Movie-going as Resistant Community

Source: Verónica Feliu, ‘Movie-going as Resistant Community [Chile]’, in Arthur Knight, Clara Pafort-Overduin, and Deb Verhoeven (eds.), ‘Senses of Cinema-Going: Brief Reports on Going to the Movies Around the World’, Senses of Cinema, issue 68, March 2011, http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/senses-of-cinema-going-brief-reports-on-going-to-the-movies-around-the-world

Text: Going to the movies in Chile in the 1980’s was a fundamental experience in my life, one that has certainly shaped not only my perspective on cinema, but also my aesthetic sensibility by and large. During that time in Chile all aspects of life, including every cultural expression, were molded by a military regime that had already lasted a decade. Nothing functioned outside the scope set by a permeating system of thought, order, and raison d’être. Conversations, movements, even clothes and hair styles were reflections of a time in which cultural identity was constantly harassed, questioned, prohibited, distorted, detained.

I was young and part of a generation that was avid and hopeful, yet hopelessly realistic – we had seen too much, we demanded the impossible.

The impossible turned out to be more than we expected, and definitely more than we can imagine retrospectively. In Santiago, the capital, we had five art theaters: Cine Arte Normandie, Teatro de la Universidad Católica, El Biógrafo, plus the theaters of two international cultural centers, the Goethe Institute and the Chilean-French Cultural Institute. These cinemas were created in the 80’s and they powerfully counterbalanced the absence of cultural production originated by the state. They were also vanguard endeavors whose contribution to the cultural scene could compete with that of the most advanced democratic societies in the world. The most memorable movies of my young adulthood will be forever linked to these theaters.

Being at one of these alternative cinemas was a whole event in itself. Except for Cine Arte Normandie, which was located in a big old building, they were all small theaters situated in bohemian neighbourhoods and did little to advertise themselves. They displayed classical or rare posters from acclaimed or avant-garde productions, some of which were for sale. There was no popcorn smell, nor sodas to buy. People would bring candies or ice cream bonbons bought elsewhere. There was always smoking before and after the movie. By far, the best part was the gathering of people at the end when everybody exchanged comments about the film. Moviegoers shared a sense of satisfaction that was triggered by the thought-provoking movie, and were thrilled to be surrounded by others they felt a strong connection to. It was this sense of belonging, of sharing a worldview with others, of living for some minutes in a space without enemies or threat, that made going to these theaters so special and remarkable. Even if the movie was disappointing or too obscure, the act was complete by just recognizing some faces and glimpsing others who would most likely be at the next demonstration in the main Plaza.

But there was something else that has remained with me after all these years. It was the subtle and yet firm conviction that movie-going was not really about fun. At least not what fun means nowadays. There was certainly a sense of cult, of something you share only with people you feel intellectually close to. But there was also the aesthetics of the small space, elitist if you want, secluded, almost prohibited, that made it so exhilarating. We knew we were doing something that was only partially permitted by the authorities, regarded as some sort of a safety valve for our political desires to change the system. In a way, we knew we were observed. That double sense of being part of something and feeling renegades at the same time transformed this into a unique act, almost a performance.

After dictatorship ended in 1990 and Chile was incorporated into global markets, most movie theaters became part of the big multi-cinema chains in which little room is left for the individuals to feel their own breath, let alone to reflect upon what the movie has left in their minds. However, wonderfully enough, all the 80’s art theaters not only remain, but have become essential to a new generation of moviegoers. These youngsters no longer fear that culture could be something that puts their lives at risk, but they nonetheless have inherited the sense of complicity and excitement that a small theater and a somewhat complicated movie with an open-ended resolution gives to the restless mind.

Comments: Verónica Feliu is a professor in the Foreign Languages Department at City College of San Francisco. Her recollections of cinema-going in Chile in the 1980s were originally published in a special issue of the online film journal Senses of Cinema. I am grateful for her permission to reproduce the piece here.

Links: Senses of Cinema-Going: Brief Reports on Going to the Movies Around the World

If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will

Source: Eric Sykes, If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 78-80

Text: If the world was not exactly our oyster, it was most definitely our winkle. Our main Saturday night attraction was the Gaumont cinema at the end of Union Street. As for the films, the question we first asked ourselves was, ‘Is it a talkie?’and the second ‘Is it in colour?’ This didn’t bother us a bit; it was Saturday night, hey, lads, hey and the devil take the hindmost.

