British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 112-113

Text: AGE: 21 SEX: M
OCCUPATION: CLERK
NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: BACON CURER

I shall always remember my first important visit to the cinema. The Local Gaumont was being opened by the Mayor and many other important townsfolk yet out of that impressive ceremony way back at the beginning of the thirties, the only part that stands out vividly to me today was the film. It was a musical starring Jack Buchanan and entitled Goodnight Vienna.

Why this particular incident should have aroused my first profound interest in the cinema remains a mystery, yet I am convinced that before that date, the thought of ‘Going to the flicks’ never meant much to me.

I was of course quite young at the time about 10 years of age. For some years, I simply doted on musicals and the thought of seeing another Astaire-Rogers extravaganza provided plenty of excitement for little me. I found myself wanting to tapdance, although I was careful not to disclose any of these ambitions to my parents. Sometimes I wonder whether ‘careful’ was the word. The back-yard shows my pals and I used to put on were always received with wild enthusiasm. I might add that as the price for admission consisted of 3 ‘conkers’ or (when such things were out of season) perhaps a pen-nibs, audiences did jolly well under the circumstances.

My enthusiasm for musicals continued for quite a while until I reached the age when more serious aspects of films began to make themselves felt. It all started with my seeing Bette Davies in Dark Victory. Never shall I forget her terrific performance in this film. It stands out as one of the most enthralling episodes in my movie experience. That really started the ball rolling and from that day to this I have been an ardent dramatic fan. In fact, I am hoping to study drama upon my demobilisation. I love great acting, for the emotional benefit I myself get out of it is greatly satisfying. That is why I am such an admirer of Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Muni.

As for films influencing my daily life, until I discovered that drama was my ideal, I must admit that my life was not unduly affected. I enjoyed helping to stage our so-called concerts with my neighbours and that was all. Today however, it is a different story. I discover that if I should miss a dramatic film that I had been bent on seeing, nothing would stop me until I cought [sic] up with it at last.

Films have made me want to visit the U.S.A. in rather an unusual way. By reading rather a lot of authentic literature on that country I have realised now hopelessly incompetent a large precentage [sic] of films have been in portraying life in the U.S.A. I have come to believe in the books I have read and the fact that they do not tie up with what I have seen on the screen, has made me even more eager to go there and see for myself. I am referring to modern life in the States of course.

Since my joining the Forces in 1942 , 1 have also become interested in the technical side of films not with the interest of a technician but artistically. I can now appreciate photography and lighting and I realise that the cinema is most definitely an art. That is why I uphold Orson Well’s [sic] work and get annoyed when such masterpieces as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons get snuffed at by the general public.

To-day I am an ardent film fan making sure I read all the reviews of the films as they reach the West End. I even keep a record of the date of arrival of each film and any other particulars that I think arc worth recording.

Yes, indeed my life is well wrapped in the cinema and I sincerely hope it won’t be long before I can have a go at entering the industry myself. I shall always be grateful to Miss Davis for revealing an ambition that had previously slept within me.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘Films and the Pattern of Life’. Contributors were asked to trace the history of their interest in films, the influence films had on them (including if they were ever frightened by films), what they imitated from films, if films made them more receptive to love-making, if films made them want to travel or to be dissatisfied with their way of life or neighbourhood, and if films gave them vocational ambitions. It is interesting to see in the book the number of respondents who praise Citizen Kane (USA 1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (USA 1942), films which were supposed to have been rejected by most audiences. The other films mentioned are Goodnight Vienna (UK 1932) and Dark Victory (USA 1939).

Enter the Dream-House

Source: Mo Heard, interviewed in Margaret O’Brien and Allen Eyles (eds.), Enter the Dream-House: Memories of Cinemas in South London from the Twenties to the Sixties (London: Museum of the Moving Image, 1993), pp. 63-66

Text: We lived in Catford, the edge of Catford, in Lewisham in South-East London. My Mum went to Taunton to have me because it was during the Blitz in 1940. I’m the only child. I have no brothers or sisters and my dad was away in the army. My mother went to the pictures twice a week and I’m sure she took me. My earliest memories are going to all the cinemas in that area: there were three in Catford and there were three in Lewisham and I went to all of them. My mother took me to “A” films – Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and all those. I think my earliest memories are round about 1945, 1946. I remember seeing It Always Rains on Sunday and all those British films. We used to go after nursery school. What I do remember is my mother used to buy the ice-cream in the Co-op, so it must have been at a period when you couldn’t get ice-creams in the cinemas or they were cheaper outside, and we used to take those with us.

