The Age of the Eyes

Source: Karel Čapek (trans. Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová), ‘The Age of the Eyes’, The People’s Paper [Lidové noviny], 22 February 1925, reproduced in Believe in People: The Essential Karel Čapek (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), pp. 18-20

Text: You may have noticed that conspicuously few old people go to the cinema. Even if you take into account that older people are as a rule more frugal and more comfortable, and all in all, less profligate than the rest of us, it’s not a sufficient explanation for why so few of them indulge in the depraved invention of luminous pictures. The older generation expresses open disgust for this modern spectacle. They mutter something like, ‘Don’t bother us with such tosh,’ and open yesterday’s paper or a fifty-year-old novel instead. Meanwhile, the said fifty-year-old novel is being enacted on the screen of a picture palace round the corner, and the rest of us, who are breathlessly watching its flying action, can’t understand that an old man has the patience to read such ancient trash. The average film is, in the vast majority of cases, much closer to Walter Scott than to, say, Vít Nezval, and resembles George Sand more closely than George Bernard Shaw. The average film doesn’t pick up on modern literature, but on old literature. As a matter of fact, it’s the direct successor of old novelistic fiction. The younger generation doesn’t realise that in the cinema they give themselves up to the lush imaginative world of their distant fathers. The older generation doesn’t have an inkling that the shadowy pictures they are so contemptuous of are bone of their bones, or rather I should say the shadow of their bones. Which is of course a typical, unbridgeable rift between the generations.

It seems to me, then, that the older generation doesn’t reject film because it’s too modern, or too silly, but for more profound reasons: because it’s too fast and isn’t rendered in words. I am of the opinion that older people would take pleasure in going to the cinema if texts instead of pictures were projected on the screen. In the beginning of their world is the word, not an optical event. A picture in itself, a picture without language, doesn’t mean anything; it must get words to acquire reality. An old man sees just shadows, shadows, shadows on the screen, bolting, and unreal. If they waited for a moment, he could find a term for them and describe them in words. But alas, they’ve gone, and new shadows are fluttering there in a mute hurry of events. The word lasts, the word can be remembered, the word is solid and firm. But movement doesn’t last long enough to be interpolated into what exists and what is valid; it’s just a change, a transition, and not a decent, reliable, enduring being. An old man watches the running film as if dreams were being shot before him; if he read in a book about a lissom damsel walking like a doe, he’d believe it, but when he sees a lissom damsel on the screen, walking like a doe, he doesn’t recognise this poetic moment because it’s not written there with binding words. It doesn’t say anything, it’s just phoney and monkey business. And the old man leaves the cinema as if he hadn’t seen anything. Don’t bother me with such tosh, he says.

A kind of re-education of people has really taken place here. A person sitting in the cinema must have found a shorter connection between the eye and the brain without the medium of words; in a technical sense, he may even have found a direct connection between the eye and the brain. The older generation probably lacks this direct connection, this leaping of a spark from the retina straight to the cerebral centres. They are more of a reading, conceptual type, while today’s man is becoming a visual type. My late Granny had to read out loud to properly understand what she was reading, for her the word was still an auditory, not a visual, image. In bygone times most readers must have perceived reading through the ear. Later on a more trained reader dropped this aural digression and understood directly by means of verbal signs. In film even the word has turned out to be a digression; we are learning to understand without words. I don’t want to decide if it is progress for the time being it’s a fact.

But surely film threatens literature to a considerable extent, not because it wants to replace it, but because it develops another kind of people – a visual instead of a reading type. The reading sort is patient; it takes its time to penetrate the circumstances, to bask in the descriptive passages and follow the conversation from start to finish. The visual type will not be so patient; it wants to seize the situation in a single glance, to comprehend the story without letting it last, and immediately see something new. But perhaps one day people will run from that stampede of pictures back to the book, to take a breather, or rather, they’ll have the radio narrate fairy tales and novels nice and slowly for them; they’ll listen with closed eyes, letting themselves be lulled by the word, which will re-assume its original destiny – to be spoken language. Maybe who knows? – maybe the book will die out, maybe it will become a curious cultural heritage like inscribed Babylonian bricks. But art will not die out.

Comments: Karel Čapek (1890-1938) was a Czech novelist, essayist and playwright, best known for his science fiction works including the play R.U.R. which introduced the concept of the robot. He was no enthusiast for the cinema, but liked the audiences. Vít Nezval was Vítězslav Nezval, a Czech avant garde poet.

Triumphant March into Port Arthur

Source: Hyakken Uchida (trans. Rachel DiNitto), ‘Triumphant March into Port Arthur’, in Realm of the Dead (Dalkey Archive Press, 2006 – orig. pub. in Ryojun Nyujōshiki, 1934)

Text: I went to a film festival of old moving pictures at Hosei University on Sunday, May 10, the day of the Imperial Silver Wedding Anniversary Celebration.

The windows in the lecture hall were covered with black cloth, throwing the room into darkness. Thin shafts of afternoon light snuck in with an eerie blue glow.

Random, confusing landscapes and faces flashed before me. The shootouts from the Ministry of War advanced with an exciting and relentless pace. Thick smoke enveloped the picture, obscuring clarity. I thought I could see the screen growing brighter through the dissipating smoke, but the images disappeared and the lecture hall suddenly lit up.

American comedies and newsreels alternately lit up the screen, and next up was the surrender of Port Arthur. An officer from the Ministry of War got up to introduce the feature. The film was originally shot by a German military observer and had only recently come into the hands of the Japanese Ministry. There were scenes not only of the famous meeting at the naval base of General Nogi and General Stessel, but also of the bombing of the fort at Niryuzan. A cinematic treasure, the officer explained, then he disappeared into blackness as the room went dark. But before his khaki-uniformed image faded from my eye, another was projected in its place – a soldier leading a parade of men headed for the front. Troops marched through Yokohama’s Isezakicho behind their bearded platoon leader. The dress braids of his uniform stretched like ribs across his chest, and he swaggered with his sword held high. The soldiers wore solemn expressions. That scene alone was enough to remind me of a twenty-year old military tune I’d long since forgotten.

I couldn’t understand why I was so moved by the bluish images of the mountains surrounding Port Arthur, but it was like seeing my own memories up on the screen. What a terribly somber mountain it was. A dim glow emanated from behind the hills, but the sky blanketing the peaks was devoid of light. I knew that the port lay under the darkest spot in the sky.

Soldiers hauled a cannon up the mountainside. The outline of the group blurred as they panted up the dark path. An older enlisted man, standing to the side, waved his hands back and forth, calling out orders. He howled like a beast.

I turned to the person next to me. “Poor bastards,” I said.

“Yeah,” someone responded.