The Gaumont cinema was a large, luxurious emporium showing the latest films and up-to-date news, not forgetting Arthur Pules at the mighty Wurlitzer. For many Oldhamers the perfect panacea for the end of a stressful working week was a Saturday night at the pictures. Just relaxing into the armchair-like seats was an experience to savour. Uniformed usherettes busily showed patrons to their seats; one usherette stood against the orchestra pit, facing the audience with a smile as she sold crisps, peanuts, chocolates and soft drinks from a tray strapped round her shoulders; another usherette patrolled the aisles, selling various brands of cigarettes and matches from a similar tray. There was a general feeling of content in the audience, excitement slowly rising under subdued babble of conversation. The audience were the same people who had gone off to work during the week in overalls, dustcoats, ragged clothing and slightly better garb for office workers, but at the Gaumont cinema they had all, without exception, dressed up for the occasion. All the man wore collars and ties and the ladies decent frocks and in many cases hats as well. What a turnaround from my dear-old Imperial days; no running up and down the aisles chasing each other and certainly no whistling, booing or throwing orange peel at the screen during the sloppy kissing bits. In all fairness, though, I must add that it was only at the Saturday morning shows and we were children enjoying a few moments not under supervision or parental guidance. In fact when I was old enough to go to the Imperial for the evening films the audience even then dressed up and enjoyed the films in an adult fashion.

Back to the sublime at the Gaumont cinema; as the lights went down, so did the level of conversation. A spotlight hit the centre of the orchestra pit and slowly, like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the balding head of Arthur Pules would appear as he played his signature on the mighty Wurlitzer. He was a portly figure in immaculate white tie and tails, hands fluttering over the keys and shiny black pumps dancing over the pedals as he rose into full view, head swivelling from side to side, smiling and nodding to acknowledge the applause; but for all his splendid sartorial elegance, having his back to the audience was unfortunate as the relentless spotlight picked out the shape of his corsets. Regular patrons awaited this moment with glee, judging by the sniggers and pointing fingers. We were no exception; having all this pomp and circumstance brought down by the shape of a common pair of corsets on a man was always a good start to the evening’s entertainment.

At this point the words of a popular melody would flash on to the screen – for instance, the ‘in’ song of the day, ‘It Happened on the Beach at Bali Bali’ – and, after a frilly arpeggio to give some of the audience time to put their glasses on, a little ball of light settled on the first word of the song. In this case the first word was ‘It’; then it bounced onto ‘Happened’; then it made three quick hops over ‘on the Beach at’; then it slowed down for ‘Bali Bali’. The women sang with gusto and the men just smiled and nodded.

Happily this musical interlude didn’t last too long. Arthur Pules, the organist, was lured back into his pit of darkness and the curtains opened on the big wide screen. The films at the Gaumont were a great improvement on the grainy pictures at the Imperial, and so they should have been: after all, the film industry had made great strides in the eight years since John and I had sat in the pennies, dry mouthed as the shadow moved across the wall to clobber one of the unsuspecting actors.

After two hours of heavy sighs and wet eyes ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the lights in the auditorium came up, bringing us all to our feet as the drum roll eased into the National Anthem … no talking, no fidgeting, simply a mark of respect for our King and Queen.

Comments: Eric Sykes (1923-2012) was a British comic actor and writer, who wrote and performed widely over many years for film, television and radio, including the 1970s sitcom Sykes. He was born and raised in Oldham, Lancashire, and at the time of this recollection was in his mid-teens, having left school aged fourteen. John was his half-brother. The Gaumont cinema in Oldham was at corner the King Street and Union Street, having been re-built as a cinema in 1937 out of an earlier theatre.

If I Don't Write It, Nobody Will

Source: Eric Sykes, If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 78-80

Text: If the world was not exactly our oyster, it was most definitely our winkle. Our main Saturday night attraction was the Gaumont cinema at the end of Union Street. As for the films, the question we first asked ourselves was, ‘Is it a talkie?’and the second ‘Is it in colour?’ This didn’t bother us a bit; it was Saturday night, hey, lads, hey and the devil take the hindmost.

