Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 233-234

Text: This letter is in answer to your appeal for help from members of the cinema audiences. I am a female, aged 17 yrs. 2 mths. and of British nationality. I am still at school at present, and I hope to enter into the teaching profession in the due course of time. My father is a bricklayer and also Secretary of a Trade Union, my mother is a housewife.

In answer to question one. I have seen many films and I have always liked to watch closely the women’s manner of dress, or hair style. I may say that in many cases I have copied the styles but the most dominant film with regard to fashions were. Hair style. For Whom the Bell Tolls. Dress. Now Voyager.

And with regard to a film I have dreamt about I can safely name The Corsican Brothers, starring Douglas Fairbanks Junior and Ruth War[r]ick. That film I dreamt about for many nights, and I remember especially that the death scene of Julian the twin brother of Mario was the piece I remembered most vividly.

With regard to dreams I have also dreamt about a serial film that I saw when I was the age of 11 or 12 years. That film was Flash Gordon’s Trip to Mars. I can quite confidently say that I remember practically all of that film until a few weeks ago and then I saw part of it again as a weekly serial at a picture palace in our town.

It served to refresh my memory on the parts I had forgotten and I am sure I shall think and dream of it for a good many more years.

I think the facts that made it stick in my mind for such a long time was that it was of a strange planet and the costumes were also very strange. The hero and heroine and party did perform many incredible deeds but what did annoy me was the fact that many people in the cinema when they saw the Marsians (Martians) in the film doing things that seemed slightly unnatural to us, laughed!

I regard everyone who laughed at that film as a fool! They have no foresight. They have no understanding, nor did they try to understand.

I think there is a possibility of our, one day, trying to reach Mars by means of a rocket ship, after all they are trying to reach the moon shortly, so why not Mars?

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 comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’, for which responses were sought via Picturegoer in February 1945 to two questions: Have films ever influenced you with regard to personal decisions or behaviour? and Have films ever appeared in your dreams?

Village Life in Old China

Source: Cornelius Osgood, Village Life in Old China; a community study of Kao Yao, Yünnan (New York, Ronald Press, 1963), pp. 19-20

Text: A little after nine we set out for the Cosmopolitan cinema in our host’s car. The journey was a short one and we descended at the side door which led to the directors’ office. My first impression was of being in a dark basement room of an old house, but the feeling was soon displaced by friendliness when tea was served. About ten, we all went into the theater to see the picture, a box with comfortable overstuffed arm chairs of the European type being reserved for us. The building itself was originally a temple famous for its great red columns of a celebrated hard wood notably used for expensive coffins. We sat in a reserved section of the left wing of a balcony, the central part of which extended some distance to the rear. All quarters of the house were crowded with Chinese and, as the picture began, someone started shouting at the other side of the balcony creating a din which made the English sound track of the film, already somewhat muted, completely inaudible. I expected the man who was yelling to have vented his feeling after a while, but when he continued with no sign of stopping, I discovered that he was the speaker, and that he was paid to convey the theme of the film to the audience who could not understand English nor, for the most part, read the Chinese characters customarily added to a foreign production. My companion informed me that Kunming was one of the few cities in China where the custom of having a speaker still existed. I regretted not being able to understand for, from what I could comprehend of the picture, it could not have helped from being considerably improved by an oriental commentary.

Comments: Cornelius Osgood (1905-1985) was an American anthropologist who conducted research in China, as well as the Arctic and Korea. Though published in 1963, his book Village Life in Old China describes field research undertaken in 1938. Lecturers who explained the action to audience were common in Chinese and Japanese cinemas into the 1930s, when films were silent.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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

Japanese Cinema

Source: Carl Koch, from ‘Japanese Cinema’, Close-up vol. VIII no. 4 (December 1931), pp. 296-298

Text: The Japanese film director and actor, Katsumi, recently showed me his latest film in a Berlin projection room. This film, in which he played the main role, told of the downfall of a Samurai who fought against the reigning Shogun about two centuries ago. The plot developed slowly and was punctuated by innumerable captions, until after about 6,000 feet a tremendous fight broke out between the Samurai and (apparently) the whole assembled bodyguard of the Shogun. This ended in the hero’s suicide after an incredible struggle against overwhelming odds. Although the movements were extremely interesting both in their details and in the way they followed through, yet it was clearly impossible to expect a European audience to tolerate anything so long. In fact, I was quite at a loss how this film could be adapted for the European market.

A few weeks later I received an invitation from Katsumi to a Sunday morning performance of this film in a small west-end cinema, where it was to be privately shown to the Japanese colony in Berlin. As I came into the cinema, I was given a printed slip containing a synopsis of the film. At the side of the screen was a lectern where Katsumi stood.

