How to Enjoy the Movies

Source: Anon., ‘How to Enjoy the Movies’, Peterborough Examiner, Oct. 12, 1921, p.14

Text: You think you will drop in to the “movies” for a few minutes, and if happens to be the [theatre where] they have those luxurious wicker chairs, you choose a handy one, right near the aisle, and settle back. There is a nasty rain outside, but in here it is nice and warm and comfortable.

Presently a party of young people come in and settle directly behind you. They appear to be a great many of them. They make a loud noise and spend some time selecting seats. After two or three bumps, you sit forward until they are all settled. A cautious look around reveals that there are only four, two of each sex. One of the girls is powdering her nose and the other seems to be looking for something on the floor. She wriggles around, finally locates it, and settles down. Then they begin in earnest. The girls read the titles aloud and make remarks about them in half-whisper. They giggle about every little while and tell all they know about the actors in various pictures. It is a good deal. The vaudeville arrives, and they recognise one of the performers as an old acquaintance who visited the town some years ago. They know a good deal about his private life and tell each other. The young man directly behind you appears to have some difficulty with his knees. Every once in so often he changes their position and makes you get it in the back. He makes no excuse however. You look around. There are no other aisle seats vacant, so you resolve to endure to the bitter end. The young fellow at the farther end is very silent. The girls decide that he has gone to sleep and start to “kid” him. Their voices are louder now, and they giggle at every remark. Suddenly something descends upon your head. You have been contemplating the picture, and it is rather a shock. You are surprised. No excuse is made. Then whispering ensues. Then the young man directly behind proffers some information about the dancer, but is contradicted immediately by the girl next him who says she knows all about that young lady. He subsides into a morose silence, and gives you another vicious jab in the rear with his replaced knee. You shift your chair a little. The girls think they want some place to rest their feet, so turn to two vacant chairs around and in doing so knock your elbow. No excuse is made. They arrange their two pairs of feet on the cushioned chairs, and another era of whispering, giggling, fussing, conversation starts in. The comedy provides some situations which give them a chance to snicker. They do so. The young man re-adjusts his feet once more, and nearly capsizes your chair. No excuse is made. You move a couple of feet, and quiet down a bit. Then the girl says she wants to go and sit beside “Jack,” who is at the farther end, and the other one won’t let her. A slight scuffle ensues. The young men say nothing. You can hear him just behind re-arranging his feet once more, but this time you are out of range, so it doesn’t matter. The feature unrolls its romantic story, and the girls whisper and giggle some more. They are talking about another girl now, and enjoying themselves immensely. Finally the hero embraces the heroine, the young man changes his position for the last time, and you all go home.

Comments: This article appears in a Canadian newspaper, but may originate from another source. My thanks to Robert Clarke for bringing this piece to my attention.

Mr. Wells Reviews a Current Film

Source: H.G. Wells, ‘Mr. Wells Reviews a Current Film: He Takes Issue With This German Conception of What The City of One Hundred Years Hence Will Be Like’, New York Times, 17 April 1927, p. 4

Text: I have recently seen the silliest film.

I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.

And as this film sets out to display the way the world is going, I think The Way the World is Going may very well concern itself with this film.

It is called Metropolis, it comes from the great Ufa studios in Germany, and the public is given to understand that it has been produced at enormous cost.

It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own.

It is a German film and there have been some amazingly good German films, before they began to cultivate bad work under cover of a protective quota. And this film has been adapted to the Anglo-Saxon taste, and quite possibly it has suffered in the process, but even when every allowance has been made for that, there remains enough to convince the intelligent observer that most of its silliness must be fundamental.

Possibly I dislike this soupy whirlpool none the less because I find decaying fragments of my own juvenile work of thirty years ago, The Sleeper Awakes, floating about in it.

Capek’s Robots have been lifted without apology, and that soulless mechanical monster of Mary Shelley’s, who has fathered so many German inventions, breeds once more in this confusion.

Originality there is none. Independent thought, none.

Where nobody has imagined for them the authors have simply fallen back on contemporary things.

The aeroplanes that wander about above the great city show no advance on contemporary types, though all that stuff could have been livened up immensely with a few helicopters and vertical or unexpected movements.

The motor cars are 1926 models or earlier. I do not think there is a single new idea, a single instance of artistic creation or even intelligent anticipation, from first to last in the whole pretentious stew; I may have missed some point of novelty, but I doubt it; and this, though it must bore the intelligent man in the audience, makes the film all the more convenient as a gauge of the circle of ideas, the mentality, from which it has proceeded.

