Flashback

Source: George Pearson, Flashback: The Autobiography of a British Film-maker (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1957), p. 130.

Text: Of all the moments in my narrative, the Two Minutes’ Silence was by far the most important, the keystone of the whole structure. If that failed, all failed. Only by a sincerity of utter simplicity could that great spiritual moment capture the understanding contribution of a theatre audience. The supreme test came at the film première. Emotional music had illuminated the film throughout, led by that master of his craft, Louis Levy. At the vital instant, his baton stopped. Melody ceased with lightning suddenness … dead silence in that great packed auditorium … the screen telling only of things that spoke to the heart alone. An old quavering mother at a little open window, old eyes seeking the heavens, worn hands against her aged breast … silence … and then a faint breeze stirring the thin muslin curtain, wafting it gently to touch her cheek … to kiss it … and wipe away a tear … and falls as silently as it had lifted … and still, the silence … exactly two minutes … an audience seemingly spellbound. Then Louis Levy’s baton lifted … struck … and the Reveille broke the magic of silence … Music spoke its consolation. Hardened as I was by the making of the film, that frozen silence had moved me to tears.

Comments: George Pearson (1875-1973) was a British film director. His silent feature film Reveille (UK 1924) followed the lives of some British soldiers during and after the First World War. Its dramatic high-point was where the accompanying music stopped and the audience, like the characters on the screen, marked the two minutes’ silence out of respect for the dead. Louis Levy was a cinema conductor who went on to become musical director at Gainsborough Pictures.

Silent Magic

Source: Ivan Butler, Silent Magic: Rediscovering the Silent Film Era (London: Columbus Books, 1987), pp. 27-31

Text: During the early part of the 1920s my own cinema-going was restricted by the confinements of boarding-school during term time, and in the holidays (to a lesser extent) by the fact that at least in our neighbourhood ‘the pictures’, though tolerated and even enjoyed, were still regarded as a poor and slightly dubious relative of the live theatre, the picture gallery and the concert hall. Their passage towards respectability was not helped by scandals in Hollywood such as the ‘Fatty Arbuckle Affair’. I can still recollect the atmosphere of something sinister and shuddersome that surrounded the very word ‘Arbuckle’ long after the trials (and complete acquittal) of the unfortunate comedian, even though my innocent ideas of what actually took place in that San Francisco apartment during the lively party on 5 September 1921 were wholly vague and inaccurate – if tantalizing. In his massive history of American cinema, The Movies, Richard Griffith writes, “During the course of the First World War the middle class, by imperceptible degrees, became a part of the movie audience.’ ‘lmperceptible’ might be regarded as the operative word. However, when it comes to paying surreptitious visits a great many obstacles can be overcome by a little guile and ingenuity, and I don’t remember feeling particularly deprived in that respect. I managed to see most of what I wanted to see.

Our ‘local’ was the cosy little Royal in Kensington High Street, London – a bus journey away. The Royal has been gone for half a century, its demise hastened by the erection of a super-cinema at the corner of Earl’s Court Road. To the faithful it was known not as the Royal but as the Little Cinema Under the Big Clock in the High Street. The clock itself is gone now, but on a recent visit I though I could spot its former position by brackets that remain fixed high in the brick wall. The entrance to the cinema was through a passageway between two small shops, discreetly hidden except for two frames of stills and a small poster. A pause at the tiny box-office, a turn to the left, a step through a swing door and a red baize curtain, and one was in the enchanted land – not, however, in sight of the screen, because that was flush with the entrance, so you saw a grossly twisted pulsating picture which gradually formed itself into shape as, glancing backwards so as not to miss anything, you groped your way up to your seat. To the right of the screen was the clock in a dim red glow, an indispensable and friendly feature of nearly all cinemas in those days, and a warning – as one was perhaps watching the continuous programme through for the second run, that time was getting on. Prices were modest: from 8d (3p), to 3s (15p). This was fairly general in the smaller halls; cheaper seats were available in some, particularly in the provinces, others – slightly more imposing demanded slightly more for the back rows, possibly with roomier seats and softer upholstery, but such elitism was not, to my memory, practised at the Royal.