About ice-creams in cinemas, we used to get tubs and they were very, very hard and you used to peel round the top of the cardboard tubs until it was halfway down and the ice-cream inside was so hard you could hold the tub and lick it like an ice-cream cone. And I always remember the tops – you never had wooden spoons in those days, you took the top off and folded it in half and used that as a spoon.

I remember coming out and it was dark and we used to walk home and always stop at the fish and chip shop and but threepenneth of chips. I was completely hooked by all those films.

Did any films frighten you as a child?

I remember very vividly certain frightening scenes but I do not remember what films they were from. They must have been “A” films but obviously, because I was so young, I would not know what the title was. I remember there was a woman in a bedroom and she heard the glass breaking downstairs and she went down the staircase and her silhouette was against the wall and she had a flowing nightgown on. I don’t know who it was. And she came down the stairs and I think whoever it was at the bottom reached up and murdered her or something. And there was another film where some woman was walking down a crunchy gravel path in a park or a garden at night and there were footsteps following her in this crunchy gravel. And then she stopped and they stopped.

In those days it was continuous performance, so you’d go in and move along the row and then you’d plonk down and you might be in the middle of a B picture. How at the age of four or five could you pick up a story like that? And then you’d go through the newsreels and the ads and the rest of it and then you’d get the A picture and then you’d come to the B picture. And the moment it got to the point where we came in, my mother would nudge me and say “This is where we came in.” And up you’d get and walk out. We didn’t have to leave but I suppose she didn’t want to sit there any longer.

Did you go to children’s shows on Saturday mornings?

I went to Saturday morning pictures at the Prince of Wales [Lewisham] and the Plaza [Catford]. I became an ABC Minor – “We’re Minors of the ABC and every Saturday we go there … and shout aloud with glee”, etc., etc. I remember when the manager – or whoever used to get up before the films on stage and get us to sing bouncing ball songs – asked if there were children who wanted to get up and do tap dances and things, I got up with a friend and we sang “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”. I think I must have been only about seven. It must have been painful.

And, of course, the terrible noise that all the yobby kids made! And my friend and I used to sit near the back and we were terribly classy because we knew about cinema and we watched the films. Every time in the films they came to the dialogue, suddenly mayhem, pandemonium broke out, and we would sit there and we’d go “Shut up! Be quiet!” and tell off these kids around us. Once we obviously chose the wrong people to tell off, because they chased us afterwards down the High Street and were going to beat us up.

When I was older I would say I was brought up on the American musical and I just dreamt and fantasised about being Vera-Ellen and Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Mitzi Gaynor – all those actresses with their very tight waists and their big belts and their dresses and skirts that went out and there were all those petticoats. When someone like Mitzi Gaynor did a twirl and the skirts sort of rose up, they had about six miles of thick petticoats on underneath.

Did you ever try and copy hairstyles and make-up?

I don’t think so. I used to draw ladies with dresses like that on my school books and all over the place. I do remember in Catford there was a shoe shop on the corner of Wildfell Road and Rushey Green and it was called Vyners of Hollywood. And in the windows, literally stacked from floor to ceiling, were thousands of shoes, and they were all glamour shoes. And they had sort of twelve-inch wedge heels and they were made of snake skin. And they had peep toes and high ankle things. And I used to drool over that shop. I never ever met anyone in the street who ever wore anything like that. And I really wanted shoes like that. By the time I got to the age of being able to wear shoes like that, they’d disappeared.