The film started. At the same time Katsumi began a running commentary to the preliminary titles in the normal explanatory tones of a narrator. The Samurai were strolling about on the screen. Silence. The actors conversed with each other. The voice began again, no longer in explanatory, everyday tones, but using the guttural utterance of the Japanese classical theatre to provide an exact accompaniment to the various actors’ conversation. Then a long caption, unaccompanied perhaps for half its length. Then some monotonous instrument like a guitar began to play, continued through the following scenes and stopped suddenly in the middle of a scene. The film continued. Silence. Then, the quiet explanatory voice of the speaker. A humorous remark elicited a titter from the audience — apparently some personal allusion of the speaker’s. Presently the voice became pathetic, continued so through scenes and captions, and then suddenly stopped dead. Silence. More music. Single plucked notes with long pauses in between. Another conversation in the deep gutteral style of the classical theatre, very carefully synchronised with the film and the various actors, who were made to speak sometimes high, sometimes low, clearly, confusedly, slowly or quickly, according to the context. Silence again. On the screen the chief of Shogun’s bodyguard vainly interrogated his daughter whom he had sent to spy on the hero in order to convict him of treason. She was in love with the hero and attempted to persuade her father that she had been unable to discover anything. The old man had now shot his last bolt. He sat there for some time, alone, motionless. Suddenly a gesture — and a man’s shriek. The girl rushed back into the room and flung herself on her father. He tried to free himself in order to reach his sword. His daughter tried to prevent him. The same terrible shriek recurred everytime the old man made some violent effort. At last his daughter broke down, gave him the required information and betrayed her lover. Light guitar music. It was all very thrilling. Finally came the fight, which was accompanied, partly by an exciting rhythmic figure that rose and fell, partly by the solemn declamation of some text that was probably well known to all the Japanese present.

A movie had suddenly been turned into a talkie by the extraordinary art of the speaker, the restrained but subtly differentiated use of different kinds of elocution, and the persistence of the transparent monodic, nearly always unisonal, music. This music had no resemblance to the illustrative music usually to be heard in the European cinema; it ran counter to the action on the screen in a kind of dialectical counterpoint. (For instance, doleful music usually accompanied gay scenes on the screen; quick and lively music, slow sad scenes.) The restraint with which this was carried out made for clearness, lucidity, excitement, variety. The subtleties of tone often lent scenes which had dragged in the projection room an extraordinary tension.

This is the way in which films are shown in Japanese cinemas. The idea of an announcer and a completely independent musical accompaniment is foreign to us, and so we can hardly hope to import Japanese films with any success, since, in spite of adaptation and revision, some passages would still remain too long and deliberate in tempo, and (apart from that) the film sequences are not such as are customary according to the unwritten convention between public and producer here in Europe.

Comments: Carl Koch (1892-1963) was a German film director, whose credits included Nippon, a compilation short of extracts from Japanese films, which at this time were scarcely known about in the West. Katsumi is presumably the Japanese actor-director Yôtarô Katsumi. The article is illustrated with stills from a Japanese film whose title is given as The Torch (made by the Shochiku company). My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing this passage to my attention.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Continuous Performance

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance’, Close Up vol. X no. 2, June 1933, pp. 130-132

Text: One can grow rather more than weary of hearing that the Drama is on its death-bed. For although there is no need to listen to them, it is not easy to escape the voices of the prophets of woe. They sound out across the world at large, and each little world within it has private vocalists. And there is a certain grim fascination in the spectacle of their futility. What are they? What purpose, since no one heeds their warnings, can they possibly serve? Are they the lunatic fringe, the outside edge of common prudence, the fantastic exaggeration that alone seems able to command fruitful attention? But they don’t, in their own day, command fruitful attention, nor do all of them exaggerate. “Oh, Jerusalem, Jerusalem, thou that slayest the prophets, hadst thou but known in this thy day the things that belong unto thy peace!” Woe over tribulation that might have been averted if the prophets had been listened to. But in the little world of The Drama, the mourning prophet, true or false, gleams with a perfection of meaninglessness. If his word be false, what does it matter? If true, what can be done? For though cascades of tears may relieve the hearts of those at the bedside, they will not restore the patient.

Meanwhile Drama, variously encumbered, goes its way. And from time to time a play appears — either refreshingly of its time or, equally refreshingly, standing well back within one or other of the grand traditions — and deals with its audiences much as did, when first they dawned, the plays that now are classics, assembled in groups under period labels.

Yet still the prophets howl. And so monotonous is their note, that it is a relief to hear one howling with a difference. Lo, says this newcomer, the drama, is starved for lack of good new dramatists, but all is well with the theatre, since it can carry on with revivals. Triumph-song of an inheritor. Drama comes and drama goes, but the stage goes on for ever. Selah. No matter that one disagrees with his diagnosis. One can stand at his side and drink to the drama in general, date unspecified.

