Indirect Journey

Source: Harold Hobson, Indirect Journey: An Autobiography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), pp. 99-102

Text: I have very dim memories of having seen at least one film before I became lame. This was at a place called the Phoenix Theatre, immediately opposite the Hillsborough barracks. I seem to remember a dove, a wigwam pole, and an inscrutable Red Indian with feathered head-dress, but it is all extremely vague. Certainly the first entertainment I went to in Sheffield after my illness was a film. We accompanied Mrs Sheen and her daughter, who had assured themselves that there was nothing in the film, Kent the Fighting Man, to shock or disturb. It featured the boxer Bombardier Billy Wells, and has made no mark in the history books. I have forgotten even the boxing matches that must have been a prominent part of it, but there still remains with me a sense of wholesome pleasure.

We were very selective in what we saw. From 1915 onwards serials like The Exploits of Elaine and The Perils of Pauline (which featured Pearl White) were shown at our local cinemas. I learned later that these films aroused great enthusiasm among French intellectuals, like André Breton and Louis Aragon, the same Aragon who, fifty years later, was heartbroken and aghast when, in May 1968, the working classes of Paris refused the support of the Communist weekly, Les Lettres Françaises, of which he was the vigorous and sensitive editor. Louis Delluc exclaimed excitedly that when you come out of one of Pearl White’s serials you are filled with an expansive feeling that there is nothing beyond your powers. You become a thing of wings, a veritable god. ‘You want to drive automobiles and fly aeroplanes, race on horseback, dance, skate, swim, dive’, there is no limit to your joyous exhilaration. That may be so, but we in Sheffield had no knowledge of French intellectuals until long after serials had become only a memory of the past. We knew plenty of people who enjoyed serials as much as Delluc, but they by no means belonged to the intellgensia, and my father and mother would as soon have visited one as have gone in a public house. So all these wonders are treasures that I missed.

The Cinema House in the centre of Sheffield, and the Star Picture Palace not far from our home, were held by my parents to be immensely respectable, and I went to both places, which did not show serials, fairly often. They were a source of great pleasure, but few of the films I saw contributed anything to the art of the cinema. They are as completely forgotten by historians as they are by me. I carry with me today little more than a memory of the joy they gave. One of them, Ultus and the Grey Lady, struck us as having a rather sinister title; the name Ultus seemed full of foreboding, and I cannot think why, in these circumstances, we went to see it. Nevertheless, that is what we did, and we enjoyed it, too. There was nothing in it to frighten a mouse. I have never been able to find anything about it, but it was probably directed by George Pearson. At any rate Basil Wright in his book The Long View records that Pearson made another filmed called Ultus, the Man from the Dead; Georges Sadoul also mentions something called Ultus. Beyond that I have discovered nothing.

I have slightly clearer recollections of Herbert Brenon’s aquatic Daughter of the Gods. The star in this was the world-famous swimmer Annette Kellermann. I remember wonderful watery caves and spectacular dives from a great height, and also the breathless whisper of a boy of my acquaintance, ‘Annete Kellermann is completely bare,’ the last word being uttered with awed excitement. There was nothing of this erotic element in the films of the Hepworth Company, whose chief stars were Henry Edwards and Chrissie White, Alma Taylor and Stewart Rome. These I enjoyed better than anything else, certainly better than Daughter of the Gods, which I found rather inhuman in its concentration on athletic feats of swimming, a sport in which I was not much interested. After the introduction of talkies, the Cinema House, in a pathetic effort to carry on the struggle of the silent film, put up a notice, We have an orchestra, and its English, quite English, you know.’ I have always remembered this with a feeling of sadness. The Hepworth films always seemed to me very English, with their quiet lanes, their village maidens, their blacksmiths’ forges and ancient inns, all bathed in mellow sunlight.

Then amidst all this pleasant but rather insipid stuff there suddenly burst on me the stupendous genius of D.W. Griffith – one of the great revelations of my life. Griffith’s Intolerance perhaps did not make on me a more profound or lasting impression than did Martin-Harvey’s Sidney Carton, but for Martin-Harvey I had been prepared, oh so well prepared, by young Gibson, whilst Intolerance took me completely by surprise. It was the coup de tonnerre out of a clear blue sky. There was nothing in the simplicities of Billy Wells or the quiet pastoral landscapes of the Hepworth films to foreshadow the size, the shape, the rhythm and the roar of the car racing to reprieve a condemned man, the blood running in the streets of Paris on St Bartholomew’s Eve, the Crucifixion, and the crashing towers of Babylon, all intercut with each other at an ever accelerating speed. Intolerance gave me a feeling of grandeur I have got nowhere else. Never once during the several times I have seen it did I get the feeling that its tremendous expense in actors (20,000 in a single scene) and sets (that for Babylon was 1500 metres long) was not matched by a conception of justifying importance.

The four stories of man’s intolerance to man which make up the film were not told consecutively, but intercut with each other. This did not baffle me in the least, and I followed the stories quite easily. I even saw their relevance to each other, and appreciated their cross-references. I was astonished to hear some years later that my experience had been by no means general. Most audiences were unable to follow what was going on, and the symbolism of the recurrent image of Lilian [sic] Gish endlessly rocking a cradle (to Griffith a symbol of the things that endure while empires fall) was wildly misunderstood. It was thought that somebody in the film was going to have a baby.

So, commercially, Intolerance was a failure, but to me a tremendous triumph, an exaltation of the mind and spirit and imagination. Little else that Griffith did gave me the same quality of delight. The Birth of a Nation seemed overtly racist; I found the luscious hatred with which Griffith filmed the attempted rape of a white girl by a black man unacceptable. Not much of his later work was important, though the honest, serious, young face of Richard Barthelmess forcing his way through some rich eaves of corn in Way Down East is a memory of some beauty.

Comments: Harold Hobson (1904-1992) was a renowned theatre critic. His childhood was spent in Sheffield. The films he recalls are Kent the Fighting Man (UK 1916 d. A.E. Coleby), The Exploits of Elaine (USA 1914), The Perils of Pauline (USA 1914), Ultus and the Grey Lady (UK 1916 d. George Pearson), Ultus, the Man from the Dead (UK 1915 d. George Pearson), A Daughter of the Gods (USA 1916 d. Herbert Brenon), Intolerance (USA 1916 d. D.W. Griffith), The Birth of a Nation (USA 1915 d. D.W. Griffith) and Way Down East (USA 1920 d. D.W. Griffith). The lameness to which he refers was caused by polio, which afflicted him at the age of seven. The recollection of John Martin Harvey refers to the stage production The Only Way (an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities).

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