The Gaumont cinema was a large, luxurious emporium showing the latest films and up-to-date news, not forgetting Arthur Pules at the mighty Wurlitzer. For many Oldhamers the perfect panacea for the end of a stressful working week was a Saturday night at the pictures. Just relaxing into the armchair-like seats was an experience to savour. Uniformed usherettes busily showed patrons to their seats; one usherette stood against the orchestra pit, facing the audience with a smile as she sold crisps, peanuts, chocolates and soft drinks from a tray strapped round her shoulders; another usherette patrolled the aisles, selling various brands of cigarettes and matches from a similar tray. There was a general feeling of content in the audience, excitement slowly rising under subdued babble of conversation. The audience were the same people who had gone off to work during the week in overalls, dustcoats, ragged clothing and slightly better garb for office workers, but at the Gaumont cinema they had all, without exception, dressed up for the occasion. All the man wore collars and ties and the ladies decent frocks and in many cases hats as well. What a turnaround from my dear-old Imperial days; no running up and down the aisles chasing each other and certainly no whistling, booing or throwing orange peel at the screen during the sloppy kissing bits. In all fairness, though, I must add that it was only at the Saturday morning shows and we were children enjoying a few moments not under supervision or parental guidance. In fact when I was old enough to go to the Imperial for the evening films the audience even then dressed up and enjoyed the films in an adult fashion.

Back to the sublime at the Gaumont cinema; as the lights went down, so did the level of conversation. A spotlight hit the centre of the orchestra pit and slowly, like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the balding head of Arthur Pules would appear as he played his signature on the mighty Wurlitzer. He was a portly figure in immaculate white tie and tails, hands fluttering over the keys and shiny black pumps dancing over the pedals as he rose into full view, head swivelling from side to side, smiling and nodding to acknowledge the applause; but for all his splendid sartorial elegance, having his back to the audience was unfortunate as the relentless spotlight picked out the shape of his corsets. Regular patrons awaited this moment with glee, judging by the sniggers and pointing fingers. We were no exception; having all this pomp and circumstance brought down by the shape of a common pair of corsets on a man was always a good start to the evening’s entertainment.

At this point the words of a popular melody would flash on to the screen – for instance, the ‘in’ song of the day, ‘It Happened on the Beach at Bali Bali’ – and, after a frilly arpeggio to give some of the audience time to put their glasses on, a little ball of light settled on the first word of the song. In this case the first word was ‘It’; then it bounced onto ‘Happened’; then it made three quick hops over ‘on the Beach at’; then it slowed down for ‘Bali Bali’. The women sang with gusto and the men just smiled and nodded.

Happily this musical interlude didn’t last too long. Arthur Pules, the organist, was lured back into his pit of darkness and the curtains opened on the big wide screen. The films at the Gaumont were a great improvement on the grainy pictures at the Imperial, and so they should have been: after all, the film industry had made great strides in the eight years since John and I had sat in the pennies, dry mouthed as the shadow moved across the wall to clobber one of the unsuspecting actors.

After two hours of heavy sighs and wet eyes ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the lights in the auditorium came up, bringing us all to our feet as the drum roll eased into the National Anthem … no talking, no fidgeting, simply a mark of respect for our King and Queen.

Comments: Eric Sykes (1923-2012) was a British comic actor and writer, who wrote and performed widely over many years for film, television and radio, including the 1970s sitcom Sykes. He was born and raised in Oldham, Lancashire, and at the time of this recollection was in his mid-teens, having left school aged fourteen. John was his half-brother. The Gaumont cinema in Oldham was at corner the King Street and Union Street, having been re-built as a cinema in 1937 out of an earlier theatre.