Heads hanging, eyes fixed on the dark landscape, they advanced slowly against the weight of the heavy rope. The headless soldiers moved as an undifferentiated mass. Then one unexpectedly lifted his face. The sky was as black as the road. Cutting through the darkness like a dog with its head hung low. I saw a towering peak jut up before us as I too climbed the mountain.

“What mountain is that?” I asked.

“Beats me,” answered a nearby student.

Cannons shot into the mountainside. In a hollow under the cliff, a group of five or six soldiers furiously fired and reloaded artillery, the machinery rolling back and forth with the force of the recoil. White smoke rose and soon disappeared from the mouth of the cannon. The sound, too, was sucked into the belly of the dark mountain, the echo dying there as well. I felt uneasy not knowing where the shells were landing. Yet there was no choice but to fire. Not firing I would be more terrifying. Facing each other across the dark mountain, both sides let loose a deafening barrage of firepower day and night. The fighting changed the shape of the mountain itself. Those soldiers in the hollow acted out of fear. When smoke cleared from the cannon, I grew nervous. If only they’d fire again. Who cares where it landed!

An ominous cloud of smoke rose from a distant ridge. Tens, maybe hundreds of sparkling objects formed lines in the smoke. This was soon followed by another dark cloud. My eyes welled with tears when I learned this was the bombing of the mountain fort of Niruyzan. I cried for the men on both sides.

Next came the long-awaited encounter at the naval base. Amidst the bleak scenery I could make out the faint image of a cottage with stone walls. From off in the distance indistinguishable figures on horseback grew in size as they approached, but the blurry image never came into focus. It just faded away.

A formation of Russian soldiers on horseback rode unsteadily past a row of storehouses. The ceremony at the base was over. Nogi’s and Stessel’s expressionless faces passed quickly before my eyes like a bank of fog.

The title of the film, The Long-Fought 200-Day Battle, faded from the screen. Troops with neither packs nor guns marched by wearing long overcoats with sleeves hanging down over their hands. Houses lined the roadside, but it was hard to get any perspective on them – how far away they were, whether they had windows or roofs. There was something eerie about these lifeless men. Weren’t they in fact the war dead risen from their graves on the shadowy mountain for one final march? No one averted his gaze. They marched with their eyes on the men in front of them.

“The Triumphant March into Port Arthur!” boomed the voice of the officer on the stage.

The audience, crammed into that dark room, broke out in loud applause.

Tears streamed down my face. The row of soldiers marched on and on. My eyes clouded with tears, obscuring the people in front of me. I lost my bearings and was set adrift in an unfamiliar place.

“Quit crying,” said a man walking next to me.

Someone behind us was weeping.

The crowd kept clapping. My cheeks wet from crying, I fell into formation and was led out into the quiet of the city streets, out into nowhere.

Comments: Hyakken Uchida (1889-1971) was a Japanese novelist, short story writer and academic. He taught at Hosei University, which is in Tokyo. The films he describes seeing were of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-5, which included the siege of Port Arthur, a Russian naval base in Manchuria, which ended in its capture by the Japanese forces. The Long-Fought 200-Day Battle, if such a film actually existed (the passage is meant to be a work of fiction), would have been a compilation of archive film of the war. The silver wedding anniversary of Emperor Taishō and Empress Teimei was in 1925. My thanks to Dawid Glownia from bringing this text to my attention.

My Wonderful Visit

Source: Charlie Chaplin, My Wonderful Visit (London: Hurst & Blackett, 1922), pp. 142-143

Text: Wells and I go into the dark projection room and I sit with Wells. I feel on my mettle almost immediately, sitting at his side, and I feel rather glad that we are spending our first moments in an atmosphere where I am at home. In his presence I feel critical and analytical and I decide to tell the truth about the picture at all costs. I feel that Wells would do the same thing about one of mine.

As the picture is reeling off I whisper to him my likes and dislikes, principally the faulty photography, though occasionally I detect bad direction. Wells remains perfectly silent and I begin to feel that I am not breaking the ice. It is impossible to get acquainted under these conditions. Thank God, I can keep silent, because there is the picture to watch and that saves the day.

Then Wells whispers, “Don’t you think the boy is good?”

The boy in question is right here on the other side of me, watching his first picture. I look at him. Just starting out on a new career, vibrant with ambition, eager to make good, and his first attempt being shown before such an audience. As I watch he is almost in tears, nervous and anxious.

The picture ends. There is a mob clustering about. Directors and officials look at me. They want my opinion of the picture. I shall be truthful. Shall I criticise? Wells nudges me and whispers, “Say something nice about the boy.” And I look at the boy and see what Wells has already seen and then I say the nice things about him. Wells’s kindness and consideration mean so much more than a mere picture.

Comments: Charles Spencer Chaplin (1889-1977) was a British comic film actor and director. He paid a visit to Britain, France and Germany in 1921 at the height of his fame. His acount of the trip, My Wonderful Visit, is strikingly introspective and frank account of the effects of mass fame. During his London visit he was invited to the offices of the Stoll film company in London to see a preview of Kipps (1921), a British film directed by the American Harold Shaw, starring George K. Arthur (the ‘boy’ referred to in this passage). He saw the film alongside H.G. Wells, on whose novel it was based. Arthur (who had made two films previously) went on to enjoy a moderately successful film career in America.

Moslem Women Enter a New World

Source: Ruth Frances Woodsmall, Moslem Women Enter a New World (New York: Round Table Press, 1936), pp. 82-84

Text: The most widespread change in the general recreational life for women is shown by the increase of attendance at cinemas. Only a few years ago marked the beginning of cinema privileges for women in the Moslem East. Official approval of the cinema was given to women in Iran in 1928 by the removal of police restrictions. Special days were set aside when they could attend the cinema, the popularity of which was evident at the end of the performance from the steady stream of black chaddur figures leaving. A most remarkable performance for a mixed audience was given in Teheran in November 1928, when for the first time an unveiled Moslem woman sang in evening dress before a public audience. Seats were sold out several days in advance. Police were stationed in the aisles to avoid any possible trouble. A large detachment of police was detailed to the environs of the cinema, a precaution which showed the unusual significance of the occasion. It was one of the great events of the winter, widely talked about all over Iran. Cinemas in Iran still have a woman’s section, but women sit also in the mixed section, and enter veiled or unveiled. Even in a conservative centre such as Meshed women may attend the same cinema with men. An Iranian liberal newspaper made the interesting comment that having women sit with men at the cinema reduces the number of scenes in the streets and tends toward a higher moral tone. The opponents would of course challenge that statement.

