mechanical orchestra, which one failure in the electricity could bring to a standstill, is merciless; amid palm-trees and gigantic ferns one moves forward into the Mexican palace of some Spanish governor whom the tropics have turned stark mad. The walls are of a reddish rough-cast, treated with a liquid to give a semblance of age, and the brazen doors of the Ark of the Covenant open into a hall with golden cupolas, in old style, and a ceiling with storied panels. Satan has hung this disused sanctuary with scarlet velvet; a nightmare light falls from bowls of imitation alabaster, from yellow glass lanterns, from branching ritual candlesticks; the organ-pipes, lit from beneath by greenish lights, make one think of a cathedral under the waves, and in the wall are niches awaiting sinful bishops. I find a seat in a deep, soft fauteuil, from which for two hours I witness giant kisses on mouths like the crevasses of the Grand Canyon, embraces of titans, a whole propaganda of the flesh which maddens, without satisfying, these violent American temperaments. It is more than a Black Mass; it is a profanation of everything – of music, of art, of love, of colours. I vow I had there a complete vision of the end of the world. I saw Broadway suddenly as one vast Roxy, one of those unsubstantial treasures, one of those joy-baited traps, one of those fleeting and illusory gifts won by the spells of wicked magicians.

Comments: Paul Morand (1888-1976) was a French author and intellectual. He made trips to New York between 1925-1929, resulting in his travel book New York, published in French in 1930. The Roxy Theatre was located at 7th Avenue and 50th Street, off Times Square in New York City. It seated 5,920 (originally 6,200), and opened on 11 March 1927. It was named after its manager, the cinema impresario Samuel L. ‘Roxy’ Rothafel.