Il Cinematografo

Source: Louis Couperus, ‘Il Cinematografo’, Het Vaderland, 22 April 1911, pp. 1-2, English translation by Ivo Blom in ‘North and South: two early texts about cinema-going by Louis Couperus’, Film History vol. 20, issue 2 (2008), pp. 127-132

Text: The following night, while my wife is exchanging small talk with the German Generals’ wives and Majors’ widows – in the drawing room of the pension house – I am walking around at a loose end, ‘with my soul under my arm’, and with that same soul I walk into a cinematografo, for the sum of 20 Centesimi. I just happen to like contrasts. I just happen to like to sit one night, chic, with my wife, on a rather expensive poltrone in a gala performance, and the next night visit those public amusements where the common man for a few Soldi gives himself the illusion of something very beautiful sad, gay, and in particular sentimental. I once read that Edison invented the cinema to give the common-man his theater. I entirely agree with that, but … But what I want to say, I won’t say right away. First I will describe what the waiting room looks like … because, if you have paid 30 Centesimi, you don’t wait: there are always places, however, if you want something cheaper, for two Soldi less, you need to wait … in the waiting room. You’ll understand, dear reader, that I am frugal that I will wait, right … [e]specially because the waiting amuses me, or rather interest me … This waiting room is very dirty. People often spit on the ground with great gobs, and nobody minds. The ground is covered not only with saliva but also with tangerine peel, used matches, cigarette butts and torn entrance tickets. On a platform is a palm-court orchestra of some pale girls dressed in white. All around are test-your-strength machines, shooting galleries, candy automats …Chairs are against the wall; every chair is taken; the place is full to the brim. Look at all those tired faces that sharply light up like ghosts in the cruel and stark electric light. These are not the Roman marchionesses, princesses, loaded with their family jewels; these are not gentlemen in tails and elegant lieutenants shining in gold; this is not the noble spawn of the Duke of the Abruzzi. This is the tired waiting of the ‘common man’ – with wife and kids, often with babies – after the common man has finished working. He is out, he is going to amuse himself; he wants above all to see something. When he is out with his family, it easily costs him almost a Lira. But he gets a lot in return. He starts with resting on a chair, in front of an enormous ‘mirror’, which, ghostlike, reflects to him his pale, tired face. He also perceives electric light on walls with art nouveau patterns and he hears the din of the palm-court orchestra. When he is finally allowed to enter, then he, his worn-out wife and worldly-wise children, first see a dal vero: a parade or an instructive industry film or a trip through Norway or Switzerland. Secondly, a sentimental drama, which moves their petty bourgeois souls to tears in such a marvellous way: stolen children, noble little chimney sweeps, virtue especially rewarded … And now and then something of opera or true comedy, but without the words and with no more music thank the plonky piano accompaniment. And as life is so merry and gay, the delicious show ends with a farce, which often consists of drunken men and people tumbling over each other and running after one other through fields and roads: oh such merry farces, drawn from lovely merry life! The little citizen, for his four soldi, is educated, has a tear squeezed from the eye, and has his ‘laughing muscle’ tickled. Alright, I allow him that. I allow him this cheap theater of Edison. But … And now I will say it … Why, after he is educated, cannot the tear be squeezed from his eye with beauty; the laughing muscle tickled … with grace? Does it have to happen – is it not possible to let it happen – but with coarse, false, weepy sentimentality … and with an even more coarse, more false, drunkard’s burlesque?

The show is over. I have stayed until the end. And not like yesterday, in the chic Opera, left before the end. It is because I wanted to see that distressing exodus of common men, with their pale, spent faces, arm in arm with their worn-out wives, behind them their worldly-wise children. And they seemed even more tired than when I saw them in the waiting room. They didn’t seem to be cheered up by the vulgar drunkard’s farce. Reader, forgive me that I led you to a gala night of the Cinematografo … I like contrasts, you know.

Comments: Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was a Dutch novelist and poet and is considered one of the leading figures in Dutch literature. He wrote about films in his regular ‘Bioscoop’ column for the Dutch newspaper Haagsche Post, and occasionally elsewhere as in this piece on visiting a Rome cinema for Het Vaderland, which is part of a series ‘Pages from my diary’. The previous ‘diary’ article had covered a visit to the Teatro Costanzi in Rome to see Verdi’s opera Macbeth, alluded to here (the Roman marchionesses etc). My thanks to Ivo Blom for his permission to reproduce his translation, and to Deac Rossell for alerting me to the Film History article. Ellipses are as given in the Film History translation.