But this prophet has not done with us. Having passed sentence on The Drama, and forthwith commuted it on account of past achievements, he turns to the Film. We learn that the Cinema, like the stage, is starving for lack of good writers. Unlike the stage, it has no classics to fall back upon and must therefore starve to death. Result: the days of the Cinema are numbered.

Why, it may well be enquired, since everyone knows that there is, the world over, a sufficiency of good films to keep going for an indefinite period the cinemas run for those who prefer good films and more than a sufficiency for those who prefer other films, why tilt at such a preposterous windmill? Why not enquire, with transatlantic simplicity, “What’s biting you?” And why not politely indicate one or two recently-appeared masterpieces and point out that they could be exhibited in the world’s leading Cinemas simultaneously, whereas the stage —

Quite. But there is in this prophet’s outcry something more than a pessimism so neat and so mathematical as to have the air of a pastime not unlike a jigsaw puzzle. And while indeed it might be a pastime to oppose the statement on its own ground, in the accredited heavy-weight boxing style of the debating-society, by retorting that if the Stage can worry along on classics, so can the Cinema, by filming these classics, it may not be out of place to take a look at the unconscious assumption underlying this prophet’s neat equation. The assumption that the Cinema is merely the Stage with a difference. For this assumption is one that the general public, including ourselves, is daily more and more inclined to make. Growing talkie-minded, we increasingly regard the Film in the light of the possibilities it shares with the Stage.

For Stage and Screen, falsifying the prophecies of those who saw in the Talkies the doom of the Theatre, have become a joint-stock company, to the benefit of both parties. They, so to speak, try things out for each other. Successful plays are filmed, successful films are made into plays. Insensibly therefore, the screen’s patron, the general public including ourselves, while more or less constantly aware of the ways in which Stage outdoes Film and gets the better of Stage, is apt increasingly to regard the Film as the purveyor of Drama.

We hear of a good film. Born as a film. Or as the brilliant by-product of an obscure novel. Or as the screen equivalent of a good play. The organiser of the cinema showing this film obligingly indicates the times at which it may be seen. We look in. See our play and come away. We are play-goers.

But Cinema could subsist without these events. And could make us attend to it. And even these are ultimately dependent, for their pull on us, upon the peculiar quality of the film’s continuous performance, the unchallenged achievement that so overwhelmingly stated itself when the first “Animated Pictures” cast their uncanny spell with the dim, blurred, continuously sparking representation of a locomotive advancing full steam upon the audience, majestic and terrible.

It was the first hint of the Film’s power of tackling aspects of reality that no other art can adequately handle. But the power of the Film, of Film drama, filmed realities, filmed uplift and education, all its achievements in the realm of the Good, the True and the Beautiful, appealing to the many, and in the realm of the abstract, appealing only to the few, rests alike for the uninstructed, purblind onlooker and the sophisticated kinist, upon the direct relationship, mystic, joyous, wonderful, between the observer a continuous miracle of form in movement, of light and shadow in movement, the continuous performance, going on behind all invitations to focus upon this or that, of the film itself. And if to-morrow all playwrights and all plays should disappear, the Film would still have its thousand resources while the Stage, bereft of its sole material, would die. Except, perhaps, for ballet?

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. The above essay was the last in the series.

All of the ‘Continuous Performance’ essays have now been published on this site, thanks to the full set of Close Up digitised by the Media History Digital Library. This is the full list, in chronological order:

Continuous Performance’, Close Up vol. I no. 1, July 1927
Musical Accompaniment’, Close Up vol. I no. 2, August 1927
Captions’, Close Up vol. I no. 3, September 1927
A Thousand Pities’, Close Up vol. I no. 4, October 1927
There’s No Place Like Home’, Close Up vol. I no. 5, November 1927
The Increasing Congregation’, Close Up vol. I no. 6, December 1927
The Front Rows’, Close Up vol. II no. 1, January 1928
Continuous Performance VIII’, Close Up vol. II no. 3, March 1928
The Thoroughly Popular Film’, Close Up vol. II no. 4, April 1928
The Cinema in the Slums’, Close Up vol. II no. 5, May 1928
Slow Motion’, Close Up vol. II no. 6, June 1928
The Cinema in Arcady’, Close Up vol. II no. 1, July 1928
Pictures and Films’, Close Up vol. IV no. 1, January 1929
Almost Persuaded’, Close Up vol. IV no. 6, June 1929
Dialogue in Dixie’, Close Up vol. V no. 3, September 1929, pp. 211-218
A Tear for Lycidas’, Close Up vol. VII no. 3, September 1930
Narcissus’, Close Up vol. VIII no. 3, September 1931
This Spoon-fed Generation?’, Close Up vol. VIII no. 4, December 1931
The Film Gone Male’, Close Up vol. IX no. 1, March 1932
Continuous Performance’, Close Up vol. X no. 2, June 1933

The Film Gone Male

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance: The Film Gone Male’, Close Up vol. IX no. 1, March 1932, pp. 36-38

Text: Memory, psychology is to-day declaring, is passive consciousness. Those who accept this dictum see the in-rolling future as living reality and the past as reality entombed. They also regard every human faculty as having an evolutionary history. For these straight-line thinkers memory is a mere glance over the shoulder along a past seen as a progression from the near end of which mankind goes forward. They are also, these characteristically occidental thinkers, usually found believing in the relative passivity of females. And since women excel in the matter of memory, the two beliefs admirably support each other. But there is memory and memory. And memory proper, as distinct from a mere backward glance, as distinct even from prolonged contemplation of things regarded as past and done with, gathers, can gather, and pile up its wealth only round universals, unchanging, unevolving verities that move neither backwards nor forwards and have neither speech nor language.

And that is one of the reasons why women, who excel in, memory and whom the cynics describe as scar[c]ely touched by evolving civilisation, are humanity’s silent half, without much faith in speech as a medium of communication. Those women who never question the primacy of “clear speech”, who are docile disciples of the orderly thought of man, and acceptors of theorems, have either been educationally maltreated or are by nature more within the men’s than within the women’s camp. Once a woman becomes a partisan, a representative that is to say of one only of the many sides of question, she has abdicated. The batallions of partisan women glittering in the limelit regions of to-day’s world, whose prestige is largely the result of the novelty of their attainments, communicating not their own convictions but some one or other or a portion of some one or other of the astonishing varieties of thought-patterns under which men experimentally arrange such phenomena as are suited to the process, represent the men’s camp and are distinguishable by their absolute faith in speech as a medium of communication.

The others, whom still men call womanly and regard with emotion not unmixed with a sane and proper fear, though they may talk incessantly from the cradle onwards, are, save when driven by calamitous necessity, as silent as the grave. Listen to their outpouring torrents of speech. Listen to village women at pump or fireside, to villa women, to unemployed service-flat women, to chatelaines, to all kinds of women anywhere and everywhere. Chatter, chatter, chatter, as men say. And say also that only one in a thousand can talk. Quite. For all these women use speech, with individual differences, alike: in the manner of a façade. Their awareness of being, as distinct from man’s awareness of becoming, is so strong that when they are confronted, they must, in most circumstances, snatch at words to cover either their own palpitating spiritual nakedness or that of another. They talk to banish embarrassment. It is true they are apt to drop, if the confrontation be prolonged, into what is called gossip and owes both its charm and its poison to their excellence in awareness of persons. This amongst themselves. In relation to men their use of speech is various. But always it is a façade.

And the film, regarded as a medium of communication, in the day of its innocence, in its quality of being nowhere and everywhere, nowhere in the sense of having more intention than direction and more purpose than plan, everywhere by reason of its power to evoke, suggest, reflect, express from within its moving parts and in their totality of movement, something of the changeless being at the heart of all becoming, was essentially feminine. In its insistence on contemplation it provided a pathway to reality.

In becoming audible and particularly in becoming a medium of propaganda, it is doubtless fulfilling its destiny. But it is a masculine destiny. The destiny of planful becoming rather than of purposeful being. It will be the chosen battle-ground of rival patterns, plans, ideologies in endless succession and bewildering variety.

It has been declared that it is possible by means of purely aesthetic devices to sway an audience in whatever direction a filmateur desires. This sounds menacing and is probably true. (The costumiers used Hollywood to lengthen women’s skirts. Perhaps British Instructional, with the entire medical profession behind it, will kindly shorten them again). It is therefore comforting to reflect that so far the cinema is not a government monopoly. It is a medium, or a weapon, at the disposal of all parties and has, considered as a battlefield a grand advantage over those of the past when civil wars have been waged disadvantageously to one party or the other by reason of inequalities of publicity, restrictions of locale and the relative indirectness and remoteness of the channels of communication. The new film can, at need, assist Radio in turning the world into a vast council-chamber and do more than assist, for it is the freer partner. And multitudinous within that vast chamber as within none of the preceding councils of mankind, is the unconquerable, unchangeable eternal feminine. Influential.

Weeping therefore, if weep we must, over the departure of the old time films gracious silence, we may also rejoice in the prospect of a fair field and no favour. A field over which lies only the shadow of the censorship. And the censorship is getting an uneasy conscience.

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. British Instructional Films was a British production company which specialised in instructional and educational films.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

The March of Japan

Source: Edgar Lajtha, The March of Japan (New York: Frederick A. Stokes, [1936]), pp. 109-114

Text: The twentieth century has allowed the Japanese to live again their middle age through the cinema, and when the Japanese wants to escape from glaring modernity, he can find solace in the world of the Japanese fighting-spirit films when he sees the virtues of his ancestors rise up from their graves.

In Tokyo’s film street, where every building is a cinema, there are posters with gigantic coloured photographs of the stars and dramatic scenes from the film displayed at every entrance. Japan’s history lives again on these façades, and sometimes a large flaming sword covers the front of one cinema, or two warriors’ heads, or simply the head of a weeping woman. But the swords predominate, for in these eventful days the sword is the matinée idol of the people.

Between two historic heroes a good looking Tarzan may be jumping naked out of the jungle on to a crocodile’s back, laughing down at the blonde head of Greta Garbo, his vis-à-vis. The heads of the Western stars look unfamiliar; for the Japanese the faces of Garbo, Barrymore and Bergner would lack character, and the poster-artist retouches their faces, as the Japanese photographer does his portraits, thereby suppressing their true personalities.

The Chinese use other methods, and when I saw the Garbo’s head outside a Hongkong cinema, she had wrinkles at the side of her mouth and almond-shaped eyes.

An endless stream of people pass through the Asakusa from morning till night, the men in grey kimonos, the women in colour, and the children most brightly dressed of all. The clatter of their wooden sandals on the hard street blends with the music from the cinema doors. Flags displaying the tides of the films in large letters flutter in profusion in the glare of street-lights. Sometimes the names are written in Japanese characters on net flags and fly like dragons above the heads of the crowds.

As the people pass along on both sides of the streets, they often stop in front of one cinema trying to decide whether to go in. It is no easy decision, for the choice is so wide and the prices so cheap, seats can be had from five sen. The propaganda in the street is cleverly conceived and it dims their eyes. Who can withstand the power of a flaming sword as big as a rowing-boat? So I, too, reeled into a cinema.

A samisen orchestra accompanies the silent historical films and an announcer, who stands following the film like one of the audience, speaks the actors’ parts out of the darkness. He follows the lip-movements of men, women and children and adjusts his voice accordingly. As I was at the last evening performance, the announcer was becoming hoarse.

The audience had their eyes fixed on the screen. Women clutched crumpled handkerchiefs, wrapt in another world. In these warrior-films Japan is again shut off from contemporary life. Japanese fight only Japanese; the clock has been put back a hundred years.

The Japanese landscape was unfolded before us in black and white. We could see silver lakes glinting in the light, dark islands and black trees. White steam rose out of a deep crater and rice fields basked in the sun. Suddenly the black silhouette of a Samurai overshadowed this peaceful picture. Two swords hung at his side, the long one for his enemy, the short one for himself; for the Japanese warrior is never taken alive. The excitement began when a speck could be seen on the horizon, gradually becoming bigger and bigger, till we could see that it was the enemy of our Samurai.

The two Japanese warriors were now face to face, staring silently with unwinking eyes and proud mouths. Only their fingers twitched, convulsively clutching their swords.

The moment they drew their swords with a lightning movement the scene became alive with other warriors jumping from behind bushes and rocks. There were about fifty of them, Japanese against Japanese, and if one was threatened in the back, he whipped round as if he had eyes there too. The Samurais’ training in fencing, which lasted for years, was no ordinary one, for it taught them to concentrate their five senses on one thought, so that they learnt to feel the sword-point in their backs the instant before it was thrust.

The Samurai turned round with a sudden spring that repulsed his enemies for a yard or so; while he cut in two the man who had been about to kill him, the others had time to regain breath. Swords clashed. This catlike stratagem came off again and again; if he did it once, he did it five times until he had reduced his fifty enemies to ten.

In a short time they fled and disembowelled themselves.

Similar warriors attacked the Samurai on his way home through the countryside. When he finally reached his village, he found that his home had been plundered of his goods and his loved ones. He knew at once that it was the work of these same enemies, and set out to find his young lover.

A steep coast on the ocean. A weeping girl was wandering under the steep cliffs, dressed in a light striped kimono, with her hair arranged in the old style, above her white, oval, classical Japanese face.

She strayed from one rock to another. Sometimes jumping down, and sometimes springing from stone to stone to keep her kimono from trailing in the sea. At other times she would be high up, where one false step meant certain death. She had been wandering on this coast for days, for every minute represented months, and her hair began to fly in the wind. Now she held a new born infant in her arms, her tears falling on its little face while she stood far above high rocks and the surging sea. She looked down hopelessly at the waves. Then a strong hand drew her back.

The Samurai had at last found his lover. He laughed and wept with joy, but she no longer wept but only laughed shrilly. She was mad. She handed him the child, and even as he bent down to see the first smile on his first-born’s lips, the waves were surging over the woman’s head.

The Samurai, still wearing his two swords in his belt, and with the child in his arms, looked down dumbly at the waves. They soon surged over his head too.

The Samisen orchestra burst into jazz, for the second film on the programme was more modern.

Two marriages seemed to be going awry! In one the husband was too Westernised and the wife too conservative, in the other the situation was reversed. After an hour of complications the husbands and wives reached a compromise and the film closed with a happy ending.

The third film was at last a sound film. It was concerned with the problems which Western civilisation have brought to Japan, the problems of the middle-class youth who are still undergoing wedekindian trials. A “modern boy” had fallen in love with a “modern girl.” When the girl’s father found his daughter in the boy’s flat, he shot her, whereupon the boy came out of his hiding place and shot the father. The youthful murderer then became a haunted wanderer of the night. Homeless and at the end of his strength, he fled to a friend’s house. The friend forgave him and the murderer wept on his breast. Later he gave himself up to the authorities and was acquitted.

The films were not directed properly and the stories were drawn out to appalling length with streams of dialogue. But that did not seem to disturb my neighbours who must have been paragons of patience. The great fault of all film producers is also committed by Japanese directors. They do not stick to realities, and their players are not true types. The sets in the films are always ultra-modern milieus where the Japanese would like to live but will never see in all their life. A foreigner is particularly struck by the absence of mimicry and gesticulation. The gamut of passions is never expressed with more than a nervous twitching of the lips, and kissing does not exist. In love scenes two heads nestle together and tears fall, and one comes away from the Asakusa cinemas with the impression that the sons of one of the manliest nations in the world weep more than any of their fellow men.

But if the photography of Japanese films is considered by itself, all the faults are forgotten. Every picture is a feast for the eye and even the most prosaic scenes are filled with poetry.

The educational films are the most beautifully photographed of all. They enlighten the people and they pulsate with the force of Japanese life. The possibilities of expansion are pointed out in a lovely series of pictures, showing an immense landscape of cherry blossom. Suddenly a volcano erupts: “Strengthen your spirit. … That is the fate of the Japanese.”

The young Japanese intellectuals do not often frequent the Asakusa for its cinemas cater for provincial tastes; but provincials are typical of the Japanese taste as a whole.

The cinemas outside the Ginza district show American films principally. Two hundred and fifty films are imported annually from Hollywood, and while the Japanese film predominates in the suburbs and the provinces, American productions are more popular in the better quarters of the large towns. These films teach the youth about the latest developments of Western civilisation, and pleasure is a secondary consideration. They are also useful as a means of giving English lessons to those who cannot go abroad. But the mogas find them useful for showing the latest Hollywood fashions.

Comments: Edgar Lajtha (1910-?) was a Hungarian travel writer. His account includes a description of a benshi performer, who provided audiences with Japanese an interpretation of the action. Silent films continued for a longer period in Japan than they did in the West, and programmes in the mid-1930s could comprise a mixture of silent and sound films. I have not been able to identify the films he describes.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Laughter in Leningrad

Source: Dorothea Eltenton, Laughter in Leningrad: An English Family in Russia 1933-1938 (privately printed, 1998), pp. 141-142

Text: Lil and l had planned to go and see Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times which was showing in town, and as Sasha was still with us I suggested he come too. He was delighted. The film was having a terrific success (Shura, who, by the way, very much reminded us of Chaplin, had seen it in Moscow six times), but we were there early and got good seats.

It was wonderful to see Chaplin again, Chaplin better than ever but with those same touches of human vulgarity which he is unable to resist in every film. Lil and I were helpless with laughter, our sides were aching and still we went on. But at times I noticed that we were the only ones in the audience laughing, and sometimes even someone would look round as though we were laughing when we shouldn’t. Sasha was very solemn, not all the way through, for the whole audience thoroughly enjoyed the film and roared with laughter, but there were lots of places were Lil and I laughed and they didn’t.

I was out of breath when it was over. We stood up. Sasha’s face was sad. He sighed.

‘A tragic picture,’ he said slowly.

‘You mustn’t take it so seriously,’ I said.

You mustn’t take it so lightly,’ he replied. ‘It’s far too real to take lightly. You see so clearly the tragedy of the “little fellow” being kicked around.’ He sighed again, ‘A tragic picture.’

But Lil and I couldn’t help laughing all the way home as we recalled the funniest bits. The feeding machine in the factory, the conveyor belt.

‘And yet it is tragic, Lil,’ I said.

‘I know it is.’

Comments: Dorothea Eltenton (1904-2001) was born Ada Dorothea Hamilton in Manchester and lived in the Soviet Union with her physicist husband George Eltenton 1933-1938. They subsequently moved to San Francisco where she worked for the American Russian Institute for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union. Both came under suspicion from the FBI for communist sympathies. Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times (USA 1936) is a comic picture of the plight of a little man in an industrialised world.

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 97-99

Text: AGE: 30 SEX: F
OCCUPATION: CLERK NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: COMMERCIAL TRAVELLER
MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HOUSEWIFE

I started film-going at the early age of eight and adored Bebe Daniels from then, until now; custard pies, Keystone Police, and most of all, the Western films of silent days! I went always with my Grandmother, and, although we could afford the better seats, always had on account of her sight, to sit well to the front among the whistling stamping orange-eating patrons a thing which has made me dislike and despise the smelly poor for all time. I adored the noisy out of tune piano, and always tried to emulate the noisy thumping that passed as musical accompaniment, never having patience to practice scales and my ‘show-piece’ Mignosiette(?) as I should have done so to this day I only play by ear. I fell in love with Ken Maynard a dark rather saturnine man who rode a beautiful white horse, and collected everything I could find printed about him, begged his show posters, and treasured every picture I found of him anywhere. At twelve I wondered what sort of films they were that I was never allowed to see, and played truant from school one afternoon with another small and curious-minded friend to see my first ‘sex’ film. It was of the trials and temptations of a rather blowsy continental actress, and puzzled us for weeks, setting us wondering about things we had never before bothered about. Did men kiss women like that, and did babies come unwanted, from such episodes and behaviour? So my curiosity aroused, from Ken Maynard at eight I sneaked off at twelve now unescorted to see all the extravagant and unreal epics of sex and high living I could find. Did it do me any harm? Yes – I’m afraid so. Children should never be allowed to see at such an early age, the ugly side of life and I have only myself to blame. When I am asked to ‘take me in lady, its an “A” film’ my refusal is always firm. Now boys seemed tame who couldn’t hug and kiss like the exaggerated figures on the screen, and being silent films, I always imagined the dialogue to be more fiery than any the censor would pass. The Hunchback of Notre Dame frightened me to death and to this day I hate the shudder that passes through me at the sight of an ugly or deformed person. Frankenstein kept me awake at night and gave me nerves. The fresh notes Al Jolson sang filled me with wonder, and with these musicals the morbid faded from my film-going entertainment, both horror and sex. There wasn’t time to think about exotic love-making or blood-drinking vampires when you could hear clever people singing see dancing more wonderful than you ever imagined, and above all listen to all these wonderful people talking! Yes, talkies and above all musicals, cleared the air for me! Films with a story were now clever and interesting, and what if I did try to look like Joan Crawford – I tried to look like Norma Shearer too – so it all balanced itself out. Anyway I was often better dressed than before (I am now in my teens), and my hair looked more cared for and more attractively arranged. Films definitely did make me more receptive to love-making and I expected it to be a more experienced job than I would have done had I not seen on the films how love should be made! Leslie Howard made love kindly, Clark Gable was tough and a go-getter, Gary Grant gay but rather dangerous, Ronald Colman ministerial, Errol Flynn impossibly venturesome and Bob Montgomery the ideal gentleman etc. etc. etc. I looked for all these qualities in my friends and measured them up by it. Once I fell in love desperately with a man who was the absolute double of Gary Grant. He wanted me to elope and although everyone warned me against him – I nearly did so – blinded with the glamour of his likeness to the screen star. Luckily my father found out a week before they arrested him as an embezzler so that was that! Films where the heroine is poor but beautiful, have come by wealth and adventure by choosing the primrose path in life have always in a submerged urge sort of way tempted and fascinated me. The situation has never risen in my life – but the outlook on it is there. I have always had great ambition – fed by films – to be a journalist. I don’t suppose that it is much like its prototype in N. York or the idea we get of it on the screen, but how I’d love to find out. I’ve wanted to travel, yes, but not so much the world as to cross America from N. York to the Pacific Coast, in one of those stream-lined buses, seeing the towns and villages en route and meeting the people who live in them. I’d like to see Honolulu too, even though they tell me most of the natives have tuberculosis. This all reads as if films have made me very pro-American, and I’m afraid that is so. I am not dissatisfied with home life or environment, one meets the same class of people in every station of life, in any country. Suburban life here is dull, but so would it be in New England, as in London or New York one would find a more mixed and bohemian crowd. By saying that I mean I have no urge to roam, through film-going, and to travel the world is, more or less, the ambition of everyone who uses the brains they were endowed with. British films have never in all my life, made the slightest impression on me. They are dull, ugly and uninspired – generally a stage success filmed because it was that or a poorly produced musical. There are very few real British film stars, and those stars of the stage who grace the screen at intervals are too old to photograph well, poor dears. The inanities of George Formby leave me cold, the American sense of humour I adore. I once studied Christian Science because Mary Pickford believed in it, I truly believe in the survival of souls, since I saw Topper takes a trip. Bing Crosby singing ‘Holy Night’ gives me more religious uplift than all the dull sermons of our snobbish Vicar, and I’d rather hear Jimmy Durante’s croak than Barbara Mullens silly little squeaking whisper. The greatest thing that has come out of my film-going was the ability it gave me to understand and see the viewpoint of the men from America who came here to fight with us. It also gave me an earlier understanding of the facts of life than I would have had, and made me dissatisfied and impatient with the inferior in entertainment. Not – at thirty – I choose my film going carefully, never just ‘go to the pictures’ and whether it is Carmen Miranda or Bette Davis, Micky Rooney or Humphrey Bogart, Walter Disney or Shakespeare. I am a discriminating picturegoer. From custard pies to Orson Welles is a long way, but it has been a happy and worthwhile journey.

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. Topper Takes a Trip (USA 1938) is a comedy about a ghost.

The Social Function of the Cinema

Source: P. Morton Shand, extract from ‘The Social Function of the Cinema’, in Modern Theatres and Cinemas [The Architecture of Pleasure series] (London. B.T. Batsford, 1930), pp. 9-10

Text: The soured and aged declare that the spread of the picture-going habit is responsible for the decay of home-life. Probably the reverse is nearer the truth: that it is just because home-life has lost so much of its spaciousness and. attractiveness that the cinema-going habit continues to find fresh adherents. For the experts assure its that even with the present phenomenal rate of construction, “saturation point” is not yet within sight; and that there still remains “an untapped clientèle of more cultivated [we hope they mean “more modern”] taste.”

The cinema, whether tacitum or chattersome, fills a need in our lives which no preceding age has ever felt. This need the theatre can never hope to answer, while broadcasting only does so partially and without satisfying our gregarious instincts. There is something formal and ceremonious about going to the theatre. It is an occasion, an event. It implies more careful attire, if not evening dress. We do not say casually “Let’s go to the theatre?” as we say “Let’s go to the pictures?” if only because we are most of us in the habit of booking seats in advance for some particular play. Few of us are indiscriminate enough to sally forth at the last moment to see which theatres have still tickets available. On the other hand we are ready to drop into any old cinema on any old pretext, at any old time, and in any old clothes. The cinema may, and often does, show eminently “serious,” and so-called “educational,” films – “Young Crocodiles’ Teething Troubles,” “The Life-History of a Cake of Soap,” and what not – but we do not go to the pictures in a serious spirit, or with a thirst for acquiring improving knowledge. On the other hand, grotesquely sentimental or crudely anachronistic films can be openly derided as (in deference to the physical presence of their actors) a bad play can hardly be. The studied decorum, the polite social gathering atmosphere, of the theatre and concert hall are wholly lacking at a spectacle in which the players only appear as photographic shadows of their corporeal selves.

The cinema is primarily a sort of public lounge. It is a blend of an English club and a continental café; at once the most public and the most secluded of places. It has affinities with both church and alcove. One can go alone, à deux, en famille, or in bands. One can take one’s children there to keep them quiet; or one can take one’s girl there to be quiet oneself. Punctuality and decorum are of little or no consequence. One can drop in and out at will. In England, though in practically no other country, one can smoke there. One can chew sweets, or peel oranges, or manicure one’s nails. One can proverbially filch ideas for a new dress, or “get off” with one’s neighbour. One can enjoy a little nap as easily as the luxury of a good laugh or a good cry. In wet weather it is an escape from the rain; in winter a means of keeping warm. Sehoolboys, whose holidays are drawing to a close, know that prevalent epidemics can often be caught there. The cinema is a pastime and a distraction, an excuse for not doing something else or sitting listlessly at home. A dinner party misses fire, expected visitors suddenly telephone their inability to come to tea – “What about a cinema?” One had a spare hour or so on one’s hands; just time enough not to be able to do anything else comfortably. So one goes to the nearest picture-house, which is seldom very far away except in the country, and lets a few hundred feet of film unwind before one with casual or rapt attention as the case may be. As a building, therefore, the cinema should be as informal, impersonal and devoid of unnecessary pretensions as a public-house – which is really what it is, alcoholic associations apart.

Thus the cinema clearly requires a type of architectural expression utterly different from the theatre. The theatre – abroad at least – has a certain civic dignity which is must live up to as “a public edifice.” Whereas the cinema is an undress, workaday sort of optical lucky-dip. The theatre has its traditions, and they are on the whole formal ones. The cinema, an essentially democratic institution for all its brave show of royal splendour, has as yet as good as none. It is at one with the socially go-as-you-please age we live in: a symptom and symbol of it…

Comments: Philip Morton Shand (1888-1960) was a British architecture critic (and grandfather of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall). Modern Theatres and Cinemas was his first book and looks at cinemas in a number of countries. The above passage, from a chapter on cinema’s social function, focusses on British cinemas and their audiences.