The Sense of Touch

senseoftouch

Source: ‘Ole Luke-Oie’ [Ernest Dunlop Swinton], extract from ‘The Sense of Touch’, The Strand Magazine, December 1912, pp. 620-631. Illustrations by John Cameron.

Text: ‘Pon my word, I really don’t know what made me go into the place. I’ve never been keen on cinemas. The ones I went to when they first came out quite choked me off. The jiggling of the pictures pulled my eyes out till they felt like a crab’s, and the potted atmosphere made my head ache. I was strolling along, rather bored with things in general and more than a bit tired, and happened to stop as I passed the doors. It seemed just the ordinary picture palace or electric theatre show – ivory-enamelled portico, neuralgic blaze of flame arc-lights above, and underneath, in coloured incandescents, the words, “Mountains of Fun.”

Fun! Good Lord!

An out-sized and over-uniformed tout, in dirty white gloves and a swagger stick, was strolling backwards and forwards, alternately shouting invitations to see the “continuous performance” and chasing away the recurring clusters of eager-eyed children, whose outward appearance was not suggestive of the possession of the necessary entrance fee. There were highly-coloured posters on every available foot of wall-space – sensational scenes, in which cowboys, revolvers, and assorted deaths predominated – and across them were pasted strips of paper bearing the legend, ” LIFE-REPRO Novelty This Evening.”

I confess that, old as I am, it was that expression which caught me – ” LIFE-REPRO.” It sounded like a new metal polish or an ointment for “swellings on the leg,” but it had the true showman’s ring. I asked the janitor what it meant. Of course he did not know – poor devil! – and only repeated his stock piece: “Splendid new novelty. Now showing. No waiting. Continuous performance. Walk right in.”

I was curious; it was just beginning to rain; and I decided to waste half an hour. No sooner had the metal disc – shot out at me in exchange for sixpence – rattled on to the zinc counter of the ticket-window than the uniformed scoundrel thrust a handbill on me and almost shoved me through a curtained doorway. Quite suddenly I found myself in a dark room, the gloom of which was only accentuated by the picture quivering on a screen about fifty feet away. The change from the glare outside was confusing and the atmosphere smote me, and as I heard the door bang and the curtain being redrawn I felt half inclined to turn round and go out. But while I hesitated, not daring to move until my eyes got acclimatized, someone flashed an electric torch in my eyes, grabbed my ticket, and squeaked, ” Straight along, please,” then switched off the light.

Useful, wasn’t it? I couldn’t see an inch. You know, I’m not very touchy as a rule, but I was getting a bit nettled, and a good deal of my boredom had vanished. I groped my way carefully down what felt like an inclined gangway, now in total darkness, for there was at the moment no picture on the screen, and at once stumbled down a step. A step, mind you, in the centre of a gangway, in a place of entertainment which is usually dark! I naturally threw out my hands to save myself and grabbed what I could. There was a scream, and the film then starting again, I discovered that I was clutching a lady by the hair. The whole thing gave me a jar and threw me into a perspiration – you must remember I was still shaky after my illness. When, as I was apologizing, the same, or another, fool with the torchlight flashed it at my waistcoat and said, “Mind the step,” I’m afraid I told him, as man to man, what I thought of him and the whole beastly show. I was now really annoyed, and showed it. I had no notion there were so many people in the hall until I heard the cries of “Ssshh! ” “Turn him out! ” from all directions.

When I was finally led to a flap-up seat – which I nearly missed, by the way, in the dark – I discovered the reason for the impatience evinced by the audience. I had butted in with my clatter and winged words at the critical moment of a touching scene. To the sound of soft, sad music, all on the black notes, the little incurable cripple child in the tenement house was just being restored to health by watching the remarkably quick growth of the cowslips given to her by the kind-hearted scavenger. Completely as boredom had been banished by the manner of my entrée it quickly returned while I suffered the long-drawn convalescence of ” Little Emmeline.” As soon as this harrowing film was over and the lights were raised I took my chance of looking round.

The hall was very much the usual sort of place – perhaps a bit smaller than most – long and narrow, with a floor sloping down from the back. In front of the screen, which was a very large one, was an enclosed pit containing some artificial palms and tin hydrangeas, a piano and a harmonium, and in the end wall at its right was a small door marked ” Private.” In the side wall on the left near the proscenium place was an exit. The only other means of egress, as far as I could see, was the doorway through which I had entered. Both of these were marked by illuminated glass signs, and on the walls were notices of “No smoking,” “The management beg to thank, those ladies who have so kindly removed their hats,” and advertisement placards – mostly of chocolate. The decorations were too garish for the place to be exactly homely, but it was distinctly commonplace, a contrast to the shambles it became later on. What?

Yes! I daresay you know all about these picture palaces, but I’ve got to give you the points as they appealed to me. I’m not telling you a story, man. I’m simply trying to give you an exact account of what happened. It’s the only way I can do it.

The ventilation was execrable, in spite of the couple of exhaust fans buzzing round overhead, and the air hung stagnant and heavy with traces of stale scent, while wafts of peppermint, aniseed, and eucalyptus occasionally reached me from the seats in front. Tobacco smoke might have increased the density of the atmosphere, but it would have been a welcome cloak to some of the other odours. The place was fairly well filled, the audience consisting largely of women and children of the poorer classes – even babies in arms – just the sort of innocent holiday crowd that awful things always happen to.

By the time I had noticed this much the lights were lowered, and we were treated to a scene of war which converted my boredom into absolute depression. I must describe it to you, because you always will maintain that we are a military nation at heart. By Jove, we are! Even the attendants at this one-horse gaff were wearing uniforms. And the applause with which the jumble of sheer military impossibility and misplaced sentiment presented to us was greeted proves it. The story was called “Only a Bugler Boy.” The first scene represented a small detachment of British soldiers ” At the Front” on ” Active Service” in a savage country. News came in of the “foe.” This was the occasion for a perfect orgy of mouthing, gesticulation, and salutation. How they saluted each other, usually with the wrong hand, without head-covering, and at what speed ! The actors were so keen to convey the military atmosphere that the officers, as often as not, acknowledged a salute before it was given.

Alter much consultation, deep breathing exercise, and making of goo-goo eyes, the long-haired rabbit who was in command selected a position for “defence to the death” so obviously unsuitable and suicidal that he should have been ham-strung at once by his round-shouldered gang of supers. But, no! In striking attitudes they waited to be attacked at immense and quite unnecessary disadvantage by the savage horde. Then, amid noise and smoke, the commander endeavoured to atone for the hopeless situation in which he had placed his luckless men by waving his sword and exposing himself to the enemy’s bullets. I say “atone,” for it would have been the only chance for his detachment if he had been killed, and killed quickly. Well, after some time and many casualties, it occurred to him that it would be as well to do something he should have done at first, and let the nearest friendly force know of his predicament. The diminutive bugler with the clean face and nicely-brushed hair was naturally chosen for this very dangerous mission, which even a grown man would have had a poor chance of carrying out, and after shaking hands all round, well in the open, the little hero started off with his written message.

Then followed a prolonged nightmare of crawling through the bush-studded desert.

Bugler stalled savage foe, and shot several with his revolver. Savage foe stalked bugler and wounded him in both arms and one leg. Finally, after squirming in accentuated and obvious agony for miles, bugler reached the nearest friendly force, staggered up to its commander, thrust his despatch upon him, and swooned in his arms. Occasion for more saluting, deep breathing, and gesticulation, and much keen gazing through field-glasses – notwithstanding the fact that if the beleaguered garrison were in sight the sound of the firing must have been heard long before ! Then a trumpet-call on the harmonium, and away dashed the relief force of mounted men.