The Sense of Touch

senseoftouch

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

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

Fun! Good Lord!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy of the complete story on the Internet Archive

scorpion

Babycham Night

Source: Philip Norman, Babycham Night (London: Macmillan, 2003), pp. 98-100

Text: Mine was a universe completely without culture as it was defined in the early fifties. No one ever took me to an art gallery or classical music concert; the only music I ever heard was from the radio and our arcade jukebox, the only humour from seaside comedians and the saucy postcards in Mr Vernon’s outdoor rack. My attitudes became the cheerfully philistine ones of Grandma Norman – that opera was ‘a lot of fat women screeching’, that ballet was ‘all ballyhoo’. I realize now that I had a strong aesthetic sense even when I was no more than a toddler. In the late forties, you still saw pony-drawn Victorian milk-carts from which the deliveryman ladled milk straight from the churn. I remember, aged three or four, seeing one of those carts, with its fancily fretworked wooden sides, and thinking to myself that I liked the way it looked. Even to today’s over-attentive adults, a child would have difficulty in articulating pure visual pleasure; in the fifties, even had I the confidence or willing listeners, such a thing was unimaginable.

The only place where I could gratify such nascent, inexpressible impulses was the cinema. At Ryde’s three picture-houses (the sumptuous Commodore, the historic Theatre Royal, the fleapit Scala – pronounced ‘Scaler’), programmes changed at midweek, with an additional one-off show on Sunday nights. I saw every film I legally could, which is to say those with a ‘U’ certificate (‘Suitable for Universal Exhibition’) or an ‘A’, which children could see provided they were accompanied by an adult. If no grown-up in the family were available, it was common for children to stand outside the cinema and ask total strangers to take them in. The usherettes were up with this dodge, and during the performance conducted frequent checks to ensure that children were still seated with adults they had hijacked. One afternoon, I persuaded a young couple to act as my passport into a gripping ‘A’ Western, then unwisely moved several rows away from them. The film had reached its most exciting moment – some US cavarlymen, trapped in a Mexican pueblo village, tensely awaiting an Apache night-attack – when an usherette’s torch beam triumphantly illuminated me and an officious female voice ordered me out into the street.

The reason I loved Westerns so passionately was not the incessant violence between cavalry and Indians or rival gunfighters, but the sheer stylishness of everything – the huge white Stetsons, the black leather waistcoats, the neat, small Winchester rifles, the shiny-spurred boots, the long-barrelled Navy Colts. Hollywood musicals came next in my affection, with the richness of colour and texture that existed nowhere in Britain then. I saw Show Boat, with Howard Keel and Ava Gardner, five or six times: at the end, as the great paddle-boat dwindled down the Mississippi to the strains of ‘Ol’ Man River’, I felt I had passed through a profound and draining experience. I sat just entranced through black-and-white American films of modern times, detective and love dramas, despite having only the haziest understanding of their plots. It was enough to be in that parallel world where people lived in long, low white houses, and drove long, low white cars, and drank black coffee (pronounced ‘cor-fee’) with meals, and said, ‘I object, Your Honour,’ and spent half their lives in night-clubs, and where so many darkly handsome but unpredictable heroes bore such a striking resemblance to my own father. No feeling was quite so dreary as coming out of the cinema at five or so in the afternoon; leaving behind that magic, smoke-filled darkness for the bright sunshine and mundane slow motion of reality.

Comments: Philip Norman (born 1943) is a British novelist, biographer and journalist. He was brought up in Ryde, on the Isle of Wight. Babycham Night is an account of his 1950s childhood. He had film industry relatives – his maternal grandfather was a Pathé newsreel cameraman, Frank Bassill.

The Secret City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy on the Internet Archive

The Secret City

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Copy on the Internet Archive

An Autobiography

Source: Hymie Fagan, An Autobiography, n.d. [typescript] (Brunel University Library, 2-261), pp. 18-20, 41-42

Text: The Picture Palaces, as cinemas were then known, or the Bioscopes, were becoming very popular. I vaguely remember once going with my father to one in Shoreditch High Street, where I was given a bag of sweets, and he a packet of Woodbines to popularise the cinema still more. After his death I used to go to one in Brick Lane. Admission was one ha’penny. Only one film was shown, usually a cowboy and Indian film. We cheered the cowboys like mad and hissed and booed the Indians, for they were always the baddies.