The word Metropolis, says the advertisement in English, ‘is in itself symbolic of greatness’- which only shows us how wise it is to consult a dictionary before making assertions about the meaning of words.

Probably it was the adapter who made that shot. The German ‘Neubabelsburg’ was better, and could have been rendered ‘New Babel’. It is a city, we are told, of ‘about one hundred years hence.’ It is represented as being enormously high; and all the air and happiness are above and the workers live, as the servile toilers in the blue uniform in The Sleeper Awakes lived, down, down, down below.

Now far away in the dear old 1897 it may have been excusable to symbolize social relations in this way, but that was thirty years ago, and a lot of thinking and some experience intervene.

That vertical city of the future we know now is, to put it mildly, highly improbable. Even in New York and Chicago, where the pressure on the central sites is exceptionally great, it is only the central office and entertainment region that soars and excavates. And the same centripetal pressure that leads to the utmost exploitation of site values at the centre leads also to the driving out of industrialism and labour from the population center to cheaper areas, and of residential life to more open and airy surroundings. That was all discussed and written about before 1900. Somewhere about 1930 the geniuses of Ufa studios will come up to a book of Anticipations which was written more than a quarter of a century ago. The British census returns of 1901 proved clearly that city populations were becoming centrifugal, and that every increase in horizontal traffic facilities produced a further distribution. This vertical social stratification is stale old stuff. So far from being ‘a hundred years hence,’ Metropolis, in its forms and shapes, is already, as a possibility, a third of a century out of date.

But its form is the least part of its staleness. This great city is supposed to be evoked by a single dominating personality. The English version calls him John Masterman, so that there may be no mistake about his quality. Very unwisely he has called his son Eric, instead of sticking to good hard John, and so relaxed the strain. He works with an inventor, one Rotwang, and they make machines. There are a certain number of other people, and the ‘sons of the rich’ are seen disporting themselves, with underclad ladies in a sort of joy conservatory, rather like the ‘winter garden’ of an enterprising 1890 hotel during an orgy. The rest of the population is in a state of abject slavery, working in ‘shifts’ of ten hours in some mysteriously divided twenty-four hours, and with no money to spend or property or freedom. The machines make wealth. How, is not stated. We are shown rows of motor cars all exactly alike; but the workers cannot own these, and no ‘sons of the rich’ would. Even the middle classes nowadays want a car with personality. Probably Masterman makes these cars in endless series to amuse himself.

One is asked to believe that these machines are engaged quite furiously in the mass production of nothing that is ever used, and that Masterman grows richer and richer in the process. This is the essential nonsense of it all. Unless the mass of the population has the spending power there is no possibility of wealth in a mechanical civilization. A vast, penniless slave population may be necessary for wealth where there are no mass production machines, but it is preposterous with mass production machines. You find such a real proletariat in China still; it existed in the great cities of the ancient world; but you do not find it in America, which has gone furtherest in the direction of mechanical industry, and there is no grain of reason in supposing it will exist in the future. Masterman’s watchword is ‘Efficiency,’ and you are given to understand it is a very dreadful word, and the contrivers of this idiotic spectacle are so hopelessly ignorant of all the work that has been done upon industrial efficiency that they represent him as working his machine-minders to the point of exhaustion, so that they faint and machines explode and people are scalded to death. You get machine-minders in torment turning levers in response to signals – work that could be done far more effectively by automata. Much stress is laid on the fact that the workers are spiritless, hopeless drudges, working reluctantly and mechanically. But a mechanical civilization has no use for mere drudges; the more efficient its machinery the less need there is for the quasi-mechanical minder. It is the inefficient factory that needs slaves; the ill-organized mine that kills men. The hopeless drudge stage of human labour lies behind us. With a sort of malignant stupidity this film contradicts these facts.

The current tendency of economic life is to oust the mere drudge altogether, to replace much highly skilled manual work by exquisite machinery in skilled hands, and to increase the relative proportion of semi-skilled, moderately versatile and fairly comfortable workers. It may indeed create temporary masses of unemployed, and in The Sleeper Awakes there was a mass of unemployed people under the hatches. That was written in 1897, when the possibility of restraining the growth of large masses of population had scarcely dawned on the world. It was reasonable then to anticipate an embarrassing underworld of under-productive people. We did not know what to do with the abyss. But there is no excuse for that today. And what this film anticipates is not unemployment, but drudge employment, which is precisely what is passing away. Its fabricators have not even realized that the machine ousts the drudge.

