Let’s Go to the Pictures

Source: Iris Barry, Let’s Go to the Pictures (London: Chatto & Windus, 1926), pp. 165-166

Text: The next handicap the cinema as a whole has is its mutability. A film appears, say in the Charing Cross Road, for three days. One hears about it a day too late. Where can one look for it? There is no means of knowing. Those who know the ropes can, of course, by discovering the name of the company that owns it, ring them up and find out where it is to be seen. But the public doesn’t know that trick, and in any case why should it? Can one imagine for a moment that if Nigel Playfair had put The Beggar’s Opera on for three days at Hammersmith, then moved it to Shepherd’s Bush for another three, then to Euston, then to Whitechapel, and so on, that it would have run for more than a few performances? I feel very strongly about it. When I wanted to see Coster Bill of Paris again (not because it was an adaptation from Anatole France’s Crainquebille) but because Maurice de Feraudy’s acting of the title role was so superb and the trick photography particularly happy) I just missed it at the Super Cinema in Charing Cross Road, and then again in Bayswater. I have never seen it a second time. I probably never shall. I have never seen The Birth of a Nation. I know it is a very old film, but I wish it could be revived for a week. Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness by a happy accident I found about a couple of years late at the St. James’ in Buckingham Palace Road, where it was showing for one Sunday night only. Now all these films were definite landmarks in the artistic development of the cinema: they were as important to the cinema as the production of Back to Methuselah and The Adding Machine were to the modern stage. They were of course all, in a sense, high-brow films; that is to say, they were not stereotyped and they did appeal to a higher mentality than the average film. I am always being told that the cinema is not and never can be high-brow. That is just nonsense (or a misunderstanding of the word high-brow). Charlie Chaplin is very sophisticated, so is Felix the Cat (both of them are popular enough) and I call them distinctly high-brow. Very few of the films that have marked a definite development in cinematography during the past years have been roaring financial successes, except Griffith’s perhaps, but such films have been made and always will be made from time to time. I am simply complaining of the mutability of films which makes it impossible for many of those people who would appreciate the most novel, interesting, original films, ever to see them. It is important, really, that they should see them.

Comments: Iris Barry (1895-1969) was a British film critic and film curator. She was the founder of the film department at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. In the 1920s she wrote on films for The Spectator, Vogue and the Daily Mail. Her book Let’s Go to the Pictures was a work of popular criticism, and helped lay the groundwork for her later work as a film curator. The films she refers to are Crainquebille (France 1922, English title Coster Bill of Paris), Körkarlen (Sweden 1920, English titles Thy Soul Shall Bear Witness and The Phantom Carriage) and The Birth of a Nation (USA 1915).

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