The one-film shows were for the childrens’ matinees. When the film ended the lights went on, and the children ushered out, to enable the next show to start, but some of the boys hid under the seats, so that they could see the film again without paying. Finally the manager became aware of this, and at the end of each performance the attendant would poke under the seats with a long pole to flush out the stowaways, who were then somewhat forcibly removed.

There was another, more expensive, picture palace in Commercial Street, where the gallery cost one penny and the stalls sixpence. A full programme was shown, and not only cowboy and Indian films. Such dramas as “Leah the Forsaken” all about the plight of a Jewess caught in the toils of the Spanish Inquisition. Another was “The Indiarubber Man” who could scale high walls with amazing jumps and disguise himself by changing the shape of his face. Then there were the serials. The heroine in most of these was a star named Pearl White. She was usually left tied to the rails whilst an express came thundering down towards her. I remember her in one serial named “The Perils of Pauline”, and I underwent agonies of suspense each week, until I learned how she managed to escape in the following episode.

Real picture lovers, but poor like me, went into the gallery. Others, who simply wanted to snog in the dark, went into the stalls. Looking down into it, it seemed that nearly all the seats were empty, as indeed they were, for the snoggers preferred the walls round the stalls. The floors from the gallery to the stalls were knee-deep in orange peel and pea-nut shells.

To keep Pearl White’s image before the public the P.R.O. [?] composed a song about her. It went

My Little Pearl of the Army,
Pearl of my heart so true.
You’re the queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a Pearl of a girl like you …

… Apart from reading and swimming, another joy was the cinema. It was becoming very popular indeed and there was a children’s matinee every Saturday afternoon. Admission was one penny and since mother had no objection because of the Sabbath, I went regularly. I used to arrive almost before anyone else, queuing up impatiently at the box-office, and as the crowd of children grew, so did the yells demanding that it opened, which at last it did, dead on two o’clock. Chaplin was always shown since he was the favourite, and I remember falling off my seat, helpless with laughter at “Champion Charlie”. Then there was Douglas Fairbanks, whose athletic exploits I tried to emulate. Once after he had escaped from his enemies by jumping down a cliff by a series of ledges, I tried to do the same thing on our pitiful crumbling cliffs, but when I jumped onto the first ledge it crumbled under me and I hobbled home on a badly sprained ankle.

Comment: Hymie Fagan was born in Stepney, 1903 of a Jewish working class family. This is two extracts from his unpublished autobiography, the manuscript for which is held by Brunel University Library. The first section describes the pre-WWI period, second covers the war years.

Movies and Conduct

Source: ‘Female, 19, white, college sophomore’, quoted in Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 41

Text: Then came the time when I became interested in men. I had heard older boys and girls talking about “technique” and the only way I could find out how to treat boys was through reading books and seeing movies. I had always known boys as playmates, but having reached my freshman year in high school they became no longer playmates but “dates.” I didn’t want it to be that way but it seemed inevitable. I was asked to parties and dances and friends’ homes. The boys were older and sophisticated. I felt out of place. I noticed that older girls acted differently with boys than they did when with girls alone. I didn’t know what to do.

I decided to try some of the mannerisms I had seen in the movies. I began acting quite reserved, and I memorized half-veiled compliments. I realized my “dates” liked it. I laid the foundation with movie material. Then I began to improvise.

Of course, I had a rival in the crowd. Every time she began to receive more attention from the boys than I, I would see a movie and pick up something new with which to regain their interest. I remember one disastrous occasion. She was taking the center of the stage, and I was peeved. I could think of nothing to do.

Then I remembered the afternoon before I had seen Nazimova smoke a cigarette, and I decided that would be my next move. The party was at a friend’s home and I knew where her father’s cigarettes were kept. I got one, lit it, and had no difficulty whatsoever in handling it quite nonchalantly. The boys were fascinated and the victory was mine.

Comment: 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. Most of the evidence relates to picturegoing in the 1920s. The interview extract is given in the chapter ‘Imitation by Adolescents’.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive