Flickerbook

Source: Leila Berg, Flickerbook (London: Granta Books, 1997), p. 81

Text: Everyone in our street went to Town to see The Jazz Singer. (Not Mrs Taylor. But Louis went.) It spoke! The picture spoke! Everyone was calling to each other in the seats. I was afraid they wouldn’t stop calling when it started. This is the first time ever in the whole world a picture has spoken.

The grown-ups were crying all the time. All the way through. Especially when he sang Mammy, and Kol Nidre. They were crying and wiping their eyes. Everyone thought when he sang Mammy he was singing to them, that they were his mammy, and he was their boy. When they came out, they were saying, ‘A Yiddishe boy, nu!’ as if they were very happy. But they were still crying.

Just one grown-up crying makes you cold inside, because you need them to be happy. But they were crying at the Mammy song and being happy at the same time. I don’t understand it.

Comments: Leila Berg (1917-2012) was a British children’s author, journalist and campaigner. Her innovative memoirs describes her childhood among Manchester’s Jewish community as though the events were live experiences rather than recollections. The Jazz Singer (USA 1927) was the first feature film with spoken dialogue (via synchronised discs) but not the first film of any kind in which words were spken, as many short sound films has preceded it.

Diaries

Source: George Orwell (ed. Peter Davison), Diaries (New York/London: Liveright Publishing Corporation, 2009), p. 150

Text: Ship gives out a cyclostyled sheet of news every day. Movies ocasionally (have not seen them yet).

In Casablanca went to the pictures, & saw films making virtually certain that the French Gov.t expects war. The first a film on the life of a soldier, following up all the different branches & with some very good shots of the inner arrangements of the Maginot line. This film had evidently been hurriedly constructed & went into much greater detail than is normal in films of this kind. The other was the Pathe news gazette, in which the announcer gave what was practically a political speech denouncing Germany. The more shots of British & French troops etc. The significant point was the attitude of the audience – utterly unenthusiastic, hardly a clap, & a few hostile comments.

Comments: George Orwell was the pen name of Eric Blair (1903-1950), British novelist and essayist. He had been convalescing in French Morocco, and was on board a ship in Casablanca dock on the morning of 30 March 1939, preparing to return to Britain, when he wrote this diary note.

The Way of a Transgressor

Source: Negley Farson, The Way of a Transgressor (London: Victor Gollancz, 1936), pp. 328, 569

Text: We saw Marie’s, the most famous brothel in the world, with its staggeringly obscene movie. In those days the star film was a French comedian, à la Charlie Chaplin, seducing a dairymaid in the barnyard. When I saw it again in 1930, on my way back from India, the style had changed. It was now strictly Lesbian and homosexual.

Jack and I both admitted that anything more calculated to take all of the enthusiasm out of a man, than watching that movie in cold blood, could hardly have been devised.

… Eisenstein dined with us several times in our rooms in the Grand Hotel, telling us about his new picture, The General Line. The night we went to its uncensored version for a private showing, I took the daughter of one of the ambassadors with me. She was a girl with a rare sense of humour; but when we saw ourselves watching Eisenstein’s unblushing reproduction of the love story of a bull – from where he first saw an attractive cow, all the way to baby bull – we did not know where to look. It was as hot as some of the movies I had seen down in Marie’s brothel in Marseilles.

But, my God, what a film!

Comments: James Negley Farson (1890-1960) was an American writer and traveller, known in particular for his on-the-spot reporting of the Russian Revolution. In these two passages from his memoirs he describes a Marseilles brothel around 1918, and seeing Eisentein’s Staroye i novoye (The General Line) (USSR 1929) in Moscow. Pornographic films were a common feature of brothels from the earliest years of cinema, but eyewitness accounts of such films are rare.

Youth at the Gate

Illustration from Youth at the Gate

Source: Ursula Bloom, Youth at the Gate (London: Hutchinson, 1959)

Text: On Tuesday, August the fourth, when we were already halfway through the evening programme at the White Palace, Mr. Clements returned and started to talk again. He said that he wanted the national anthems of all countries who would be our allies to be played in a kind of pot-pourri at the end of the evening, ours as the final one.

I did not think it was a good idea. Already innumerable countries were involved, some with very long national anthems, and it would take a time to compose and to play, when all the audience asked was to be allowed to go home.

He looked at me with gaunt dark eyes on either side of a big nose which was like an eagle’s beak He was horribly worried, we knew that because his finger-nails were bitten to the quick (one of his nastier habits) and last week one of the girls had noticed that they were actually bleeding.

