The Legion of Decency

Source: Extracts from Mary J. Breen, ‘The Legion of Decency: Running a Movie Theater in the 1950s’, http://the-toast.net/2015/11/10/the-legion-of-decency-running-a-movie-theater-in-the-1950s/, originally published as ‘The Legion of Decency’, The Windsor Review, 48:1, Spring 2015

Text: In 1949, when I was five, my cautious Catholic parents bought a movie theatre in a Lutheran-Mennonite village in southern Ontario. My mother later told me they were trying to give my father a break from teaching high school—a rest from the long hours, the conscientious prep and marking, and the stress of dealing with unruly teenagers. What it doesn’t explain is why he of all people agreed to buy a theatre of all things that depended on movies from, of all places, Hollywood.

But I was much too young to ask any of those questions. All I knew was that The Regent Theatre was a wonderful place. I didn’t care that “our show,” as my parents called it, was a low, dark hall that had once been a hotel livery stable. I didn’t care that it was nothing like the grand movie palaces in Toronto that my mother took me to every summer. I didn’t care that the marquee lights didn’t flash, and the maroon curtains covering the screen were heavy with dust, and the plush seats were half-bald and prickled our bare legs in the summer. I didn’t care that we had no snack bar or velvet ropes or uniformed ushers. Instead of perfumed bathrooms, we had smelly outhouses out the back. Instead of soft carpets, we had concrete floors sticky with gum, candy wrappers, and cigarette butts. I didn’t care. I loved being there. I loved helping my father unfurl the loud, garish posters and tack them into the display boxes out front. I loved helping him sweep up on Saturday afternoons. I loved roller-skating fast down one aisle, across the front, and seeing how far I could coast up the other aisle, knowing all the while that the gunfights and runaway stagecoaches would be back in just a few hours.

All of us kids loved the movies, whether they were tales of cowboys or soldiers, pirates or sultans. We also understood them as they echoed the familiar justice of the playground and the Bible: the bad were always punished, and the good always inherited the earth. As soon as Mighty Mouse or Heckle & Jeckle ended and we heard the opening bars of the newsreel, most of us kids would run out past my mother yelling, “We’ll be back!” We’d race to the corner store where we’d cram little paper bags with gum, jaw breakers, banana marshmallows, red licorice sticks, and black liquorice pipes, and then tear back in time for the double bill. My parents never cared if someone without a quarter slipped in with the rest of us. Back in our seats we’d figure out who the good guys were, and then set about helping them by yelling things like, “Look out!” or “Run!” or “Behind the door!” We’d also clap and holler when help arrived, often the US Cavalry charging over the same hill the silent Indians had lined up on minutes before. The fun of it came back to me years later when I was watching Apollo 13 on TV. I cheered out loud when Tom Hanks’ voice came crackling through the clouds. The heat shields had held! That’s what it felt like at our show, week after week after week.

[…]

Then, in 1953, things changed. One night as my father was getting me ready for bed, I started raving on about how, when I grew up, I was going to be either a real cowgirl or a cowgirl in the movies where I’d get paid to play Maple Leaf with great costumes and real horses. He turned to me, his face dark and sober. “I don’t want to hear about Hollywood. It’s a heathen, godless place where everyone is divorced and has far too much money for their own good!” I was stunned. It was the very first time he’d ever scolded me. Then he went on to say I needed to start adding Three Hail Marys for Purity to my nightly prayers. “Remember,” he said, “God knows your every thought, word, and deed. With Almighty God we have no secrets.” I had no idea what he was talking about except that I had better keep my thoughts about the movies to myself.

Comments: Mary J. Breen is a Canadian author who has written two books on women’s health and has published widely in newspapers, magazines and online. Her father was a member of the Christian Brothers order but married before taking his final vows. Her parents ran a cinema despite the Catholic Church’s strong objections to aspects of the film industry, exemplified by the National Legion of Decency and its blacklisting of films to which it objected on moral grounds. After giving up the cinema her father never saw another film. My thanks to Mary J. Breen for permission to reproduce these extracts from her essay on her parents and their cinema venture.

Links: Full article at The Toast

Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters

Source: Harold Owen and John Bell (eds.), Wilfred Owen: Collected Letters (London: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 162

Text: Letter 158. To Susan Owen, Sunday 22 September 1912, Dunsden Vicarage

On Sat. afternoon I saw Queen Bess by Sarah Bernhardt in Cinematograph, (with Leslie, Uncle, & Vera.) All very well; but it is positively painful to me not to hear speech; worse than the case of a deaf man at a proper Shakespere [sic] play; for all the finer play of mouth, eye, fingers, and so on, is utterly imperceptible, and so are the slower motions of the limbs spoiled, and their majesty lost, in the convulsed, rattling-hustle of the Cinema. Certainly, the old impression of driving through an electric hailstorm on a chinese-cracker is not now so easily got, as of old; but, still, I cannot enthuse over the things as Leslie does. His infatuation would speedily vanish if he knew ‘the real thing’. Which, poor fellow, he hankers to do.

Comments: Wilfred Owen (1893-1918) was a British poet and soldier, renowned for this poems of the First World War. Les amours de la reine Élisabeth (France 1912) was a feature film (four reels) developed out of the stage play by Émile Moreau. Its high prestige value and heavy promotion by Aldoph Zukor (who founded Famous Players to distribute it and later formed Paramount Pictures) led to the film’s great commercial success. Owen’s reference to the poor quality of some early film shows indicates that he had seen films on a number of occasions. Susan Owen was his mother. Leslie Gunston was his cousin, also a poet. My thanks to Lucie Dutton for having brought this diary entry to my attention.

Nights at the Alexandra

Source: William Trevor, Nights at the Alexandra (London: Hutchinson, 1987)

Text: People loved the Alexandra. They loved the things I loved myself – the scarlet seats, the lights that made the curtains change colour, the usherettes in uniform. People stood smoking in the foyer when they’d bought their tickets, not in a hurry because smoking and talking gave them pleasure also. They loved the luxury of the Alexandra, they loved the place it was. Urney bars tasted better in its rosy gloom; embraces were romantic there. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shared their sophisticated dreams, Deanna Durbin sang. Heroes fell from horses, the sagas of great families yielded the riches of their secrets. Night after night in the Alexandra I stood at the back, aware of the pleasure I dealt in, feeling it all around me. Shoulders slumped, heads touched, eyes were lost in concentration. My brothers did not snigger in the Alexandra: my father, had he ever gone there, would have at last been silenced. Often I imagined the tetchiness of the Reverend Wauchope softening beneath a weight of wonder, and the sour disposition of his wife lifted from her as she watched All This and Heaven Too. Often I imagined the complicated shame falling from the features of Mr Conron. ‘I have told her you are happy,’ Herr Messinger said.

Comments: William Trevor (1928-2016) was a Irish novelist and short story writer. His bittersweet novella Nights at the Alexandra concerns a young man who becomes involved with an Englishwoman and her older German husband as they build a cinema in Ireland during the Second World War. Urney chocolates were popular throughout Ireland. All This and Heaven Too is a 1940 American feature film.

All Pals Together

Source: Terry Staples, All Pals Together: The Story of Children’s Cinema (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), p. 233

Text: Living as kids in rural Wiltshire, we never had a chance to go to a cinema there. But every summer we were packed off to our grandparents in Falkirk, and they sent us to the ABC every Saturday morning. In my memory of what I saw in those years cinema and telly are all mixed up, but I remember the atmosphere of the cinema clearly enough. There seemed to be hundreds and hundreds in the Falkirk ABC, and a lot of excitement and enthusiasm, but I don’t think things were being thrown around. It was lively, but not rowdy. At home in Wiltshire we watched telly on Saturday mornings – Tiswas or Swap Shop – and doing that I felt essentially alone. In Falkirk I was part of a crowd. I’d get dressed for the ABC, but not for the telly. The queuing and the anticipation were much more exciting than just walking across the room to turn on the telly. We bought lollipops or liquorice or toffees at the cinema, or we might have taken our own tablet (a very sweet kind of fudge, peculiar to Scotland). For us, the cinema was full of strangeness, specialness and fun.

Comments: All Pals Together is a history of children’s cinema in the UK. It contains many evocative memoir passages such as this, mostly conducted for the book, though they are uncredited (there is a list of the names of the interviewees given at the front of the book). The unnamed interviewee here was a member of the ABC Minors club, to which many cinemagoing children belonged. Tiswas (ITV, 1974-1982) and Multi-Coloured Swap Shop (BBC, 1976-1982) were two highly popular children’s television programmes shown on Saturday mornings. They are generally seen as having played a major part in bringing about the long tradition of children’s cinema in the UK to an end.

It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples

Source: Bill Cullen, It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples (Cork: Mercier Press, 2001), pp. 155-156

Text: The Rotunda Cinema had a fourpenny entrance fee for the kids. Sixpence for adults. All sitting on wooden benches. And a shilling for a plush individual cushioned swivelled seat in the back. With five plusher rows up in the balcony for two shillings each. Lovers’ Row, the balcony was called. Privacy guaranteed.

When you paid your money at the ticket box you got a two-inch square of light metal with a half-inch circular hole in the centre. The metals were stamped with the price. Four pingin, six pingin, scilling, florin. You went to the usher, who took the metal token and slid it on to a long iron poker which was notched in tens. Held a hundred tokens, the poker did, so the ushers knew how many people were in the picture house. Simple, yes. Foolproof, no.

Wide open to fiddles it was. Sure, a little chiseller’s hand could reach through the glass slit when the cashier’s attention was distracted and grab a handful. The chiseller got into the pictures plus his Da and the pals. And it went further than that. The lads in Smith and Pearson Iron Foundry made the tokens. Some for the Rotunda Cinema order. And some for themselves. But they killed the golden goose.

The usher, Patsy MeCormack, was demented. ‘The bleedin’ picture house is jammed to the rafters. Standing at the back an’ all, they are. We had nine hundred people and Maureen only sold six hundred and twenty tokens.’

The boss arrived. Mister Johnston. Big meeting in the manager’s office. New system brought in. Patsy McCormack was plonked right beside the cashier’s ticket box. When a punter bought tokens, Maureen shouted the order.

