The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets

Source: Jane Addams, The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets (New York: Macmillan, 1909), pp. 75-88

Text: To the preoccupied adult who is prone to use the city street as a mere passageway from one hurried duty to another, nothing is more touching than his encounter with a group of children and young people who are emerging from a theater with the magic of the play still thick upon them. They look up and down the familiar street scarcely recognizing it and quite unable to determine the direction of home. From a tangle of “make believe” they gravely scrutinize the real world which they are so reluctant to reënter, reminding one of the absorbed gaze of a child who is groping his way back from fairy-land whither the story has completely transported him.

“Going to the show” for thousands of young people in every industrial city is the only possible road to the realms of mystery and romance; the theater is the only place where they can satisfy that craving for a conception of life higher than that which the actual world offers them. In a very real sense the drama and the drama alone performs for them the office of art as is clearly revealed in their blundering demand stated in many forms for “a play unlike life.” The theater becomes to them a “veritable house of dreams” infinitely more real than the noisy streets and the crowded factories.

This first simple demand upon the theater for romance is closely allied to one more complex which might be described as a search for solace and distraction in those moments of first awakening from the glamour of a youth’s interpretation of life to the sterner realities which are thrust upon his consciousness. These perceptions which inevitably “close around” and imprison the spirit of youth are perhaps never so grim as in the case of the wage-earning child. We can all recall our own moments of revolt against life’s actualities, our reluctance to admit that all life was to be as unheroic and uneventful as that which we saw about us, it was too unbearable that “this was all there was” and we tried every possible avenue of escape. As we made an effort to believe, in spite of what we saw, that life was noble and harmonious, as we stubbornly clung to poesy in contradiction to the testimony of our senses, so we see thousands of young people thronging the theaters bent in their turn upon the same quest. The drama provides a transition between the romantic conceptions which they vainly struggle to keep intact and life’s cruelties and trivialities which they refuse to admit. A child whose imagination has been cultivated is able to do this for himself through reading and reverie, but for the overworked city youth of meager education, perhaps nothing but the theater is able to perform this important office.

The theater also has a strange power to forecast life for the youth. Each boy comes from our ancestral past not “in entire forgetfulness,” and quite as he unconsciously uses ancient war-cries in his street play, so he longs to reproduce and to see set before him the valors and vengeances of a society embodying a much more primitive state of morality than that in which he finds himself. Mr. Patten has pointed out that the elemental action which the stage presents, the old emotions of love and jealousy, of revenge and daring take the thoughts of the spectator back into deep and well worn channels in which his mind runs with a sense of rest afforded by nothing else. The cheap drama brings cause and effect, will power and action, once more into relation and gives a man the thrilling conviction that he may yet be master of his fate. The youth of course, quite unconscious of this psychology, views the deeds of the hero simply as a forecast of his own future and it is this fascinating view of his own career which draws the boy to “shows” of all sorts. They can scarcely be too improbable for him, portraying, as they do, his belief in his own prowess. A series of slides which has lately been very popular in the five-cent theaters of Chicago, portrayed five masked men breaking into a humble dwelling, killing the father of the family and carrying away the family treasure. The golden-haired son of the house, aged seven, vows eternal vengeance on the spot, and follows one villain after another to his doom. The execution of each is shown in lurid detail, and the last slide of the series depicts the hero, aged ten, kneeling upon his father’s grave counting on the fingers of one hand the number of men that he has killed, and thanking God that he has been permitted to be an instrument of vengeance.

In another series of slides, a poor woman is wearily bending over some sewing, a baby is crying in the cradle, and two little boys of nine and ten are asking for food. In despair the mother sends them out into the street to beg, but instead they steal a revolver from a pawn shop and with it kill a Chinese laundry-man, robbing him of $200. They rush home with the treasure which is found by the mother in the baby’s cradle, whereupon she and her sons fall upon their knees and send up a prayer of thankfulness for this timely and heaven-sent assistance.

Is it not astounding that a city allows thousands of its youth to fill their impressionable minds with these absurdities which certainly will become the foundation for their working moral codes and the data from which they will judge the proprieties of life?

It is as if a child, starved at home, should be forced to go out and search for food, selecting, quite naturally, not that which is nourishing but that which is exciting and appealing to his outward sense, often in his ignorance and foolishness blundering into substances which are filthy and poisonous.