In Baghdad, but not yet in Basra or Mosul, everybody goes to the cinema. “Open a schoolgirl’s desk, and you will find on top of her books a movie magazine with pictures of Hollywood stars,” the principal of the girls’ high school in Baghdad said, in commenting on the present passion for the cinema. The conservative women attend the special afternoon performances featured for them; others of prominent social position attend the mixed movies in the evening, with their husbands. They are technically veiled but from their box they look freely around the audience. The distinction between the special afternoon cinemas for women and the mixed evening cinemas holds also in Aleppo and Beirut. If Moslem women in Syria attend the mixed performances, they usually are unveiled in order to avoid being conspicuous, for although Moslem women go freely, there are always more men. In Damascus women began
attending the cinema in 1930 when a large outdoor cinema was turned over to them once a week. The rule “For women only” was strictly observed; not even boys over twelve years were admitted. Crowds of women flocked to this popular weekly dissipation, almost as interested in seeing each other as in seeing the film, which, however, on the occasion of my visit was one of absorbing interest for the women of Damascus — the story of Saladin and the Crusades. Their keen reaction to the picture and enthusiasm over Saladin’s exploits gave one a different idea of the Crusades from the usual Western point of view. The women in Amman Trans-jordan six years ago attended their first film, entering veiled but sitting on the front row unveiled. Cinema attendances of women in Cairo in now a commonplace. Women go unveiled with men or veiled alone, unveiling during the performance; they sit in boxes or with the audience, as they choose.

For the most part the cinema has not attracted the Moslem women of the lower class in Beirut or elsewhere as much as it has the upper class, since change in recreation, as in unveiling, begins at the top and works down. A woman in Beirut of this lower class whom I asked whether she ever attended a cinema, gave me an answer which seems typical of her social level. “We know the cinema by name, but have never seen one.” But the different grades of cinemas and cheaper prices are beginning to make their appeal to this class also. Moreover the production of films portraying Eastern life in the language of the East and produced by Eastern players is bringing the cinema more into the life of the uneducated women, to whom the unfamiliar Western scene makes less appeal than to those who have had some Western education. In Turkey since the first Turkish film with Turkish women performers was produced only a few years ago, the Turkish production has steadily increased and doubtless the appeal of the cinema has accordingly widened. The unrestricted cinema attendance of Turkish women, since the special harem days were discontinued early in the new regime, is only one of the many indications of the naturalness of everyday life in Turkey to-day.

Travel, bobbed hair, photographs, sports, recreation, going to the cinema, these many precious stages of advance for the still veiled or hesitantly unveiling woman elsewhere in the Moslem world, have all become for the Turkish woman merely a matter of personal choice. One is impressed to-day with the lack of all reference in the Press or in private conversation to these details of freedom, which are regarded to-day as a normal part of life. The idea of freedom of women has been so completely accepted that distinctions between men and women are now as little emphasized as they would be in the Western world. It is indeed difficult to realize that the grandfathers of the present free young Turkish girls might have paid the price of this freedom by exile or death. For to-day Turkish girls play tennis, dance, dine out if invited, swim, ride horseback, play bridge, patronize the beauty parlour, frequent the movies, travel if they can afford it — work, study and play just as girls do in France or America. There is of course at the present time between the life of Istanbul or Ankara and parts of Asia Minor not only a difference of degree, but also of the kind of social life. But there are no artificially imposed social conventions of the veil and eventually Istanbul or Ankara will differ from Konia or Sivas in much the same way as the life in New York or Washington differs from that of cities or towns in the south or middle west.

Comments: Ruth Frances Woodsmall (1883-1963) was an American schoolteacher and author, who worked for the Young Women’s Christian Association, the Allied High Commission for Occupied Germany (where she was Chief of the Women’s Affairs Section), and UNESCO, reporting on women’s affairs. In 1928 she obtained a fellowship from the Rockefeller Foundation to investigate the changing status of Muslim women in the Middle East, which resulted in her influential book Moslem Women Enter a New World and other studies.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Journals of Arnold Bennett

Source: Arnold Bennett, journal entry 6 March 1924, in Newman Flower (ed.), The Journals of Arnold Bennett: 1921-1928 (London: Cassell, 1933)

Text: Thursday, 6 March – German film last night at Polytechnic Cinema. One has the idea that all films are crowded. The balcony here was not 15% full. Front row, where Duff Tayler and I were, 8s. 6d. for 1½ hours’ entertainment. A gloomy place, with gloomy audience. No style or grace in them. All lower middle class or nearly so. The hall tricked out with a silly sort of an ikon, illuminated, of Death, to advertise or recall or illustrate the film. The orchestra most mediocre. Played all the time, and three performances a day! Hell for the players I should think. Also the habit of illustrating certain points musically, or noisily. The clock must strike, etc. And a special noise as a sort of leit motif for death. Lastly three small common Oriental mats (probably made in England) laid in front of the screen on the stage to indicate that much of the story was Oriental. The captions, etc, were appalling, and even misspelt, such as ‘extention’, ‘Soloman’ etc. The phrasing! Good God. The City of Yesteryear meant, I believe, the cemetery.

Comments: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British writer, best known for his novels of life in the Potteries with its ‘five towns’ that now equate with Stoke-on-Trent. The Polytechnic Cinema was part of what was originally the Royal Polytechnic Institution, a venue for popular science lectures and entertainments, which hosted the UK debut of the Lumière Cinématographe in February 1896. It operated as a cinema in the 1920s, and was recently re-furbished and relaunched as the Regent Street Cinema. The film Bennett saw was Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod aka Destiny (Germany 1921), which features Death as a character and a sequence set in Persia.

Twenty Minutes from Before the War

Source: Extracts from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘Twenty Minutes from Before the War’, in The White Cities: Reports from France 1925-1939 (London: Granta, 2004), pp. 175, 177-178. Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 11 June 1926

Text: In a Parisian cinema they are showing old newsreel footage – infinitely past, because sundered by us from the war – of such dusty novelties as the fashions, dances, the five o’clock teas, of an era that waltzed straight out of its pathetic whimsicality into a bloody horror; an epoch so deceitful that it didn’t even experience the truth of its own demise. It was already dead by the time it died. Its children were living ghosts, having been molded from papier-mâché in, oh, let’s say, pergolas.

These old films, changed every time there’s a change of program, appear under the heading “Twenty Minutes from Before the War.” It’s because of them that the cinema is sold out every day, and sometimes full to bursting. The sons all want to go, to laugh at their fathers. The great family album of the past is opened up before their eyes. It is made up of graves that elicit not shudders of horror but irresistible mirth. The effect of the pictures is like that of twenty top hats at a funeral: The hats are so ridiculous that they rather take the edge of the coffin. The result is a rather peculiar sort of dread that touches not the soul but the funny bone.

[…]

These are the sort of shocking displays we now put ourselves through, we, the children of the present day, we, who have gotten over Darwin and Ibsen, give ourselves over to the exotic woman with the “pleureuse” veil, the suffragette, the parade uniform, the umbrella, the large man with the goatee, , the train, and the towering hairdo made of pigtails and spikes; we, who go to Negro revues and watch naked girls, we toughened and bred in drum fire, scornful of beautiful lies, we devotees, as we would have it, of the ugly truth.