‘Efficiency’ means large-scale productions, machinery as fully developed as possible, and high wages. The British Government delegation sent to study success in America has reported unanimously to that effect. The increasingly efficient industrialism of America has so little need of drudges that it has set up the severest barriers against the flooding of the United States by drudge immigration. ‘Ufa’ knows nothing of such facts.

A young woman appears from nowhere in particular to ‘help’ these drudges; she impinges upon Masterman’s son Eric, and they go to the ‘Catacombs,’ which, in spite of the gas mains, steam mains, cables, and drainage, have somehow contrived to get over from Rome, skeletons and all, and burrow under this city of Metropolis. She conducts a sort of Christian worship in these unaccountable caverns, and the drudges love and trust her. With a nice sense of fitness she lights herself about the Catacombs with a torch instead of the electric lamps that are now so common.

That reversion to torches is quite typical of the spirit of this show. Torches are Christian, we are asked to suppose; torches are human. Torches have hearts. But electric hand-lamps are wicked, mechanical, heartless things. The bad, bad inventor uses quite a big one. Mary’s services are unsectarian, rather like afternoon Sunday-school, and in her special catacomb she has not so much an altar as a kind of umbrella-stand full of crosses. The leading idea of her religion seems to be a disapproval of machinery and efficiency. She enforces the great moral lesson that the bolder and stouter human effort becomes, the more spiteful Heaven grows, by reciting the story of Babel. The story of Babel, as we know, is a lesson against ‘Pride.’ It teaches the human soul to grovel. It inculcates the duty of incompetence. The Tower of Babel was built, it seems, by bald-headed men. I said there was no original touch in the film, but this last seems to be a real invention. You see the bald-headed men building Babel. Myriads of them. Why they are bald is inexplicable. It is not even meant to be funny, and it isn’t funny; it is just another touch of silliness. The workers in Metropolis are not to rebel or do anything for themselves, she teaches, because they may rely on the vindictiveness of Heaven.

But Rotwang, the inventor, is making a Robot, apparently without any license from Capek, the original patentee. It is to look and work like a human being, but it is to have no ‘soul.’ It is to be a substitute for drudge labour. Masterman very properly suggests that it should never have a soul, and for the life of me I cannot see why it should. The whole aim of mechanical civilization is to eliminate the drudge and the drudge soul. But this is evidently regarded as very dreadful and impressive by the producers, who are all on the side of soul and love and suchlike. I am surprised they do not pine for souls in the alarm clocks and runabouts. Masterman, still unwilling to leave bad alone, persuades Rotwang to make this Robot in the likeness of Mary, so that it may raise an insurrection among the workers to destroy the machines by which they live, and so learn that it is necessary to work. Rather intricate that, but Masterman, you understand, is a rare devil of a man. Full of pride and efficiency and modernity – all those horrid things.

Then comes the crowning absurdity of the film, the conversion of the Robot into the likeness of Mary. Rotwang, you must understand, occupies a small old house, embedded in the modern city, richly adorned with pentagrams and other reminders of the antiquated German romances out of which its owner has been taken. A quaint smell of Mephistopheles is perceptible for a time. So even at Ufa, Germany can still be dear old magic-loving Germany. Perhaps Germans will never get right away from the Brocken. Walpurgis Night is the name-day of the German poetic imagination, and the national fantasy capers insecurely for ever with a broomstick between its legs. By some no doubt abominable means Rotwang has squeezed a vast and well-equipped modern laboratory into this little house. It is ever so much bigger than the house, but no doubt he has fallen back on Einstein and other modern bedevilments. Mary has to be trapped, put into a machine like a translucent cocktail shaker, and undergo all sorts of pyrotechnic treatment in order that her likeness may be transferred to the Robot. The possibility of Rotwang just simply making a Robot like her, evidently never entered the gifted producer’s head. The Robot is enveloped in wavering haloes, the premises seem to be struck by lightning repeatedly, the contents of a number of flasks and carboys are violently agitated, there are minor explosions and discharges. Rotwang conducts the operations with a manifest lack of assurance, and finally, to his evident relief, the likeness is taken and things calm down. The false Mary then winks darkly at the audience and sails off to raise the workers. And so forth and so on. There is some rather good swishing about in water, after the best film traditions, some violent and unconvincing machine-breaking and rioting and wreckage, and then, rather confusedly, one gathers that Masterman has learnt a lesson, and that workers and employers are now to be reconciled by ‘Love.’