Out of my twenty years’ experience at Hull-House I can recall all sorts of pilferings, petty larcenies, and even burglaries, due to that never ceasing effort on the part of boys to procure theater tickets. I can also recall indirect efforts towards the same end which are most pitiful. I remember the remorse of a young girl of fifteen who was brought into the Juvenile Court after a night spent weeping in the cellar of her home because she had stolen a mass of artificial flowers with which to trim a hat. She stated that she had taken the flowers because she was afraid of losing the attention of a young man whom she had heard say that “a girl has to be dressy if she expects to be seen.” This young man was the only one who had ever taken her to the theater and if he failed her, she was sure that she would never go again, and she sobbed out incoherently that she “couldn’t live at all without it.” Apparently the blankness and grayness of life itself had been broken for her only by the portrayal of a different world.

One boy whom I had known from babyhood began to take money from his mother from the time he was seven years old, and after he was ten she regularly gave him money for the play Saturday evening. However, the Saturday performance, “starting him off like,” he always went twice again on Sunday, procuring the money in all sorts of illicit ways. Practically all of his earnings after he was fourteen were spent in this way to satisfy the insatiable desire to know of the great adventures of the wide world which the more fortunate boy takes out in reading Homer and Stevenson.

In talking with his mother, I was reminded of my experience one Sunday afternoon in Russia when the employees of a large factory were seated in an open-air theater, watching with breathless interest the presentation of folk stories. I was told that troupes of actors went from one manufacturing establishment to another presenting the simple elements of history and literature to the illiterate employees. This tendency to slake the thirst for adventure by viewing the drama is, of course, but a blind and primitive effort in the direction of culture, for “he who makes himself its vessel and bearer thereby acquires a freedom from the blindness and soul poverty of daily existence.”

It is partly in response to this need that more sophisticated young people often go to the theater, hoping to find a clue to life’s perplexities. Many times the bewildered hero reminds one of Emerson’s description of Margaret Fuller, “I don’t know where I am going, follow me”; nevertheless, the stage is dealing with the moral themes in which the public is most interested.

And while many young people go to the theater if only to see represented, and to hear discussed, the themes which seem to them so tragically important, there is no doubt that what they hear there, flimsy and poor as it often is, easily becomes their actual moral guide. In moments of moral crisis they turn to the sayings of the hero who found himself in a similar plight. The sayings may not be profound, but at least they are applicable to conduct. In the last few years scores of plays have been put upon the stage whose titles might be easily translated into proper headings for sociological lectures or sermons, without including the plays of Ibsen, Shaw and Hauptmann, which deal so directly with moral issues that the moralists themselves wince under their teachings and declare them brutal. But it is this very brutality which the over-refined and complicated city dwellers often crave. Moral teaching has become so intricate, creeds so metaphysical, that in a state of absolute reaction they demand definite instruction for daily living. Their whole-hearted acceptance of the teaching corroborates the statement recently made by an English playwright that “The theater is literally making the minds of our urban populations to-day. It is a huge factory of sentiment, of character, of points of honor, of conceptions of conduct, of everything that finally determines the destiny of a nation. The theater is not only a place of amusement, it is a place of culture, a place where people learn how to think, act, and feel.” Seldom, however, do we associate the theater with our plans for civic righteousness, although it has become so important a factor in city life.

One Sunday evening last winter an investigation was made of four hundred and sixty six theaters in the city of Chicago, and it was discovered that in the majority of them the leading theme was revenge; the lover following his rival; the outraged husband seeking his wife’s paramour; or the wiping out by death of a blot on a hitherto unstained honor. It was estimated that one sixth of the entire population of the city had attended the theaters on that day. At that same moment the churches throughout the city were preaching the gospel of good will. Is not this a striking commentary upon the contradictory influences to which the city youth is constantly subjected?