We sit in front of the whole deceitful misery of our fathers, who appear to have invented the cinema purely to show us themselves in their full absurdity, and we laugh, we laugh. We have prizefights and sports fans, America and endurance runners, girls drilled by preachers, a whole internationale of Sunday windbreakers. But we don’t have bodies instead of breasts, feather boas instead of necks, curtains instead of legs, and top hats in place of mourning! Where the goose-step is still practised, we know it’s dead; really, at the worst, the parades of our times are to celebrate living memorials (not dead ones). We know that once we had the “pleureuse,” the steel helmet was only a matter of time, that there’s a straight path from the modest veil to the gas mask, and from the pergola to the trench. And those unarmed reservists who plowed the fields of honor and sowed us there with their pathetic blessings – that deceitful eve of the war is something that makes us laugh our heads off every evening, for twenty minutes, and no longer.

Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. The full article describes the various newsreel scenes shown: military parades, Parisian crowds, an instructor illustrating the latest dance craze, the latest creations from a fashion house, and pre-war fiction films.

Magic Lantern

Source: Ingmar Bergman (trans. Joan Tate), Magic Lantern: An Autobiography by Ingmar Bergman (London: Penguin Books, 1988 – orig. pub. Laterna Magica, Norstedts Förlag, Sweden, 1987), pp. 14-16

Text: More than anything else, I longed for a cinematograph. The year before, I had been to the cinema for the first time, and seen a film about a horse. I think it was called Black Beauty and was based on a famous book. The film was on at the Sture cinema and we sat in the front row of the circle. To me, it was the beginning. I was overcome by a fever that has never left me. The silent shadows turned their pale faces towards me, and spoke in inaudible voices to my most secret feelings. Sixty years have gone by and nothing has changed; the fever is the same.

[…]

After breakfast, everyone went to bed for a few hours. The internal domestic routine must have gone on working, for at two o’clock, just as dusk was falling, afternoon coffee was served. We had open house for anyone who cared to come and wish the parsonage a happy Christmas. Several friends were practising musicians and part of the afternoon festivities was usually an improvised concert. Then the sumptuous culmination of Christmas Day approached: the evening meal. This was held in our spacious kitchen, where the social hierarchy was temporarily set aside. All the food was laid out on a serving table and covered working surfaces, and the distribution of Christmas gifts took place at the dining-room table. The baskets were carried in, Father officiated with a cigar and glass of sweet liqueur, the presents were handed out, verses were read aloud, applauded and commented on; no presents without verses.

That was when the cinematograph affair occurred. My brother was the one who got it.

At once I began to howl. I was ticked off and disappeared under the table, where I raged on and was told to be quiet immediately. I rushed off to the nursery, swearing and cursing, considered running away, then finally fell asleep exhausted by grief.

The party went on.

Later in the evening I woke up. Gertrud was singing a folk song downstairs and the nightlight was glowing. A transparency of the Nativity scene and the shepherds at prayer was glimmering faintly on the, tall chest-of-drawers.

Among my brother’s other Christmas presents on the white gate-legged table was the cinematograph, with its crooked chimney, its beautifully shaped brass lens and its rack for the film loops.

I made a swift decision. I woke my brother and proposed a deal. I offered him my hundred tin soldiers in exchange for the cinematograph. As Dag possessed a huge army and was always involved in war games with his friends, an agreement was made to the satisfaction of both parties.

The cinematograph was mine.

It was not a complicated machine. The source of light was a paraffin lamp and the crank was attached with a cogwheel and a Maltese cross. At the back of the metal box was a simple reflecting mirror, behind the lens a slot for coloured lantern slides. The apparatus also included a square purple box which contained some glass slides and a sepia-coloured film strip (35mm). This was about three metres long and glued into a loop. Information statd on the lid that the film was called Mrs Holle. Who this Mrs Holle was no one knew, but later it turned out that she was a popular equivalent of the Goddess of Love in Mediterranean countries.

The next morning I retreated into the spacious wardrobe in the nursery, placed the cinematograph on a sugar crate, lit the paraffin lamp and directed the beam of light on to the whitewashed wall. Then I loaded the film.

A picture of a meadow appeared on the wall. Asleep in the meadow was a young woman apparently wearing national costume. Then I turned the handle! It is impossible to describe this. I can’t find words to describe my excitement. But at any time I can recall the smell of the hot metal, the scent of mothballs and dust in the wardrobe, the feel of the crank against my hand. I can see the trembling rectangle on the wall.

I turned the handle and the girl woke up, sat up, slowly got up, stretched her arms out, swung round and disappeared to the right. If I went on turning, she would again lie there, then make exactly the same movements all over again.

She was moving.

Comments: Ingmar Bergman (1918-2007) was a Swedish film and theatre director, whose films include The Seventh Seal, Wild Strawberries and Persona. He was the son of a Lutheran Pastor, and his childhood was spent in Uppsala, Sweden. Toy cinematographs that could show a mixture of slides and short film strips were quite common. Black Beauty is the American feature film of 1921, based on the novel by Anna Sewell. Mrs Holle may be connected with the fairy tale of Frau Holle, or Mother Holle, collected by the Grimm brothers.

With the Persian Expedition

Source: Major M.H. Donohoe, With the Persian Expedition (London: E. Arnold, 1919), pp. 26-27

Text: The cinema also exercised a great influence on the native mind. Never quite understanding its working, he accepted it all philosophically as part of the travelling outfit of that strange race of infidels from far away who had chased the Turks from the shores of the Arabian Sea, who seemed to be able to make themselves into birds at will, and who rushed over the roadless desert in snorting horseless carriages. Men such as these were capable of anything, and when the first cinema film arrived, the Arabs filled to overflowing the ramshackle building which served as a theatre. In Basra I often went to the cinema, not so much for the show itself as to catch the joy with which that primitive child of nature, the Arab, followed the mishaps and triumphs of the hero through three reels. How they were moved to tears by his sufferings! And how they shouted with joy when the villain of the piece was hoist by his own petard and his career of rascality abruptly and fittingly terminated!”

One thing, I found on talking to some of these native onlookers, puzzled their minds exceedingly, and that was the morals and manners of European women as shown on the screen. The Arab is a fervent stickler for the conventionalities, and it was a great shock to his religious scruples to see women promenading in low-necked dresses with uncovered faces, frequenting restaurants with strange men not their husbands, and imbibing strong drink. “The devil must be kept busy in Faringistan raking all these shameless creatures into the bottomless pit!” said one Arab to me, when I asked him what he thought of the cinema. It was useless to seek to explain that cinema scenes did not represent the real life of the Englishman or the American, and that all our women do not earn thier [sic] living as cinema artists.

In Basra I never saw a Mohammedan woman frequenting a cinema performance. Even had she won over her husband’s consent to such an innovation, public opinion would veto her presence there, and she would not be permitted to look upon this devil’s machine illustrating foreign “wickedness.”