Never for a moment does one believe any of this foolish story; for a moment is there anything amusing or convincing in its dreary series of strained events. It is immensely and strangely dull. It is not even to be laughed at. There is not one good-looking nor sympathetic nor funny personality in the cast; there is, indeed, no scope at all for looking well or acting like a rational creature amid these mindless, imitative absurdities. The film’s air of having something grave and wonderful to say is transparent pretence. It has nothing to do with any social or moral issue before the world or with any that can ever conceivably arise. It is bunkum and poor and thin even as bunkum. I am astonished at the toleration shown it by quite a number of film critics on both sides of the Atlantic. And it costs, says the London Times, six million marks! How they spent all that upon it I cannot imagine. Most of the effects could have been got with models at no great expense.

The pity of it is that this unimaginative, incoherent, sentimentalizing, and make-believe film, wastes some very fine possibilities. My belief in German enterprise has had a shock. I am dismayed by the intellectual laziness it betrays. I thought Germans even at the worst could toil. I thought they had resolved to be industriously modern. It is profoundly interesting to speculate upon the present trend of mechanical inventions and of the reactions of invention upon labour conditions. Instead of plagiarizing from a book thirty years old and resuscitating the banal moralizing of the early Victorian period, it would have been almost as easy, no more costly, and far more interesting to have taken some pains to gather the opinions of a few bright young research students and ambitious, modernizing architects and engineers about the trend of modern invention, and develop these artistically. Any technical school would have been delighted to supply sketches and suggestions for the aviation and transport of A.D. 2027. There are now masses of literature upon the organization of labour for efficiency that could have been boiled down at a very small cost. The question of the development of industrial control, the relation of industrial to political direction, the way all that is going, is of the liveliest current interest. Apparently the people at Ufa did not know of these things and did not want to know about them. They were too dense to see how these things could have been brought into touch with the life of today and made interesting to the man in the street. After the worst traditions of the cinema world, monstrously self-satisfied and self-sufficient, convinced of the power of loud advertisement to put things over with the public, and with no fear of searching criticism in their minds, no consciousness of thought and knowledge beyond their ken, they set to work in their huge studio to produce furlong after furlong of this ignorant, old-fashioned balderdash, and ruin the market for any better film along these lines.

Six million marks! The waste of it!

The theatre when I visited it was crowded. All but the highest-priced seats were full, and the gaps in these filled up reluctantly but completely before the great film began. I suppose every one had come to see what the city of a hundred years hence would be like. I suppose there are multitudes of people to be ‘drawn’ by promising to show them what the city of a hundred years hence will be like. It was, I thought, an unresponsive audience, and I heard no comments. I could not tell from their bearing whether they believed that Metropolis was really a possible forecast or no. I do not know whether they thought that the film was hopelessly silly or the future of mankind hopelessly silly. But it must have been one thing or the other.

Comments: Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) was a British novelist, short story writer, historian and social commentator. He is best known for this works of science fiction, of which When the Sleeper Wakes (1898) is close in theme to Metropolis (Germany 1926), so thoughts of plagiarism may have coloured his attack on Fritz Lang’s film. He presumably saw the film in London. The Way the World is Going was a non-fiction work published by Wells in 1928.

Links: Copy at New York Times archives (subscription site)
Transcription at The Time Machine

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

I Search for Truth in Russia

Source: Sir Walter Citrine, I Search for Truth in Russia (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1937), pp. 238-239

Text: In the evening we went to a cinema to see the film “Three Comrades”. The seating accommodation was hard, but not really uncomfortable. The audience were patient and enjoyed themselves. The film concerned the machinations of certain directors of factories who tried to steal material from one another’s works, in order to fulfil the Plan, and the exposure of a Communist Party secretary who favoured them because of personal gifts. The heroine was a member of the Party whose capacity for invective must have been immense, judging by her volubility and facial expressions. The secretary got his deserts, the directors were discredited, and all ended unhappily. The film broke twice and took some five minutes to patch up, during which the audience stamped and clapped their hands in a manner reminiscent of the early days of the British films.