Meanwhile we were given a chance of seeing how badly things had been going with the devoted garrison at bay. It was only when they were at their last gasp and cartridge that the relief reached them. With waving of helmets and cheers from the defenders, the first two men of the relieving force hurled themselves over the improvised stockade. You know what they were? I knew what they must be long before they appeared. And it is hardly necessary to specify to which branches of His Majesty’s United Services they belonged. The sorely-wounded but miraculously tough bugler took the stockade in his stride a very good third. He had apparently recovered sufficiently to gallop all the way back with the rescuers – only to faint again, this time in the arms of his own commanding officer. Curtain! “They all love Jack,” an imitation of bagpipes on the harmonium, and “Rule Britannia” from the combined orchestra. As I say, this effort of realism was received with great applause, even by the men present.

As soon as the light went up I had a look at my neighbours. The seats on each side of me were empty, and in the row in front, about a couple of seats to my right, there was one occupant. He was a young fellow of the type of which one sees only too many in our large towns – one of the products of an overdone industrialism. He was round-shouldered and narrow-chested, and his pale thin face suggested hard work carried out in insanitary surroundings and on unwholesome food. His expression was precocious, but the loose mouth showed that its owner was far too unintelligent to be more than feebly and unsuccessfully vicious. He wore a yachting cap well on the back of his head, and on it he sported a plush swallow or eagle – or some other bird – of that virulent but non-committal blue which is neither Oxford nor Cambridge. It was Boat-Race week. He was evidently out for pleasure – poor devil! – and from his incidental remarks, which were all of a quasi-sporting nature, I gathered that he was getting it. I felt sorry for him and sympathized in his entire absorption in the strange scenes passing before his eyes – scenes of excitement and adventure far removed from the monotonous round of his squalid life. How much better an hour of such innocent amusement than time and money wasted in some boozing-ken – eh?

Well, I’m not quite sure what it means myself – some sort of a low drinking-den. But, anyway, that’s what I felt about it. After all, he was a harmless sort of chap, and his unsophisticated enjoyment made me envious. I took an interest in him – thought of giving him a bob or two when I went out. I want you to realize that I had nothing but kindly feelings towards the fellow. He comes in later on – wasn’t so unsuccessful after all.

Then we had one of those interminable scenes of chase in which a horseman flies for life towards you over endless stretches of plain and down the perspective of long vistas of forest, pursued at a discreet distance by other riders, who follow in his exact tracks, even to avoiding the same tree-stumps, all mounted on a breed of horse which does forty-five miles an hour across country and fifty along the hard high road. I forget the cause of the pursuit and its ending, but I know revolvers were used.

The next film was French, and of the snowball type. A man runs down a street. He is at once chased by two policemen, one long and thin and the other fat and bow-legged with an obviously false stomach. The followers very rapidly increase in number to a mixed mob of fifty or more, including nurses with children in perambulators. They go round many corners, and round every corner there happens to be a carefully arranged obstacle which they all fall over in a kicking heap. I remember that soot and whitewash played an important part, also that the wheels of the passing vehicles went round the wrong way.

Owing to the interruption of light, was it? I daresay. Anyway, it was very annoying. Then we had a bit of the supernatural. I’m afraid I didn’t notice what took place, so I’ll spare you a description. I was entirely engrossed with the efforts of the wretched pianist to play tremolo for ten solid minutes. I think it was the ghost melody from “The Corsican Brothers ” that she was struggling with, and the harmonium did not help one bit. The execution got slower and slower and more staccato as her hands grew tired, and at the end I am sure she was jabbing the notes with her aching fingers straight and stiff. Poor girl! What a life!

At about this moment, as far as I remember, a lady came in and took the seat in front of mine. She was a small woman, and was wearing a microscopic bonnet composed of two strings and a sort of crepe muffin. The expression of her face was the most perfect crystallization of peevishness I’ve ever seen, and her hair was screwed up into a tight knob about the size and shape of a large snail-shell. Evidently not well off – probably a charwoman. I caught a glimpse of her gloves as she loosened her bonnet-strings, and the fingertips were like the split buds of a black fuchsia just about to bloom. Shortly after she had taken her seat my friend with the Boat-Race favour suddenly felt hungry, cracked a nut between his teeth, spat out the shell noisily, and ate the kernel with undisguised relish. The lady gathered her mantle round her and sniffed. I was not surprised. The brute continued to crack nuts, eject shells, and chew till he killed all my sympathy for him, till I began to loathe his unhealthy face, and longed for something to strike him dead. This was absolutely the limit, and I should have cleared out had not the words LIFE-REPRO” on the handbill caught my eye. After all it must come to that soon, and I determined to sit the thing out. After one or two more films of a banal nature there was a special interval – called “Intermission” on the screen – and signs were not wanting of the approach of the main event of the show.

Two of the youths had exchanged their electric torches for trays, and perambulated the gangways with cries of “Chuglit— milk chuglit.” A third produced a large garden syringe and proceeded to squirt a fine spray into the air. This hung about in a cloud, and made the room smell like a soap factory. When the curtain bell sounded the curtain was not drawn nor were the lights lowered. A man stepped out of the small door and climbed up on to the narrow ledge in front of the screen, which served as a kind of stage or platform, and much to my disgust made obvious preparation to address the audience. He was a bulky fellow, and his apparent solidity was increased by the cut of his coat. His square chin added to the sense of power conveyed by his build, while a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles gave him an air of seriousness and wisdom. I at once sized him up as a mountebank, and thought I knew what sort of showman’s patter to expect. He did not waste much time before he got busy. Looking slowly all round the room, he fixed my sporting friend with a baleful glare until the latter stopped eating, then cleared his throat and began …

Comments: Ernest Dunlop Swinton (1868-1951) was a British military officer (influential in the development of tanks in the First World War) and a writer, producing fiction under the pseudonym O’le Luk-Oie. The story continues with an announcer promising a natural history film of unsurpassed life-like realism. The film shows a praying mantis and a scorpion which come out of the screen giant-sized and attack the audience, killing those that the narrator disliked before turning on him (see illustration below). In the end it turns out to have been a dream. The description of a cinema show, though sardonic, is filled with useful documentary detail. The garden syringe is a reference to the disinfectant sprays commonly used on cinema audiences at this time.

Links: Copy of the complete story on the Internet Archive

scorpion

The Photoplay

Source: Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (New York/London: D. Appleton and Company, 1916), pp. 215-220

Text: Enthusiasts claim that in the United States ten million people daily are attending picture houses. Sceptics believe that “only” two or three millions form the daily attendance. But in any case “the movies” have become the most popular entertainment of the country, nay, of the world, and their influence is one of the strongest social energies of our time. Signs indicate that this popularity and this influence are increasing from day to day. What are the causes, and what are the effects of this movement which was undreamed of only a short time ago?

The economists are certainly right when they see the chief reason for this crowding of picture houses in the low price of admission. For five or ten cents long hours of thrilling entertainment in the best seats of the house: this is the magnet which must be more powerful than any theater or concert. Yet the rush to the moving pictures is steadily increasing, while the prices climb up. The dime became a quarter, and in the last two seasons ambitious plays were given before audiences who paid the full theater rates. The character of the audiences, too, suggests that inexpensiveness alone cannot be decisive. Six years ago a keen sociological observer characterized the patrons of the picture palaces as “the lower middle class and the massive public, youths and shopgirls between adolescence and maturity, small dealers, pedlars, laborers, charwomen, besides the small quota of children.” This would be hardly a correct description today. This “lower middle class” has long been joined by the upper middle class. To be sure, our observer of that long forgotten past added meekly: “Then there emerges a superior person or two like yourself attracted by mere curiosity and kept in his seat by interest until the very end of the performance; this type sneers aloud to proclaim its superiority and preserve its self-respect, but it never leaves the theater until it must.” Today you and I are seen there quite often, and we find that our friends have been there, that they have given up the sneering pose and talk about the new photoplay as a matter of course.

Above all, even those who are drawn by the cheapness of the performance would hardly push their dimes under the little window so often if they did not really enjoy the plays and were not stirred by a pleasure which holds them for hours. After all, it must be the content of the performances which is decisive of the incomparable triumph. We have no right to conclude from this that only the merits and excellences are the true causes of their success. A caustic critic would probably suggest that just the opposite traits are responsible. He would say that the average American is a mixture of business, ragtime, and sentimentality. He satisfies his business instinct by getting so much for his nickel, he enjoys his ragtime in the slapstick humor, and gratifies his sentimentality with the preposterous melodramas which fill the program. This is quite true, and yet it is not true at all. Success has crowned every effort to improve the photostage; the better the plays are the more the audience approves them. The most ambitious companies are the most flourishing ones. There must be inner values which make the photoplay so extremely attractive and even fascinating.

To a certain degree the mere technical cleverness of the pictures even today holds the interest spellbound as in those early days when nothing but this technical skill could claim the attention. We are still startled by every original effect, even if the mere showing of movement has today lost its impressiveness. Moreover we are captivated by the undeniable beauty of many settings. The melodrama may be cheap; yet it does not disturb the cultured mind as grossly as a similar tragic vulgarity would on the real stage, because it may have the snowfields of Alaska or the palm trees of Florida as radiant background. An intellectual interest, too, finds its satisfaction. We get an insight into spheres which were strange to us. Where outlying regions of human interest are shown on the theater stage, we must usually be satisfied with some standardized suggestion. Here in the moving pictures the play may really bring us to mills and factories, to farms and mines, to courtrooms and hospitals, to castles and palaces in any land on earth.

Yet a stronger power of the photoplay probably lies in its own dramatic qualities. The rhythm of the play is marked by unnatural rapidity. As the words are absent which, in the drama as in life, fill the gaps between the actions, the gestures and deeds themselves can follow one another much more quickly. Happenings which would fill an hour on the stage can hardly fill more than twenty minutes on the screen. This heightens the feeling of vitality in the spectator. He feels as if he were passing through life with a sharper accent which stirs his personal energies. The usual make-up of the photoplay must strengthen this effect inasmuch as the wordlessness of the picture drama favors a certain simplification of the social conflicts. The subtler shades of the motives naturally demand speech. The later plays of Ibsen could hardly be transformed into photoplays. Where words are missing the characters tend to become stereotyped and the motives to be deprived of their complexity. The plot of the photoplay is usually based on the fundamental emotions which are common to all and which are understood by everybody. Love and hate, gratitude and envy, hope and fear, pity and jealousy, repentance and sinfulness, and all the similar crude emotions have been sufficient for the construction of most scenarios. The more mature development of the photoplay will certainly overcome this primitive character, as, while such an effort to reduce human life to simple instincts is very convenient for the photoplay, it is not at all necessary. In any case where this tendency prevails it must help greatly to excite and to intensify the personal feeling of life and to stir the depths of the human mind.

But the richest source of the unique satisfaction in the photoplay is probably that esthetic feeling which is significant for the new art and which we have understood from its psychological conditions. The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us. No wonder that temples for the new goddess are built in every little hamlet.

Comments: Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916) was a German psychologist who was a professor of experimental psychology at Harvard University. His book The Photoplay is considered as the first serious work of film theory and is still highly regarded. The selection above comes from the chapter ‘The Function of the Photoplay’.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

Bioscope & Cinematograph Shows

Source: Report from Police Sergeant George Jordan, Arbour Square station, H Division, The National Archives, MEPO 2/9172 file 590446/5, ‘Bioscope & Cinematograph Shows’, March 11th, 1909

Text: No 12 High Street, Whitechapel has been recently erected. The front has been constructed with a pay box in the centre and a pair of doors each side.

The price of admission is: – Adults 2, Children 1 penny.

The room is about 45 ft deep and 20 ft wide. The machine and films are placed in a fireproof box just inside the entrance and immediately behind the paybox. The sheet on which the pictures are shown being at the far end. The machine is worked by one of the three adult attendants who relieve each other.

There are several rows of “tip-up” seats near the curtain, with ordinary chairs behind occupying two-thirds of the floor space; the remaining portion being for standing room only.

A five foot gangway is arranged at one side of the seats, with an exit door opening outwards half-way down. An electric piano placed near the screen plays continuously. About 250 English and Jewish people were present, including about 100 children.

No 63 Whitechapel Road was formerly a small shop; it has only one ordinary door opening into a room 30 feet deep by 15 feet wide.

Adults are charged one penny and children one halfpenny for admission.

The machine and films are placed in an asbestos box at the far end of the room and worked by an adult operator employed for that purpose. The pictures are shown on a screen attached to the window.

Chairs are provided in rows with a four foot passage way at the side. There was a mixed audience of about 100 persons present, half of whom were children.

An ordinary piano was placed near the window with a notice displayed inviting members of the audience to play; a young girl was playing when I entered. The proprietor’s wife, son age about 20, and a boy were acting as attendants.

No 97 Commercial Road was formerly a small shop with window and side door leading to a passage and to the room in question, which is about 30 feet deep and 15 feet wide.

Adults pay one penny; children one halfpenny for admission.

Forms are placed across the room rising in height at the back to about four feet. There is one central passage between the forms not more than three feet wide.

The audience numbered about 150; about 100 being children from four years upwards; the remainder were young Jews – male and female.

The machine and films are placed in a separate room at the rear. This room is about six feet above the shop level, with a rough “Jacobs” ladder leading to it from the side passage. The machine stands on an iron base about 12 inches above the wooden floor. It has no protecting box and there is a bedstead and table near.

An adult operator is employed at 30/- per week.

A hole has been made in the parting wall and the pictures are exhibited on a screen attached to the shop window …

In all these places of entertainment the audience is mixed together irrespective of age or sex. A series of five or six sets of pictures are shown in quick succession lasting from 30 to 45 minutes. During that time the room is in darkness. The rays from the lantern slightly illuminate the benches near the curtain, but at the opposite end where some of the spectators stand up in order to get a better view, it would be quite easy for acts of misconduct or indecency to take place without fear of detection.

In several cases the only means of exit is by one door, and the gangways are so narrow and inadequate that if an alarm of fire was raised it would be impossible for the younger members of the audience to escape in the rush that would ensue, and there might be loss of life.

Comments: This police report is part of a series of reports from the various Metropolitan Police Divisions conducted in March 1909, driven by concerns of crime, indecency and fire hazards in the small shop-conversions cinemas, or bioscopes, that existed in London at this time. The report covers the Whitechapel district of East London. The Whitechapel Picture Theatre was located as 12 Whitechapel Street and was managed by Charles Robinson. The name of the entertainment at 63 Whitechapel Road is not known but the proprietor was Barnard Cohen. Happy Land was located at 97 Commercial Road, run by Lewis Klein.

Links: National Archives file reference

Bioscope & Cinematograph Shows

Source: Report from Police Sergeant George Jordan, Arbour Square station, H Division, The National Archives, MEPO 2/9172 file 590446/5, ‘Bioscope & Cinematograph Shows’, March 11th, 1909

Text: No 12 High Street, Whitechapel has been recently erected. The front has been constructed with a pay box in the centre and a pair of doors each side.

The price of admission is: – Adults 2, Children 1 penny.

The room is about 45 ft deep and 20 ft wide. The machine and films are placed in a fireproof box just inside the entrance and immediately behind the paybox. The sheet on which the pictures are shown being at the far end. The machine is worked by one of the three adult attendants who relieve each other.

There are several rows of “tip-up” seats near the curtain, with ordinary chairs behind occupying two-thirds of the floor space; the remaining portion being for standing room only.

A five foot gangway is arranged at one side of the seats, with an exit door opening outwards half-way down. An electric piano placed near the screen plays continuously. About 250 English and Jewish people were present, including about 100 children.

No 63 Whitechapel Road was formerly a small shop; it has only one ordinary door opening into a room 30 feet deep by 15 feet wide.

Adults are charged one penny and children one halfpenny for admission.

The machine and films are placed in an asbestos box at the far end of the room and worked by an adult operator employed for that purpose. The pictures are shown on a screen attached to the window.

Chairs are provided in rows with a four foot passage way at the side. There was a mixed audience of about 100 persons present, half of whom were children.

An ordinary piano was placed near the window with a notice displayed inviting members of the audience to play; a young girl was playing when I entered. The proprietor’s wife, son age about 20, and a boy were acting as attendants.

No 97 Commercial Road was formerly a small shop with window and side door leading to a passage and to the room in question, which is about 30 feet deep and 15 feet wide.

Adults pay one penny; children one halfpenny for admission.

Forms are placed across the room rising in height at the back to about four feet. There is one central passage between the forms not more than three feet wide.

The audience numbered about 150; about 100 being children from four years upwards; the remainder were young Jews – male and female.

The machine and films are placed in a separate room at the rear. This room is about six feet above the shop level, with a rough “Jacobs” ladder leading to it from the side passage. The machine stands on an iron base about 12 inches above the wooden floor. It has no protecting box and there is a bedstead and table near.

An adult operator is employed at 30/- per week.

A hole has been made in the parting wall and the pictures are exhibited on a screen attached to the shop window …

In all these places of entertainment the audience is mixed together irrespective of age or sex. A series of five or six sets of pictures are shown in quick succession lasting from 30 to 45 minutes. During that time the room is in darkness. The rays from the lantern slightly illuminate the benches near the curtain, but at the opposite end where some of the spectators stand up in order to get a better view, it would be quite easy for acts of misconduct or indecency to take place without fear of detection.

In several cases the only means of exit is by one door, and the gangways are so narrow and inadequate that if an alarm of fire was raised it would be impossible for the younger members of the audience to escape in the rush that would ensue, and there might be loss of life.

Comments: This police report is part of a series of reports from the various Metropolitan Police Divisions conducted in March 1909, driven by concerns of crime, indecency and fire hazards in the small shop-conversions cinemas, or bioscopes, that existed in London at this time. The report covers the Whitechapel district of East London. The Whitechapel Picture Theatre was located as 12 Whitechapel Street and was managed by Charles Robinson. The name of the entertainment at 63 Whitechapel Road is not known but the proprietor was Barnard Cohen. Happy Land was located at 97 Commercial Road, run by Lewis Klein.

Links: National Archives file reference

The Secret City

Source: Hugh Walpole, The Secret City (London: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 61-64

Text: We had arrived. The cinema door blazed with light, and around it was gathered a group of soldiers and women and children, peering in at a soldiers’ band, which, placed on benches in a corner of the room, played away for its very life. Outside, around the door were large bills announcing “The Woman without a Soul, Drama in four parts,” and there were fine pictures of women falling over precipices, men shot in bedrooms, and parties in which all the guests shrank back in extreme horror from the heroine. We went inside and were overwhelmed by the band, so that we could not hear one another speak. The floor was covered with sunflower seeds, and there was a strong smell of soldiers’ boots and bad cigarettes and urine. We bought tickets from an old Jewess behind the pigeon-hole and then, pushing the curtain aside, stumbled into darkness. Here the smell was different, being, quite simply that of human flesh not very carefully washed. Although, as we stumbled to some seats at the back, we could feel that we were alone, it had the impression that multitudes of people pressed in upon us, and when the lights did go up we found that the little hall was indeed packed to its extremest limit.

No one could have denied that it was a cheerful scene. Soldiers, sailors, peasants, women, and children crowded together upon the narrow benches. There was a great consumption of sunflower seeds, and the narrow passage down the middle of the room was littered with fragments. Two stout and elaborate policemen leaned against the wall surveying the public with a friendly if superior air. There was a tremendous amount of noise. Mingled with the strains of the band beyond the curtain were cries and calls and loud roars of laughter. The soldiers embraced the girls, and the children, their fingers in their mouths, wandered from bench to bench, and a mangy dog begged wherever he thought that he saw a kindly face. All the faces were kindly – kindly, ignorant, and astoundingly young. As I felt that youth I felt also separation; I and my like could emphasise as we pleased the goodness, docility, mysticism even of these people, but we were walking in a country of darkness. I caught a laugh, the glance of some women, the voice of a young soldier – I felt behind us, watching us, the thick heavy figure of Rasputin. I smelt the eastern scent of the sunflower seeds, I looked back and glanced at the impenetrable superiority of the two policemen, and I laughed at myself for the knowledge that I thought I had, for the security upon which I thought that I rested, for the familiarity with which I had fancied I could approach my neighbours… I was not wise, I was not secure, I had no claim to familiarity…

The lights were down and we were shown pictures of Paris. Because the cinema was a little one and the prices small the films were faded and torn, so that the Opera and the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre and the Seine danced and wriggled and broke before our eyes. They looked strange enough to us and only accented our isolation and the odd semi-civilisation in which we were living. There were comments all around the room in exactly the spirit of children before a conjurer at a party… The smell grew steadily stronger and stronger… my head swam a little and I seemed to see Rasputin, swelling in his black robe, catching us all into its folds, sweeping us up into the starlight sky. We were under the flare of the light again. I caught Bohun’s happy eyes; he was talking eagerly to Vera Michailovna, not removing his eyes from her face. She had conquered him; I fancied as I looked at her that her thoughts were elsewhere.

There followed a Vaudeville entertainment. A woman and a man in peasants’ dress came and laughed raucously, without meaning, their eyes narrowly searching the depths of the house, then they stamped their feet and whirled around, struck one another, laughed again, and vanished.

The applause was half-hearted. Then there was a trainer of dogs, a black-eyed Tartar with four very miserable little fox-terriers, who shivered and trembled and jumped reluctantly through hoops. The audience liked this, and cried and shouted and threw paper pellets at the dogs. A stout perspiring Jew in a shabby evening suit came forward and begged for decorum. Then there appeared a stout little man in a top hat who wished to recite verses of, I gathered, a violent indecency. I was uncomfortable about Vera Michailovna, but I need not have been. The indecency was of no importance to her, and she was interested in the human tragedy of the performer. Tragedy it was. The man was hungry and dirty and not far from tears. He forgot his verses and glanced nervously into the wings as though he expected to be beaten publicly by the perspiring Jew.

He stammered; his mouth wobbled; he covered it with a dirty hand. He could not continue.

The audience was sympathetic. They listened in encouraging silence; then they clapped; then they shouted friendly words to him. You could feel throughout the room an intense desire that he should succeed. He responded a little to the encouragement, but could not remember his verses. He struggled, struggled, did a hurried little breakdown dance, bowed and vanished into the wings, to be beaten, I have no doubt, by the Jewish gentleman. We watched a little of the “Drama of the Woman without a Soul,” but the sense of being in a large vat filled with boiling human flesh into whose depths we were pressed ever more and more deeply was at last too much for us, and we stumbled our way into the open air. The black shadow of the barge, the jagged outline of the huddled buildings against the sky, the black tower at the end of the canal, all these swam in the crystal air.

Comment: Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) was a prolific British novelist, best known for Rogue Herries and its follow-up novels. He spent much of the First World War in Russia, working for for the Red Cross and then as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau, based in Petrograd. His novel The Secret City draws on these experiences. Ekateringofsky canal is in Petrograd/St Petersburg. Though there were British and American films made in 1915 called The Woman Without a Soul the film described is probably Walpole’s invention. Ellipses are in the original text.

Links: Copy on the Internet Archive

The Secret City

Source: Hugh Walpole, The Secret City (London: Macmillan, 1919), pp. 61-64

Text: We had arrived. The cinema door blazed with light, and around it was gathered a group of soldiers and women and children, peering in at a soldiers’ band, which, placed on benches in a corner of the room, played away for its very life. Outside, around the door were large bills announcing “The Woman without a Soul, Drama in four parts,” and there were fine pictures of women falling over precipices, men shot in bedrooms, and parties in which all the guests shrank back in extreme horror from the heroine. We went inside and were overwhelmed by the band, so that we could not hear one another speak. The floor was covered with sunflower seeds, and there was a strong smell of soldiers’ boots and bad cigarettes and urine. We bought tickets from an old Jewess behind the pigeon-hole and then, pushing the curtain aside, stumbled into darkness. Here the smell was different, being, quite simply that of human flesh not very carefully washed. Although, as we stumbled to some seats at the back, we could feel that we were alone, it had the impression that multitudes of people pressed in upon us, and when the lights did go up we found that the little hall was indeed packed to its extremest limit.

No one could have denied that it was a cheerful scene. Soldiers, sailors, peasants, women, and children crowded together upon the narrow benches. There was a great consumption of sunflower seeds, and the narrow passage down the middle of the room was littered with fragments. Two stout and elaborate policemen leaned against the wall surveying the public with a friendly if superior air. There was a tremendous amount of noise. Mingled with the strains of the band beyond the curtain were cries and calls and loud roars of laughter. The soldiers embraced the girls, and the children, their fingers in their mouths, wandered from bench to bench, and a mangy dog begged wherever he thought that he saw a kindly face. All the faces were kindly – kindly, ignorant, and astoundingly young. As I felt that youth I felt also separation; I and my like could emphasise as we pleased the goodness, docility, mysticism even of these people, but we were walking in a country of darkness. I caught a laugh, the glance of some women, the voice of a young soldier – I felt behind us, watching us, the thick heavy figure of Rasputin. I smelt the eastern scent of the sunflower seeds, I looked back and glanced at the impenetrable superiority of the two policemen, and I laughed at myself for the knowledge that I thought I had, for the security upon which I thought that I rested, for the familiarity with which I had fancied I could approach my neighbours… I was not wise, I was not secure, I had no claim to familiarity…

The lights were down and we were shown pictures of Paris. Because the cinema was a little one and the prices small the films were faded and torn, so that the Opera and the Place de la Concorde and the Louvre and the Seine danced and wriggled and broke before our eyes. They looked strange enough to us and only accented our isolation and the odd semi-civilisation in which we were living. There were comments all around the room in exactly the spirit of children before a conjurer at a party… The smell grew steadily stronger and stronger… my head swam a little and I seemed to see Rasputin, swelling in his black robe, catching us all into its folds, sweeping us up into the starlight sky. We were under the flare of the light again. I caught Bohun’s happy eyes; he was talking eagerly to Vera Michailovna, not removing his eyes from her face. She had conquered him; I fancied as I looked at her that her thoughts were elsewhere.

There followed a Vaudeville entertainment. A woman and a man in peasants’ dress came and laughed raucously, without meaning, their eyes narrowly searching the depths of the house, then they stamped their feet and whirled around, struck one another, laughed again, and vanished.

The applause was half-hearted. Then there was a trainer of dogs, a black-eyed Tartar with four very miserable little fox-terriers, who shivered and trembled and jumped reluctantly through hoops. The audience liked this, and cried and shouted and threw paper pellets at the dogs. A stout perspiring Jew in a shabby evening suit came forward and begged for decorum. Then there appeared a stout little man in a top hat who wished to recite verses of, I gathered, a violent indecency. I was uncomfortable about Vera Michailovna, but I need not have been. The indecency was of no importance to her, and she was interested in the human tragedy of the performer. Tragedy it was. The man was hungry and dirty and not far from tears. He forgot his verses and glanced nervously into the wings as though he expected to be beaten publicly by the perspiring Jew.

He stammered; his mouth wobbled; he covered it with a dirty hand. He could not continue.

The audience was sympathetic. They listened in encouraging silence; then they clapped; then they shouted friendly words to him. You could feel throughout the room an intense desire that he should succeed. He responded a little to the encouragement, but could not remember his verses. He struggled, struggled, did a hurried little breakdown dance, bowed and vanished into the wings, to be beaten, I have no doubt, by the Jewish gentleman. We watched a little of the “Drama of the Woman without a Soul,” but the sense of being in a large vat filled with boiling human flesh into whose depths we were pressed ever more and more deeply was at last too much for us, and we stumbled our way into the open air. The black shadow of the barge, the jagged outline of the huddled buildings against the sky, the black tower at the end of the canal, all these swam in the crystal air.

Comment: Hugh Walpole (1884-1941) was a prolific British novelist, best known for Rogue Herries and its follow-up novels. He spent much of the First World War in Russia, working for for the Red Cross and then as head of the Anglo-Russian Propaganda Bureau, based in Petrograd. His novel The Secret City draws on these experiences. Ekateringofsky canal is in Petrograd/St Petersburg. Though there were British and American films made in 1915 called The Woman Without a Soul the film described is probably Walpole’s invention. Ellipses are in the original text.

Links: Copy on the Internet Archive

The Price of Love

Source: Arnold Bennett, The Price of Love (New York/London: Harper Brothers, 1914), pp. 171-178

Text: It was not surprising that Rachel, who never in her life had beheld at close quarters any of the phenomena of luxury, should blink her ingenuous eyes at the blinding splendour of the antechambers of the Imperial Cinema de Luxe. Eyes less ingenuous than hers had blinked before that prodigious dazzlement. Even Louis, a man of vast experience and sublime imperturbability, visiting the Imperial on its opening night, had allowed the significant words to escape him, “Well, I’m blest!” – proof enough of the triumph of the Imperial!

The Imperial had set out to be the most gorgeous cinema in the Five Towns; and it simply was. Its advertisements read: “There is always room at the top.” There was. Over the ceiling of its foyer enormous crimson peonies expanded like tropic blooms, and the heart of each peony was a sixteen-candle-power electric lamp. No other two cinemas in the Five Towns, it was reported, consumed together as much current as the Imperial de Luxe; and nobody could deny that the degree of excellence of a cinema is finally settled by its consumption of electricity.

Rachel now understood better the symbolic meaning of the glare in the sky caused at night by the determination of the Imperial to make itself known. She had been brought up to believe that, gas being dear, no opportunity should be lost of turning a jet down, and that electricity was so dear as to be inconceivable in any house not inhabited by crass spendthrift folly. She now saw electricity scattered about as though it were as cheap as salt. She saw written in electric fire across the inner entrance the beautiful sentiment, “Our aim is to please YOU.” The “you” had two lines of fire under it. She saw, also, the polite nod of the official, dressed not less glitteringly than an Admiral of the Fleet in full uniform, whose sole duty in life was to welcome and reassure the visitor. All this in Bursley, which even by Knype was deemed an out-of-the-world spot and home of sordid decay! In Hanbridge she would have been less surprised to discover such marvels, because the flaunting modernity of Hanbridge was notorious. And her astonishment would have been milder had she had been in the habit of going out at night. Like all those who never went out at night, she had quite failed to keep pace with the advancing stride of the Five Towns on the great road of civilization.

More impressive still than the extreme radiance about her was the easy and superb gesture of Louis as, swinging the reticule containing pineapple, cocoa, and cutlets, he slid his hand into his pocket and drew therefrom a coin and smacked it on the wooden ledge of the ticket-window – gesture of a man to whom money was naught provided he got the best of everything. “Two!” he repeated, with slight impatience, bending down so as to see the young woman in white who sat in another world behind gilt bars. He was paying for Rachel! Exquisite experience for the daughter and sister of Fleckrings! Experience unique in her career! And it seemed so right and yet so wondrous, that he should pay for her!… He picked up the change, and without a glance at them dropped the coins into his pocket. It was a glorious thing to be a man! But was it not even more glorious to be a girl and the object of his princely care?… They passed a heavy draped curtain, on which was a large card, “Tea-Room,” and there seemed to be celestial social possibilities behind that curtain, though indeed it bore another and smaller card: “Closed after six o’clock” – the result of excessive caution on the part of a kill-joy Town Council. A boy in the likeness of a midshipman took halves of the curving tickets and dropped them into a tin box, and then next Rachel was in a sudden black darkness, studded here and there with minute glowing rubies that revealed the legend: “Exit. Exit. Exit.”

Row after row of dim, pale, intent faces became gradually visible, stretching far back-into complete obscurity; thousands, tens of thousands of faces, it seemed – for the Imperial de Luxe was demonstrating that Saturday night its claim to be “the fashionable rage of Bursley.” Then mysterious laughter rippled in the gloom, and loud guffaws shot up out of the rippling. Rachel saw nothing whatever to originate this mirth until an attendant in black with a tiny white apron loomed upon them out of the darkness, and, beckoning them forward, bent down, and indicated two empty places at the end of a row, and the great white scintillating screen of the cinema came into view. Instead of being at the extremity it was at the beginning of the auditorium. And as Rachel took her seat she saw on the screen – which was scarcely a dozen feet away – a man kneeling at the end of a canal-lock, and sucking up the water of the canal through a hose-pipe; and this astoundingly thirsty man drank with such rapidity that the water, with huge boats floating on it, subsided at the rate of about a foot a second, and the drinker waxed enormously in girth. The laughter grew uproarious. Rachel herself gave a quick, uncontrolled, joyous laugh, and it was as if the laugh had been drawn out of her violently unawares. Louis Fores also laughed very heartily.

“Cute idea, that!” he whispered.

When the film was cut off Rachel wanted to take back her laugh. She felt a little ashamed of having laughed at anything so silly.

“How absurd!” she murmured, trying to be serious.

Nevertheless she was in bliss. She surrendered herself to the joy of life, as to a new sensation. She was intoxicated, ravished, bewildered, and quite careless. Perhaps for the first time in her adult existence she lived without reserve or preoccupation completely in and for the moment. Moreover the hearty laughter of Louis Fores helped to restore her dignity. If the spectacle was good enough for him, with all his knowledge of the world, to laugh at, she need not blush for its effect on herself. And in another ten seconds, when the swollen man, staggering along a wide thoroughfare, was run down by an automobile and squashed flat, while streams of water inundated the roadway, she burst again into free laughter, and then looked round at Louis, who at the same instant looked round at her, and they exchanged an intimate smiling glance. It seemed to Rachel that they were alone and solitary in the crowded interior, and that they shared exactly the same tastes and emotions and comprehended one another profoundly and utterly; her confidence in him, at that instant, was absolute, and enchanting to her. Half a minute later the emaciated man was in a room and being ecstatically kissed by a most beautiful and sweetly shameless girl in a striped shirtwaist; it was a very small room, and the furniture was close upon the couple, giving the scene an air of delightful privacy. And then the scene was blotted out and gay music rose lilting from some unseen cave in front of the screen.

Rachel was rapturously happy. Gazing along the dim rows, she descried many young couples, without recognizing anybody at all, and most of these couples were absorbed in each other, and some of the girls seemed so elegant and alluring in the dusk of the theatre, and some of the men so fine in their manliness! And the ruby-studded gloom protected them all, including Rachel and Louis, from the audience at large.

The screen glowed again. And as it did so Louis gave a start.

“By Jove!” he said, “I’ve left my stick somewhere. It must have been at Heath’s. Yes, it was. I put it on the counter while I opened this net thing. Don’t you remember? You were taking some money out of your purse.” Louis had a very distinct vision of his Rachel’s agreeably gloved fingers primly unfastening the purse and choosing a shilling from it.

“How annoying!” murmured Rachel feelingly.

“I wouldn’t lose that stick for a five-pound note.” (He had a marvellous way of saying “five-pound note.”) “Would you mind very much if I just slip over and get it, before he shuts? It’s only across the road, you know.”

There was something in the politeness of the phrase “mind very much” that was irresistible to Rachel. It caused her to imagine splendid drawing-rooms far beyond her modest level, and the superlative deportment therein of the well-born.

“Not at all!” she replied, with her best affability. “But will they let you come in again without paying?”

“Oh, I’ll risk that,” he whispered, smiling superiorly.

Then he went, leaving the reticule, and she was alone.

She rearranged the reticule on the seat by her side. The reticule being already perfectly secure, there was no need for her to touch it, but some nervous movement was necessary to her. Yet she was less self-conscious than she had been with Louis at her elbow. She felt, however, a very slight sense of peril – of the unreality of the plush fauteuil on which she sat, and those rows of vaguely discerned faces on her right; and the reality of distant phenomena such as Mrs. Maldon in bed. Notwithstanding her strange and ecstatic experiences with Louis Fores that night in the dark, romantic town, the problem of the lost money remained, or ought to have remained, as disturbing as ever. To ignore it was not to destroy it. She sat rather tight in her place, increasing her primness, and trying to show by her carriage that she was an adult in full control of all her wise faculties. She set her lips to judge the film with the cold impartiality of middle age, but they persisted in being the fresh, responsive, mobile lips of a young girl. They were saying noiselessly: “He will be back in a moment. And he will find me sitting here just as he left me. When I hear him coming I shan’t turn my head to look. It will be better not.”

The film showed a forest with a wooden house in the middle of it. Out of this house came a most adorable young woman, who leaped on to a glossy horse and galloped at a terrific rate, plunging down ravines, and then trotting fast over the crests of clearings. She came to a man who was boiling a kettle over a camp-fire, and slipped lithely from the horse, and the man, with a start of surprise, seized her pretty waist and kissed her passionately, in the midst of the immense forest whose every leaf was moving. And she returned his kiss without restraint. For they were betrothed. And Rachel imagined the free life of distant forests, where love was, and where slim girls rode mettlesome horses more easily than the girls of the Five Towns rode bicycles. She could not even ride a bicycle, had never had the opportunity to learn. The vision of emotional pleasures that in her narrow existence she had not dreamed of filled her with mild, delightful sorrow. She could conceive nothing more heavenly than to embrace one’s true love in the recesses of a forest…. Then came crouching Indians…. And then she heard Louis Fores behind her. She had not meant to turn round, but when a hand was put heavily on her shoulder she turned quickly, resenting the contact.

“I should like a word with ye, if ye can spare a minute, young miss,” whispered a voice as heavy as the hand. It was old Thomas Batchgrew’s face and whiskers that she was looking up at in the gloom.

Comment: 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. His novel The Price of Love tells of a lower middle class woman (Rachel Fleckring) who marries a rogue (Louis Fores) and comes to regret it. This extract comes from Chapter VII, entitled ‘The Cinema’. Thomas Batchgrew is a town councillor and owner of a cinema chain, of which the Imperial Cinema de Luxe is one. Investing in the cinema business forms part of the plot. ‘Bursley’ equates with the real-life Burslem. Ellipses in the above occur as they do in the original text.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

The Haunted Bookshop

Source: Christopher Morley, extract from Chapter 8 of The Haunted Bookshop (New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1919), pp. 153-161

Text: A few doors from the bookshop was a small lunchroom named after the great city of Milwaukee, one of those pleasant refectories where the diner buys his food at the counter and eats it sitting in a flat-armed chair. Aubrey got a bowl of soup, a cup of coffee, beef stew, and bran muffins, and took them to an empty seat by the window. He ate with one eye on the street. From his place in the corner he could command the strip of pavement in front of Mifflin’s shop. Halfway through the stew he saw Roger come out onto the pavement and begin to remove the books from the boxes.

After finishing his supper he lit one of his “mild but they satisfy” cigarettes and sat in the comfortable warmth of a near-by radiator. A large black cat lay sprawled on the next chair. Up at the service counter there was a pleasant clank of stout crockery as occasional customers came in and ordered their victuals. Aubrey began to feel a relaxation swim through his veins. Gissing Street was very bright and orderly in its Saturday evening bustle. Certainly it was grotesque to imagine melodrama hanging about a second-hand bookshop in Brooklyn. The revolver felt absurdly lumpy and uncomfortable in his hip pocket. What a different aspect a little hot supper gives to affairs! The most resolute idealist or assassin had better write his poems or plan his atrocities before the evening meal. After the narcosis of that repast the spirit falls into a softer mood, eager only to be amused. Even Milton would hardly have had the inhuman fortitude to sit down to the manuscript of Paradise Lost right after supper. Aubrey began to wonder if his unpleasant suspicions had not been overdrawn. He thought how delightful it would be to stop in at the bookshop and ask Titania to go to the movies with him.

Curious magic of thought! The idea was still sparkling in his mind when he saw Titania and Mrs. Mifflin emerge from the bookshop and pass briskly in front of the lunchroom. They were talking and laughing merrily. Titania’s face, shining with young vitality, seemed to him more “attention-compelling” than any ten-point Caslon type-arrangement he had ever seen. He admired the layout of her face from the standpoint of his cherished technique. “Just enough ‘white space,'” he thought, “to set off her eyes as the ‘centre of interest.’ Her features aren’t this modern bold-face stuff, set solid,” he said to himself, thinking typographically. “They’re rather French old-style italic, slightly leaded. Set on 22-point body, I guess. Old man Chapman’s a pretty good typefounder, you have to hand it to him.”

He smiled at this conceit, seized hat and coat, and dashed out of the lunchroom.

Mrs. Mifflin and Titania had halted a few yards up the street, and were looking at some pert little bonnets in a window. Aubrey hurried across the street, ran up to the next corner, recrossed, and walked down the eastern pavement. In this way he would meet them as though he were coming from the subway. He felt rather more excited than King Albert re-entering Brussels. He saw them coming, chattering together in the delightful fashion of women out on a spree. Helen seemed much younger in the company of her companion. “A lining of pussy-willow taffeta and an embroidered slip-on,” she was saying.

Aubrey steered onto them with an admirable gesture of surprise.

“Well, I never!” said Mrs. Mifflin. “Here’s Mr. Gilbert. Were you coming to see Roger?” she added, rather enjoying the young man’s predicament.

Titania shook hands cordially. Aubrey, searching the old-style italics with the desperate intensity of a proof-reader, saw no evidence of chagrin at seeing him again so soon.

“Why,” he said rather lamely, “I was coming to see you all. I–I wondered how you were getting along.”

Mrs. Mifflin had pity on him. “We’ve left Mr. Mifflin to look after the shop,” she said. “He’s busy with some of his old crony customers. Why don’t you come with us to the movies?”

“Yes, do,” said Titania. “It’s Mr. and Mrs. Sidney Drew, you know how adorable they are!”

No one needs to be told how quickly Aubrey assented. Pleasure coincided with duty in that the outer wing of the party placed him next to Titania.

“Well, how do you like bookselling?” he asked.

“Oh, it’s the greatest fun!” she cried. “But it’ll take me ever and ever so long to learn about all the books. People ask such questions! A woman came in this afternoon looking for a copy of Blasé Tales. How was I to know she wanted The Blazed Trail?”

“You’ll get used to that,” said Mrs. Mifflin. “Just a minute, people, I want to stop in at the drug store.”

They went into Weintraub’s pharmacy. Entranced as he was by the proximity of Miss Chapman, Aubrey noticed that the druggist eyed him rather queerly. And being of a noticing habit, he also observed that when Weintraub had occasion to write out a label for a box of powdered alum Mrs. Mifflin was buying, he did so with a pale violet ink.

At the glass sentry-box in front of the theatre Aubrey insisted on buying the tickets.

“We came out right after supper,” said Titania as they entered, “so as to get in before the crowd.”

It is not so easy, however, to get ahead of Brooklyn movie fans. They had to stand for several minutes in a packed lobby while a stern young man held the waiting crowd in check with a velvet rope. Aubrey sustained delightful spasms of the protective instinct in trying to shelter Titania from buffets and pushings. Unknown to her, his arm extended behind her like an iron rod to absorb the onward impulses of the eager throng. A rustling groan ran through these enthusiasts as they saw the preliminary footage of the great Tarzan flash onto the screen, and realized they were missing something. At last, however, the trio got through the barrier and found three seats well in front, at one side. From this angle the flying pictures were strangely distorted, but Aubrey did not mind.

“Isn’t it lucky I got here when I did,” whispered Titania. “Mr. Mifflin has just had a telephone call from Philadelphia asking him to go over on Monday to make an estimate on a library that’s going to be sold so I’ll be able to look after the shop for him while he’s gone.”

“Is that so?” said Aubrey. “Well, now, I’ve got to be in Brooklyn on Monday, on business. Maybe Mrs. Mifflin would let me come in and buy some books from you.”

“Customers always welcome,” said Mrs. Mifflin.

“I’ve taken a fancy to that Cromwell book,” said Aubrey. “What do you suppose Mr. Mifflin would sell it for?”

“I think that book must be valuable,” said Titania. “Somebody came in this afternoon and wanted to buy it, but Mr. Mifflin wouldn’t part with it. He says it’s one of his favourites. Gracious, what a weird film this is!”

The fantastic absurdities of Tarzan proceeded on the screen, tearing celluloid passions to tatters, but Aubrey found the strong man of the jungle coming almost too close to his own imperious instincts. Was not he, too – he thought naively – a poor Tarzan of the advertising jungle, lost among the elephants and alligators of commerce, and sighing for this dainty and unattainable vision of girlhood that had burst upon his burning gaze! He stole a perilous side-glance at her profile, and saw the racing flicker of the screen reflected in tiny spangles of light that danced in her eyes. He was even so unknowing as to imagine that she was not aware of his contemplation. And then the lights went up.

“What nonsense, wasn’t it?” said Titania. “I’m so glad it’s over! I was quite afraid one of those elephants would walk off the screen and tread on us.”

“I never can understand,” said Helen, “why they don’t film some of the really good books – think of Frank Stockton’s stuff, how delightful that would be. Can’t you imagine Mr. and Mrs. Drew playing in Rudder Grange!”

“Thank goodness!” said Titania. “Since I entered the book business, that’s the first time anybody’s mentioned a book that I’ve read. Yes – do you remember when Pomona and Jonas visit an insane asylum on their honeymoon? Do you know, you and Mr. Mifflin remind me a little of Mr. and Mrs. Drew.”

Helen and Aubrey chuckled at this innocent correlation of ideas. Then the organ began to play “O How I Hate To Get Up in the Morning” and the ever-delightful Mr. and Mrs. Drew appeared on the screen in one of their domestic comedies. Lovers of the movies may well date a new screen era from the day those whimsical pantomimers set their wholesome and humane talent at the service of the arc light and the lens. Aubrey felt a serene and intimate pleasure in watching them from a seat beside Titania. He knew that the breakfast table scene shadowed before them was only a makeshift section of lath propped up in some barnlike motion picture studio; yet his rocketing fancy imagined it as some arcadian suburb where he and Titania, by a jugglery of benign fate, were bungalowed together. Young men have a pioneering imagination: it is doubtful whether any young Orlando ever found himself side by side with Rosalind without dreaming himself wedded to her. If men die a thousand deaths before this mortal coil is shuffled, even so surely do youths contract a thousand marriages before they go to the City Hall for a license.

Aubrey remembered the opera glasses, which were still in his pocket, and brought them out. The trio amused themselves by watching Sidney Drew’s face through the magnifying lenses. They were disappointed in the result, however, as the pictures, when so enlarged, revealed all the cobweb of fine cracks on the film. Mr. Drew’s nose, the most amusing feature known to the movies, lost its quaintness when so augmented.

“Why,” cried Titania, “it makes his lovely nose look like the map of Florida.”

“How on earth did you happen to have these in your pocket?” asked Mrs. Mifflin, returning the glasses.

Aubrey was hard pressed for a prompt and reasonable fib, but advertising men are resourceful.

“Oh,” he said, “I sometimes carry them with me at night to study the advertising sky-signs. I’m a little short sighted. You see, it’s part of my business to study the technique of the electric signs.”

After some current event pictures the programme prepared to repeat itself, and they went out.

Comment: Christopher Morley (1890-1957) was an American journalist, novelist, poet and essayist of prolific output. His 1919 novel The Haunted Bookshop features Aubrey Gilbert, an advertising man, who tracks down a German spy who is using a New York bookshop as a dropping-off point in preparation for plans to assassinate President Woodrow Wilson. Mr and Mrs Sidney Drew were a comedy team, popular on stage and film. Sidney Drew died in 1919, shortly after Morley wrote the chapter. My thanks to Philip Carli for bringing this passage to my attention.

Links: Complete text at Project Gutenberg

Seats in All Parts

Source: Leslie Halliwell, Seats in All Parts (London: Granada, 1985), pp. 17-18

Text: On the whole, however, the Hippodrome brings back only the happiest of memories. There was something very satsifying about seeing music-hall comedy in an old music-hall. We always sat in the fourpenny stalls, which meant entry through a little side street pay box. The cashier was a maiden lady of uncertain age; she had tight marcelled hair, and repeatedly told us (and presumably everybody else) how terrified she was of a recurrence of the night she was attacked by ‘footpads’ while the commissionaire was inside. I liked to pay for my own ticket, using pennies handed to me by Mum as we walked briskly through the back streets from Victoria Square; but when an ‘A’ film was the attraction, the law said she must get the tickets for both of us and hand them to the doleful old doorkeeper, the one with the drooping moustaches and the dirty white gloves. He would then lift the dust-filled red velour curtain which allowed us to enter the inner sanctum by the doorway to the left of the screen. Invariably we arrived towards the end of the shorts, but sometimes there was a cartoon just before the news, and of course I always insisted on seeing that through twice. The shorts in fact were very often the best part of the programme. Since main features then seldom ran more than 75 minutes, there was room in a two-hour programme not only for a two-reel comedy and a cartoon but often for a couple of ‘interests’ as well, selected from such series as Stranger than Fiction, Speaking of Animals, Sportslight (with Grantland Rice), Screen Snapshots and Unusual Occupations. Then there was the news. World events at my age were a bit of a bore and I often went for a stroll to the Gents as they unfurled, but I did like Gaumont British News for its cheerful signature tune and its fancy title sequence where a gallery of rapidly changing news items centred on a bell-ringing town crier whom I used to insist was the comedian Sidney [sic] Howard in disguise. (Perhaps it was.)

The best vantage-point for a small boy was obviously the middle of the front row, and Mum sometimes agreed to sit there; although it can’t have done her eyes any good, and people making their way to the toilets used to tread on her feet, which were tender at the best of times. There was now rowdyism, however: the front stalls at the Hippodrome were occupied chiefly by respectable middle-aged couples or family parties, and any hooligan elements would have been quickly and firmly dealt with by the patrons themselves if the commissionaire had chosen to be otherwise engaged. Wherever we sat, it was always a thrilling moment when the lights dimmed and the censor’s certificate for the main feature flashed on to the dividing, floodlit red curtain, to be laboriously and audibly deciphered by an eager audience.

The stars whose adventures we watched on the Hippodrome’s milky-textured screen seemed always more real, more vital, than those observed elsewhere. This may have been partly because it was such an intimately shaped hall, but mainly I suspect because low vaudeville comics most easily found a level on which to meet audiences whose roots were in cotton spinning and who had lived, generation after generation, in the long shadow of the mills. In Lancashire they worked hard, and they liked to laugh hard, sometimes at subjects which southerners might have thought in poor taste, like drunkenness, underwear, and funerals. Beefy Leslie Fuller might have been my uncle, George Formby a comical cousin and Gracie Fields a young spinster aunt. It required no effort of imagination for us to be interested in their doings; they were only a slight exaggeration of our everyday life.

Comment: Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) was a film historian and programme buyer for ITV and Channel 4. Seats in All Parts is his memoir of cinemagoing, including his Bolton childhood. Bolton had 47 cinemas in the 1930s; the Hippodrome was a former music hall and existed as a cinema until the 1940s, being demolished in 1961. ‘A’ certificates were introduced in 1912 and stood for ‘Adult’; from 1923 a child attending an ‘A’ film had to be accompanied by an adult.