Movies and Conduct

Source: ‘College senior, a girl of 22 years, of native white parentage’, quoted in Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), pp. 213-217

Text: Considerably influenced by the gospel of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, I have for the past few years held the complacent attitude that “the movies were made for morons,” that they were an inferior order of entertainment, and that I was possessed of an intellect decidedly too keen to be swayed by such a low order of art. But as I detach myself from this groundless generalization and consider objectively my motion picture experiences, it appears that, on the contrary, I am at least temporarily very acutely affected.

The movies could not have wielded a very great or enduring influence over me, however, for the reason that I have never been a chronic devotee. All the eighteen years of my life I have lived in a small town whose only picture palace was a small, dark, ill-ventilated hole, frequented by every type of person. As I was rather frail, and an only child, my mother regularly discouraged attendance there; I do not recall ever seeing a movie unaccompanied by one of my parents until I was eleven years old. The theater was called the Critic, a name indicative of the types of shows presented to attract the ardent Baptist population.

My first recollection of a movie is still a very vivid one. I could not have been more than five at the time, when Mother took me to a matinee to see Charlie Chaplin. We arrived early, just in the middle of a “serial,” which was shown in weekly installments. It was called “The Claw,” and revolved about a villainous character whose right hand was replaced by an iron hook. I can still see this claw reaching out from behind a bridge to grab the heroine. Even the following antics of the famous comedian failed to soften my terrified impressions, and for weeks after I slept with the light on at night and peered carefully under the bed each morning before setting foot on the floor.

I also remember seeing at a later date other “serials” in one of which a mother and her child, shipwrecked, drifted about the Atlantic Ocean clinging to a log, while the struggling husband and father drowned before their eyes; and in the other of which occurred a forest fire. All my earliest impressions were those of fear – very real and vivid.

A little later on, however, between the ages of about six and nine, the movies began to work their way into our play. At one period, our favorite game was “Sandstorm,” an idea derived directly from some desert picture now forgotten. The two little boys with whom I played and I would hide in our caravan, the davenport, and watch the storm sweep over the horizon. When it reached us, we would battle our way through it, eventually to fall prostrate in the middle of the room, where we would lie until the storm blew over. Then we would get up and start the game over.

Another popular pastime, which was undoubtedly affected by certain “Western” pictures was “Cowboy.” My father had at one time lived on a coffee plantation in Mexico and owned and provided us with all the necessary regalia – ten-gallon hats, spurs, ‘kerchiefs, and holsters. The pistols which went with the outfit we were not allowed to have, but carried instead carved wooden guns. Stories of Father’s own (fictitious?) experiences were combined with movie scenarios to form what was for two years our great game. I do not recall any specific instances of our imitating the two-reelers, but I do know that Father obtained and autographed for us greatly cherished photographs of the inimitable William S. Hart.

After I entered school, my tastes changed rapidly from the hairbreadth, wild and woolly Westerners and slap-stick comedies to more sentimental forms. Until the time I entered Junior High, I was interested in the actresses, the heroines. I preferred them sweet, blonde, and fluffy – everything that I was not. I doted on misty close-ups of tear-streamed faces. In the sixth grade, my best friend and I were constantly imitating Mary Miles Minter and Mary Pickford, respectively. Later on I became, in turn, Alice Calhoun and Constance Talmadge, but my friend remained true to her first crush. In classes we wrote notes to each other, and signed them “Mary,” “Alice,” or whatever names we had at the time adopted.

After the seventh grade, however, my attentions again shifted, this time to the male actors. I had become boy-conscious, and, affecting an utter disdain toward all boys of my acquaintance, I took delight in the handsome and heroic men of the screen. I liked nearly all of them, as long as they were neither too old nor too paternal (like Thomas Meighan), but I especially favored Charles Ray, Harrison Ford, and, above all, Wallace Reid. He epitomized all I thought young manhood should be clean, good-looking, daring, and debonair. All the girls of my age and most of the boys liked him. We saw such pictures as “Clarence,” “The Affairs of Anatole,” and “Mr. Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.”

As a young high-school student, I attended the movies largely for the love scenes. Although I never admitted it to my best friend, the most enjoyable part of the entire picture was inevitably the final embrace and fade-out. I always put myself in the place of the heroine. If the hero was some man by whom I should enjoy being kissed (as he invariably was), my evening was a success and I went home in an elated, dreamy frame of mind, my heart beating rather fast and my usually pale cheeks brilliantly flushed. I used to look in the mirror somewhat admiringly and try to imagine Wallace Reid or John Barrymore or Richard Barthelmess kissing that face! It seems ridiculous if not disgusting now, but until my Senior year this was the closest I came to Romance. And then I fell in love with a boy that looked remarkably like
Dick Barthelmess.

I liked my movies pure Romance: beautiful heroines in distress, handsome gallants in love, gorgeous costumes, and happy endings. “When Knighthood Was in Flower,” “Robin Hood,” “Beau Brummel,” and “Monsieur Beaucaire” were favorites, although as a rule I didn’t like screen versions of books I had read and loved. (“The Three Musketeers” was an example of an adored book grossly insulted.) In a life which was monotonous with all the placidity of a Baptist small town, these movies and books were about all the excitement one could enjoy.

I never liked pictures with a moral, unless it was so subtly expressed that I was unaware of its preaching. Such movies as “The Ten Commandments,” and more recently the “King of Kings,” impressed me as gorgeous spectacles, but too flagrant in their moralizing, so that in parts I was bored to the point of antagonism. A renovated production of “Ten Nights in a Barroom” was so bad it bordered on a screamingly funny burlesque. Just recently, however, I saw “White Shadows in the South Seas,” and was surprised to discover how deeply I was affected by the propaganda.