Comments: Walter Citrine (1887-1983) was a British trade unionist. He was a General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress and president of the International Federation of Trade Unions. He visited the Soviet Union on a number of occasions. This account comes from a diary entry for 11 October 1935 in the city of Kislovodsk. The film he saw was Tri Tovarishcha (USSR 1935), directed by Semyon Timoshenko.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

An Evening at the Cinema

Source: Miss Johnson, ‘An Evening at the Cinema’, St Helena Diocesan Magazine, Vol. XXVIII, no. 350, May 1929, p. 61 (originally published in South African journal The Outspan)

Text: We arrived back at the hotel about 4-30 pm feeling really tired, but as we had reserved seats at the cinema for that evening we simply had to go. We sat upstairs on armchairs with cushions, on one side of the gallery, while the Governor with his party sat on the other. They were all in evening dress! The cinema did not start until the Governor had arrived, which was about 8-30 pm. In the meantime we just looked on at those St. Helena people and wondered if the six little girls who had hovered round since our arrival selling beads were there. They had said they were too poor even to go to the cinema – they had never been to the cinema. So we gave them each six pence for the express purpose of celebrating. Then the St Helena band started, a string band consisting of three players. They had no sooner started to play than the whole audience took up the tune and sung lustily. We’ll never forget, ‘I’m Sitting on Top of the World,’ or ‘I’ll be Loving You Always,’ or ‘Show Me The Way to Go Home.’

Comments: The first film shows on the South Atlantic island of St Helena began in January 1921. This account from a South African tourist could be describing either the Theatre Royal Bioscope or the New Store Theatre, which were adjacent to one other in the Grand Parade area of Jamestown, the island’s capital. Sound films did not come to St Helena until 1940.

Links:
St Helena Island Info – a history of cinema in St Helena

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

Our Eunuch Dreams

Source: Dylan Thomas, ‘Our Eunuch Dreams’, 18 Poems (London: Sunday Referee; Parton Bookshop, 1934)

Text:
I

Our eunuch dreams, all seedless in the light,
Of light and love the tempers of the heart,
Whack their boys’ limbs,
And, winding-footed in their shawl and sheet,
Groom the dark brides, the widows of the night
Fold in their arms.

The shades of girls, all flavoured from their shrouds,
When sunlight goes are sundered from the worm,
The bones of men, the broken in their beds,
By midnight pulleys that unhouse the tomb.

II

In this our age the gunman and his moll
Two one-dimensional ghosts, love on a reel,
Strange to our solid eye,
And speak their midnight nothings as they swell;
When cameras shut they hurry to their hole
down in the yard of day.

They dance between their arclamps and our skull,
Impose their shots, showing the nights away;
We watch the show of shadows kiss or kill
Flavoured of celluloid give love the lie.

III

Which is the world? Of our two sleepings, which
Shall fall awake when cures and their itch
Raise up this red-eyed earth?
Pack off the shapes of daylight and their starch,
The sunny gentlemen, the Welshing rich,
Or drive the night-geared forth.

The photograph is married to the eye,
Grafts on its bride one-sided skins of truth;
The dream has sucked the sleeper of his faith
That shrouded men might marrow as they fly.

IV

This is the world; the lying likeness of
Our strips of stuff that tatter as we move
Loving and being loth;
The dream that kicks the buried from their sack
And lets their trash be honoured as the quick.
This is the world. Have faith.

For we shall be a shouter like the cock,
Blowing the old dead back; our shots shall smack
The image from the plates;
And we shall be fit fellows for a life,
And who remains shall flower as they love,
Praise to our faring hearts.

Comments: Dylan Thomas (1914-1953) was a Welsh poet. ‘Our Eunuch Dreams’ was included in his first published collection of poems, in 1934. He later scripted films for the Ministry of Information. The phrase ‘The Dream That Kicks’ has been used for a book on cinema by Michael Chanan and a 1986 television history of Welsh cinema.

An Island Night’s Entertainment

Illustration accompanying the article in The Ladies’ Mirror

Source: ‘Inbad’, ‘An Island Night’s Entertainment’, The Ladies’ Mirror, 1 May 1925, pp. 59-60

Text: Those who only know the “Movies” in such palatial homes as New Zealand provides may care to hear how we unsophisticated South Sea Islanders keep in touch with the screen world.

As I sit on my front steps watching the star-shadows of the coco-palms lengthen on the green until they fade away as the sun sinks, and the hills take on the wonderful afterglow of the tropics, there comes into my head a verse of Laurence Hope’s which might have been written about this spot:

The daylight is dying. the flying fox is flying,
Amber and amethyst flame in the sky;
See, the sun throws a late, lingering roseate
Kiss to the landscape to bid it goodbye.

The glow on the hills gradually fades until only little clouds high up keep the warm tint; the chatter of hundreds of mynahs in the purau trees dies away as they settle for the night, and gradually the scent of a myriad flowers, unnoticed in the day, steals down the soft breeze and mingles with the smell of wood smoke from the neighbouring village as the evening meal is prepared. Just as I knock the ashes from my pipe preparatory to going indoors to light the lamp and settle to an evening’s reading, a figure comes soft-footed across the lawn and proves to be Johnny Pokia. a native planter who is my nearest neighbour. The white vest and scarlet pareu set off his muscular figure as our bifurcated garments never could, and one wonders anew at the narrow ignorance of the missionaries who introduced and insisted on European clothing.

“Haeremai, Johnnie! Metaké?” and his wonderful teeth flash as he comes up and takes a seat on the steps.

“You goin’ pickshurs to-night?”

I had forgotten that it was picture night, and had looked forward to a quiet evening. Still –

“Good picture you think. John?”

“Yes. Charlie Brown tellin’ me gooood pickshu. Plen-ty fight’n!”

“You going John?”

“I dunno. What you t’ink?”

The troubled look on John’s face is explained. Alas. a lack of the needful has kept others from their heart’s desire ere this!

“All right. I’ll come. Go and get dressed and tell your boy and girl they can come too.”

Johnnie’s gloom vanishes as if by magic. As he turns away and as I rise to go in to change (for I, too. wear vest and pareu in my isolated home). there is a faint distant throbbing in the air which gradually draws nearer and nearer until the headlights of a big lorry appear round a point.

This brings Charlie Brown with the projector and films from his plantation home near Arorangi and the throbbing emanates from a number of his “boys” clustered on the tail of the car who beat a drumming advertisement along the route that this is picture night. Their instruments are crude – an empty kerosene tin, two or three sections of hollowed log. and a bass drum, but the effect is surprising. First a rattling roll on the tin, then the logs take it up, the tin stops and a single drummer beats time on a hollow bamboo. Suddenly the others join in with a crash in marvellous time and the lorry thunders past my wharé to the accompaniment of a rolling, throbbing, reverberating roar that gets into the blood as does no other instrument but the pipes.

As I go in to change I concur with the writer who said that every South Sea native appeared to have swallowed a metronome.

In a few minutes I am ready – island toilets are not elaborate – and there comes a timid knock at the door. It is John’s small girl who brings me a crown of flowers to wear. As this custom is not commercialised here as in the larger islands of Hawaii and Tahiti. it is still a sign of friendship and esteem, so I am proud to wear it. It is composed of the waxen tiaré maori interspersed with the scented pits of pineapple rind and red berries from the “bush,” cut in spirals which dangle down at the sides.

John appears in a smart white duck suit and white canvas shoes and we start off down the sandy road, the kids racing on ahead to ensure good places for themselves.

There is a young moon, just sufficient to silhouette the tall coco-palms that border the road, turning their spreading fronds to studies in black and silver, and as we look up we see ever and anon the flittering shape of “mor kiri-kiri,” the flying fox.

As we come into the village we enter an arch of flamboyant trees. which are now in full bloom. and the road is carpeted with their scarlet flowers. The neat concrete houses bordering the road are almost lost in their bowers of flowering shrubs hibiscus of all colours, roses, tiaré maori, and gardenia grow like weeds in the rich soil. and the houses themselves are half smothered in masses of alamanda and bougainvillea. Gradually the road is filled with natives bound for the picture house. the men in whites or blue denims; the women in flowing “Mother Hubbards” of muslin.

After a walk of nearly a mile we reach the grassy plot beside the tin shed which forms our local picture palace. We are late. but Charlie Brown does not consider the audience sufficiently large yet, so blows several loud blasts on his whistle to warn stragglers that the show is about to commence, and the “band” strikes up anew. Curious to watch the crowd as the stirring rattle gets into their veins – many of them find it too much for them and do little impromptu shuffles as they stand talking in groups. Suddenly there is a burst of laughter and applause as a little man in white vest and dungarees with an enormous hibiscus flower over his ear leaps into the space near the drummers and goes through the knee-bending, wriggling motions of a hula. A barrow laden with fruit pasties and huge slabs of water-melon does a brisk trade with the waiting crowd.