Comments: Martin Henry Donohoe (1869-?) was a major in the British army Intelligence Corps and prior to that a special correspondent for the Daily Chronicle newspaper. The Persian expedition described in his book was an Allied military force named Dunsterforce (after its leader General Lionel Dunsterville), formed in December 1917 and made up of Australian, New Zealand, British and Canadian troops. It played a part in the latter stages of the First World War conflict in Persia (Iran) against the forces of the Ottoman Empire. Donohoe travelled to Iran by way of Basra (now in Iraq), which had been part of the Ottoman Empire but which was now occupied by the British.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

The Land of Haunted Castles

Source: Robert J. Casey, The Land of Haunted Castles (New York: The Century Co., 1921), pp. 239-255

Text: They don’t go to the opera.

Luxemburg has no opera.

They go to the cinema!

Luxemburg is by history and environment a cinema in itself,—in the midst of natural grandeur is the omnipresent conspiracy of the story-books.

The larger powers play for a great stake and the existence of this tiny duchy is tolerated for purely strategic reasons. A war is waged and a great army sweeps over it—confident of victory—and back, inglorious in defeat. A charming duchess plays politics and loses. Strangers sit in conference in a strange land and calmly determine the fate of her abandoned throne. The while petty conspirators plan revolutions, installing new governments, reinstating old, vacillating betwixt republic and monarchy, immensely proud of themselves and all unmindful of the exterior forces that work their ruin.

Had the novelists designed this country to suit themselves they could have done no better.

A gendarme—or was it a general?—surveyed all comers with a critical eye from a point of vantage in the shelter of a high battlemented building. There was snow in his cerise plume and frost upon the shoulders of his green overcoat that robbed his silver epaulets of their effect. But in his serene dignity he stood as Ajax might have stood in his celebrated dispute with the lightning.

He was impressive enough to have spoiled the business of many a European moving-picture house and brilliant enough to have attracted great quantities of dimes to the cinema palaces of the United States.

One had only to see the disdainful glance which he bestowed upon the Luxembourgeoise questing the joys of the film to see that he disapproved of such idle pursuits. The grown-ups passed him with haughty antagonism. The children hurried by with sidelong glances as if fearful that this splendid figure might interpose himself between them and the doorway behind which flickered the delectable movies.

Once one had braved the guardian at the gate, the way led up three little stone steps to a door common enough in American cottages of twenty years ago,—three panels of wood, a pane of glass, and a wealth of iron grating.

It didn’t look much like the entrance to a theater, but, for that matter, nothing in Graystork looks like what it’s supposed to be. The house was a narrow, three-story stone affair with slim windows and green shutters. A sign over the door proclaimed it to be a cafe. A second sign, obviously a generation or two younger, conveyed the added information that the cinema might be found here and that English was spoken.

I pushed down on the brass lever—there are no door-knobs in Luxemburg—and stepped in out of the blizzard.

There was an instant impression of bar glass, electric lights, tables, straight-backed chairs, and warmth, with an all-pervading atmosphere of hot rum. Some civilians in velour hats and tight-fitting overcoats looked up from their steaming drinks as we added ourselves to the party.

The Kellner, whose memory of Americans hadn’t been entirely obliterated by the long hiatus in the tourist business, came running over from the cage-like bar to bid us welcome.

But we hadn’t come to study the liquid nourishment of Ettelbruck. A book may be written on that particular subject some day, if some brave soul manages to live through the dangers of personal research. Meerschaart instantly removed Herr Kellner’s doubts concerning the cause of our visit with a question:

Ou est la cinema?

Herr Kellner looked shocked, then turned to me.

“You will find the moving pictures,” he said in a good brand of Minnesota English, “at the end of the hallway through that little door.” He indicated a door behind the bar, and added graciously as we started to follow his directions:

“For ten years I lived in the United States.”

We walked behind the bar, and a narrow squeeze it was between the porcelain counter and the shelf of glass-ware. With the venturesome air that befitted the circumstances, I opened the door and crossed the threshold into a cold corridor.

Here was a foyer unique in the world of theatricals. Meerschaart may have been prepared for it—for, after all, his country and this are half-sisters—but nothing in my experience had given me warning. Women’s clothes, some very intimate articles of wearing-apparel, hung upon a row of hooks along one side of the hall. I hesitated a moment.

“We’re breaking into somebody’s bedroom,” I declared.

“Maybe that’s where they have the cinema,” returned the Belgian, in a matter-of-fact tone. “Either there or in the kitchen.”

The atmosphere of the corridor, redolent of garlic and boiled cabbage, seemed to give assurance that supper was to be served somewhere soon, but as yet we had no right to leap at conclusions. Anything might happen before we came to the exit.

Beyond the clothes-hooks was another door. We passed through it into a big bare room with plain white walls hung with ancient champagne advertisements. On the side opposite the entrance was a double doorway curtained with red chenille hangings, and at one side of it was a table where a woman, probably the owner of the clothes in the hallway, sold tickets.

The entrance fee was three francs apiece. The original cost, however, was the only expense that had to be figured in the afternoon’s entertainment. No tip was expected by the “usherette” inasmuch as there was no “usherette,” and there was no charge for the program, that being salvaged from the floor in the vicinity of one’s seat.

A reel of post-war comedy showing the triumph of President Wilson over a caricature of the kaiser—an animated cartoon of the French school—was just flickering to a close as we entered. The spectators, whom we could not see in the gloom, were dutifully applauding. How much of this frantic enthusiasm was due to inward faith and how much to public policy it would be difficult to say.

National ideas in a country like Luxemburg are bound to change as conditions which affect the national existence are altered. Tastes in moving pictures as in governments are likely to be decided by artillery duels a hundred miles across the frontier.

The lights flashed up and we got a glimpse of what our three francs had brought us to.

We were standing in a sort of low balcony along one side of a rectangular room. The screen was stretched across the corner opposite the door. On the main floor the seating-facilities consisted of two benches and perhaps fifty straight-backed wooden chairs. A bar with china fixtures, similar to the one in the room through which we had passed, occupied one end of the room, leading one to suspect that this place had not always been a temple of the cinema.

It is not altogether correct to infer that all of this was immediately visible. For all the brilliance of perhaps a dozen incandescent lamps, we had been in the place some minutes before the salient features of it began to impress themselves upon us. The atmosphere was a vast, well-nigh impenetrable cloud of tobacco smoke.

We found some seats on a bench at the edge of the balcony and disposed ourselves as best we could. The seats in the pit were occupied mostly by children, little girls about ten years old predominating, with a scattering representation of adults. There was an incessant chattering among the youthful patrons, but no functionary in brass buttons came to interrupt them. There seemed to be any number of little black velvet bonnets in the house, some of them trimmed with pink ribbons, some with blue. A minority of small boys in the round cap of the French-marine type assisted in the manufacture of the din, making one notable contribution in the way of a fist fight before we had been in the place five minutes.