This discrepancy between the church and the stage is at times apparently recognized by the five-cent theater itself, and a blundering attempt is made to suffuse the songs and moving pictures with piety. Nothing could more absurdly demonstrate this attempt than a song, illustrated by pictures, describing the adventures of a young man who follows a pretty girl through street after street in the hope of “snatching a kiss from her ruby lips.” The young man is overjoyed when a sudden wind storm drives the girl to shelter under an archway, and he is about to succeed in his ttempt when the good Lord, “ever watchful over innocence,” makes the same wind “blow a cloud of dust into the eyes of the rubberneck,” and “his foul purpose is foiled.” This attempt at piety is also shown in a series of films depicting Bible stories and the Passion Play at Oberammergau, forecasting the time when the moving film will be viewed as a mere mechanical device for the use of the church, the school and the library, as well as for the theater.

At present, however, most improbable tales hold the attention of the youth of the city night after night, and feed his starved imagination as nothing else succeeds in doing. In addition to these fascinations, the five-cent theater is also fast becoming the general social center and club house in many crowded neighborhoods. It is easy of access from the street the entire family of parents and children can attend for a comparatively small sum of money and the performance lasts for at least an hour; and, in some of the humbler theaters, the spectators are not disturbed for a second hour.

The room which contains the mimic stage is small and cozy, and less formal than the regular theater, and there is much more gossip and social life as if the foyer and pit were mingled. The very darkness of the room, necessary for an exhibition of the films, is an added attraction to many young people, for whom the space is filled with the glamour of love making.

Hundreds of young people attend these five-cent theaters every evening in the week, including Sunday, and what is seen and heard there becomes the sole topic of conversation, forming the ground pattern of their social life. That mutual understanding which in another social circle is provided by books, travel and all the arts, is here compressed into the topics suggested by the play.

The young people attend the five-cent theaters in groups, with something of the “gang” instinct, boasting of the films and stunts in “our theater.” They find a certain advantage in attending one theater regularly, for the habitués are often invited to come upon the stage on “amateur nights,” which occur at least once a week in all the theaters. This is, of course, a most exciting experience. If the “stunt” does not meet with the approval of the audience, the performer is greeted with jeers and a long hook pulls him off the stage; if, on the other hand, he succeeds in pleasing the audience, he may be paid for his performance and later register with a booking agency, the address of which is supplied by the obliging manager, and thus he fancies that a lucrative and exciting career is opening before him. Almost every night at six o’clock a long line of children may be seen waiting at the entrance of these booking agencies, of which there are fifteen that are well known in Chicago.

Thus, the only art which is constantly placed before the eyes of “the temperamental youth” is a debased form of dramatic art, and a vulgar type of music, for the success of a song in these theaters depends not so much upon its musical rendition as upon the vulgarity of its appeal. In a song which held the stage of a cheap theater in Chicago for weeks, the young singer was helped out by a bit of mirror from which she threw a flash of light into the faces of successive boys whom she selected from the audience as she sang the refrain, “You are my Affinity.” Many popular songs relate the vulgar experiences of a city man wandering from amusement park to bathing beach in search of flirtations. It may be that these “stunts” and recitals of city adventure contain the nucleus of coming poesy and romance, as the songs and recitals of the early minstrels sprang directly from the life of the people, but all the more does the effort need help and direction, both in the development of its technique and the material of its themes.

Comment: Jane Addams (1860-1935) was an American social worker and social reformer. Her The Spirit of Youth and the City Streets argues that the city is determinental to children’s lives and calls for greater opportunities for play and recreation programmes. In her chapter ‘The House of Dreams’ (of which the above is the first half) moving pictures, which she combines with cheap theatre shows and lantern presentations, are seen as one of the anti-play elements of the city.

Links: Copy on the Internet Archive

A Hole in the Screen

Source: Daniel Moyano, ‘A Hole in the Screen’, in Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond (eds.), Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990), p. 39

Text: In the 1940s we lived alongside a cinema, in a small town lost in the southern pampas of Argentina. The cinema was immediately adjacent to our house, so that every night we could hear the film and imagine what was on the screen. All of us that is except uncle Eugenio, who had never been to see a film, saying that it was all a fraud, all illusion, and that when the lights went up and all the characters disappeared the screen was no more than a rag. When he saw us coming back from the movies every Sunday, discussing the film, he would say, ‘I don’t believe it. I never would have credited that people would talk about these illusions as if they’d really taken place.’ He regarded us as stupid and ignorant. If the film had a sad ending aunt Delicia, who always took anybody’s love affair for her own, would return home crying. ‘Poor thing,’ she’d sob, thinking about the heroine, and she’d get undressed so that she could carry on crying in bed. Uncle Eugenio would get mad with frustration, utterly unable to find the words to refute the fact that illusions might provoke real tears.

We convinced him in Holy Week. They were showing a film, The Life of Christ, and though this was clearly an illusion as well it had taken place in real life, and uncle was very much a believer. He went in acting very worried, looking at people as though ashamed that they were seeing him in a cinema. But five minutes into the film he was as possessed as he was when he was down at the football stadium watching a match.

When uncle Eugenio saw Judas striking a bargain with the Romans he cried out ‘I can’t stand this!’ and ran out of the movie theatre. He appeared with his shotgun just at the moment when Judas was handing over his master. And so as not to hurt anyone inadvertently uncle Eugenio waited until the apostle was some way from the rest of the crowd.

The hole in the screen coincided with screams and the lights going up and the immediate disappearance of the images. In the midst of the smell and dust of his incredible deed, and the smoke from the gunshot, it was uncle Eugenio who seemed like an illusion.

Comment: Daniel Moyano (1930-1992) was an Argentinian novelist and short story writer. Seeing in the Dark is a collection of commissioned reminiscences of cinemagoing.

The Movies in the Age of Innocence

Source: Edward Wagenknecht, The Movies in the Age of Innocence (New York: Limelight Editions, 1997 [orig. 1962]), pp. 12-13

Text: I saw my first motion picture, somewhere along about 1905 0r 1906, in a little barn-like theater at “The Chutes,” a small amusement park, at Kedzie Avenue and Van Buren Street, Chicago, where the West Side carbarns now stand. It was all about the adventures of the devil and a beautiful girl whom he had lured to his picturesque domains. From its general resemblance to the French Pathé films which I was soon to see at my first neighborhood theater, I judge it to have been of French manufacture. The devil was a prominent character in many of these early films. He was essentially the Faust operatic devil – with horns and a very realistic tail – and he usually appeared and disappeared in a puff of smoke, which, to us who were new to the movies, was in itself a very wonderful photographic effect. Indeed I have often said that the devil was the first movie star and that if we had known some of the things that the future had in store for us, we might have appreciated him more than we did.

Hell, it appeared in this old French film, was a very beautiful place, full of couches and bowers and drapes and hangings. Indeed it might be described as a kind of Frenchified version of the notion Bernard Shaw was almost contemporaneously presenting in Man and Superman. I remember very well that I, who had been taught to fear hell, and was doing my best – intermittently at least – to keep out of it, at once began to wonder if it was not possible that the place might have been maligned. I can personally testify, therefore, that the very first time I approached the movies, they proved themselves the insidiously corrupting influence which their critics have always declared them to be.

Comment: Edward Wagenknecht (1900-2004) was an American literary critic.

Memories of Old Poplar

Source: John Blake, Memories of Old Poplar (London: Stepney Books Publications, 1977), pp. 34-36

Text: Round about 1908 there appeared something new in the field of entertainment. This was during our childhood days, when after school hours the streets were poorly lit. Fogs were everywhere in the winter months, and naturally the youngsters, and their parents, were eagerly seeking anything that would brighten up their outlook in the drab surroundings of those days. On the scene, then, came a wonderful idea. The Reverend Tyldesley [sic], the pastor at the Poplar and Bromley Tabernacle, in Brunswick Road, commenced showing pictures on Thursday evenings in the Chapel. These were Magic Lantern with still slides, or a very early model of a cinematograph show. Children were admitted to the first performance, and parents the second. A large sheet was hung on the rostrum, which could be pulled up and down, before and after the show. There was a gallery, running the length of the hall, and at the far end of the gallery, a projection box had been erected, which housed the cinematograph. During the summer months, the Reverend Gentleman had curtains installed in the windows, so that light could not penetrate, to spoil the view of the films. He always gave a speech before the show commenced, and went to great lengths to impress the children, of the tremendous expense that had been entailed to enable this to be done, so that they would still have their entertainment in the summer. He asked us not to kick the backs of the seats in front, in excitement at the adventures of Lt Rose, one of the prevailing heroes of the time. Their few coppers of admission would not allow for payments of any damage. For us children the excitement was intense and we were glad when the introductory prayers had been completed. For many years the Music Halls and Theatres enjoyed the popularity of the public with no opposition, but suddenly a rival entertainment appeared on the horizon. I refer to the silent films appearing at ‘Picture Palaces’. Some had a white sheet, suspended tightly, over which water was squirted before the show commenced, or even a white painted wall. The seating consisted of forms, and flooring all concrete. The first Picture Palace I remember was the ‘Empire’ in East India Dock Road, opposite Woolmore Street. Then there was ‘The Star’ in High Street Poplar. It was a case of lining up outside, where the attendant on duty was periodically shouting out at the top of his voice, ‘Standing only in the ha’pennies’. This form of entertainment was springing up everywhere such as ‘Grand Palace’, ‘Poplar Pavilion’, ‘The Gaiety’, all in East India Dock Road, and the interior decorations were improving rapidly. Better screens, improved fireproofed projection boxes, spring-backed covered seats, lady ushers with hand torch, to guide you to your seat, piano accompaniment to the silent film. Usually there were two feature films, and a News Reel and the performance was continuous. Chocolates and ices were sold by attendants from trays on wheels. The pianist had to operate in a curtained off enclosure. The music had to be adapted to the theme of the film, such as exciting, or sad and tearful passages, and the timing was important. As time went on, a violin was added, even a cello. In some of the sad moments of a film the musicians must have been crying their eyes out and too upset to eat or drink their lunch, during a break.

Comment: John Blake was born in 1899, one of seven children of a plumber’s mate. The Reverend Alfred Tildsley was Baptist pastor of the Poplar and Bromley Tabernacle. Tildsley came to the Tabernacle in 1898, and turned round a debt-ridden and neglected mission through an energetic programme of activities, which included what he called the Pleasant Thursday Evening series. These weekly meetings combined music, stories, lantern slides, and – from 1900 onwards – films. See Dean R. Rapp, ‘A Baptist Pioneer: The exhibition of film to London’s East End working classes 1900-1918,’ Baptist Quarterly vol. 40 (2003), pp. 6-10. Lieutenant Rose was a character who featured in a series of films made by British film company Clarendon.

The Child and the Cinematograph Show

Source: Canon H.D. Rawnsley, The Child and the Cinematograph Show and the Picture Post-Card Evil (reprinted from the Hibbert Journal, vol. xi. 1913), pp. 3-11

Text: It is not improbable that the cinematograph film has a good deal to answer for in this matter of the public demand for horror and sensation. On many of the hoardings near the cinematograph halls or pavilions, beneath the sensational programmes are written such words as “nerve-thrillers”, “eye-openers tonight”, and when we turn to these programmes we cannot help noticing that it is the horrible that draws. “Massacre; a terrible tragedy, 2000 feet”; “The Wheel of Destruction”; “The Motor Car Race: the car when going at prodigious speed overturns and buries its living occupants. Don’t miss this”. “Dante’s hell”, the Devil film, with a huge invitation beneath it, “Don’t miss this opportunity of seeing Satan – Satan and the Creator; Satan and the Saviour, 4000 feet in length”; all these are signs of a downgrade pandering to a sense of horror which is being fostered throughout the length and breadth of the land by the downgrade film.

I spoke to a boy, about twelve years old, who had attended a cinematograph show in a little country town a week or two ago, and he positively trembled as he reported what he had seen. He said, “I shall never go again. It was horrible”. I said, “What was horrible?” He said, “I saw a man cut his throat”.

As I write, a friend tells me that a week or two ago his neighbours, seeing pictures of Sarah Bernhardt advertised as the chief item in a cinematograph show, visited the hall with their little daughter. They found to their disgust the bulk of the entertainment was sensational horrors of such a character that in consequence they were obliged to sit up all night with the child, who constantly woke with screams and cries …

Nor is this sense of horror alone appealed to. Many of these films prove to be direct incentives to crime. Clever burglaries are exhibited before the eyes of mischievous boys, who at once have their attention called to the possibility of the “expert cracksman’s life” …

In the face of the claims of the cinematograph proprietors that the exhibitions are for the moral improvement and amusement of the masses, and in opposition to all the tall talk about the educational value of the film to which the trade from time to time treats us, we have only to reply, “Look at your posters and the items of horror or fierce excitement or degrading sensationalism which, in spite of Mr Redford and his censorship, are still being exhibited up and down the country, to the detriment and discouragement of the nobler feelings of gentleness and compassion!”

The worst of it all is, that neither the police nor the agents of the cinematograph firms who are sent out as exhibitors, are sufficiently educated to know what is horrible and what is not. Thus, for example, when the mayor was appealed to in a town where the most terrible exhibition of the horrors of hell and the tortures of the damned were being visibly enacted as illustrations in gross caricature of Dante’s Inferno, he in turn appealed to the police to visit the cinematograph hall and report. The officer who was well up in the legal aspect of the case and was probably on the look-out for a criminally indecent film as a thing to be objected to, reported to the mayor that he could see nothing objectionable in this horrible Hell film, and therefore had not thought it necessary to speak to the exhibitor …

It is not only the sensational, cruel, or crime film that is sowing seeds of corruption among the people. The film manufacturers have invaded the most holy mysteries of our religious faith. There can be no question that in suitable surroundings, and with specially reverent treatment, pictures from the life of our Lord may be impressive and educational, but the idea of exploiting the life of our Lord as a commercial speculation, and the getting of a troupe of actors to go out to Palestine and pose in situ as His disciples, and as impersonators of the scenes described in the Gospels, is in itself abhorrent; and the quickness of motion needed by the film takes away reverence and imparts a sense of what is artificial, and sometimes almost comic …

It is not only the health of the religious and moral sense and spiritual understanding of the child which needs safeguarding. The time has come when the educationists of the country must realise that it is no use spending millions of money upon elementary education if children beneath school age are allowed to attend a cinematograph show till eleven o’clock at night, and then go home so overwrought and excited by the scenes they had witnessed that sleep is impossible.

I say overwrought advisedly, for it was reported in the press a short time ago that a child going home from a cinematograph hall pleaded piteously with a policeman to protect him from those two men with long beards that were following him. The two men with long beards were two ruffians that he had seen, and actually supposed to be living beings, in a cinematograph film that night …

… A census was taken on a certain Saturday in November last, in Liverpool, with the result that it was proved that there were 13,332 children below the age of fourteen present at matinees held in twenty-seven halls in that city, which appeared to cater especially for children so far as the price of entrance was concerned. The children’s ages … ranged from four or five up to thirteen, and they were viewing the ordinary films shown at the other performances during the rest of the week. Parts of the programme were composed of pictures of a sensational character, some showing crimes, others serious accidents, while not a few were suggestive of immorality.

Comment: Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley (1851-1920) was an outspoken critic of the cinema, who wrote and lectured widely on its supposed evil effects on children. The Dante film referred to is the Italian production L’inferno (1911). The troupe of actors going to Palestine is a reference to the American film company Kalem’s production of From the Manger to the Cross, made in 1912. George A. Redford was the first president of the British Board of Film Censors.

My Part of the River

Source: Grace Foakes, My Part of the River (London: Shepheard-Walwyn, 1974), p. 105

Text: One particular event stands out in my mind. It was a Sunday afternoon and I tried to persuade Kathleen to come with me to the Premierland Cinema in Backchurch Lane. She pointed out that it was a Sunday and that it was wicked to go to the pictures on Sunday. Wicked or not, I was not in the least worried by that. What did worry me was the possibility of my parents finding out. Eventually, after much argument, I had my way and we went. The entrance fee was twopence each. Where we obtained our money I cannot remember, but we had it and I was all set to enjoy the afternoon.

It was a silent film called ‘Broken Blossoms’, starring Lilian Gish. I sat enthralled, transported into another world. Presently I heard a sniff. Looking at Kathleen I saw she was crying bitterly. Surprised, I asked her what was the matter. ‘Oh, Grace, come out! It’s wicked and God will punish us,’ she cried. She made such a to-do that I very reluctantly came out in the middle of the most interesting part. I’m sorry to say I nagged poor Kathleen all the way home, for I had no conscience at all.

Comment: Grace Foakes wrote three memoirs of a childhood spent in poverty in pre-World War One London: Between High Walls, My Part of the River and My Life with Reuben. Premierland was located in Back Church Lane, Stepney. The American film Broken Blossoms, directed by D.W. Griffith (and set in London), was released in 1919.