Charlie Brown comes across to pass the time of day, and gives us an inkling of the pictorial treat in store. He looks round, considers that the crowd is now large enough, and blows a long blast on his whistle. The drums die away after a final tattoo and we file in and take our places. The front benches are packed with a mob of chattering kiddies so John and I take our places well to the rear under the projector. Next to me is the charming wife of a neighbouring planter with her daughter who is home from her New Zealand boarding school for the holidays. In front of me is one of the real “old-timers” who came here years ago, before the mast of a wind-jammer and found the island lure too much for him. He has a little store in the village, but knows that there will be no trade while the shows lasts.

The chief picture to-night is a Pearl White serial, “The House of Hate,” and provides enough strenuous action to satisfy even the present audience. Dark Tony Moreno, always a great favourite with the natives, is the hero, and his timely rescues of the fair lady stir the excited crowd to frenzy. When he is embroiled in a “rough house” with the villain’s myrmidons, the audience rises and yells encouragement.

The natives cannot, of course, read the captions. so Charlie Brown keeps up a running fire of explanation. One suspects that he does not keep much to the text. and from the chuckles and roars that greet his witty sallies, and the point-blank refusal of the lady beside me to translate some of his jokes it is to be feared that much of his talk is distinctly Rabelaisian in character.

The episode from the serial draws to an end, and the Impresario announces that there will be a further instalment next week. Follows a short interval in which we go out for a breath of fresh air.

John presents me with a big slice of water melon, which is thirst-quenching and refreshing, and takes the place of the whisky and soda of more civilised lands.

The whistle blows and we once more take our seats. The next film is a mystery picture featuring a man who has invented a cloak which renders the wearer invisible, and is tremendously popular with the crowd, who love anything that savours of “mana-mana!”

There are many thrills in the picture, but they affect the audience in a different way. Instead of the ear-shattering roar which acclaimed the fights, the mysterious vanishments are greeted with long-drawn gasping “A-h-h-s” of excitement. One remembers some of the old fairy tale pictures with their suddenly appearing djinns and melons that become coaches in the twinkling of an eye. What excitement they would create here!

The show comes to an end at last and the crowd disperses chattering like daws about the night’s thrills. The planter’s wife and daughter are offered a lift on the lorry, which passes their home, so we bid them good-night and wander home along the beautiful road. John is busy discussing the picture with friends, so I hurry and overtake the young daughter of my nearest white neighbours, who has been to the show in care of a native lady. The moon has disappeared, but it is a wonderful night of stars and the cool refreshing breeze is grateful after the somewhat close atmosphere we have left.

We discuss “Shakespeare and the musical glasses” until my little home is reached, the lass goes on with her friends and I wait at the gate set in the tall hedge of mock-coffee until John comes up. This is a “dry” island, so we go in and have a couple of glasses of home-brewed orange beer, and my guest takes his leave with many expressions of thanks and as a parting gift insists that I accept the half of a fruit pastie he has bought at the barrow and is taking home to his vahine. She, too, is a “movie fan,” but, alas, the duties devolving upon a newly-arrived piccaninny keep her at home for the present.

I go round to the back of the house to investigate the cause of a rattling noise and find that a big heady-eyed hermit crab has somehow got into my rubbish bucket and cannot get out. The varmint shows no signs of alarm in the ray of my electric torch, but sits up and waves his black glistening claws at me menacingly. I pick him up by his “house” gingerly – no fun to get a nip from his claws, which are capable of breaking a finger – and heave him away towards his home under the purau trees that fringe the beach. The soft lap-lap of ripples on the white coral sand of the lagoon catches my cars. Shall I? The night seems too wonderful for bed. In a few seconds I am on my ‘way to the calm water of the lagoon, a pareu knotted round my middle. The next half hour is spent swimming lazily about or floating in a water so buoyant that it is almost impossible to sink, until I find I am nearly asleep. A run home across the grass, a quick shower under the bathroom tap, and so to bed. As I put out the lamp and turn in, the palms and trees rustle as though the night had turned over in its sleep. and the distant harmonies of a “himene” drift down the village.

So ends another happy island day. Can a man be more than happy?

Comments: The film show described here took pace on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. The racial language used is only typical of its period. The 20-episode serial The House of Hate (USA 1918) starred Pearl White and Antonio Moreno. I have not been able to identify what the mystery film with the invisibility theme might be. My thanks to Carol O’Sullivan for having drawn this article to my attention.

Links: Copy at Paper Past

Journal 1929

Source: Arnold Bennett, Journal 1929 (London: Cassell, 1930), pp. 123-126

Text: London, September. I went by invitation to the “world-première” of an English-written and English-directed talking film, in which Gloria Swanson was the star. The film was apparently made in America. My opinion of Gloria Swanson’s gifts as an actress in silent films is very high indeed. I was bidden for nine o’clock, and at nine o’clock I arrived.

The Street in front of the theatre was crowded with sightseers, some of whom were perched on the tops of lorries used as grandstands. A broad path across the pavement was kept clear by the united efforts of policemen and theatre officials. As I passed between the stalwarts I was the subject of loud remarks from the populace. The big theatre was crowded, except in the best seats round about me, which had been reserved for guests whose names have a publicity value. Many of these empty seats were never occupied during the evening. A silent film was already in progress, and it continued in progress for an hour or so. What qualities it had to recommend itself to my attention I failed to see. However, it did at length finish. Then a gentleman came in front of the curtain and said, inter alia: “Miss Gloria Swanson is in the audience and if you will kindly remain in your seats for one minute after the conclusion of the new film, you will see her.” At these words there was a great noise from the audience — a curious kind of clapping not intended to signify approval. The talking film began. The noise increased. So much so that the film, though it could be seen, could not be heard at all. The film-operator and the audience were equally obstinate for a minute or two. The audience won. Gloria Swanson, who was seated a few rows behind me, stood up in the gangway and bowed. Useless! Half the audience could not see her. The audience grew still more restive. The noise was resentful and imperious. It seemed to say: “She belongs to us. She is ours by right. Show her.”

She left the circle, and was presently seen walking up the central aisle of the floor, well escorted. Then she came before the curtain, obviously in a highly nervous condition, and made a little speech, which was almost inaudible. As soon as she had retired, at least two-thirds of the huge audience on the floor Stood up and hurried from the theatre. They had come to see, not the film, but Gloria Swanson. Having seen her, they departed. Surely rather odd.

The film Started again, to many hundreds of empty seats. I could discover no originality whatever in the film, and no merit except the striking merit of Gloria Swanson’s performance. The story somewhat resembled that of “ East Lynne ”; but it was not as good as “East Lynne”. Crude, tawdry, grossly sentimental, encumbered with stretches of acutely tedious and undramatic dialogue, and rendered ugly by the continuous falsification of the sound of the human voice which mars all talking films, it crawled along from foreseen crisis to foreseen crisis in the most exasperating manner. Its attempts to be noble were merely distressing.

But Gloria Swanson was magnificent in it. She proved that a great star of the silent can be equally great as a star of the talking. She used extreme technical skill, and displayed throughout both real power and real distinction. She even sang. The songs were her one mistake. The film did not demand song, and her singing was amateurish. At the close she appeared once more before the curtain and made another little inaudible speech.

I left the theatre saddened by this spectacle of the waste of a first-rate artist. The space across the pavement was still being kept by policemen and commissionaires. The crowd was larger than before, but order was being maintained. Then suddenly order vanished. The two lines of stalwarts were smashed in an instant, and I was being tossed to and fro in a mass of hysterical women. Gloria Swanson had appeared in the entrance-hall. She fled back. I gave a stalwart one shilling to act as a spear-head for my party through the wild surge. He was not overpaid. In ten seconds we had reached safety. Cries! Shouts! Shrieks! Clapping! Order was restored and Gloria Swanson slipped into the film-star’s immense and luxurious automobile which was waiting for her. What an evening! What a light thrown on the mentality of the film-fan! I restrained my sympathy for Gloria Swanson. She is a queen-empress. She does what she chooses. She is a woman of experience, and she must have known what she was in for.

Comments: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British writer, best known for his novels of life in the Potteries with its ‘five towns’ that now equate with Stoke-on-Trent. The Gloria Swanson film he saw was The Trespasser (USA 1929), directed by Edmund Goulding. It was made in both silent and sound versions.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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.