Over-sexed plays were always more or less repulsive. I remember especially “Flesh and the Devil” with the Garbo-Gilbert combination and an older one starring Gloria Swanson and Valentino. I liked neither. The former embarrassed and the latter bored me.

I have always been unrestrained in my emotions at a motion picture. My uncontrollable weeping at sad movies has been a never-ending source of mortification. I recall first shedding tears over the fate of some deserted water-baby when I was about eight years old, and I have wept consistently and unfailingly ever since, from “Penrod and Sam” to “Beau Geste.” The latter, which I liked as well as any picture I have ever seen, caused actual sobbing both times I saw it. I weep at scenes in which others can see no pathos whatsoever. Recently I have refused to see a half-dozen notably sad shows because of their distressing effects.

I do not believe the movies have ever stimulated me to a real thought, as books have done. Neither have they influenced me on questions of morals, of right and wrong. They have given me a more or less fluctuating standard of the ideal man – in general, the good-looking, dreamy, boyish type – and the kind of lover he must be – sincere, thoughtful, and tender. They have given me my ideas of luxury – sunken baths, silken chaises-lounges, arrays of servants and powerful motors; of historical background – medieval castles, old Egyptian palaces, gay Courts; and of geographical settings – the moonlit water framed in palms of the South Seas, the snow fields of the far North, the Sahara, the French Riviera, and numerous others. I suppose they have from time to time influenced my conception of myself; although I was not aware of this until recently when I saw “A Woman of Affairs,” the film version of Michael Arlen’s “Green Hat.” For days after I was consciously striving to be the “Gallant Lady”; to face a petty world squarely and uncomplainingly; to see things with her broad, sophisticated vision; even to walk and to smoke with her serene nonchalance. I, too, wished to be a gallant lady.

On the whole, I doubt if the movies have wielded much of an influence on my life; not because they were incapable of it, but because they have had too little opportunity. In my youth, my family discouraged attendance at the local cinema, and as I grew older, I formed other interests. Since the first of October, I have seen no more than ten pictures. Two of these impressed me immensely; three of them I could not sit through. Last year I used to go mainly to hear the organ music, but with the advent of the Vitaphone, this attraction is dispensed with. I dislike the stage shows presented at the leading theaters, and also the “talkies.” I usually attend a movie for rest and relaxation, and a bellowing, hollow voice or a raucous vaudeville act does not add to my pleasure. I like my movies unadulterated, silent, and far-between.

Comments: American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. This extract comes from Appendix C, ‘Typical Examples of the Longer Motion Picture Autobiographies’.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Percival Frederick Chambers , C707/145/1-2, 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: Ah now, the cinema. In West Norwood my parents had a shop. A sweetshop where she – t[h]ey – my mother used to make all her own sweets. She had the sweetshop. My father was still at work. When he came home he used to help her make the sweets by pulling the sugar over the hook on the door you see. And we – the – in return for the – showing the bills of this – of the – cinema or the movies or whatever you like to call them – they used to issue so many free tickets which I used to go with on the Saturday afternoon and in return for that we use[d] to get in for a penny. And that used to be in – in Brixton. Now I used to go every week and there was a serial. In Acre Lane Brixton, opposite the town hall, and there was series they were running, a pirate series and of course being – a boy like other boys, there was always a rush and we all wanted to see this series and we – we didn’t want to miss any, we had to see the lot to get the story. Well that to be penny on the tram to Brixton, go to the pictures and back again and do the whole lot for about tuppence. Yes.

Comments: Percival Chambers (1894-?) was born in Kettering before his family moved to Cambridge and then West Norwood in London. His father was a stonemason. At the time recalled here (early 1910s) there were two cinemas in Acre Lane: The Brixton Arch and the Theatre de Luxe. He 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).

So Laugh a Little

Source: Molly Picon, So Laugh a Little (New York: Julian Messner, 1962), pp. 136-142

Text: If someone were to write a history of the movies from the fan’s point of view, he would have to include my grandmother. From the day she walked in to see her first nickelodeon, she was completely captivated by Hollywood. She might not have gone to the nickelodeon if my grandfather hadn’t used every argument he could muster to get her there – what did she need it for, she cried, the first time the subject came up, she had a million things to to around the house, she didn’t feel like getting all dressed up, if he wanted to go, she wouldn’t stand in his way. My grandfather patiently outwaited all her cogent reasons for not leaving the house and eventually bore her off triumphantly to witness the marvel of moving pictures. Afterwards he used to complain that a man didn’t know when he was well off, why hadn’t he left well enough alone, if he had known how she would react he would have had his head examined before he talked her into it. My grandmother would smile and wave her hand at him and tell him not to get excited, at least she wasn’t a gambler or a drinker. My grandmother didn’t need alcoholic stimulation; she was intoxicated by the silver screen. Although she loved the theatre, she never responded to it the way she did to the movies. I have often thought that the plays she saw on the Yiddish stage hit too close to home; the situations were exaggerated, perhaps, but always contained nuggets of reality; the people were too easily identified with. They were, after all, her own people. But up there on the screen, magnified out of all contact with her world, scenes would unfold before her that would transport her into a never-never land. Even when she didn’t understand what was happening – and this occurred more often than not – she still loved every minute of it.

When I would ask her what she had seen, she would shrug her shoulders and say, “Do I know? They were hitting and fighting, and the girl didn’t like the good-looking one, and then she did like him, and then she changed her mind again. I don’t know what’s the matter with the girls today. In my time nobody asked you. You got married and that finished it.”

“Then you didn’t care for the picture?” I asked.

“Didn’t care for it?” she repeated incredulously. “With all that fighting and hitting and that poor boy up there eating his heart out for her? Why didn’t I like it?”

She became such an avid movie fan that Helen and I had to sit and read every little bit of gossip we could find in the papers to her, up to and including the blurbs of coming attractions. To my grandmother this wasn’t gossip, but gospel. She never for a moment doubted that every word was true. After all, it was printed, right there, in black and white. In those days, we lost my grandmother regularly once a week. For this was the era of the weekly serial, and Pearl White was its human sacrifice in fifteen installments. In spite of my grandmother’s shrieking warnings, Pearl White always managed to get herself into utterly hopeless situations. She would be huddling in some dank cellar while up above the villain would be peering down at her through a convenient hole in the floor, threatening to flood the cellar and drown poor Pearl unless she immediately and forthwith yielded what my grandmother always called her “good name.” Both Pearl White and my grandmother rejected these advances haughtily, no matter what the consequences. And the villain, of course, would then promptly turn on the waterworks.

All week long, my grandmother would worry and fret and strain for the days to pass so she could see how Pearl was doing. Pearl would escape from drowning only to wind up, at the end of that particular installment, in an even more precarious position, maybe tied to the railroad tracks, or about to be evenly distributed in a sawmill, or hanging by her fingertips from a cliff whilst the villain carefully and painstakingly lifted her fingers, one by one. I remember one time my grandmother was ill and unable to attend the next showing. She went into an absolute frenzy. I couldn’t go, because I was involved in a rehearsal. Helen was out of town. My mother had to stay home and take care of my grandmother. That left only my grandfather, who regarded the whole thing as bordering on simple insanity. “I should spend a beautiful day in the dark to watch a girl make a fool of herself,” he scoffed. “This week she’ll hang by the neck, and next week she’ll hang by the toes, and after the fifteen weeks is up, she’ll only start all in again with the foolishness. You would think with all the trouble she gets into that she would learn something.”

“Aaron, I beg you,” my grandmother pleaded. “I left her last week the house was burning down, and she was choking … such choking she was purple in the face. Like this she was, Aaron …” And my grandmother went into a graphic illustration that almost purpled her own face, but my grandfather remained unmoved.

“So what are you so worried?” he replied indifferently. “You think they’ll let anything happen to her? And for her I should miss my checkers?”

Even my grandmother couldn’t expect my grandfather to give up a checker game for Pearl White. All week she brooded. A whole episode missed and gone forever. When she would return to the theatre, Pearl would be facing a completely new peril. It was too much for flesh and blood to stand, my grandmother complained. As soon as she was well, she hurried off to the theatre and cornered the manager.

“Mr. Brody,” she panted. “From you I can have an answer. Tell me what happened last week. One foot I don’t put outside this office till I hear what happened.”

“God love you, Mrs. Ostrow,” said Mr. Brody, who had come to know my grandmother very well, in weekly installments, “how would I be knowing that? I’ve more adventures of my own keeping an eye on the little devils that come to watch her than she’ll ever be having.”

My grandmother couldn’t believe it. She herself would sit through both showings of the serial, just in the hope that it might come out differently at the end the second time, and here was Mr. Brody, with such a golden opportunity, who didn’t even care!

“Do you have any idea what the little monsters do here of an afternoon?” Mr. Brody warmed up to his subject as one who had had much practice. “I won’t mention the condition of the floors, with the boxes and papers and bags filled with banana peels and apple cores,” he said, waving an angry finger under my grandmother’s nose. “Nor do I care to mention the state of the bathrooms in front of a lady. But do you have any idea what happens to the seats?” He clutched his head. “The black plague on him that invented chewing gum!”

“I ask him about last week and he gives me chewing gum. Mr. Brody. A whole week I’m dying …”

“It’s the back of my hand to the next whippersnapper I see with a mouthful of the stuff.” Mr. Brody, my grandmother could understand, was too full of his own woes to be concerned with hers. She left his office, muttering to herself angrily. Fortunately she ran into an usher who was as much enraptured with Pearl White as my grandmother.

“Ya dint see ut?” he whispered, aghast.

“I was sick. Please. I’m dying. How did she get out of the fire?”

“It was the cat’s pajamas,” the usher said. “Ya know how she dint see no way outa there, an thuh fire gettin’ closer alla time, and she was kinda chokin’ up from the smoke …?”

“Yeh, yeh, I know the fire and the smoke … what did she do?”

“Well, just when it looked like she was a goner, she noticed a little door she never seen before and …”

And turned the knob and escaped into the clean, outside world to start running from the villain in Chapter Ten, to be seen at this theatre next week, don’t miss this exciting episode.

When talking pictures came in, my grandmother became an even more ardent fan. She would come home beaming and repeat the story to us whether we wanted to hear it or not. Since the plot suffered considerably in the retelling, it was like trying to solve a puzzle with half the pieces missing. For some reason or other, my grandmother would identify the actor or actress with the role he was playing, so that if John Gilbert’s name in the story was Henry, he would remain Henry to her.

I’ll never forget the day she saw Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. She sobbed so hard through this performance that even after the curtain swished across the screen and the house fights were put on, she sat in her seat and cried vigorously. She came home with a bagful of sodden handkerchiefs, convinced that Al Jolson had sustained a terrible loss. In the picture, he sang a tearjerker called Sonny Boy to an angelic-faced child who subsequently died. Nothing could persuade my grandmother that this boy was not Al Jolson’s child. For weeks she would walk around the house, heaving racking sighs and wiping tears from her eyes.

“Bubba. For heaven’s sake,” I said, annoyed. “It was only a picture! That boy will be in a dozen new pictures before the year is over.”

“What do you know how a father’s heart can break? Wait. When you’re a mother, you’ll understand what it is to have love for a child.”

“But, Bubba. That child did not die. It was just a story.”

“Malkele,” she replied sorrowfully. “I know you mean well and you’re trying to make me feel better. But you’re young yet. You don’t know what real suffering is.”

From that time on, she became especially interested in Al Jolson’s career. If she heard gossip that was good, she felt considerably cheered. If she heard comments that were unfavorable, she would shake her head gravely and say, “That poor man hasn’t been the same since he lost his little boy.”

As she became older, she preferred stories with modern settings. When we took her to see a picture depicting early days in man’s history, she would turn to me or to Yonkel and say disapprovingly, “Why do you take me to see a picture made in olden days?”

“Bubba,” I would answer. “The picture wasn’t made in those days. The movies are practically brand new. That is a picture that just came out this year from Hollywood.”

“Go on,” she denied unbelievingly, “don’t I see with my own eyes what they’re wearing and how they are living?”

We discovered, after a while, that my grandmother would go to the movies for still another reason than to see what was playing. It was so dark and cozy and relaxing, my grandmother found it ideal for sleeping. The music would crash through the theatre; sirens would wail; heroines would shriek. My grandmother would doze blissfully through it all, awaken refreshed, and remark that she didn’t remember when she had enjoyed a picture more.

Finally my grandmother took to going to see foreign films. This was somewhat of a puzzle to me, since she had rough going with American films. One day I spoke to her as she was busily preparing to go to a Spanish movie.

“Bubba,” I protested. “A Spanish movie you want to see? Do you understand Spanish?”

She looked at me, and her eyes crinkled with amusement as she answered, “And who understands English?”

My grandmother was constantly amazed at the new innovations in the motion picture field, but I think there was never a time to equal, for her, the Pearl White days. Once, when I took her to see some mystery film, remembering how she loved the suspense in the old-time serials, she turned to me and said, “You think she is suffering?” – pointing scornfully to the quaking heroine on the screen – “you should have seen little Pearlie White. She was a real wreck.”

Comments: Molly Picon (1898-1992) was a renowned American star of Yiddish theatre and film. The above is a chapter from her memoir (‘as told Eth Clifford Rosenberg’) of her family and upbringing. Her Ostrovsky (later Ostrow) grandparents came from Rizshishtchov in Russia, where Picon’s mother was born. Molly Picon herself was born in New York. Al Jolson’s song ‘Sonny Boy’ comes from the film The Singing Fool (USA 1928), not The Jazz Singer (USA 1927). Pearl White starred in the serial The Perils of Pauline (USA 1914).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Unreliable Memoirs

Source: Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980), pp. 43-47

Text: Every Saturday afternoon at the pictures there was a feature film, sixteen cartoons and an episode each from four different serials. The programme just went on and on like Bayreuth. The Margaret Street children would join up with the Irene Street children and the combined mass would add themselves unto the Sunbeam Avenue children and the aggregate would join the swarm from all the other areas all moving north along Rocky Point Road towards Rockdale, where the Odeon stood. In summer the concrete paths were hot. The asphalt footpaths were even hotter: bubbles of tar formed, to be squashed flat by our leathery bare feet. Running around on macadamised playgrounds throughout the spring, by summer we had feet that could tread on a drawing pin and hardly feel it.

When you got to the Odeon the first thing you did was stock up with lollies. Lollies was the word for what the English call sweets and the Americans call candy. Some of the more privileged children had upwards of five shillings each to dispose of, but in fact two bob was enough to buy you as much as you could eat. Everyone, without exception, bought at least one Hoadley’s Violet Crumble Bar. It was a slab of dense, dry honeycomb coated with chocolate. So frangible was the honey comb that it would shatter when bitten, scattering bright yellow shrapnel. It was like trying to eat a Ming vase. The honeycomb would go soft only after a day’s exposure to direct sunlight. The chocolate surrounding it, however, would liquefy after only ten minutes in a dark cinema.

[…]

Everyone either ate steadily or raced up and down the aisles to and from the toilet, or all three. The uproar was continuous, like Niagara. Meanwhile the programme was unreeling in front of us. The feature film was usually a Tarzan, a Western, or the kind of Eastern Western in which George Macready played the grand vizier. At an even earlier stage I had been to the pictures with my mother and been continuously frightened without understanding what was going on – the mere use of music to reinforce tension, for example, was enough to drive me under the seat for the rest of the evening. At a later stage I accompanied my mother to every change of evening double bill both at Ramsgate and Rockdale – a total of four films a week, every week for at least a decade. But nothing before or since had the impact of those feature films at the Rockdale Saturday matinees.

In those days Johnny Weissmuller was making his difficult transfer from Tarzan to Jungle Jim. As Tarzan he got fatter and fatter until finally he was too fat to be plausible, whereupon he was obliged to put on a safari suit and become Jungle Jim. I was glad to to learn subsequently that as Jungle Jim he had a piece of the action and was at last able to bank some money. At the time, his transmogrification looked to me like an unmitigated tragedy. His old Tarzan movies were screened again and again. Many times I dived with Tarz off Brooklyn Bridge during the climactic scene of Tarzan’s New York Adventure. In my mind I duplicated the back somersaults executed by Johnny’s double as he swung from vine to vine on his way to rescue the endangered Jane and Boy from the invading ivory hunters. In one of the Tarzan movies there is a terrible sequence where one lot of natives gives another lot an extremely thin time by arranging pairs of tree trunks so that they will fly apart and pull the victim to pieces. This scene stayed with me as a paradigm of evil. No doubt if I saw the same film today I would find the sequence as crudely done as everything else ever filmed on Poverty Row. But at the time it seemed a vision of cruelty too horrible even to think about.

I can remember having strong ideas about which cartoons were funny and which were not. Mr Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing, with their stylised backgrounds and elliptical animation, had not yet arrived on the scene. Cartoons were still in that hyper-realist phase which turns out in retrospect to have been their golden age. The standards of animation set by Walt Disney and MGM cost a lot of time, effort and money, but as so often happens the art reached it height at the moment of maximum resistance from the medium. Knowing nothing of these theoretical matters, I simply consumed the product. I knew straight away that the Tom and Jerry cartoons were the best. In fact I even knew straight away that some Tom and Jerry cartoons were better than others. There was an early period when Tom’s features were puffy and he ran with a lope, motion being indicated by the streaks that animators call speed lines. In the later period Tom’s features had an acute precision and his every move was made fully actual, with no stylisation at all. Meanwhile Jerry slimmed down and acquired more expressiveness. The two periods were clearly separated in my mind, where they were dubbed ‘old drawings’ and ‘new drawings’. I remember being able to tell which category a given Tom and Jerry cartoon fell into from seeing the first few frames. Eventually I could tell just from the logo. I remember clearly the feeling of disappointment if it was going to be old drawings and the feeling of elation if it was going to be new drawings.

But the serials were what caught my imagination most, especially the ones in which the hero was masked. It didn’t occur to me until much later that the producers, among whom Sam Katzman was the doyen, kept the heroes masked so that the leading actors could not ask for more money. At the time it just seemed logical to me that a hero should wear a masked. It didn’t have to be as elaborate as Batman’s mask. I admired Batman, despite the worrying wrinkles in the arms and legs of his costume, which attained a satisfactory tautness only in the region of his stomach. But Robin’s mask was easier to copy. So was the Black Commando’s. My favourite serials were those in which masked men went out at night and melted mysteriously into the urban landscape. Science fiction serials were less appealing at that stage, while white hunter epics like The Lost City of the Jungle merely seemed endless. I saw all fourteen episodes of The Lost City of the Jungle except the last. It would have made no difference if I had only seen the last episode and missed the thirteen leading up to it. The same things happened every week. Either two parties of white hunters in solar topees searched for each other in one part of the jungle, or else the same two parties of white hunters in solar topees sought to avoid each other in another part of the jungle. Meanwhile tribesmen from the Lost City either captured representatives of both parties and took them to the High Priestess for sacrifice, or else ran after them when they escaped. Sometimes white hunters escaping ran into other white hunters being captured, and were either recaptured or helped the others escape. It was obvious even to my unschooled eyes that there was only about half an acre of jungle, all of it composed of papier mâché. By the end of each episode it was beaten flat. The screen would do a spiral wipe around an image of the enthroned High Priestess, clad in a variety of tea-towels and gesturing obdurately with a collection of prop sceptres while one of the good white hunters – you could tell a good one from a bad one by the fact that a bad one always sported a very narrow moustache – was lowered upside down into a pit of limp scorpions.

Comments: Clive James (born 1939) is an Australian broadcaster, critic, poet and essayist. These extracts from his first volume of memoirs cover the period of the late 1940s. The films mentioned include Tarzan’s New York Adventure (USA 1942), Batman (1943, 15 episodes), The Secret Code (USA 1942, 15 episodes, featuring ‘The Black Commando’) and The Lost City of the Jungle (USA 1946, 13 episodes). There were numerous Jungle Jim films from 1948 onwards. Rockdale is a suburb of Sydney.

Movies and Conduct

Source: ‘Female, 19, white, college junior’, quoted in Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 145

Text: But I shall positively say that Warner Oland, the oriental-looking villain of the screen, was responsible for my mortal dread of Chinamen. Whenever I saw one I would run as fast as my little legs would carry me and palpitating with fear would cling close to my reassuring mother. He, Warner Oland, was always wicked in his role of the canny, cunning, heartless mandarin who pursued Pearl White through so many serials. I carried over this impression to all Asiatics, so that they all seemed to conceal murderous intent behind their bland features, their humble attitude merely a disguise until the time was ripe to seize you and kill you, or, worse yet, to make you a slave. I never passed by our Chinese laundry without increasing my speed, glancing apprehensively through the window to detect him at some foul deed, expecting every moment one of his supposed white slave girls to come dashing out of the door. If I heard some undue disturbance at night outside, I was certain that “Mark Woo” was at his usual work of torturing his victims. I have not been able to this day to erase that apprehensive feeling whenever I see a Chinese person, so deep and strong were those early impressions.

Comments: American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. This extract comes from the chapter ‘Schemes of Life’, section ‘Stereotyped Views’. The Swedish-American actor Warner Oland frequently played oriental characters, including Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. Serials in which he appeared with Pearl White were The Romance of Elaine (1915), The Fatal Ring (1917) and The Lightning Raider (1919).

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

Movies and Conduct

Source: ‘Female, 19, white, college junior’, quoted in Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 145

Text: But I shall positively say that Warner Oland, the oriental-looking villain of the screen, was responsible for my mortal dread of Chinamen. Whenever I saw one I would run as fast as my little legs would carry me and palpitating with fear would cling close to my reassuring mother. He, Warner Oland, was always wicked in his role of the canny, cunning, heartless mandarin who pursued Pearl White through so many serials. I carried over this impression to all Asiatics, so that they all seemed to conceal murderous intent behind their bland features, their humble attitude merely a disguise until the time was ripe to seize you and kill you, or, worse yet, to make you a slave. I never passed by our Chinese laundry without increasing my speed, glancing apprehensively through the window to detect him at some foul deed, expecting every moment one of his supposed white slave girls to come dashing out of the door. If I heard some undue disturbance at night outside, I was certain that “Mark Woo” was at his usual work of torturing his victims. I have not been able to this day to erase that apprehensive feeling whenever I see a Chinese person, so deep and strong were those early impressions.

Comments: American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. This extract comes from the chapter ‘Schemes of Life’, section ‘Stereotyped Views’. The Swedish-American actor Warner Oland frequently played oriental characters, including Fu Manchu and Charlie Chan. Serials in which he appeared with Pearl White were The Romance of Elaine (1915), The Fatal Ring (1917) and The Lightning Raider (1919).

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

The London Nobody Knows

biograph

Saturday afternoon at the Biograph, Victoria [book illustration]

Source: Geoffrey Fletcher, The London Nobody Knows (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1966) [orig. pub. 1962], pp. 112-114

Text: Early cinemas of the Edwardian period and up to the Great War occurred in all the London suburbs; these, often family owned, have been less able to stand up to the competition of television than the larger circuits, and consequently many have disappeared or else been modernized and spoiled like the Classic in King’s Road, Chelsea. Many of these cinemas were of a delightfully ham-fisted Baroque, with fat Tuscan columns that appeared to be in danger of being squashed by the loads that they supported. This exaggerated entasis was equalled by an exaggerated abundant decorations – swags, festoons, and the like carried out in stucco or terracotta. I have never been fortunate enough to find a Gothic cinema, though Tudor-style ones occurred. Cinemas followed the pattern of shapes evolved by the theatre and were naturally built in the prevailing style of the day, i.e. Edwardian Baroque, redolent of Imperial expansion and big cigars. Fortunately the earliest cinema in London – the earliest in the country, in fact – still survives in Wilton Road, Victoria – the Biograph, originally the Bioscope. My drawing of it is reproduced on p. 113. Pimlico people have been ‘going to the Bio’ since it was built in 1905 by an American, George Washington Grant. The Bio still has its classical façade, and apart from changes in the equipment, the only alteration was when the auditorium was enlarged, the new wall being a replica of the old. But the gas jets have gone and the commissionaires with heavy moustaches – gone like the horse buses that used to run along the Vauxhall Bridge Road. When my drawing was made, the customers were watching The Fiend from Outer Space instead of Mary Pickford as the little slavey with a heart of gold.

column

Inside, two Corinthian columns (illustrated at the head of this page), wallpapered with Anaglypta below, support the projection box, the width of which is that of the cinema in 1905. Below the ‘ceiling’ formed by the box runs and Edwardian egg and dart moulding – a typical early cinema decorations. In the foyer a framed copy of the Biograph Weekly News, distributed gratis. This forms rich reading at the present day. The issue in the frame is that for the week commencing 16 September 1929, and has the headline: ‘Talkies Coming Here!!’ A letter from the manager announces ‘our first talking picture’ – Show Boat on 30 September. Elsewhere in the paper a newsy item states that ‘workmen were labouring day and night to bring you the greater talkies as soon as possible’. Other forthcoming attractions of that period included William Boyd in The Cop and a supporting film called The Mystery of the Louvre. Betty Balfour was to appear in Paradise and Rin Tin Tin in The Million Dollar Collar. Prices were 2s., 1s. 3d., and 9d., children at reduced rates, ‘special children’s matinee 4d.’ (I remember those children’s 4d. matinees; how noisy they were and the way the films rained! And those serials, ending each installment on a fantastic note of drama – the heroine hanging by her finger-tips over a well of crocodiles. The week which had to elapse before her fate could be known was unendurable, but next time she simply had got out, one never knew how, and we were building up to a new crisis even more hair-raising than last week’s dilemma.)

Comments: Geoffrey Fletcher (1923-2004) was a British artist and illustrator, best know for his elegiac 1962 book The London Nobody Knows which was turned into a documentary film in 1967. However, the Biograph was not London’s oldest cinema, nor the country’s oldest, nor was it founded in 1905 – and it was never known as the Bioscope. It was founded in June 1909 as one of the Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd chain. It changed its name from the Electric Theatre to Biograph at some point in the 1910s. As Allen Eyles and Keith Skone point out, in their London’s West End Cinemas (1984), the mistake comes from a wholly erroneous plaque displayed in its foyer. The Biograph closed on 4 August 1983. There was no film entitled The Fiend from Outer Space (possibly he may be thinking of the 1958 film Fiend Without a Face).

British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 50-52

Text: NO. 17
AGE: 18 YRS. 8 MONTHS SEX: F.
FATHER: MECHANICAL ENGINEER, MOTHER: HOUSEWIFE
OCCUPATION: CIVIL SERVICE CLERK P.O. TELEPHONES
NATIONALITY: BRITISH

It was at the tender age of seven, when I first embarked upon the exciting and mysterious adventure of a visit to the cinema, under the supervision of Mother and Father; and ever since then, almost as far back as I can remember, I have had a deep interest in the film world and all concerned with it, an interest which increased in intensity as I grew older. The first film I saw was a silent one, and I remember leaving the cinema feeling rather excited and a wee bit sorry for some poor man, who had fallen head first into a barrel of flower [sic].

Time passed and I became more friendly with the other children in my street, and the excursions to the cinema became frequent and exciting exciting because I began to understand the actors and actresses, and the stories woven around them, which gave us youngsters our regular Saturday afternoon entertainment. To miss even one of these shows with my little playmates was a heart-rending disappointment, because I knew I should miss the next episode in the film serial. The latter was always my firm favourite, whatever the story. I hero-worshipped Larry Crabbe in Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. At this time I would be about nine years old, and even then I was quite jealous if anyone else had a photograph of Mr. Crabbe.

Films affected our play very much. Our second favourite was a good Western film, with plenty of shooting, fighting and fast riding. After becoming thoroughly worked up about Buck Jones or Ken Maynard, we would enact these films, in versions all our own, after school each day the following week.

Donald Duck and Mickey Mouse followed closely on my list in third place. I adored Walt Disney cartoons, and, if I may be so bold as to admit it – I still do!

I disliked animal pictures intensely, because they all made me weep. They might not have been sad, but still I choked up when one was showing. I think it may be as well to add here that in all these months of picturegoing I was never frightened by any film, indeed every film was such a new thrill and experience that I don’t think I ever thought of fear.

During this time, too, new words crept into my vocabulary, and I remember clearly that my parents were quite shocked when I first used the word ‘scram’ before them! I liked to copy expressions used by my favourite actors, and use them often. One of the latter was Shirley Temple, and I liked to think that I could give a very good impression of her singing ‘Animal Crackers’. She was a firm favourite of mine and my friends.

At the age of thirteen, when I was enjoying second year at high school, and when the Saturday trips to the local cinema had ceased, I was experiencing varied emotions as a result of picture-going. It was then that I first began to pick out the films I wanted to see, and to go not just out of habit or for the sake of going, but because I knew just what it was I had a desire to see. Passionate schoolgirl ‘crushes’ followed each other as new and handsome men made their appearances on the screen. Many were the nights I cried myself to sleep because John Howard, Preston Foster or Robert Taylor was so far away. One glimpse of any of them would have sufficed and I felt I would have been the happiest girl in the world. Possessing a vivid imagination, I had wonderful dreams of being discovered by a Hollywood talent-scout, of visiting Hollywood and perhaps even playing opposite one of my favourite movie stars.

But inevitably I had to put these preoccupations in the background because lessons and homework needed concentration; at the age of sixteen I matriculated, and a little later left school to earn my own living.

An important load off my mind, I was again free to think more and spend more time upon what had once been a cherished hobby. I found I had lost none of the former interest; indeed, I indulged in a little wishful dreaming, and the one temptation was to run away from home and become an actress like Jane Withers. This I knew could never materialise, circumstances would not permit, so I had to be content with regular film-going and collecting pictures and magazines.

Then I once remember having a desperate desire to become a nurse, when I saw Rosamund John act so wonderfully well in The Lamp Still Burns; but it was a mere whim because I liked the film so much, and passed away in a matter of days.

So to the present day. The cinema is my main source of entertainment, and I am not really difficult to please as far as films are concerned. I like most kinds of productions but my favourites are flying epics, such as A Guy Named Joe and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, and straight dramatic stories, of the kind that Old Acquaintance represents. I have a deep admiration for Van Johnson, Irene Dunne, Bette Davis and Spencer Tracy; I envy them because their kind of life is so far beyond my reach, because the work they do is so hard and so very interesting, a job after my own heart.

Films have a great influence upon me. I find myself trying to be original in my method of attire, and copy Hollywood beauty ‘tips’ when using make-up: I find it hard to control the emotions aroused by a touching or very dramatic scene, and I cry very easily. The desire to become an actress is still prevalent and my interest in drama has increased. Thus I have become rather dissatisfied with my present existence and with the neighbourhood in which I live, but I love home life and, until the world is at peace again and our loved ones are safely restored to us, I am content to remain as I am, and just to plan and dream about a long awaited trip to that intriguing city of Hollywood, to see for myself everything and everyone that contributes to the making of the entertainment I love so much.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘Films and the Pattern of Life’. The films mentioned are Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars (USA 1938, serial), The Lamp Still Burns (UK 1943), A Guy Named Joe (USA 1943), Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo (USA 1944) and Old Acquaintance (USA 1943).

Saturday Morning Cinema in the 1930s

Source: Terry Gallacher, ‘Saturday Morning Cinema in the 1930s’, from Terence Gallacher’s Recollections of a Career in Film, http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com/2010/11/23/saturday-morning-cinema-in-the-1930s, published 23 November 2010

Text: I did not visit the cinema very often during my childhood. The seats cost four to six pence during the week, so I would be taken by my mother or my father. My mother would take me in the afternoon so that we could get home for her to get dinner on.

I always knew why my father took me to the cinema. He would always fall asleep soon after arrival and would sleep through until it was time to go home. My father relied on me to wake him up at the appropriate time and then tell him what the film was all about. I think that, maybe, at this time I started the process of learning to be a film editor for which memory is everything.

My principal visits to the cinema were on a Saturday morning. It was a ritual which started in 1937. Around eight o’clock in the morning, I would approach my mother for some pocket money. She might give me two pennies, sometimes three, my dad would give me the same. On a bad week, I would have as little as three pence in total. Then I would go up to my Granddad’s room and ask him if he had any money for me to go to the pictures. He would ask me to pass him his small terracotta jar, with a lid, from here he took out some farthings and he would count out four. I had to have four pence to get into the Moorish styled cinema, the Alcazar which started at nine in the morning and ran until midday. Here we would see a couple of “B” movies about kids and animals and then a large number of serials like “Tailspin Tommy”, “The Perils Of Pauline” and “Flash Gordon” and films such as “Tarzan” with Johnny Weissmuller, and the “b westerns” of “Buck Jones” and “Tim McCoy”.

Of course, they were all designed to get us back there next week. Mostly these cliff-hangers were cheating us. Tailspin Tommy would be left plunging to earth in a dive that he could not possibly pull out of. Next week, he would be seen about a hundred foot higher and he pulls out of the dive without a problem. Thus I occupied my Saturday mornings.

The audience were exclusively children, no adults were allowed. Most of the children were restless and rowdy. Frequently the noise of the audience would be greater than the characters on the screen. At this point, the resident warder would march down the centre aisle shouting “Quack”, “Quack”. With my fourpenny ticket, I could sit in the circle, far away from the rabble below. They were so bad, fights were not unknown among the roughest of them. If I could not have got fourpence to sit in the circle, I would not go. It took me a long time to work out that the warder was shouting “Quiet”, it really did sound like “Quack”.

If I had a good day and had rustled up another two pence, I could join the “tuppenny rush” at the Hippodrome across the road. The management of the Hippodrome, early experts in marketing, arranged to open their performance thirty minutes after the show ended at the Alcazar. All those children trying to go from the Alcazar to the Hippodrome would evacuate the former at high speed, run down to the crossing, over the road and queue up outside the latter hall of entertainment.

Traffic was held up while this mob moved from one cinema to the next. The main reason for the rush was that the Hippodrome only held half as many as the Alcazar and you couldn’t risk the chance that more wanted to go to the Hippodrome than it could hold.

In the Hip’, the films were older; the rowdiest of the Alcazar audience were sure to attend (their parents probably suffered considerable hardship raising the extra two pence, just to get rid of them for a few more hours); there were broken seats; seats with the most outrageous mixtures of spilled food, forcing us to inspect each seat before sitting down. The projector frequently broke down, the audience would go wild. They would shout “Ooh, Ooh, Ooh” until the picture came back. For me there was no refuge in a circle, there wasn’t one and there was no “Quack” man. In the Hippodrome, there was only the occasional cry of pain as a rowdy became the recipient of a thick ear. The warder in the Hip’ was silent, but quite active. I don’t know why I went there.

Sadly, the Alcazar was bombed in a very early wartime raid on North London on August 23rd 1940, while the Hip’ was pulled down, much to the relief of the local populace.

Comments: Terence Gallacher is a former newsreel and television news manager and editor who now documents his career through his website http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com. The Alcazar and Hippodrome were in Edmonton, London. The post is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Excerpt from interview with Mrs Hannah Myers, C707/401/1-2, 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: A: But this is how I used to work it, I used to say – you help me – and then I’ll take you out for the afternoon. But any – used to queue up for hours. But it wasn’t a continuous performance. There were certain houses. You see. Until –

Q: What kind of films would they have?

A: Oh – cowboy pictures, and – they used to have serials. And you know – we – he used – if he used to go on a Sunday – to the fair, pictures for a penny, and we used to see Pearl White, and she’d be hanging to the – to the roof of a train by her teeth. And another train’s coming through, we’re all cringing, and then it would come up on the sheet, next week – you see, you see the continuation next week. And we were all – tensed up you know. And – Harold Lloyd.

Q: What day of the week would that be?

A: Well it – any day you could go, for a penny. And over this fair for a penny … You know Mile End Station? At the back of Mile End station was known as the fairground. During the winter there was all sideshows, but – Mr Forest had this – first of all he used to go under a tent. They used to call it the flea pit. Used to be a ha’penny. But when he had it built it was a penny. See, and you used to go in, and you used to get a card. And – it was a lucky number. If you had a lucky number on it – you either won boots or a sack of coal – or – you know, some – articles of clothing. See, the – what this man used to buy for prizes. And it used to be chock-block full. And used to sit on forms. And although it was chock-block full they’d still say, come on, shift up there, shift up there, we were all huddled together and when we used to get these serial pictures you know – and the hair raising stuff that they used to do – we’d all cringe and cringe and cringe, and the kids – and – and people at the back used to say, look behind, look behind, he’s behind the door, he’s behind – of course it used to be silent pictures. Look behind the door. And then it used to come up, continuation next week. And we’d say – aaaah. Will you come next week, will you come next week? Yes, if we can save our farthings. We used to get a farthing a day – for spending …

… What about cinemas when you were at school? I didn’t go often, I did go once with my mother and father and I was terrified. It was the earthquake. The San Francisco Earthquake and I was glad to come out. I was terrified. I remember that.

Comment: Hannah Myers was born 1900 in London E3, seventeenth child of 18, parents Jewish. Her father was street trader selling fruit, then opened his own shop. She considered that they were middle class. She was interviewed on 28 July 1972, 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).