Mr. Clements was on the Stock Exchange (the cinema being merely a hobby), and with war coming he saw disaster ahead It is pathetic that at the time I did not realize that his wife had a daughter by a previous marriage to a German, a girl born deaf and dumb, and both of them were in agony lest Olga would be taken from them and put into a detention camp. I had never heard of such a place.

Earlier this evening Brooker the commissionaire had gone. A policeman had come for him, which alone caused some perturbation, but he was an old soldier on the Reserve. We wished him well, and those who could gave him something ‘for luck’, there seemed little time for goodbyes. This had brought the war considerably closer. Brooker, a very ordinary little man, who had never even been particularly brave with the drunks, suddenly glittered into something of a hero.

‘God only knows what’ll happen,’ said Mr. Clements in anxiety. ‘It’ll be the end of the world as we know it. One thing is certain, England’ll never be quite the same again.’

I was contemptuous. I thought he was cowardly, something to be despised in this moment of thrill. If we went to war (and oh, how I hoped we should!), England would rise with a glory never before achieved.

‘Maybe it’ll be nicer than you think?’ I suggested as I wrestled with ‘Poet and Peasant’ on the cottage piano.

‘You’re just a silly little girl! You don’t know a thing about it, and you’d better hold your tongue,’ he snapped, then swept out through the curtains, which at the start had been second-hand, leaving me with a haze of their dust and facing the nastier bits of ‘Poet and Peasant’.

The ‘Pathé Gazette’ flickered across the screen with pictures of the Reserves being called up, to be greeted with violent applause from the twopennies. A destroyer put out from Harwich harbour. A slide told the audience that so far – my tin clock told me it was nine o’clock, just before the ‘big picture’ – Germany had not replied to our ultimatum, and the twopennies booed.

The cinema darkened again, just above me lights played on to the screen, and the tin clock (one-and-sixpence) on the piano top began to tick away the last vital minutes of the old regime. At the dramatic moments of one’s life one does not recognize the tensity of emotional crisis. Sitting there playing for Mary Pickford was just another night in my life. No more.

When the end came I played the national anthems, but the audience did not stay, for they were eager to rush out and hear if we were really at war or not. Not yet. I closed the piano lid, and pushed the borrowed music into a box, for at all costs we had to keep that clean or the shop on Hollywell Hill wouldn’t take it back next Monday. I went through the deserted foyer, up shoddy stairs to where Teddy was waiting with his chocolate tray to get it checked. As nobody else came to do it, he and I achieved this together.

The two girl attendants pulled on coats which hung on a wall hook, the only attempt at a ladies’ room that we had. There was no lavatory of any kind and in emergencies one had to go up to the station which was a considerable way off. Any natural need of this kind was vulgar and could not be mentioned. Mother always said it was better than in the eighties when one was prepared to die rather than admit that nature could no longer contain itself, and some people had died, she vowed.

I went downstairs again into the foyer which advertised next week’s programme in big colourful posters to catch the eye. We should be running Les Miserables, a picture I had selected. Montie was waiting, in the green suit of the era, and with a stick.

‘Have we gone to war?’ I asked.

He didn’t know.

Comments: Ursula Bloom (1892-1984) was a highly-prolific British novelist. In her various memoirs, of which Youth at the Gate is only one, she provides detailed accounts of the time she spent as a pianist at the White Palace cinema in Harpenden, just before the First World War.

Diaries and Letters 1945-1962

Source: Harold Nicolson (ed. Nigel Nicolson), Diaries and Letters 1945-1962 (London: Collins, 1968), pp. 291-292

Text: 14 December, 1955 – I went with Baba, the Douglas Fairbankses and the Walter Moncktons to the first night of Olivier’s Richard III. The Queen was there, radiant in pink and diamonds. OH, I did love the film so! they took John Gielgud by the heels and pushed him head-forward into a butt of Malvoisie; they cut off Hastings’ head on a block; they strangled the young princes; and in the end off they went to Bosworth Fields which, for film-purposes, was situated in the vicinity of Madrid with a distant line of Castilian mountains – not one little bit like Shropshire. But Olivier was superb, really superb, and in the end he is cut to pieces and thrown over the back of a packhorse and carried away a bleeding corpse quite dead. The crown is found under a bush and placed on the head of Henry Tudor. Oh my word, what a film! They off we all went to supper with Douglas Fairbanks. Twenty-one people, including the Oliviers.

Comments: Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) was a British diplomat, politician and diarist. Richard III (UK 1955) is a feature film version of Shakespeare’s play, directed by and starring Laurence Oliver as Richard. It premiered at the Leicester Square Theatre, London on 13 December 1955.