The Cinema Audience

Source: ‘The Cinema Audience’, The Evening Telegraph [Dundee], 11 September 1919, p. 4

Text: The Cinema Audience. Screengazers Under An Observant Eye. “Potting the Picturegoer” a Fascinating Sport. (Special to Telegraph and Post.)

“Potting the picturegoer” can be quite a fascinating sport. There is no necessity to don loud tweeds and light brogues or flannel trousers and white shoes. You enter the arena in everyday costume and arm yourself with the only weapon required — the observant eye. Of course, you are merely courting trouble if, when caught at the game in the entrance hall of a picture house, you call yourself a “practical psychologist.” The gold-braided gentleman who is the presiding genius of the place will rightly resent and suspect such language, and probably propel you streetwards. Rather tell him with disarming frankness that you are studying the “screengazer” in his native haunts and that you propose presently to inside and continue your investigations.

Ten minutes near the pay-box will convince you that your “victims” are drawn from every class of society. You soon understand why Mary Pickford can claim to be the “world’s sweetheart.” It this mingling of all sorts and conditions of people that makes the observer’s game worth while. Notice particularly the mood that prevails in the queue. It contrasts strangely with that of the audience passing through a theatre “foyer.”

There no ceremony about picture-going, no air of attending a function. The “pictures” are free and easy in spirit, and the audience is similarly affected. It largely this “come and go as you please” atmosphere that maintains the popularity of the cinema.

Inside the house, you come to close quarters with your “quarry.” Before long you discover that the shrewdest judge of a picture is the audience. You will find, of course, that criticism changes character you pass from back to front of the hall, but really good picture will be recognised and praised by all, while the faults of a film will be unerringly detected.

If a comedy is screened will be interesting to watch the effect on various members of the audience. Not every screen comedy is really humorous, and you may be surprised to find a friend who prides himself on his subtle and refined sense of humour taking advantage of the darkness to grin broadly at what is actually silly horseplay.

He may be comfortably placed in the best seats the house affords, while an occupant of the benches near the screen is only bored by the film. You therefore conclude that appreciation of real humour is not necessarily conferred by the ability, to pay for a “tip-up.”

Things That Annoy.

The “star” film flickers on to the screen. If it is a well-constructed picture the interest of the audience is maintained, but you need not a profound observer to note the sign of impatience when the story “drags. “Padding out” a picture irritates, and a player who takes thirty feet of film to accomplish what could reasonably be done in ten annoys the audience.

Your picture-goer is credulous, although he hates to be asked to swallow too much, He will stand absurd situations which no playwright would dream of foisting on theatre audience. But he is gradually coming to demand from the screen some approach to the happenings of real life, and to reject as impossible many situations that have hitherto passed muster. He likes what is novel, but refuses the wholly improbable.

Suppose that the film is of American production. The fact may account for a mystified and almost angry audience. You watch it vainly trying to grasp the meaning of tho letterpress or “leaders” between the scenes, for the American has entirely forgotten that the British audience, while capable understanding English, makes little of New York Bowery slang. Some of these Americanisms have an undeniable piquancy, but most are unintelligible, and only succeed in annoying the picture goer.

Comment: This curious article was published in Scotland by the Dundee-based Evening Telegraph newspaper. It addresses itself to an audience with seemingly little knowledge of cinema at all, at a time when cinema-going throughout the UK was coming to be adopted widely across the UK and no longer seen as a largely working class entertainment. The audience reported on was presumably in Dundee.

Going to the Pictures

Source: Ben Moakes, ‘Going to the Pictures’, in The Time of our Lives (Peckham Publishing Project, 1983), pp. 96-97

Text: All those people who, like me, were born in the early years of this century have grown up with the cinema, reached their prime with the cinema and are now declining with the cinema.

The early films had just a novelty value and were shown wherever a suitable hall could be rented. Music halls would feature ‘the bioscope’ as an added attraction.

No film lasted more than half an hour and was usually accompanied by a piano tinkling out appropriate music.

We children had plenty of choice between cinemas that catered for youngsters. There was one in Walworth Road, near Liverpool Grove, and the halls that stands behind the Visionhire premises nearby was called ‘The Electric’ cinema. There was also ‘The Gem’ in Carter Street opposite the Beehive Public House.

My elder brother and I were given a penny each for our weekly visit to the pictures. We favoured the little cinema near Liverpool Grove.

The procedure was to buy a penny ticket each at the paybox outside; then, on entering, half the ticket would be taken by an usher, the other half being retained.

The seating consisted of rows of wooden forms. After two or three short films had been shown, the lights were switched on and the remaining half tickets were collected from us. The children who had arrived earlier and seen their full pennyworth would have to leave.

At the end of the next part of the programme once more the lights went on and we, having no ticket, would go out.

But my brother and I liked to have sweets to suck, so we spent a halfpenny on toffee before getting to the cinema, then bought one penny ticket and one halfpenny ticket. This meant that one of us, it was always me, had to leave after the first half was seen. So we planned a fiddle. I would lay full length under the form when the collector came, hidden by the legs of the other children. They also spread themselves along to cover the space I had occupied. As soon as the lights went out I climbed back on the form. But after a while they got wise to us. A man came in with a broom that had a long bamboo handle. “Hold up your feet”, he shouted, then plunged the broom under the forms to detect anybody lying there.

Eventually Mum gave us an extra halfpenny for our sweets.

Eddie Polo was one of our early film heroes. He had fights in every picture, getting his shirt ripped each time.

Two of our cowboy heroes were William S. Hart and Broncho Billy Anderson. Tom Mix came later. Charles Ray was the college boy heart-throb for the girls.

In the many fights we saw on the screen, our heroes always fought fairly. When they had knocked down their antagonist, they stood back to allow him to get up. But the villains would frequently kick the man who was on the ground.

After a few years we got the serials, with an exciting episode every week, the hero or heroine being left is a desperate situation each time. From this the word ‘cliff-hanger’ evolved.

‘The Shielding Shadow’ was a serial that intrigued us with its trick camera effects showing only the hands of an invisible man who foiled the villains every time. We all knew that Jerry Carson was The Shielding Shadow. He couldn’t be seen because he used a substance left in a jar by a scientist.

‘The Exploits of Elaine’, ‘The Hazards of Helen’ and ‘The Perils of Pauline’ were all serials and Pearl White was the blonde heroine who stole the hearts of growing lads – us!

Comment: Ben Moakes was born in 1904. His piece on cinemagoing is part of a local collection of memories of life in Peckham, London. The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine and The Hazards of Helen were all American serials that began in 1914, The American serial The Shielding Shadow was released in 1916.

The Nightside of Japan

asakusa

‘The Cinematograph Street in Asakusa Street’ (the caption for the photograph that accompanies the text below)

Source: Taizo Fujimoto, The Nightside of Japan (London: T. Werner Laurie, 1914), pp. 1-2

Text: The Asakusa is the centre of pleasure in Tokyo. People of every rank in the city crowd in the park day and night old and young, high and low, male and female, rich and poor. It is also a haunt of ruffians, thieves, and pickpockets when the curtain of the dark comes down over the park. All houses and shops along each street in the park are illuminated with the electric and gas lights. The most noisy and crowded part is the site of cinematograph halls. In front of a hall you see many large painted pictures, illustrating kinds of pictures to be shown in the hall, and, at its entrance, three or four men are crying to call visitors: “Come in, come in! Our pictures are newest ones, most wonderful pictures! Most lately imported from Europe! “Men of another hall cry out: “Our hall gives the photographs of a play performed by the first-class actors in Tokyo; pictures of the revenge of Forty Seven Ronine!” Tickets are sold by girls in a booking-box near the entrance of each hall; they are dressed in beautiful uniforms, their faces painted nicely, receiving guests with charming smiles. Most of the Japanese carry geta (clogs) under their feet, instead of shoes or boots, and specially so are the females. When you come into the door of a hall, tickets are to be handed to the men, who furnish you zori (a pair of straw or grass-slippers) in place of your geta, and you must not forget to receive from them a wood-card marked with numerals or some other signs the card being the cheque for your clogs. When you step on upstairs you are received by another nice girl in uniform, who guides you to a seat in the hall. Now the hall is full of people; it seems that there is no room for a newcomer, but the guide girl finds out a chair among the crowd and adjusts it to you very kindly. Pictures of cinematograph are shown one after another, each being explained by orators in frock or evening coat. Between the photograph shows performance of comic actors or jugglers is given. After the end of each picture or performance there is an entr’acte of three or five minutes, and in this interval sellers of oranges, milk, cakes, sandwiches, etc., come into the crowds, and are crying out: “Don’t you want oranges? Nice cakes! New boiled milk! etc., etc.” The show of cinematograph is closed at about 12 P.M., and all people flow out of the hall. Where will they go hence? Of course most of them go to their home, but a part of them young fellows among others runs to the Dark Streets of the park, or Yoshiwara, the licensed prostitution quarter near the park.

Comment: This passage is from a travel book on Japan, intended for Western audiences. The ‘orators in frock on evening coat’ were benshi, the narrators who habitually accompanied screenings of silent films in Japan, whether fiction or non-fiction. A number of short films were made of stories of the revenge of the forty-seven ronine (such stories are known as Chūshingura) before and in 1914.

London Scenes

Source: W.R. Titterton, London Scenes (London: Andrew Melrose, 1920), pp. 141-148

Text: It is a shabby street of the broader sort, packed with traffic, and lined with assorted shops.

From the front the cinema theatre looks like a pasteboard palace transported from Shepherd’s Bush. Across it, in glaring capitals, sprawls its bill of fare – “featuring” Mary Pickford, perhaps; almost certainly Charlie Chaplin; and, to emphasise the fact, there is a picture of the pretty lady, or the comical fellow, plastered over the entrance, or on a board that leans against a festal column below. A tall and gorgeous commissionaire, hired mainly for display, commands the steps. These a crowd of customers is constantly ascending and descending, with a continual tinkle of metal as money and pass-in checks salute the metal counter of the box office. Occasionally the commissionaire shouts aloud a passionate or a side-splitting title – such as: “This afternoon, The Lure of Sin, in three parts, featuring …’ Or, “Continual performance, Flossie’s Frivolous Flutter.”

The hour is early and the crowd is of military age or under. The prevailing type seems to be the small boy in smeary cap and greasy trousers, smoking furiously at a cigarette gripped in the extreme corner of his mouth, rattling his money in his pocket, and swarming as to a scrum. The one word you catch for certain as he presses to the box-office is “Charlie.” They are all faithful subjects of the young Pretender.

You pass through a door and a curtain, and are in almost absolute darkness. The only light is at the end of the room, where black-and-white figures are capering foolishly on the screen. Music of a mournful gaiety indicates the presence of a piano and a fiddle. You have the feeling that this has been going on since the beginning of time. A black shape collects before you, and flashes at you a flaming eye and a luminous hand. The hand grabs your check and a voice says sharply, “Stalls this way please!” The shape drifts away, you following. You are aware now of rows on rows of blackness, on either side of you, with a fugitive hint of faces that grows to a certainty as the drifting darkness halts, and flashes its luminous eye on a row of them. Stumbling over stretched legs, you fall into an empty seat.

Here you are in an atmosphere of stuffiness, tobacco smoke, and vague mysterious voices, whispers, a treble giggle, a muted bass. And all the while, as in a nightmare, the meaningless pageant of the film parades.

Gradually you settle into your environment. Puffing at your pipe, all your senses except the sense of seeing are lulled to a drugged security. The eyes are drugged, too, yet wide open and straining – fascinated, hypnotised by the phantom pictures of the film.

The absurd legends do not make you laugh. In this mad word, “Maisie falls to it. Archibald is some boy,” do not strike a discordant note. But now that you have the hang of the story, and are, as it were, a part of it, the voicelessness of the actors oppresses. You are much relieved when an overburdened female suffer screams, “Look out! he’s got a knife!” Then the house roars, and for a moment the atmosphere is homely and healthy; but the next minute the nightmare grips you again.

Wonderful things happen. There is an express train, with Maisie hanging on to the tail of it. There is Maisie dangling over a precipice and the villain hacking at her with a knife. There is Archibald catching a tameless steed, riding him through burning forests, over icy mountains, and finally falling with him down tall cliffs into a moonlit sea. There is pathos, too – Maisie and Archibald captured by gun-men, and torn from each other, he grinding his teeth, she weeping bitterly. And there is that great scene where Archibald, worn with torture and the loss of his meat-card, drags himself to the church just in time to prevent Maisie being forced into marriage to save the honour of her aged father. There is a sound of sniffling around you then.

At last “The Lure of Sin,” in three parts (you have not even seen one part of it), is over, and the lights go up on a very strange assembly. The people sit bundled up in their seats, not yet half awake, their eyes blinking. A few couples still sit with arms interlaced, here and there a tired man or woman in shabby clothes, quietly sleeps. Attendants cry, “This way out!” Customers who have seen the round of the reels, and do not wish to see it again, respond to the invitation. Many of the boys, the cigarettes still in active eruption, are munching war-bread and margarine, and betting on Charlie for the next act.

Charlie indeed it is, and, when he bounds into view, you realise the artistic function of the cinema. It is to present Charlie. His walrus waddle, his sham catastrophes, his polite entanglements, his amiable idiocies, his in frequent sudden bursts of harlequin fury, the trap-door motion of his saluting hat, the incomparable shuttle of his eye over his toothbrush moustache – all these things had necessarily to be part of a dumb show, and could only rise to their true pitch of extravagant impishness when Charlie had been squeezed to a black-and-white phantom on a screen. As a popular amusement the cinema lives on Charlie.

. . . . . .

We are farther west now, and the theatre has other airs. It advertises itself, but in a more reticent fashion. Its portico is more magnificent, and the commissionaire stands in a carpeted foyer.

When you have entered the well-appointed theatre the lights are up, and the spectators look very like those you see at the play. But they are bored. In spite of the quite delightful music played by the orchestra, boredom stares out of nearly every face in balcony and stall. They have not come to a festival, they come to get doped.

The film is a film one – a medley of many periods. Vast crowds manoeuvre in vast spaces, in colossal temples and palaces decked with monstrous idols or Christian monuments. There are fierce battles, desperate attacks and surprises. The drama is nothing, but the spectacle is grandiose. It is not as fine as Charley’s Aunt, but it is better than Rheinhardt.

Yet even this oppresses. For the spectacle has no dramatic significance. It is meant to overcome you with the “muchness” of it. You read in letters of fire across the screen: “This film costs £200,000.”

When you are out in the street again you take a deep breath. The carnal, common life is so dignified and fine.

Comment: William Richard Titterton (1876–1963) was a British journalist and poet, and a severe critic of the cinema. His London Scenes documents aspects of London life during 1914-1918. The text includes line drawings of a small cinema showing ‘Vitagraph Grand Pictures’ and a grander cinema showing ‘Triangle Plays’.