Projection was to our unsophisticated eyes generally good, preserving the often marvellously crisp and well graded black-and-white photography. Programmes were changed twice weekly (but the cinemas were closed on Sundays, at any rate during the early years) and continuous from about 2 o’clock. They consisted as a rule of a newsreel such as the Pathé Gazette with its proudly crowing cockerel (silent, of course), a two-reel comedy (sometimes the best part of the entertainment), Eve’s Film Review, a feminine-angled magazine the high spot of which was the appearance of Felix the Cat walking, and, finally, the feature film. This was before the days when the double-feature programme became general. Somewhere between the items there would be a series of slide advertisements – forerunner of Messrs Pearl and Dean – which always seemed to include a glowing picture of Wincarnis among its local and ‘forthcoming’ attractions. The average moviegoer of those days (much as today, though perhaps to a greater extent) went to see the star of a film rather than the work of its director; Gish rather than Griffith, Bronson more than Brenon, Bow more than Badger, Swanson more than DeMille though as the years went by the names of the directors became more familiar and their importance more fully recognized. Criticism was often surprisingly informed and uncompromising.

Musical accompaniment at the Royal was provided by a piano during the less frequented hours, supplanted by a trio who arrived at a fixed time regardless of what was happening on the screen. I remember well the curious uplift we felt as the three musicians arrived, switched on their desk lights, tuned up and burst into sound, perhaps at a suitable moment in the story, perhaps not. Meanwhile the pianist (always, I recollect, a lady) packed up and left for a well deserved rest and cup of tea. The skill of many of these small cinema groups, even in the most modest conditions, was remarkable; their ability to adapt, week after week, often with two programmes a week and with little or no rehearsal, to events distortedly depicted a few feet before them, was beyond praise. The old joke about William Tell for action, ‘Hearts and Flowers’ for sentiment, the Coriolan overture for suspense and that’s the lot, was an unfair and unfunny gibe.

I have described the old Kensington Royal in some detail as it was fairly typical of modest cinemas everywhere in Britain at that time. Most were at least reasonably comfortable and gave good value for little money, maintaining decent standards of presentation. Very few deserved the derogatory term ‘flea-pit’, though ‘mouse parlour’ might sometimes have been an accurate description. On one occasion the scuttering of mice across the bare boards between the rows of seats rather disturbed my viewing of a W.C. Fields film (Running Wild, I think it was), though the print was so villainously cut and chopped about that the story was difficult to follow in any case. But such cases were infrequent. I have forgotten the name of the cinema, and the town shall remain anonymous.

Sometimes, in early days, films would be shown in old disused churches, and it is supposedly through this that the employment of an organ for accompaniment in larger cinemas became general. The first exponent was probably Thomas L. Talley, who in 1905 built a theatre with organ specifically for the screening of movies in Los Angeles. It was soon discovered that such an organ could be made to do many things an orchestra could not: it could fit music instantaneously to changes of action, and simulate doorbells, whistles, sirens and bird-song, as well as many percussive instruments. On one later make of organ an ingenious device of pre-set keys made available no fewer than thirty-nine effects and even emotions, including Love (three different kinds), Anger, Excitement, Storm, Funeral, Gruesome, ‘Neutral’ (three kinds), and FULL ORGAN. This last effect, with presumably all the above, plus Quietude, Chase, China, Oriental, Children, Happiness, March, Fire, etc. all sounding together, must have been awesome indeed. […] Before long the organ interlude became an important part of any programme, as the grandly ornate and gleaming marvel rose majestically from the depths of the pit in a glowing flood of coloured light.

Nothing, however, could equal the effect of a large orchestra in a major cinema, which could be overwhelming. The accompaniment (of Carl Davis conducting the Thames Silents Orchestra) to the 1983 screening of The Wind, for instance, was a revelation that will never be forgotten by those who had never before ‘heard’ a silent film in all its glory, particularly at the climax of the storm.

Admittedly, at times, particularly from the front seats, the presence of a busy group of players could be distracting; their lights would impinge on the screen, their busy fiddle bows and occasionally bobbing heads would make concentration on what the shadows behind them were up to a little difficult. In general, however, their mere presence, apart from the music, added immeasurably to the sense of occasion and until one got used to it the cold vacancy below the screen in the early days of sound had a chilling effect. Those cinema musicians are surely remembered with warm affection and regard by all of us who were fortunate enough to have heard them.

[…]

In these days of multi-screen conglomerates it is difficult to imagine the awe and excitement that could be aroused by the greatest of the old-style movie palaces; the thick-piled carpets into which our feet sank, the powdered flunkies and scented sirens who took our tickets with a unique mixture of welcoming smile, condescending grace and unwavering dignity, the enormous chandelier-lit entrance halls, the statues, the coloured star portraits, the playing fountains, the rococo kiosks – all leading through cathedral-dim corridors to the dark, perfumed auditorium itself, the holy of holies where we would catch our first glimpse of Larry Semon plastering Fatty Arbuckle with bags of flour.

Prices, of course, were rather grander than in the smaller, humbler houses, roughly (for variations were wide) from about 1s 3d (6p) or 2s 4d (12p) to 8s 6d (43p) or even 11s 6d (57p); but once you had paid your tribute to the box-office every effort was made to see that you felt you were welcome, were getting your money’s worth and were someone of importance – that this whole occasion was especially for you.

Comments: Ivan Butler (1909-1998), after a career as an actor, went on to become a notable writer on the art and history of cinema. His Silent Magic is a particularly evocative memoir of the silent films he could remember when in his eighties. The American comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was accused of the rape and manslaughter minor actress and model Virginia Rappe. Though acquitted, thanks to lurid reporting his career was ruined. The scandal helped lead to the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to self-govern the American motion picture industry. The Eve’s Film Review cinemagazine was produced by Pathé, who also made Pathé Gazette. Thames Silents was the name given to a series of theatrical screenings and broadcasts of restored silent films with orchestral scores by Carl Davis, produced by Photoplay Productions and Thames Television over 1980-1990.

The Private Diaries of Sir Henry Rider Haggard

Source: D.S. Higgins (ed.), The Private Diaries of Sir Henry Rider Haggard 1914-1925 (London: Cassell, 1980), p. 261

Text: 27th July, 1923
This morning I went to Pathé’s to see the cinematograph film which their representative made of me here a week or two ago. It was very good, especially of my poor old spaniel, Jeekie, but as the bright sunlight seemed to turn my hair snow-white, it made me look even older than I am. These cinemas, however, go so fast that it is difficult to take in details. In future generations they will form interesting records of persons of our age, that is if they are kept as Pathé people told me they were. It seems that these photographic interviews go all over the world and are very popular with the masses.

Comments: Henry Rider Haggard (1856-1925) was a British novelist, who had a strong interest in cinema following the film adaptations of his popular novels such as She and The Lost World. Pathé was as good as its word – the film ‘interview’ with Haggard at his Ditchingham home survives and can be found on its website.

Links: ‘Camera Interview’ with Henry Rider Haggard on British Pathe site

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.

Bertolt Brecht Diaries 1920-1922

Source: Bertolt Brecht (trans. John Willett), diary entry for 29 October 1921, in Herta Ramthun (ed.), Bertolt Brecht Diaries 1920-1922 (London: Eyre Methuen, 1979), pp. 140-141

Text: Then I saw a little one-acter of Charlie Chaplin’s. It’s called The Face on the Bar-room Floor and it is the most profoundly moving thing I’ve ever seen in the cinema: utterly simple. It’s about a painter who enters a bar, has a drink and ‘because you folk have been so good to me’ narrates the story of his own downfall, which is that of a girl who has gone off with a bloated plutocrat. He sees her again, drunk and in rags, and it’s ‘the profanation of his ideal’, she’s fat and has children, at which he puts his hat on askew and goes off upstage into the darkness, staggering as if he had been hit on the head, all askew, my God, all askew as if he’d been blown off course by the wind, all windblown like no one you ever saw. And then the teller of the story gets drunker and drunker, and his need to communicate ever stronger and more painful, so he asks for ‘a bit of that chalk you put on the tips of your billiard cues’ and draws the loved one’s portrait on the floor – only to produce a series of circles. He slithers around on it, quarrels with all and sundry, gets chucked out and goes on drawing on the pavement – more circles and gets chucked back in and goes on drawing there and chucks them all out and they pop their heads in at the windows and he’s drawing on the floor and the end of the whole thing is: suddenly, just as he was trying to add a particularly artistic curl to the loved one’s hair, he let out a dreadful shriek and collapsed on top of his picture, dead … drunk … (ivre… mort…). Chaplin’s face is always impassive, as though waxed over, a single expressive twitch rips it apart, very simple, strong, worried. A pallid clown’s face complete with thick moustache, long artist’s hair and a clown’s tricks: he messes up his coat, sits on his palette, gives an agonised lurch, tackles a portrait by – of all things – elaborating the backside. But nothing could be more profoundly moving, it’s unadulterated art. Children and grown-ups laugh at the poor man, and he knows it: this nonstop laughter in the auditorium is an integral part of the film, which is itself deadly earnest and of a quite alarming objectivity and sadness. The film owes (part of) its effectiveness to the brutality of its audience.

Comments: Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956) was a German dramatist and poet. Chaplin’s The Face on the Barroom Floor (1914) is a spoof of a poem by Hugh Antoine D’Arcy about an artist who loses his love, is driven to drink, and draws the face of his lost love on a barroom floor before dying. The film was produced by Keystone Studios. Brecht wrote a poem about the film in 1944, ‘A Film of the Comedian Chaplin’.

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.

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