I used to go to matinees in the holidays with friends. And I remember my friend and I, we must have been about ten, queuing up for hours to see this wonderful film at the Queens in Rushey Green. It was next to the Lewisham Hippodrome. It was the most beautiful cinema. It was very tiny. There were a few marble steps up to these gold-handled glass doors and then there was a central paybox. I think you went in either side. I remember low ceilings, very narrow inside, and lots of brass. There was a brass rail halfway down with a red plush curtain and presumably the expensive seats were behind and the cheaper ones in front. On the left-hand side, there were only three or four seats against the wall before the aisle, just a few seats down the side. I can see it now: it was quite narrow but tall and arched, so it was definitely a mini electric palace.

And I remember queuing for hours to see this film with my friend and when we finally got in and were sitting there watching this film, the usherette came up with a torch and shone it one me. And there was my dad who was terribly cross because he’d obviously got very worried that I hadn’t come home. He knew that I’d gone to the pictures and he’d come to find me and fetch me out.

Talk about being shown up in the cinema, I remember going to the Gaumont at Lewisham with my mum and my aunt and it was in the afternoon and just a few people in there, and they’d bought the cheaper seats at the front. And I remember my aunt, who was always a bit of a girl, she said, “Come on, there are loads of seats – let’s move back.” And we moved back and, of course, the usherette came and told us off and made us move forward again. There was no one sitting at the front at all and I was very embarrassed by that.

What was the Gaumont like as a building?

The Gaumont at Lewisham was a palace. We never, ever went in the circle at the Gaumont. It was obviously far too expensive for my mum. We always went in the stalls. And what I do remember is queuing to get into a film that everybody wanted to go and see. And once you’d bought your ticket, on each side of the foyer they had these “corrals” and you would go into this corral which had a brass rail and you would queue inside that. And then they would let you into the back of the stalls where they had more corrals, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. The cinema was enormous – I think it must have had about six aisles. Right at the back, you had the low wall on the back seats and then you had this step up away from the back aisle and that had the brass rails round it. So you were let into one of these corrals where you stood and you were higher than the seats so you could watch the film. And then they would gradually get you out and seat you.

And one other thing: some B picture star, Faith Domergue, had appeared at the Gaumont and there she was coming down the stairs and my mother said, “Go on, go and ask her for an autograph.” And she got my diary out and I went up and this film star used my back to write her autograph, and there was a flash, a photographer, and my mother discovered it was the local paper. And she said, “You’re going to be in the local paper.” But I never was.

Comments: Mo Heard has been an actress, publisher, writer, usherette at the National Film Theatre, and at the time of this interview in 1993 she was manager of the Actors’ Company at the Museum of the Moving Image in London. The Queen’s Hall at Rushey Green opened in 1913 and closed in 1959. The Gaumont Palace in Lewisham opened in 1932 and seated 3,050. It finally closed as a cinema in 1981. My grateful thanks to Mo Heard for permission to reproduce this interview.

Comparison between Theatres and Films

Source: H.G., quoted in J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 113-114

Text: I do not know wether [sic] I am to be considered lucky that I happened to have a wireless on when the Brainstrust [sic] was discussing the subject on which I am going to endeavour to write about.

First the cinemas [sic] good points.

One is always sure of being able to hear and see what is going on. Whereas in the thatre [sic] you are not, unless one is very near the stage, a position which is not very suitable because one can see the actors and actresses make-up.

In wartime the theatre is apt to be drab and the costumes look as if they have seen better days, also in the films one does not expect colour, unless it is in Technicolour [sic] which is very pleasing to the eye in days of war.

Once I was in the pictures seeing a film in Techni-colour called Best Foot Forward with Lucille Ball it was lovely, and the warning went, it was a very heavy raid, but I was much to interested to think about it.

I do not think that the theatre could get one, so concentrated in programme, to forget about it.

Unless one is fond of comedy the theatre can be very boring, if the artists are not good. But films must be good or at least good enough to pass the critics (who allows the films fit for the public).

Plays are not too bad in theatres, but are also apt to be boring.

Last year my sister took my mother and I to see Arsenic and Old Lace. Mummy hated it, but would not tell my sister so because it may have hurt her feelings.

Mummy hated it because (a) She could not hear properly and only caught snatches of the conversation; (b) She was bored stiff, because all they seemed to do was open and shut a box by the window.

I like plays, and during the examinations I went to see The Lisbon Story it was a very spectacular show, and we had a very good seat, which makes all the difference.

In the cinemas it is warm and not so draughty as theatres.

In the theatre one is seeing the thing actually being done, and every thing is more or less real, where as in the cinema, one is seeing something that has been practised to perfection, and if one is seeing what I term a THRILLER! one knows that if somebody in the picture has been killed he or she is not really dead.

So … on the whole I think pictures are better, most of them come from Hollywood and America has all the best stars and I do not think the english [sic] film star has a chance.

In the pictures the story has been picked out and the unnecessary parts cut and the best parts brought out, and in my opinion the films are infinately [sic] better than the theatre and if not in your opinion, better, they are very good entertainment, and I don’t know what a lot of us would do without them.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above response comes from the section ‘Children and Adolescents and the Cinema’. The contributors for this section came from a school in Hampstead, with the children being described by Mayer as female, mostly middle class, on average not older than twelve-and-a-half.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

David Lean: A Biography

Source: Kevin Brownlow, David Lean: A Biography (London: Faber & Faber, 1997 [orig. 1996]) p. 203

Text: I was making GREAT EXPECTATIONS down at Rochester when the first print came through [of Brief Encounter] … I suggested we ask the local theatre if they would run a preview. Rochester was a pretty tough town in those days and at the first love scene one woman down in the front started to laugh. I’ll never forget it. And the second love scene in got worse. And then the audience caught on and waited for her to laugh and then they all joined in and it ended in an absolute shambles. They were rolling in the aisles – partly, I must admit, laughing at the woman, she had such a funny laugh. I remember going back to the hotel, and lying on the bed almost in tears thinking, ‘How can I get into the laboratory at Denham and burn the negative?’ I was so ashamed of it.

Comments: David Lean (1908-1991) was a British film director, whose films included Brief Encounter (1945) and Great Expectations (1946). The film being previewed was Brief Encounter, and the Rochester cinema was the Majestic (later named Gaumont).

Newsreels

Source: Extract from Len England, Mass-Observation File Report 215: Newsreels (June), 19 June 1940, reproduced from http://bufvc.ac.uk/wp-content/media/2009/06/mo_report_215.pdf. Original file report held at Mass-Observation Archive, University of Sussex

Text: Mention was made in the last report of the horrifying effect that some newsreel sequences had upon members of the audience. This effect is becoming more obvious. An observer in Streatham heard one elderly working-class woman say ‘Gertie and I cried all through the newsreel. Those poor boys out there in all that. The pictures were terrible’. In a Watford cinema another observer heard one girl say to her friend ‘I don’t think they should show you this, do you?’ at shots of air raid havoc. In the Picturegoer (15.6.40) a letter was published as follows:

There has been much criticism in the past on newsreels showing us the horrors of modern warfare in China, Spain, etc., and although we felt strongly about these presentations they did not strike near enough to make us protest publicly. But the war newsreel of to-day is horrifying us. This week we went to our local cinema to see ADVENTURE IN DIAMONDS and SPATS TO SPURS, a light programme calculated to make us forget what might be happening ‘over there’. But did we enjoy our programme? No, because we viewed it through a haze of tears and the horrible quickening of nerves as we saw our boys moving up to the Belgian front.

As the war continues in all its fury, are we to be subjected to further horror, are we to watch our husbands bombarded, are we to see the shattered limbs of our brothers lying on the battlefield, the anguished bodies of our sons carried in on stretchers? No, unless the film distributors realise that we cannot sit in a luxury cinema watching these ghastly things, unless they relegate the war newsreel to its proper place, the New[s] Theatre, we will stay outside the cinema for the duration. This is our resolve and there are thousands of mothers and wives who feel the same.

A further letter commented on the same thing:

Some of the recent newsreels have been in very bad taste; an outstanding example being the showing of dead bodies lying outside a bombed Belgian hospital. Cannot the censor prevent the issue of these pictures which can only bring pain and suffering to those loved ones on active service. After all, we go to the cinema to be carried away from our troubles.

The main response to these shots continues to be a very high degree of comment and signs of horror at the most unpleasant shots. There is no indication in this that the shots are popular but they still constitute the bulk of newsreels and are accompanied by such remarks as ‘There are other sights too grim to show you’. To shots other than of air raids the response is increasing. In the British Movietone News, 13.6.40, an item called ‘The Italian Assassin’ began with close-ups of Mussolini. Obs watched this reel twice and on each occasion there was an immediate and widespread outburst of hisses, boos, catcalls and laughs. Obs has never seen this on any other occasion though twice at least the newsreels have contained shots of Hitler himself. The outcry lasted for nearly a minute on each occasion.

Response to political and military figures has increased; Reynaud, Weygand and Gort have been clapped every time they have appeared though none of the three have been applauded at all before the last two weeks. There has been very prolonged applause for Churchill every time, and at a West End theatre where response is usually very low a man called out ‘Well done’ when the Prime Minister appeared and clapping followed.

The royal family, however, receive less applause than before. The British Movietone reel mentioned above was observed with two very highly responsive audiences; the last item was a fairly long sequence of the King presenting medals at Buckingham Palace; the Queen was watching from the balcony. At the first showing of this the King was applauded for 2 seconds — Reynaud had received 5 seconds applause a minute before — at the second showing there was no clapping at all. On each occasion the shots of the Queen were greeted in dead silence.

The most important newsreel item in the last few weeks has been the Dunkirk evacuation; shots of this were obtained by cameramen on the spot, and by others lining the train route from the coast home. They could not, however, be released immediately and there was an opportunity by skilful cutting to exploit the dramatic possibilities of the situation. Paramount and Movietone in the main let the shots speak for themselves and did not give them much commentary; GB produced a patriotic commentary which will be mentioned further; and Pathe blended the shots into a sequence that gained a higher response of applause than anything else yet noted by an observer. The sequence began with soldiers marching into Dunkirk; then came a word of congratulation to the Navy and the Air Force for their assistance, this being illustrated with stock shots; the actual embarkation; then compliments to the French army, to the nurses and other women helpers, to the wounded, finally shots of the landing, the train journey, and a few words from the troops. The whole item lasted about four minutes; for nearly a quarter of that time, that is, a full minute, there was applause. Hitherto the loudest applause had been 10 seconds for the survivors of the Altmark.

Comments: Mass-Observation carried out a series of studies in 1930s and 1940s into how people in the UK lived, through a mixture of observation, diaries and invited comments. Cinema-going was included among its social surveys, and during 1939-1945 it paid particular attention to newsreels. Data from the original observers’ reports were collated into File Reports, and all of the film File Reports were compiled by Len England. This particular report is on audience reaction to newsreels in June 1940. The newsreels referred to are British Movietone News, Pathe Gazette, Gaumont-British News and British Paramount News.

Links: Copy of full file report at News on Screen

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 57-59

Text: AGE: 19; SEX: F.; FATHER: HEAD CLERK, SOLICITORS MANAGING CLERK; OCCUPATION: STUDENT NURSE; NATIONALITY: BRITISH

I have been considering answering your request for a motion picture autobiography ever since the May 26th Picturegoer fell into my grasping hands a week ago, until I could not resist the urge this morning and refused to be tempted by the thoughts of a luxury lay-in or even ‘mon petit dejeuner’, so please spare me the cruel information that you are accepting no more contributions as I could not bear the thought of so much wasted energy.

My interest in films was first awakened, when I was expected to accompany my elder brothers and sisters to the nearest cinema perched on a hill some two miles distant, so that my parents were free to choose their particular choice of entertainment on Saturday afternoons. We were ‘treated’ to the front stalls but even on Saturday pennies did not always provide sufficient odd cash to travel in style so the hike not only enforced an early start, but also a delayed return.

My superiors would converse very learnedly on the way about the respective merits of the film we were about to see and it always used to puzzle me how they knew so much about it when they had not even seen it. Tarzan was a great favourite of mine in those days although even then my fellow hero-worshippers were inclined to be slightly cynical as well as highly intrigued by his magnificent feats.

I must have reached the imposing age of eight years or thereabouts when I considered Alice in Wonderland a film worthy of a three hours’ wait in the pouring rain at the aforementioned cinema partly because I had had visions beforehand of myself playing the part of the heroine. These were inspired by my mother’s insistence that I was the image of the ‘real Alice’ for whom the studio was searching, but my photo only resulted in a letter of thanks, the news that the part had been allotted to Charlotte Henry and the rapid subsidence of my dreams of fame.

These have never returned to the same extent since I have realised that magnificent swimming pools, publicity and glamour do not necessarily make for happiness, although there are times when I envy the stars the projection of their personalities on the world at large.

There is a spark of vanity in most of us which is encouraged by being the centre of attraction in some sphere however small and it must be wonderful to know that strangers too are aware of that irrepressible charm.

The disadvantage however is that people are apt to think of their screen heroes and heroines only in terms of their screen personalities instead of men and women with the ordinary trials of life plus those of their unreal environment to face.

It is mainly because of this that I am satisfied with my obscurity in the work I have chosen and have no great desire to change places with the hard working people in the entertainment world.

I always used to imagine that Hollywood hair styles, clothes and make-up were well out of my reach, but since the advent of natural beauty has arrived, it has become apparent to me that the rest are only appendages to produce the desired effect.

Ingrid Bergman is far more truly glamourous [sic] than Ginger Rogers in all her films, in Lady in the Dark while Ginger herself has no need to rely on the artificial props.

Studios tend to bring out a sparkling new star and rely on his or her talents from the start, but then gradually fit those same distinguishing features into the old pattern, thus forming an entirely new, less exciting personality.

The screen world always appeared as a dream world and although it has given me the desire to travel it has not made me feel dissatisfied with my way of life.

Travel films, pictorial, nature study, documentaries all interest me as they have something to teach, while films made from books encourage my love of literature.

My time is obviously running short with the result that my reply is conforming to the conventional pattern set by the lecturer for ‘guidance’ only, which may have prevented many irrelevancies if they had been consulted earlier and provided more of the required information. Nevertheless I intend to conclude this autobiography which more rightly belongs to the readers column, with the information that films have given me vocational ambitions to become a soldier, lawyer or nurse etc: to be more precise The Lamp Still Burns was mainly responsible for my taking up student nursing at this hospital and I can only thank all the people concerned in the production for their moving portrayal of the characters, which so greatly influenced my decision.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘Films and the Pattern of Life’. Contributors were asked to trace the history of their interest in films, the influence films had on them (including if they were ever frightened by films), what they imitated from films, if films made them more receptive to love-making, if films made them want to travel or to be dissatisfied with their way of life or neighbourhood, and if films gave them vocational ambitions. The films mentioned are Alice in Wonderland (USA 1933), Lady in the Dark (USA 1944) and The Lamp Still Burns (UK 1943).

What’s It All About?

Source: Michael Caine, What’s It all About? (London: Century, 1992), pp. 31-32

Text: We had won the war but the shops were empty and even to get your legal ration of things you had to queue for hours. The one blinding light in the middle of all this gloom was the cinema, where I could escape for a couple of hours to somewhere better – usually America. I became an absolute fanatic about the cinema and besotted with what seemed to me the glamour of America. Most dreams are a let-down, but the cinema has been more fantastic for me than anything I could have imagined in those dark, depressing days, and America itself greater than anything I could have possibly imagined it to be. I really don’t know what I would have done at that time without the cinema and the public library, the two places where I could escape the grim reality of everyday life. I short I had become what they always said in my school reports: a dreamer.

In the library again my influences were American. I became interested in books about the war. The British wrote about officers, with whom I could not identify, but then I found Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity; great books, written by ordinary soldiers about ordinary soldiers. I unconsciously started to identify with my own class in the cinema as well. The British cinema also seemed to be about the lives of the middle class and the aristocracy, whereas people in American films seemed to be to be more like me.

Comments: Michael Caine (b. 1933) is a British film actor, born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite. he returned to London after the war having been evacuated to Norfolk, and this portion of his memoirs is from his time in London.