I took advantage of the wait between pictures to look at the red program.

The information conveyed in three assorted languages was little short of astonishing. I learned from the English part of it that there would be:

MOVING PICTURES
at Sunday
In the Afternoon at 3 o’Clock
at night 8 o’clock
at SATURDAY and MONDAY
at Evening at 8 o’clock

ECLAIR JOURNAL
The Kaiser and President Wilson

Sherlock Holmes
the greatest american detektiv in:
ON THE LINE OF THE FOUR
In 2 Parts

Casimir and the Fireman
Humorist in 1 act

THE BLACK CAPTAIN
Far West Drama

and
Flottes Orchester
1 Platz, 3 Fr.; 2 Platz, 2 Fr.; 3 Platz, 1.50 Fr.

And there were further words in German to the effect that children would be admitted to matinee performances at half-price.

It was in the French part of the bill of fare, however, that the true eloquence of the cinema management showed itself. To begin with, the pedigree of the films was presented to the attention of the public. To a stranger in the land, an itinerant who might be interested in the English program, a film would be merely a film. It was in the nature of the tourist to take what one gave him and pay well for the privilege. The native sons, how-ever, must be advised of the quality of the product that they were asked to purchase. Hence they were told with-out preliminary waste of space upon the topics of the pictures that the films were from Paris. To cinema-fanciers who for four long years had gazed upon flickerings from Prussia, the name Paris probably carried a magic appeal.

The kaiser and President Wilson, on this side of the dictionary, were passed over in small type. So was Sherlock Holmes, “the greatest american detektiv.” But Le Capitaine Noir came in for a great deal of publicity of the circus-poster variety.

This feature was billed as “A great drama of adventure in four acts and a prologue,—a number of sensational scenes: Chases on the Plains; the Ambush; The Mark of Fire; The Escape; The Burning Granary.” One would be a sensation-seeker indeed who could wish for more excitement for his three francs.

I suspected from the first that “On the Line of the Four,” however much it might promise as a war picture, was very likely our old friend and neighbor “The Sign of the Four,” and so it was.

The original nationality of the piece was a doubtful matter. There was hardly enough of it left to give one a consecutive idea of the plot, and the French captions were so worn that little was to be gained from them. It may have been an American film of that era when there were no stars. At any rate, no latter-day favorites appeared in it. It may have been English. Certain elements in the “locations” suggested England forcibly. But whatever its pedigree, its days of usefulness were nearly done.

The Anglo Saxons in the house, to whom the name Sherlock Holmes was a sufficient guaranty of story action and plot, could not get very far with the titles in French. Those who had mastered enough of the language to surmount this difficulty were certain to become hopelessly muddled in the aimless mixing of scenes that seemed to be the result of many years of “cut and patch.”

The children, however, enjoyed the piece just as young America used to enjoy pictures of fleeting express-trains and dashing fire-engines. The doings of the “greatest american detektiv” as marvels of mental acrobatics appealed to them not a whit. But the doings of the East Indian murderer with his shiny black hide, his wicked eye, and his deadly poisoned dart, were truly delightful.

Der Schwarze,” as they nicknamed him, could not so much as twist a finger from the moment of his first entrance into the drama until the last ghostly glimmer of Dr. Watson’s romance, without arousing an excited hum throughout the house.

The children wildly applauded his capture and cast upon him any number of maledictions in German and French. They commented volubly upon the flashes supposed to show the theft of the rajah’s jewels in India, and stood up in their seats and yelled when the Black was shown in the act of shooting the fatal dart.

They may have gathered something from the torn film to give them an inkling of the motive of revenge that underlay the murderer’s desire to kill. But from their point of view the motives were immaterial. This Indian person was downright murderous. They had seen him in his deadly but interesting pastime of shooting poisoned arrows,—truly a reprobate. And he was chased and caught and turned over to the gendarmes. Served him right! A very excellent picture!

We learned, too, that the burghers are a romantic people, as befits their surroundings and traditions. They sighed with sympathy when Dr. Watson breathed words of love into the ear of Mary Marston. They murmured approbation when he put his protecting arm about her in that tense moment just before the discovery of the murder; and they howled with startling intensity, adults and infants alike, when the film snapped off short before the climacteric embrace.

The flottes Orchester was the greatest disappointment in the show. It failed to arrive. A small boy with a typical toy harmonica attempted to remedy the deficiency with plaintive notes that filtered unpleasantly through the other noises.

Between films we got another glimpse of our surroundings.

On the wall near the entrance there were yellowing posters of past feature pictures. They were uniformly German and slipshod, the type one used to see before the nickelodeons of a decade ago. One bore the title “Schwer Gepruft” and showed a Prussian villain staring through a brick wall at a blonde girl playing a piano. Another was a sketch in black and white advertising “Der Gestreifte Domino.” The domino was a doleful-looking person whose activities in the film were not described.

In a far corner was a French advertisement for “Deux Ames de Poupée” played by a “notable cast of three” from some theater in Paris. None of these posters looked new, though the theater undoubtedly had been in use during the German occupation. This led us to believe that any films shown in Luxemburg since the autumn of 1914 must have been worn-out stock, hastily salvaged from the waste-heaps to struggle through four years more of life. The conviction remained with us even after the proprietor had assured us that a Copenhagen distributor had given him a choice of first-run productions during the entire period in which the French supply was unavailable.

The adventures of the Black Captain started inauspiciously. The picture was improperly framed during the first few seconds and the lower half appeared on top and the upper half below, as is the universal custom with unframed cinema.

Immediately the ensemble of spectators yelled out, “Hoch!” with a unanimity that shook the ancient rafters.

The film presently slid into its proper groove, and, save for the normal clatter of the children and their parents, quiet was restored. To a visitor the incident was worthy of note as something odd in the system of communication between the house and the management.

It has its points of superiority over the good old American custom of kicking chair backs, whistling, and foot-stamping, as any one will admit. It is no easier on the ears, perhaps, but its effect is quicker. No operator, not even a German operator, can stand the concerted shrieking of half a hundred excited youngsters.

The prologue of this “adventurous picture”—the words are those of the opening caption—extended through about a reel and a half of the total four. Whether out of deference to an artistic color scheme or not we cannot say, but Monsieur Violet, a French actor, was cast in the role of Capitaine Black. The girl in the piece, whose name we have forgotten, and the deep-dyed villain who stole her love, were the only important figures in the story aside from the colorful captain. The lady appeared to be at least as old as the film, which was old enough, and had a sharp nose a trifle too long for her own good. But she suited the spectators in the seventy-five centime seats, and from that time forward we knew that the picture was going to be well received.

Monsieur Violet, as the Duke of Chablis, is in love with Miss Arabella, a circus rider. He marries her, much to the grief of his best friend,—another duke whom, for the purpose of identification, we shall call the Duke of Ornans.

After the inevitable elopement of Lady Arabella with the Duke of Ornans, Monsieur Violet meets the wrecker of his home and kills him in a duel. The two former friends become reconciled in the death scene and the wrecker, after the fashion of wreckers, warns the wronged husband to beware of the woman who is “the cause of it all.”

The husband encounters the faithless wife as he is carrying the body of the betrayer into the chateau whither the erring couple have fled. It is a strong scene in many ways, about as well acted as it is original, with many flashes of raised fists and kneeling supplication. Here the prologue ends in a hysterical burst of recrimination and anathema.

None of this was in keeping with the moral code of Luxemburg, where marriages are pretty sure to be permanent. But it was romantic, passionate, bombastic, and was applauded with shouts.

The next scene showed the arrival in America of the Lady Arabella, who had journeyed into the Far West to claim an estate left her by the traitorous friend.

And it was truly a wonderful America in which she found herself.

An official with a uniform like that of a milkman carried her suit-cases from an unfamiliar railway platform to a stage-coach. The coach was a long, slim thing like the French army’s “Fourgon, Mile. 1887.” It was drawn by three horses and greatly resembled the American vehicle it was supposed to represent in that both of them had wheels.

In the meantime the Duke of Chablis had become the chief of a band of Mexican outlaws, and, under the name of the Black Captain, was spreading terror along the borders of the United States,—a splendid revenge for a husband whose home had been wrecked, but a bit hard on Texas or New Mexico.

The Luxemburgers could not understand this idea of vengeance. But theirs not to question why. It was action they wanted and action they got.

The bandits attacked the stage-coach.

Artful bandits they were. They kept themselves informed of the movements of the coach by a clever system of espionage. If the girl had only noted the dark figure at the corner of the station platform, what excitement she might have saved herself! She would have recognized him at once for a foe. For he was attired in a fedora hat with a feather in it, and even a timid European knows that the Indians who have for their tribal insignia the fedora hat are the most bloodthirsty of all.

Of course there was a battle. It wasn’t a very good battle at first, because both sides failed to show any marksmanship until they warmed up to their work. But after about a kilometer of chase things were different. Nearly everybody on both sides dropped dead at once. It was a thrilling climax.

The few passengers left alive clambered out of the coach to permit themselves to be robbed, the Lady Arabella confronting the mysterious Black Captain. And the house actually approached silence. One could have heard an anvil drop, so quiet was that tense moment when he lifted his mask and showed the once trusted but treacherous love, his sneering lips and hate-filled eyes.

He was very deliberate about it,—always the gentleman, the duke, outlaw or not. He was so deliberate that he turned his back upon her momentarily and she escaped.

The outlaws held a brief conference and leaped to horse in pursuit as she sped down the glistening road.

The house had a wild time about it.

American moving-picture men used to hold long news-paper debates concerning the propriety of applauding the silent drama. But I have never yet seen a decision relative to the etiquette of starting a riot at a thrilling moment. The young Luxemburgers stood up in their chairs and howled.

The people of the grand duchy are not so volatile as those of France. Superficially they bear a closer resemblance to their German neighbors. But they stand proved a race apart to one who has ever seen them at the cinema. They feel deeply and express themselves energetically regardless of time or place. They leap from stolidity to intense animation with the quickness of a flash of light.

The girl outdistanced all the bandits save the Black Captain, and this relentless pursuer chased her through a few Italian villas and other little-known parts of Mexico. Just as he caught up with her the film broke and the cheering spectators subsided with a deep sigh.

That gave us a chance to escape without being trampled upon and we made the best of our opportunity.

It was snowing when we reached the street. The braided gendarme stood as we had left him, his silver epaulets glistening like diamonds with the frost.

Comments: Robert Joseph Casey (1890-1962) was an American journalist and soldier, who served during the First World War and went on to write several books on his travels around the world. The Land of Haunted Castles documents a tour of Luxembourg not long after the war, with this visit to a film show taking place in the town of Ettleburck. The Sherlock Holmes film referred to is unclear but it may have been the American film Sherlock Holmes Solves The Sign of Four (1913), produced by Thanhouser and featuring Harry Benham as Holmes. The French film may be Le capitaine noire (1917), though this did not feature a M. Violet in the cast. However it was produced by the French Éclair company, as was the Éclair Journal newsreel and the ‘Casimir’ series of comedies listed on the programme. There was an Éclair series of Sherlock Holmes films, but none was based on ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Dialogue in Dixie

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance: Dialogue in Dixie’, Close Up vol. V no. 3, September 1929, pp. 211-218

Text: Meekly punctual, clasping our prejudices in what might just possibly prove to be a last embrace, we entered the familiar twilight: the softly-gilded interior twilight, the shared, living quietude, still fresh and morning-new in their strange power. We could not be cheated altogether. We might be about to enter a new kingdom. Curiosity joined battle with fear and was winning when upon the dark screen appeared the silent signal: the oblong of rosy light, net-curtained. In a moment we were holding back our laughter, rueful laughter that told us how much, unawares, we had been hoping. For here was fear to match our own: the steady octopus eye, the absurdly waving tentacles of good salesmanship. The show was condemning itself in advance. We breathed freely, we grew magnanimous. We would make allowances. We were about to see the crude, the newly-born. We grew willing to abandon our demand for the frozen window-sill in favour of a subscription for a comfortable cradle. Ages seemed to have passed since we sat facing that netted oblong, ages since the small curtains had slid apart to the sound of a distressingly animated conversation. We had wandered, moralising; recalled the birth of gramophone and pianola, remember that a medium is a medium, and that just as those are justified who attempt to teach us how to appreciate Music, and the Royal Academy, and Selfridge’s so most certainly, how certainly we had not until later any conception, must those be justified who attempt to teach us how to hear Talkies. We remembered also Miss Rebecca West’s noble confession of willingness to grow accustomed to listening to speakers all of whom suffer from cleft-palate …

Cleft-palate is a fresher coin of the descriptive currency than the ‘adenoid’ worn almost to transparency by the realists. Nevertheless adenoids, large and powerful, at once mufflers and sounding-boards, were the most immediate obstacle to communication between ourselves and the semi-circle of young persons on the screen, stars, seated ostensibly in council over speech-films. Their respective mouths opened upon their words widely, like those of fish, like those of ventriloquists’ dummies, those of people giving lessons in lip-reading. And the normal pace of speech was slowed to match the effort. The total impression was strong enough to drive into the background, for clear emergence later, our sense of what happened to film upon its breaking into speech, into no matter what imagined perfection of clear speech. For the moment we could be aware only of effort.