‘Two fourpenny and two sixpenny,’ she’d shout, and wait until Patsy echoed the order, as he took the tokens, before serving the next customer.

‘Two two shillings,’ she’d shout. ‘Two of the best in Lovers’ Row,’ Patsy would shout back, pointing the red-faced couple to the staircase. And so the fiddle was silenced. For a while.

Comments: William ‘Bill’ Cullen (1942- ) is an Irish businessman whose memoir of his impoverished Dublin childhood It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples was a best seller. The Rotunda Round Room in Parnell Street, originally built as part of a hospital, had shown films since the 1890s. In 1954 it was renamed the Ambassador Cinema and continued in business until 1999. Triangular or square metal tokens were employed in some cinemas for a while. The writer goes on to describe other cinema fiddles and how they were countered by pre-printed numbered tickets.

Red, Black, Blond and Olive

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

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

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

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

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

In Darkest London

Source: Mrs Cecil Chesterton, In Darkest London (New York: The Macmillan company, 1926), pp. 186-187

Text: We did some business together. I made a shilling or two, and then my friend suggested we should go to a cinema, she standing treat. Now I have never been keen on films, except when Charlie Chaplin is on the screen, and I felt quite indifferent at the prospect of such enjoyment. She took two of the cheaper seats in a house near Shaftesbury Avenue, and I waited for the show to begin, quite incurious and even depressed. It was a story of the conventional type, in which a poor girl becomes a leader of society, following a round of luxurious enjoyment, but I found myself suddenly watching the pictures with eagerness, positive pleasure! I dwelt with rapture on her dinner with the hero in an expensive restaurant. I noted with extraordinary precision everything she ate. I enjoyed with her the roses he bought, and thrilled to the music the orchestra was playing. I would not have missed an inch of film. I would not have forfeited any one of the thousand mechanical sensations she enjoyed. It was not until it was all over that I asked myself why this change had come about, why it was that I, and the people in the cheap seats around me, had been wrought up to such excitement, almost ecstasy.

And then the solution came. When you are hungry and cold, without a home and without hope, the “Pictures” warm your imagination, heat your blood and somehow vitalise your body. The blank shutters that hem you in from enjoyment are suddenly down, and you look into a world of light and colour, expectancy and romance — that eternal longing for romance which dies so hardly. This is one of the things that I discovered in my experience. For the same reason this is, I think, why the inhabitants of drab homes in mean streets flock to the cinema. I do not think it has any educational value, nor does it generally stimulate the imagination. But it supplies a lack, and to those whose horizon is bounded by the four walls of a room, badly distempered, or hideously papered, the contemplation of the garish hotel, the spacious restaurant, or impossible heroines of the screen is compensation. This also accounts, I suppose, for the unending supply of this kind of picture. Commerce always caters for a steady public, and while the taste of the artistic is soon surfeited, the intelligence of the thinking easily annoyed, the vast residuum of the patient poor, who unendingly bear the burden of monotony, is a sure and certain market in a world of shifting values.

Comments: Ada Chesterton (1869-1962), who wrote as Mrs Cecil Chesterton, was a British journalist and philanthropist. She was married to the brother of the author G.K. Chesterton. Her book of social investigation, In Darkest London, was based on a series of newspaper articles on the life of London’s poor.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Jean McKillop, C707/306/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q. What about cinemas?

A. Mm hm, they – we used to go to – the cinema and you sat on a wooden seat. And -when we were young and – you paid a cop – copper to get in. Sometimes we’d – we’d to take a jam jar back to the – grocers, Galbraith’s the grocer, and get a ha’penny on it to get into – the pictures. Mm hm.

Q. Was that a matinee?

A. Uh huh. Matinee. And then we used to go – my chum and I used to go to – any – shoemakers shops and they would be showing the bill – for the pictures, and they always had passes. And we used t o get a pass off them and away to the pictures for nothing.

Q. Because your father was a shoemaker himself?

A. No, just – we just asked them. Uh huh.

Q. Why did shoemakers get the passes, do you know?

A. They were just advertise it for them. A lot of shops did but – mostly – these were shoemakers shops tha t did it. And if they had any passes they would give you them. Mm hm.

Comments: Mrs Jean McKillop (1894-??) was one of seven children, daughter of a Glasgow shoemaker. She was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).

Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), p. 222

Text: Miss…

Personally I find a good movie story enriches my memory and have proved that the cinema has educated the community and films have gained far more recruits for literature than the stage ever succeeded in doing.

Also recently when the whole world looked dark after a particularly trying week of hard work, I dropped into a local cinema to see Cover Girl, I left feeling amazingly refreshed, tackled the necessary household duties, and then — I made over one of my very old dresses (inspired by a dress worn by the star) arranged my hair a la Hayworth, and faced the world with new pep! And thanked my lucky stars I was fortunate to be living in this film-mad generation.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’, for which responses were sought via Picturegoer in February 1945 to two questions: Have films ever influenced you with regard to personal decisions or behaviour? and Have films ever appeared in your dreams? The feature film Cover Girl (USA 1944) starred Rita Hayworth.