What's It All About?

Source: Michael Caine, What’s It all About? (London: Century, 1992), pp. 31-32

Text: We had won the war but the shops were empty and even to get your legal ration of things you had to queue for hours. The one blinding light in the middle of all this gloom was the cinema, where I could escape for a couple of hours to somewhere better – usually America. I became an absolute fanatic about the cinema and besotted with what seemed to me the glamour of America. Most dreams are a let-down, but the cinema has been more fantastic for me than anything I could have imagined in those dark, depressing days, and America itself greater than anything I could have possibly imagined it to be. I really don’t know what I would have done at that time without the cinema and the public library, the two places where I could escape the grim reality of everyday life. I short I had become what they always said in my school reports: a dreamer.

In the library again my influences were American. I became interested in books about the war. The British wrote about officers, with whom I could not identify, but then I found Norman Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead, and James Jones’ From Here to Eternity; great books, written by ordinary soldiers about ordinary soldiers. I unconsciously started to identify with my own class in the cinema as well. The British cinema also seemed to be about the lives of the middle class and the aristocracy, whereas people in American films seemed to be to be more like me.

Comments: Michael Caine (b. 1933) is a British film actor, born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite. he returned to London after the war having been evacuated to Norfolk, and this portion of his memoirs is from his time in London.

Sociology of Film

Source: M.B., quoted in J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 119-120

Text: My Criticism of Films

On the whole I like most films.

I like the films adapted from Conan-Doyle[‘]s books. They are about Sherlock Holmes, who is a detective, and Doctor Watson, Holmes’s helper. Two very good films of them are Sherlock Holmes Faces Death and The Hound of the Baskervilles. In The Hound of the Baskervilles, which takes place near a wild and lonely moor, somebody lets out a hound which is nearly mad with hunger, and this hound is often the cause for some exceedingly perilious [sic] happenings.

I like murder films. I also like the Saint pictures and the Falcon pictures. They are both detectives but I do not think either of them are as good as Sherlock Holmes.

I like films in which Bing Crosby stars. I thought he was very good in Going My Way. In that he sang ‘Three Blind Mice’ as a round with some boys. In this same film was a clergyman, with whom Bing Crosby stayed, he was played by a new star, who I thought was a very good actor. His name is Barry Fitzgerald.

I like most funny films. Especially if any of these people star Arthur Askey, Charlie Chaplin, Will Hay, Bob Hope and Bud Abbot[t] and Leo Costello [sic] and many more. I like funny films about the army and the navy, especially if Joe Sawyer takes the part of a sergeant.

I like Fred Astaire but I don’t think he has very good partners.

I like History films, for example Lady Hamilton, Lady Hamilton was in love with Nelson. It showed you the Battle of Trafalgar. Lady Hamilton was played by Vivien Leigh and Nelson was played by Laurence Olivier. Both are very fine actors.

I like animal films such as My Friend Flicka and Lassie Come Home. I hope many more such films will be made. I think Roddy McDowall is very good in this sort of film.

I like true films about the Army, Navy and Airforce. Of the army I liked The Immortal Sergeant, I think, the best airforce film I have seen is Target for Tonight, a film which I liked and was mostly about the navy was We Strike at Dawn. Some other good films are Gung Ho, The Way Ahead and Coastal Command and The First of the Few.

I liked Women Coragous [sic] which was about The Womans [sic] Auxiliary Ferrying Service. Sometimes I like The March of Time which is a monthly programe.

I like cowboy films but the trouble is the stories are all so much alike. I also enjoy films like North West Mounted Police.

I prefer technicolour [sic] to ordinary black and white.

I like Nelson Eddie and Jeanette Macdonald together. Eddie Cantor and his goggly eyes makes me roar with laughter.

I do not like sloppy films.

I do not like films in which there are too many bands. I did not like Sensations of 1945 because it had about six jazz bands and there were also some negroe [sic] singers which I detest.

I like a film to have a fairly possible story. I do not like all singing and dancing and no story.

One thing I do detest, which is not really about the films themselves but about the cinema, is little boys who make rude remarks and keep hissing and booing at things.

(Time taken, 1 hour 45 mins.)

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above response comes from the section ‘Children and Adolescents and the Cinema’ and is one of twenty-two essays submitted by girl not old than 12½ from a ‘semi-state’ school in Hampstead. The films mentioned are Sherlock Holmes Faces Death (USA 1943), The Hound of the Baskervilles (USA 1939), Going My Way (USA 1944), That Hamilton Woman (USA 1941), My Friend Flicka (USA 1943), Lassie Come Home (USA 1943), Immortal Sergeant (USA 1943), Target for Tonight (UK 1941), We Dive at Dawn (UK 1943), Gung Ho! (USA 1943), The Way Ahead (UK 1944), Coastal Command (UK 1943), The First of the Few (UK 1942), Ladies Courageous (USA 1944), The March of Time (USA news magazine series), North West Mounted Police (USA 1940), Sensation of 1945 (USA 1944).

Untold Stories

Source: Alan Bennett, Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 170-171

Text: I had no notion as a child that going to the pictures was a kind of education, or that I was absorbing a twice-weekly lesson in morality. The first film I remember being thought of as ‘improving’ was Henry V, which, during our brief sojourn at Guildford, was playing permanently at Studio I at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. I saw it, though, with my primary school at the local Odeon in Guildford, and that it was meant to be educational did not stop it being, for me, magical, particularly the transformation from the confines and painted scenery to the realities of the siege and battlefield in France. The reverse process had the same effect so that the final cut back to the Globe and the actors lining up for their call still gives me a thrill.

Seeing films one also saw – always saw – the newsreels, though only one remains in my memory. It would have been some time in 1945 and it was at the Playhouse, a cinema down Guildford High Street. Before the newsreel began there was an announcement that scenes in it were unsuitable for children and that they should be taken out. None were; having already waited long enough in the queue nobody was prepared to give up their hard-won seat. It was, of course, the discovery of Belsen with the living corpses, the mass graves and the line-up of sullen guards. There were cries of horror in the cinema, though my recollection is that Mam and Dad were much more upset than my brother and me. Still, Belsen was not a name one ever forgot and became a place of horror long before Auschwitz.

The moral instruction to be had at the cinema was seldom as shocking as this: just a slow absorption of assumptions not so much about life as about lives, all of them far removed from one’s own. There were cowboys’ lives, for instance, where the dilemmas could be quite complex and moralities might compete: small-town morality v. the morality of the gunfighter with the latter more perilous and demanding of heroism, High Noon perhaps its ultimate representation. There was the lesson of standing up to the bully, a tale told in lots of guises: in westerns, obviously, but also in historical films – Fire Over England, A Tale of Two Cities and The Young Mr Pitt all told the same story of gallant little England squaring up to the might of France or Spain, for which, of course, read Germany.

Then there were the unofficial heroes: dedicated doctors, single-minded schoolteachers, or saints convinced of their vision (I am thinking particularly of The Song of Bernadette, a film that had me utterly terrified). Always in such films it was the official wisdom v. the lone voice and one knew five minutes into the film what the hero or heroine (star anyway) was going to be up against. I suppose one of the reasons Casablanca and Citizen Kane stand out above the rest is that their morality was less straightforward. William Empson, I think, never wrote about film but there are many the plot of which this describes:

The web of European civilization seems to have been strung between the ideas of Christianity and those of a half-secret rival, centring perhaps (if you made it a system) round honour: one that stresses pride rather than humility, self-realisation rather than self-denial, caste rather than either the communion of saints or the individual soul.

It was a dilemma I was familiar with because it was always cropping up at the Picturedrome.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Untold Stories’ from which this selection comes. The films mentioned are Henry V (UK 1944), High Noon (USA 1952), Fire over England (UK 1937), A Tale of Two Cities (UK 1958 or USA 1935 – there was no film of Dickens’ novel made during the Second World War), The Young Mr Pitt (UK 1942), The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943), Casablanca (USA 1942) and Citizen Kane (USA 1941). Newsreels of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945.