The introductory lesson over, the alphabet presumably mastered and our confidence presumably gained by the bevy of bright young people with the manners of those who ruinously gossip to children of a treat in store, we were confronted by a soloist, the simulacrum of a tall sad gentleman who, with voice well-pitched — conquest of medium? — but necessarily (?) slow and laboriously precise in enunciation, and with pauses between each brief phrase after the manner of one dictating to a shorthand-typist, gave us, on behalf of the Negro race, a verbose paraphrase of Shylock’s specification of the claims of the Jew to be considered human. He vanished, and here were the cotton-fields: sambos and mammies at work, piccaninnies at play — film, restored to its senses by music. Not, this time, the musical accompaniment possessing, as we have remarked before, the power, be it never so inappropriate provided it is not obtrusively ill-executed, to unify seer and seen and give to what is portrayed both colour and sound — but music utterly lovely, that emerged from the screen as naturally as a flower from its stalk: the voices of the cotton-gatherers in song. Film opera flowed through our imagination. Song, partly no doubt by reason of the difference between spoken word and sustained sound, got through the adenoidal obstruction and, because the sound was distributed rather than localised upon a single form, kept the medium intact. Here was foreshadowed the noble acceptable twin of the silent film.

The singing ceased, giving place to a dead silence and the photograph of a cotton-field. The gap, suddenly yawning between ourselves — flung back into such a seat of such a cinema on such a date — and the instantly flattened, colourless moving photograph, featured the subdued hissing of the projector. Apparatus rampant: the theatre, ourselves, the screen, the mechanisms, all fallen apart into competitive singleness. Now for it, we thought. Now for dialogue. Now for careful listening to careful enunciation and indistinctness in hideous partnership. A mighty bass voice leapt from the screen, the mellowest, deepest, tenderest bass in the world, Negro-bass richly booming against adenoidal barrier and reverberating: perfectly unintelligible. A huge cotton-gatherer had made a joke. Four jokes in succession made he, each smothered in sound, each followed by lush chorus of Negro-laughter, film laughter, film-opera again, noble partner of silent film.

And so it was all through: rich Negro-laughter, Negro-dancing, of bodies whose disforming western garb could not conceal the tiger-like flow of muscles. Pure film alternating with the emergence of one after another of the persons of the drama into annihilating speech. Scenes in which only the natural dramatic power of the actors gave meaning to what was said and said, except by a shrill-voiced woman or so and here and there the piercing voice of a child, in a way fatal to any sustained reaction: slow, enunciatory, monstrous. Perhaps only a temporary necessity, as the fixed expressionless eyes of the actors — result of concentration on microphone — may be temporary?

But the hold-up, the funeral march of words, more distracting than the worst achievements of declamatory, fustian drama, was not the most destructive factor. This was supplied by the diminution of the faculty of seeing — cinematography is a visual art reaching the mind through the eyes alone — by means of the necessity for concentrating upon hearing the spoken word. Music and song demand only a distributed hearing which works directly as enhancement rather than diminution of the faculty of seeing. But concentrated listening is immediately fatal to cinematography. Imagine, to take the crudest of examples, — the loss of power suffered by representations of passionate volubility — the virago, the girl with a grievance, the puzzled foreigner — if these inimitable floods of verbiage could be heard … In all its modes, pure-film talk is more moving than heard speech. Concentration upon spoken words reveals more clearly than anything else the hiatus between screen and stage. In becoming suddenly vocal, locally vocal amidst a surrounding silence, photograph reveals its photographicality. In demanding for the films the peculiar attention necessary to spoken drama all, cinematographically, is lost; for no gain.

The play featured the pathos and humour of Negro life in the southern States and was, whenever the film had a chance, deeply moving; whenever these people were acting, moving, walking, singing, dancing, living in hope and love and joy and fear. But the certainty of intermittent dialogue ruined the whole. When it was over the brightness of our certainty as to the ultimate fate of the speech-film was the brighter for our sense of having found more in a silent film — seen on the pot-luck system the day before — that happened to be in every way the awful irreducible minimum, than in this ambitious pudding of incompatible ingredients.

The photography was good to excellent. Actors all black and therefore all more than good. A satisfying, sentimental genre picture — genuinely sentimental, quite free from sentimentality — might be made of it by cutting out the speeches which served only to blur what was already abundantly clear, and substituting continuous obligato of musical sound.

If the technical difficulties of speech are ultimately overcome, the results, like the results of the addition to silent film of any kind of realistic sound, will always be disastrous. No spoken film will ever be able to hold a candle to silent drama, will ever be so ‘speaking.’

‘As we were going to press,’ the August Close Up came in and we read Mr. Herring’s notes on Hearts in Dixie. Mr. Herring bears a lamp, a torch, electric torch kindly directed backwards, as boldly he advances amongst the shadows of what is yet to be, for the benefit of those who follow rallentando. We respect his pronouncements and are filled, therefore, with an unholy joy in believing that for once-in-a-way we may blow a statement of his down the wind, down a north-easter, sans façon. One does not need to temper winds to lambs with all their wool in place. Therefore: As a fair-minded young Englishman, Mr. Herring is for giving the Talkies their chance and their due even though his conscience refuses to allow any claim they may make for a place in the same universe as the sound-film proper. He has taken the trouble to consider their possibilities. One of these he finds realised in Hearts in Dixie at the moment when the white doctor, having drawn the sheet from the body of the mother who has been treated by a Voodoo woman, and bent for a moment, scrutinising, stands up with his declaration: “All the time,” says Mr. Herring, “we see his face. Then his words cut across, ‘she’s been dead three days’. Now, in a silent film, the visual thing would have been broken” and he concludes his remarks on the incident by describing it as “the odd spectacle of talkies assisting visual continuity.”

We do not deny the possibility here suggested, but if this incident is to stand for realisation then the possibility is not worth pursuing. For though not quite the stentorian announcement of the guest-ushering butler, the doctor’s statement inevitably had to be announcement, clear announcement in the first place to us, the audience, and incidentally to the sorrowing relatives to whom, in actuality let us hope, he would have spoken rather differently. The shock got home, not because its vehicle was the word spoken with the tragic picture still there before our eyes, but by virtue of its unexpectedness. It would have lost nothing and, relatively
to the method of carefully-featured vocal announcement, have gained much by being put across in sub-title. But since Mr. Herring objects that sub-title would have interfered with visual continuity, we must remind him that the right caption at the right moment is invisible. It flows unnoticed into visual continuity. It is, moreover, audible, more intimately audible than the spoken word. It is the swift voice within the mind. “She’s been dead three days” was dramatic, not cinematographic, and the incident would have gained enormously if the white doctor had acted his knowledge of the unknown death, if he had reverently replaced those sheets and shown his inability to help. To be sure we should not have known about the three days. What matter?

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves. Hearts in Dixie (USA 1929) was an all-talking musical film with a largely African-American cast, led by Stepin Fetchit. It had been championed previously in Close Up by the critic Robert Herring.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive