Symbols of Science

Source: John Hall Ingham, ‘The Kinetoscope’, part of ‘Symbols of Science’, Pompeii of the West & other poems, (Philadelphia/London: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1903), pp. 159-160

Text: IV – THE KINETOSCOPE

See how the marble of the Phidian day,
The canvas warmed by Raphael,—embalm
A moment’s action in eternal calm:
This look, this gesture that the human clay
Hath long resigned,—will thus forever stay,
But motionless. Then wonder at this glass,
Wherein a thousand scenes that swiftly pass
Make one scene that will live for us alway.

The hours, days, years sweep on: each minute’s birth
Blends weal and woe, the bitter and the sweet.
Deem not thy own nor yet thy fellow’s worth
Weighed in a single triumph or defeat,—
One deed or one misdeed of sense or soul.
Flash Life’s full cycle forth: judge by the whole!

Comments: John Hall Ingham (1860-1931) was a American poet. The above poem is one part of ‘Symbols of Science’, whose seven sections are devoted to the Telephone, the Phonograph, the Trolley, the Kinetoscope, the Röntgen Ray (i.e. X-rays), Liquid Air and Wireless Telegraphy. It must be one of the first poems devoted to the subject of motion picture films.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Hugging the Shore

Source: John Updike, Hugging the Shore: Essays and Criticism (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1983), p. 843

Text: I went to the movies pretty intensely from about 1938, when I was six years old, to 1954, when I graduated from college. My moviegoing has fallen off since, as my willing suspension of disbelief becomes more and more grudging. Of the many movies I did see in my youth, however, I received an ultimate impression – a moral ideal, we may say – of debonair grace, whether it was Fred Astaire gliding in white tie and tails across a stage of lovelies, or Errol Flynn leading a band of merry men through Sherwood Forest with that little half-smile beneath his mustache, or George Sanders drawling a riposte in his role as the Saint. In my own clumsy way I have tried all my life to be similarly debonair. Also I got an impression of a world where everything works out for the best and even small flaws in character are punished with a hideous rigor. And also, of course, of sex, symbolized by beautiful round-armed women taking baths in champagne or being threatened, in Roman or Biblical contexts, by murder or conversion. When one reads, nowadays, of how much actual sex was being pursued and accomplished by the makers of those movies, their delicately honed symbolizations seem almost hypocrisy – but the message got through, to us adolescents out there, and the eroticization of America is (in large part) a cinematic achievement. The Eros is still there, but I do miss in contemporary movies the debonairness, the what Hemingway called grace under pressure, a certain masculine economy and understatement in the design of those films, now all gone to scatter and rumpus in the fight with television for the lowest denominator.

Comments: John Updike (1932-2009) was an American novelist and critic. This untitled memoir of his cinemagoing was written in August 1979 in reply to a query from George Christy, editor of The Hollywood Reporter Annual, who wanted to know “how Hollywood has influenced you, your work, your artistic vision”.

Old Glory

Source: Jonathan Raban, Old Glory: An American Voyage (London: Collins, 1981), pp. 94-95

Text: I tried the wardrobe, a handsome reproduction piece of pine colonial. The drawers, when I pulled at them, turned out to be doors, and opened on an enormous colour television. I found my weather report. Nothing does so much justice to the gargantuan scale of American life as its national weather maps. In Europe, one is allowed to see the weather only as scraps and fragments: a cake-slice of a depression here; a banded triangle of a ridge of high pressure there. In the United States I was enthralled by the epic sweep of whole weather systems as they rolled across the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic, or coasted down from the Arctic Circle, or swirled up from Mexico and Cuba. The weathermen tapped their maps with sticks. Without betraying the slightest flicker of wonder or concern, they announced that people were being frozen to death in Butte, roasted in Flagstaff and blown off their feet in Tallahassee. Each day they rattled off every conceivable variety of climactic extremity in a blasé drawl. I’d never seen so much weather at once, and was deeply impressed. I shivered vicariously for the Montanans, sweated for the Texans and ran for shelter with the Floridans.

Comments: Jonathan Raban (1942 – ) is a British travel writer and novelists. Old Glory records a journey he takes down the Mississippi River, including this visit to a Minneapolis hotel.

Vaudeville and Motion Picture Shows

Source: William Trufant Foster (with the aid of sixty investigators), Vaudeville and Motion Picture Shows: A study of theaters in Portland, Oregon (Portland, Or.: Reed College, 1914), pp. 52-53

Text: “Picture 1 ‘A Seaside Samaritan.’ Robbers are reformed immediately by kind treatment. Picture of simple and happy home life. Kindness shown to strangers. Wrong-doers are converted too suddenly to be convincing. The right triumphs. Harmless but not helpful.

“Picture 2 ‘Rory O. The Bogs.’ Melodrama. Impossible to follow the story. Effect apparently harmless.” (1)

“Picture 1 ‘The Cross in the Cacti.’ Melodrama. Without moral value. Worst wrong-doer was killed but no evidence that the one who escaped deserv[e]d better treatment. Purely adventure. Comparativ[e]ly harmless.

“Picture 2 ‘Curing the Doctor.’ Melodrama. Harmful morally. Improper ethical standards. Low ideals of love.

“Picture 3 Farce. Cheap, vulgar in parts, probably harmless.

“Picture 4 ‘The Hounded Bride.’ Morbid, unmoral. Would have caused nightmare to me as a child.” (1)

“Picture 1 Saloon scene, drinking.

“Picture 2 Altho not elevating, still not bad.

“Picture 3 Ridiculous in a vulgar way. Without moral value.

“Picture 4 Morbid.” (1)

“I saw nothing morally wrong with any of the pictures. However, I question scenes showing brutality between a father and a mother, also extended death scenes.

“‘Betty’s Nightmare.’ show[e]d the unsatisfactory results of patent medicines and sensational novels. It perhaps dasht a little cold water on some embryo Mary Garden but it left the final impression that there is no place like home.

“Picture 2 Good, the right-doer prospers. Effect somewhat inspiring.” (2)

“Picture 1 Tragedy. Seducer shot. Moral value good. The wrong-doer was punisht.

“Picture 2 Portrays act of stealing. Might instigate theft.

“Picture 3 Farce. Portrays unwholesome scenes. Effect bad.

“Picture 4 Tragedy depicting dual life of a man.

“Singing disgustingly vulgar, coarse and exceedingly flat.” (3)

“The film has no educational value. The villians [sic] are worsted but not in such a manner as to teach the triumph of virtue. For blowing up a bridge to wreck a train, for throwing the hero into the ocean to drown and casting the heroine down an old well to perish they suffer merely a few blows at the hands of the rightfully angry hero.

“The children were intensely interested in the hero and heroine overcoming the obstacles placed in their way by the villains. The film appeal[e]d to their imagination and love of adventure in a harmless way.” (3)

“Picture 1 ‘The Intruder.’ Melodrama. Moral value good if any. True love scenes.

“Picture 2 Farce. Harmless for adults, bad for small boys. It suggests dangerous pranks.

“Picture 3 ‘Cue and Miss-Cue.’ Farce. Man lies to his wife. Much drinking at billiards and at the bar, vulgar hotel scene, unwholesome picture of family life.

“Picture 4 ‘The Female of the Species.’ Melodrama, Moral effect bad. No person worthy of admiration with the possible exception of the gypsy. Shooting and acts of violence. Man unfaithful to both women. The adventure appeals to children but much of it has a demoralizing effect on them.

“Vaudeville stunt of Reuben who told vulgar jokes and sang silly songs.” (3)

“Picture 1 ‘The Return of Helen Redmond.’ Moral value good, possibly, for a melodrama.

“Picture 2 ‘Wild Man from Borneo.’ Apparently not harmful.

“Picture 3 ‘What the Burglar Got.’ Husband lies to wife. His trickiness is made to appear laudable. Effect demoralizing. The cartoons were ill-disguised defences of the use of whiskey and tobacco.” (4)

“Picture 1 ‘A Rattle Snake.’ A disgusting scene of a Mexican harboring the snake and placing it in a bed to be occupied by a child. Other acts of a violent nature.

“Picture 2 Shows beer wagons and violence to persons. No act of immoral nature and very little to appeal to the intellectual. No censorship stated.’ (5)

“There was positiv[e]ly nothing of an educational nature and the finer qualities of chivalry, kindness and love were not shown to advantage. Je[a]lousy, intrigue and violence were generously portray[e]d in three out of four pictures. Only one picture was passed by the National Board. That such subjects should be thus used is most unfortunate. The effect must be morbid ideas and depression.” (6)

“Picture 1 ‘Indian Massacre.’ Shooting and daring riding. About as uplifting as the usual dime novel.

“Picture 2 Villain drinks whiskey. Commits robbery. Meets violent de[a]th. Of poor moral value for children.

“Picture 3 Pleasant fore[ig]n pictures.

“Picture 4 A so-called comedy on the ‘Mannish Old Maid.’ Not a wholesome plot. Promiscuous kissing and other acts not clean.” (7)

“Picture 1. ‘The Adventure of the Alarm Clock.’ Moral value bad. General effect bad. Passed by National Board.

“Picture 2 ‘Desperate Chance.’ Tragedy. Kindness, true love, faithfulness, violence, hanging scene, murder, drunkenness, neglect. Moral value bad until the end. Passed by National Board.

“Picture 3 ‘Iron and Steel.’ Kindness, brutality, fist encounters, de[a]th scene, cowards, cheating, true love, trechery, disobedience, revenge. Bad more than off-sets the good.” (8)

“Picture 1. ‘Too Much Love.’ Immoral. Virtue made source of mirth. General effect bad.” (9)

Comments: William Trufant Foster (1879-1950) was an American educationalist and economist, president of Reed College, Oregon, which published this report into vaudeville and motion picture shows in Portland, aiming to determine their influence upon children. It was conducted with the co-operation of local theatre managers and involved sixty investigators. The report states that fifty-one theatres showing motion pictures were investigated (the number in brackets refer to one of the cinemas). It includes blank versions of the investigators’ forms and a list of all their names. The text above comes from an appendix giving individual comments from the reports received. The films seen include A Seaside Samaritan (USA 1913), Rory o’ the Bogs (USA 1913), The Cross in the Cacti (USA 1914), Curing the Doctor (USA 1913), Betty’s Nightmare (USA 1912), Cue and Mis-cue (USA 1913), The Female of the Species (USA 1912), The Return of Helen Redmond (USA 1914), The Wild Man from Borneo (USA 1914), What the Burglar Got (USA 1914), The Rattlesnake (USA 1913), The Indian Massacre (USA 1912) and The Adventure of the Alarm Clock (USA 1914). The apparent absence of non-American film is noteworthy. The references to singing are to vaudeville acts that were sometimes part of early cinema shows.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Social Influence of the Moving Picture

Source: Rev. H.A. Jump, The Social Influence of the Moving Picture (New York: Playground and Recreation of America, 1911), pp. 3-4. Reprinted from The Playground, June 1911; originally given as a talk to the People’s Institute, Cooper Union, March 12, 1911, New York City

Text: Recently I was conversing with a group of Persians who are employed in my city. Desirous of ascertaining how American life had impressed them, I put this question: “What was the most amazing experience that came to you after your arrival in the United States?” One man answered, “the subway,” another replied, “a black woman,” a third confessed that it was “the moving picture.” And I observed by the nodding of heads among other members of the company that they were saying amen to his verdict. Further inquiries brought out the fact that practically every one of these foreigners had the habit of going to moving picture shows. One man declared, “I like them because they make me forget that I am tired.” Another said, “I like them because I learn so much from them without knowing the English language.” Evidently the motion picture looms large in the experience of the immigrant.

A few weeks ago I visited the public library and had a chat with some three dozen children in the Children’s Room. “How many of you visit the moving picture shows?” I asked, and every hand went up. “What kind of pictures do you like best?” was my second inquiry. “I like the sad pictures,” answered one pale-faced little girl. “I like the kind where they get married,” replied a jolly miss. “I like the pictures of American soldiers marching down the street with the flags going on before,” came from a dark skinned lad. I asked him his name. He answered, “Guiseppi Calderoni.” The librarian of the Children’s Room told of a Hebrew boy who had recently inquired for a story called “The Bride of Lammermoor.” When asked where he had ever heard of that story, he replied, “I saw it in a moving picture show” Before he was through patronizing the library he had read every novel of Sir Walter Scott and much other good fiction besides. Evidently the motion picture occupies a large place in the experience of the school child.

College professors sometimes surprise us by their humanity. One of them told me not long ago that he patronized the moving picture show as often as he could find the time to do so. I expressed surprise, and asked him why he followed up the practice. He answered, “I always find something human in moving pictures; they seem to bring me close to the life of humanity.” Evidently there are educated men who are not above enjoying this marvelous invention.

In short, a new form of entertainment for the people has grown up without our realizing its extent. It appeals to all races, all ages, all stages of culture. In fact, it is one of the most democratic things in modern American life, belonging in a class with the voting booth and the trolley car.

Comments: The Reverend H.A. Jump, of the South Congregational Church, New Britain, Connecticut published the text of a talk he gave in New York City on the new phenomenon of the motion picture show, of which the above are the opening paragraphs. It is a markedly more positive assessment of the effect of motion pictures on audiences, especially the young, than was common from similar social guardians at this time. There had been four film adaptations of Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, some by way of Donizetti’s opera version, by 1911.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Film Finds Its Tongue

Don Juan at the Warner Theatre, via Wikipedia

Source: Fitzhugh Green, The Film Finds Its Tongue (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1929), pp. 11-14

Text: Slowly the theatre filled. Every seat was sold, and occupied. It was a curious, speculative audience, there on unfamiliar grounds, uncertain what it was about to see, or how it should be received. It was prepared more to see a scientific marvel than to be entertained.

The four men were prepared—for anything.

Eight-thirty arrived. The lights dimmed; babble of voices hushed. A white beam shot overhead and splashed upon the screen; the beam from the movie projector. But it fell first on the draped curtains on the stage, revealing a subtitle. The curtains parted on a conventional cinema screen. The title gave way, familiarly, to a photograph … a man … Will H. Hays. He advanced to the foreground and there was a little sound. It penetrated through people’s minds that they had “heard” him clear his throat.

Then, suddenly, the picture began to speak!

The audience hung on its every word, half expecting something to happen … the machinery would break down. In the first trials of every machine there is a good chance that it will break. One lacks confidence in it.

The phenomenon was like watching a man flying without wings. It was uncanny. The shadow of Will H. Hays was true to life. His lips moved and sound came forth. His was a short speech; when it was done and he stood there, people found themselves clapping, unconsciously. As if he heard them, he bowed. He seemed to be present, and yet he did not seem to be present. No wonder a scientist next day called it: “The nearest thing to a resurrection!”

As the picture disappeared a buzz of talk ran through the theatre. Then silence again as the second number appeared: the Philharmonic Orchestra playing the “Tannhauser” overture. Sweet music reached out from the huge invisible horn behind the screen and wrought its spell upon the listeners. It was familiar music, marvellously played. It swept on through the cadences of the overture; the quiet, half-religious opening, the seductive melody of the Venusberg, the crashing finale … and during it the photographs, leaping from one section of the orchestra to another, focusing on busy musicians bent over their instruments.

As the movie image of Henry Hadley turned to his auditors after the last note he “faced” a theatre full of people applauding spontaneously—yet he wasn’t there!

The ice had been broken: the talking picture had now an audience for the first time in three decades.

Throughout the rest of the first half of the program the audience sat breathlessly drinking the novelty in. It found that it liked film that talked. It found it possible to judge such a film; it liked some of the numbers better than others. It found itself fascinated by the intimacy with which the artist was revealed; found itself watching Elman’s fingering, Martinelli’s tone formation; found itself brought closer to those artists than ever before; even found itself, presently, gaining an illusion that the artists themselves were present!

When the lights went up for intermission the audience cheered, then gave way to a concentrated buzz of excitement. History was being made and they were there to see the event, was the way every one felt.

The second half was a conventional screen drama—also with the new talking-picture attachment. But before its stirring plot was done the little group of men who waited received their verdict. The uncontrollable enthusiasm of the audience gave it:

You win!

Comments: Fitzhugh Green was author of a booklet that documents the development of the sound film by the American studio Warner Bros. The event he documents here is the public debut of the Vitaphone talkie film process (film accompanied by synchronised sound disc) on 6 August 1926 at the Warner Theatre, New York. Eight short films shown on the evening followed by the feature film Don Juan (1926), which had a synchronised music score and sound effects but no spoken dialogue. The short films shown were Hon. Will H. Hays, President of the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, Inc., Who Will Address You (the only ‘talkie’ of the evening), Overture “Tannhauser” featuring conductor Henry Hadley and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, violinist Mischa Elman playing “Humoresque” by Antonín Dvorák and “Gavotte” by François-Joseph Gossec, His Pastimes featuring novelty guitarist Roy Smeck, Beethoven’s The Kreutzer Sonata played by Harold Bauer and Efrem Zimbalist, a selection of Russian songs and dances entitled An Evening on the Don, singer Anna Case and Spanish dancers in La Fiesta, and opera singer Giovanni Martinelli singing Vesti La Giubba (the hit of the evening). The four men were the four Warner brothers.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Red, Black, Blond and Olive

Source: Edmund Wilson, Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations – Zuñi, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel (London: W.H. Allen, 1956), pp. 72-73

Text: What draws people down to this vacuum? How do they amuse themselves here?

These vacationists look soft and vapid. You rarely see a really pretty girl, and the men do not give the impression of doing much fishing or swimming. You find them at the movies in the evening. The American ideal of luxury is in Miami carried to lengths that I have never encountered before. At my hotel, I had the annoyance of removing encasements of cellophane from the toilet-seat and the drinking tumbler. In the movie-house, the seats are the kind that swing noiselessly back and forth to let people get in and out, and their cushions melt beneath one like a featherbed. A subdued indirect lighting, like the sweet creamy liquid of an ice-cream soda, bathes a dove-gray and shrimp-pink interior, the walls of which are ornamented with large cameo-like white seashells framing naked mythological figures that seem to have been badly imitated from the bas-reliefs of Paul Manship in Rockefeller Center, and with branching white plaster exfoliations that remind one of the legs and defensive antennae of the crawfish in the Miami aquarium. The film – Oh, You Beautiful Doll – was a technicolor that covered the whole surface of a high and overpowering screen with a routine sentimental romance, trumped up to manufacture glamor from the career of an American song-writer whose songs were widely sung in my college days. They were commonplace enough then, and today they are simply sickly. These attempts on the part of Hollywood to exploit the immediate past – in which the fashions of the eighties and nineties are sometimes confused with those of the twenties – show the precipitous decline of the movies as purveyors of entertainment, since the producers, after wrecking such contemporary talent as their salaries have tempted to Hollywood, have now been obliged to fall back on the favorites, first, second or third rate, of the day before yesterday and yesterday, when it was possible for a producer or an actor, a composer or a dancer, to perfect an art of his own and create for himself a reputation. Yet this product has its steady customers: one finds oneself among them here. Comfortably padded in the muffled atmosphere that seems to smell of scented face-powder – one cannot tell whether the theater has been perfumed or the women are all using the same cosmetics – this inert and featureless drove that have been drifting through the bleached sunny streets now sit watching stereotyped characters that are made to appear impressive by being photographed in very bright colors and gigantically magnified. The three shorts that follow the first showing of the film all happen to deal with animals: a hunting number, an animated cartoon that gets some not ill-deserved laughs, and a picture about racing whippets. The commentator seems slightly embarrassed at the spectacle of the uniformed attendants who have a full-time job grooming the whippets. “You may think they work as hard as the dogs,” he propounds, with his microphone emphasis that gropes through time and space and can never drive any nails. “Well, they work a lot harder!” The truth is that so many Americans, specialized in operating machines or in transacting long-distance business, have deteriorated as animal organisms, that we now have a special pleasure in watching almost any agile animal. What the audience gets out of these animal shorts is the same thing that l have been getting out of looking out the window at the birds and contrasting them with the Miami vacationers.

Comments: Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was an American writer and critic. This account of a film show in Miami occurs at the start of an account of a visit to Haiti in 1949. Oh, You Beautiful Doll (USA 1949) was directed by John M. Stahl and starred June Haver and Mark Stevens. It was a musical based on the life of the composer Fred Fisher.

Brownsville Girl

Source: Bob Dylan and Sam Shepard, ‘Brownsville Girl’, from Knocked Out Loaded (1986), lyrics vis http://bobdylan.com/songs/brownsville-girl

Text: Well, there was this movie I seen one time
About a man riding ’cross the desert and it starred Gregory Peck
He was shot down by a hungry kid trying to make a name for himself
The townspeople wanted to crush that kid down and string him up by the neck

Well, the marshal, now he beat that kid to a bloody pulp
As the dying gunfighter lay in the sun and gasped for his last breath
“Turn him loose, let him go, let him say he outdrew me fair and square
I want him to feel what it’s like to every moment face his death”

Well, I keep seeing this stuff and it just comes a-rolling in
And you know it blows right through me like a ball and chain
You know I can’t believe we’ve lived so long and are still so far apart
The memory of you keeps callin’ after me like a rollin’ train

I can still see the day that you came to me on the painted desert
In your busted down Ford and your platform heels
I could never figure out why you chose that particular place to meet
Ah, but you were right. It was perfect as I got in behind the wheel

Well, we drove that car all night into San Anton’
And we slept near the Alamo, your skin was so tender and soft
Way down in Mexico you went out to find a doctor and you never came back
I would have gone on after you but I didn’t feel like letting my head get blown off

Well, we’re drivin’ this car and the sun is comin’ up over the Rockies
Now I know she ain’t you but she’s here and she’s got that dark rhythm in her soul
But I’m too over the edge and I ain’t in the mood anymore to remember the times
when I was your only man
And she don’t want to remind me. She knows this car would go out of control

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

Well, we crossed the panhandle and then we headed towards Amarillo
We pulled up where Henry Porter used to live. He owned a wreckin’ lot outside of town about a mile
Ruby was in the backyard hanging clothes, she had her red hair tied back. She saw us come rolling up in a trail of dust
She said, “Henry ain’t here but you can come on in, he’ll be back in a little while”

Then she told us how times were tough and about how she was thinkin’ of
bummin’ a ride back to from where she started
But ya know, she changed the subject every time money came up
She said, “Welcome to the land of the living dead”
You could tell she was so broken hearted
She said, “Even the swap meets around here are getting pretty corrupt”

“How far are y’all going?” Ruby asked us with a sigh
“We’re going all the way ’til the wheels fall off and burn
’Til the sun peels the paint and the seat covers fade and the water moccasin dies”
Ruby just smiled and said, “Ah, you know some babies never learn”

Something about that movie though, well I just can’t get it out of my head
But I can’t remember why I was in it or what part I was supposed to play
All I remember about it was Gregory Peck and the way people moved
And a lot of them seemed to be lookin’ my way

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls,
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

Well, they were looking for somebody with a pompadour
I was crossin’ the street when shots rang out
I didn’t know whether to duck or to run, so I ran
“We got him cornered in the churchyard,” I heard somebody shout

Well, you saw my picture in the Corpus Christi Tribune. Underneath it,
it said, “A man with no alibi”
You went out on a limb to testify for me, you said I was with you
Then when I saw you break down in front of the judge and cry real tears
It was the best acting I saw anybody do

Now I’ve always been the kind of person that doesn’t like to trespass
but sometimes you just find yourself over the line
Oh if there’s an original thought out there, I could use it right now
You know, I feel pretty good, but that ain’t sayin’ much. I could feel a whole lot better
If you were just here by my side to show me how

Well, I’m standin’ in line in the rain to see a movie starring Gregory Peck
Yeah, but you know it’s not the one that I had in mind
He’s got a new one out now, I don’t even know what it’s about
But I’ll see him in anything so I’ll stand in line

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

You know, it’s funny how things never turn out the way you had ’em planned
The only thing we knew for sure about Henry Porter is that his name wasn’t Henry Porter
And you know there was somethin’ about you baby that I liked that was always too good for this world
Just like you always said there was somethin’ about me you liked
that I left behind in the French Quarter

Strange how people who suffer together have stronger connections than people who are most content
I don’t have any regrets, they can talk about me plenty when I’m gone
You always said people don’t do what they believe in, they just do what’s most convenient, then they repent
And I always said, “Hang on to me, baby, and let’s hope that the roof stays on”

There was a movie I seen one time, I think I sat through it twice
I don’t remember who I was or where I was bound
All I remember about it was it starred Gregory Peck, he wore a gun
and he was shot in the back
Seems like a long time ago, long before the stars were torn down

Brownsville girl with your Brownsville curls
Teeth like pearls shining like the moon above
Brownsville girl, show me all around the world
Brownsville girl, you’re my honey love

Comments: Bob Dylan (1941 – ) is an American singer and artist, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016. His song ‘Brownsville Girl’ was co-written with the American playwright Sam Shepard (1943-2017). The Gregory Peck film to which the song refers appears not to be any one specific title, though The Gunfighter (1950) is probably the strongest influence.

The Raven

Source: Harris Merton Lyon, extract from ‘The Raven’, in Graphics (St. Louis: William Marion Reedy, 1913), pp. 40-42

Text: “Where yuh going?” said the one brought up as a lady.

“To the movin’ pitcher show. It’s only five cents.

“I aint’ got it just now.”

“Well, go get a nickel from your ma and come along.”

So Alicia went back and got the nickel. Her mother never even asked her what it was for.

A cheap, tinsel edifice, formerly a shoe store. Inside, a pitch dark, low-ceilinged box of a room. Wooden benches. A disgusting smell of multiple-breathed human breath, ammoniac reek of perspiration on the unbathed. A dim red light to the left, indicating a doubtful and rusty exit. In front the dingy screen upon which the mottled and galvanized pictures rippled off the story of some classic sweetheart carried away at dawn by her passionate lover. The heroine threw a riding-cloak over her night dress and was borne down a ladder from the window of a castle. The hero wore doublets, hose, sword, a feather in his hat, spurs. A great iron-grey horse awaited them. They mounted, wheeled and started off. The chase began. Lure! Romance! Adventure! Dare and do! Love! Passion! Lure!

Others followed.

It was all action, feverish action, cut to the very quick and kept there. No explanations were offered, save those which each unskilled brain in the rapt audience could give itself. Men whipped out revolvers, shot each other; women suddenly kissed men; and so on. Act followed act rapidly without leaving time for digestion, even if those who watched had any powers of digesting such miraculous scenes. Thus for three-quarters of an hour the fantastic, dazzling display gave them sensation after sensation; and the gaping crowd, absorbed, forgot them; absorbed new ones, immediately forgot them—craving endlessly more. More bowing, smiling, kissing, shooting, trickery, disguises, thievery, pantomime passion, slapstick comedy, runaways. The grotesque. The ignoble. The dramatic.

Then, with a violent final click the machine stopped. Lights were turned on. The two front doors thrown open. Voices bawled: “Out this way, ladies and gents. This way out!” The show was over.

Comments: Harris Merton Lyon (1882-1916) was an American short story writer. His moralistic short story ‘The Raven’, originally published in a newspaper, centres around a visit to a New York moving picture show and the dangers that ensue for a naive young girl seeing films for the first time (she ends up a victim of White Slavery and commits suicide). Many ‘nickelodeons’ in the early years of cinemagoing were shop conversions, as here.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Picture

Source: Lillian Ross, Picture (Harmonsworth: Penguin, 1962 [orig. pub. 1952]), pp. 151-153

Text: I went in and sat down in the rear. When “The Red Badge of Courage” flashed on the screen, there was a gasp from the audience and a scattering of applause. As the showing went along, some of the preview-goers laughed at the right times, and some laughed at the wrong times, and some did not laugh at all. When John Dierkes, in the part of the Tall Soldier, and Royal Dano, in the part of the Tattered Man, played their death scenes, which had been much admired before, some people laughed and some murmured in horror. The audience at the private showing had been deeply and unanimously moved by the death scenes. There was no unanimity in the audience now. Several elderly ladies walked out. Now and then, there were irrelevant calls from the balcony; one masculine voice, obviously in the process of changing, called out, “Hooray for Red Skelton!” Two or three babies cried. Men posted at the exits counted all departures. I could not see where Huston and Reinhardt were sitting. Across the aisle from me I could see L. B. Mayer, white-haired and bespectacled, sitting with his arms folded, looking fiercely blank-faced. Several M-G-M people nearby were watching him instead of the movie. During a particularly violent battle scene, Mayer turned to a lady sitting on his right and said, “That’s Huston for you.” There was a slight stir in his vicinity, but Mayer said nothing more.

In the lobby, the Picwood manager, assisted by several M-G-M men, stood ready to hand out what are known as preview cards – questionnaires for the audience to fill out. The first question was: “How would you rate this picture?” Five alternatives were offered: “Outstanding,” “Excellent,” “Very Good,” “Good,” and “Fair.” Other questions were: “Whom did you like best in the picture?” “Which scenes did you like most?” “Which scenes, if any, did you dislike?” “Would you recommend this picture to your friends?” Below the questions, there was this addi tional request:

We don’t need to know your name, but we would like to know the following facts about you:

(A) Male
Female

(B) Please check your age group:

Between 12 and 17
Between 18 and 30
Between 31 and 45
Over 45

When the showing ended, the preview-goers milled about in the lobby, filling out the cards under the resentful surveillance of the men who had made the movie. Mayer walked out of the theatre and stood at the curb out front, looking as though he would like to have somebody talk to him. Reinhardt and Huston went into the manager’s office, off the lobby, and sat down to await the verdict. Johnny Green, Margaret Booth, Bronislau Kaper, and Albert Band alternately watched the people filling out cards and Mayer. Most of the other executives had already departed. Benny Thau joined Mayer at the curb. Mayer got into his town-and-country Chrysler, and his chauffeur drove him off. Benny Thau got into a black limousine and his chauffeur drove him off. Band went into the manager’s office. Huston and Reinhardt sat looking glumly at each other.

Did Mayer talk to anybody?” Reinhardt asked.

Band reported that Mayer had talked to Benny Thau.

The manager came in and handed Reinhardt and Huston a batch of preview cards he had collected from the audience. Reinhardt read through them rapidly. Huston read some of the comments aloud. “This would be a wonderful picture on television,” he read. “With all the money in Hollywood, why can’t you make some good pictures?”

Fair. Fair. Good. Fair,” Band read. “Here’s one with Fair crossed out and Stinks substituted.”

“Here’s an Excellent,” Huston said.

“No Outstandings yet,” said Reinhardt. He was perspiring, and he looked grim. “Here’s a Lousy,” he said.

“The audience hated the picture,” Band said.

Comments: Lilian Ross (1981-2017) was an American journalist, famed for her long essays for New Yorker magazine, including the articles subsequently published in book form as Picture. This documents the troubled production and reception of the Civil War feature film The Red Badge of Courage (USA 1951), directed by John Huston and made for MGM studios. The Picwood Theatre in Los Angeles was frequently used for film previews. Lillian Ross died on 20 September 2017.