A Japanese Cinema

Source: ‘A Japanese Cinema’, New Zealand Herald, 25 March 1933, supplement p. 10

Text: A JAPANESE CINEMA

ENTHUSIASM OF AUDIENCE

NO KISSES IN FILMS

An interesting description of a visit to a Japanese cinema theatre is given by an English traveller in a recent issue of “Film Weekly.” Flaming banners and photographs of Japanese film stars denoted that this was the place I sought, (he wrote). I paid my money and entered, my progress to the seat being accompanied by deep bows from the daintily clad and elaborately coiffured usherettes. Next came a coy little lady bearing an ash tray and matches and a cushion for my greater comfort. By my side were two giggling little dolls, who every now and again cast surreptitious and demure glances in my direction.

The programme was nearing the end of the “comic,” in which two Oriental prototypes of Laurel and Hardy were competing for the affections of a lovely geisha. The audience literally screamed with merriment as, while they were indulging in mirthful altercation, another competitor stole her away under their very noses.

Let, no one talk to me of inscrutable, unsmiling Japanese. They form the most responsive and vocal audiences in the world. If they are amused they laugh – and they are easily amused – and their laugh is not just a refined gurgle, but a whole-hearted roar. If they are thrilled, an audible shiver runs through the audience.

A newsreel with a Japanese commentary showed the exploits of the representatives of the Land of the Rising Sun in the Olympic Games. This was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm. The whole aim of Japanese pictures seems to be the glorification of Japan and things Japanese. Never was there a country so intensely nationalistic.

The feature picture was the synchronised version of Ben-Hut, from which, as the kiss in Japan is looked upon as a most disgusting affair, most of the love scenes had been eliminated. Ben-Hur’s caresses were left to the imagination. Every time the lovers showed signs of offending the Japanese moral code by coming to gags, the referee. in the form of a quick fade-out, would order them to break away, whilst the two coy maidens on my left would cover their faces with opened fingers and give a shocked “chi-chi.”

I soon tired of transatlantic Romans, and wandered forth into the gaily bannered streets in search of more film fare. I entered a second “shinema” for the modest sum of 10 sen, about 11⁄2d. All the seats being full, I stood at the back and watched a thrilling drama of the Shanghai conflict. Japan is passing through a period of intense chauvinism, and it is perhaps natural that such a proud and self-reliant nation should mirror its military prowess upon the screen. An elocutionist who commented on the story was much in evidence, in spite of lengthy Japanese captions. The story, if indeed it can be dignified by that, name, was of the slightest. The main theme was the heroism of the soldiers of Nippon.

We then went back to the days of sho-guns and samurai in an historical drama. Our worthy elocutionist, had obviously exhausted himself in his previous effort, and the complicated story slowly unfolded itself to a rapidly dwindling audience. With no English captions to guide me, the picture was almost totally incomprehensible, but I gathered that it dealt with the adventures of a lovely “Broken Blossom,” whose heart still retained its snow-white purity in spite of her sinister environment, a theme very dear to the Japanese mind.

Her handsome lover, sword in hand, after encountering incredible opposition, effects her escape, but dies in her arms. Then the story goes off at another angle with an entirely different set of characters.

Comments: This article was originally published in the British film journal Film Weekly. The silent film Ben-Hur (USA 1925) was reissued in 1931 with a music score and sound effects.

Links: Copy at Papers Past

Roving Through Southern China

Source: Harry A. Franck, Roving Through Southern China (New York: Century, 1925), p. 555

Text: Now even the cages of the animals had been cleaned up; the lotus-lake was open to pleasure navigation; a good commercial museum was functioning, and there were several tea-houses and places of entertainment, including an outdoor moving-picture house – of which most of the stock naturally did not belong to the governor’s enemies. Not the least interesting of my experiences in Chengtu was a Saturday evening at the new open-air movies. I went with my host, and therefore with the governor and most of his family, for one of the duties of foreign advisers to a Chinese military potentate of the interior is to translate the titles of the execrable American films that sometimes get that far up country. While the wildest of our melodramas flashed its lurid prevarications in the faces of the incredulous, yet often over-credulous, Chinese throngs, the thought came to me that perhaps they were judging it by the incredible things which their tuli was even then accomplishing in the ancient city. Fortunately we were there, for if we had not been able to assure the governor that life in America is not always what a film no doubt forbidden even in its native land purported it to be, he might have been forced in self-defense to renounce his allegiance to foreigners and their ways.

Comments: Harry Alverson Franck (1881-1962) was an American travel writer, whose journeys took him China, Latin America, Europe and the USSR. His Roving Through Southern China was a follow-up to this 1923 travel book Wandering in Northern China (1923). Chengdu (romanticised then as Chengtu) is a city in Sichuan province. A tuli is described by Franck as being a highly self-exalted Chinese personage.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Don't Look at the Camera

Source: Harry Watt, Don’t Look at the Camera (London: Elek Books, 1974), pp. 29-30

Text: So many of my highbrow associates think they can ‘meet the working man’. Malcolm Muggeridge, for instance, my revered and close friend. He hasn’t a hope. There’s that ghastly accent to start with. (I wonder if I would have talked like him if I’d gone to Cambridge, as my father suggested?) And he’s incapable of meandering on with the platitudes, repetitions and sudden flashes of colour in ordinary man’s speech. Without an innocuous Scots accent, a knowledge of football, boxing, cricket and horse racing, plus a few dirty stories mostly involving the bosses, and a capacity to swear, without repeating myself, for about two minutes, I could never have found the material to write the documentary films I did, both in peace and war. I imagine that Malcolm, master of words that he is, has not got these gifts. I once went with him to see The Bridge Over The River Kwai [sic] in a suburban cinema in Sydney, Australia. It was not one of my happier evenings. To start with, Malcolm can never speak sotto voce. He declaims, wherever he is. And that exaggerated ‘Pommy’ voice, echoing out over the Bijou Cinema, Cronulla, nearly started a riot. When William Holden, the co-star, disappeared, apparently killed, Malcolm said – as usual, at the top of his voice – ‘Thank God that dreary Yank has gone. I found him intolerable!’ I explained, very sotto voce, that Holden had been paid a million dollars for the picture, and as it was only a third of the way through, he was bound to reappear. When he did, Malcolm boomed ‘How clever you are, Harry, I can never understand the economic intricacies of your dreadful industry. So we have to put up with the awful shit to the end.’ At that, an enormous Rugby League forward, sitting behind us, got up and said ‘Listen, you Pommy poof, one more word out of you, and I’ll sink ya.’ Malcolm, of course, was not in the least discountenanced, and merely said, ‘My dear chap, I was only making what I thought was a perfectly valid criticism of a rather second-rate piece of cinema.’ The gorilla sat down, baffled. But I imagine Malcolm would have had great difficulty in achieving an intimacy with that Aussie.

Comments: Harry Watt (1906-1987) was a British documentary and feature film director, renowned for his contribution to such films as Night Mail, London Can Take It!, Target for Tonight and The Overlanders (one of a number of films he made in Australia). Malcolm Muggeridge (1903-1990) was a celebrated British journalist and social commentator, known for his early advocacy of left-wing views only to turn to strong conservatism in his latter years. He had a notably accentuated upper class English voice.

The Crippled Tree

Source: Han Suyin, The Crippled Tree (London: Jonathan Cape, 1965), pp. 377-379

Text: The cinema was called in Chinese the True Light Cinema. It had a brown gooey façade, and at that time it looked enormous; it had suffered, forty years later when Rosalie returned to stare at it (renamed the People’s Theatre, and with a grey sticky façade), the shrink that all revisited childhood monuments suffer. The True Light Cinema showed chiefly American pictures in the 1920s, because there were no Chinese film companies. The films were all galloping horses, villains, and usually a buxom girl, with long fair hair, who was constantly getting herself tied to railtracks and rescued in the nick of time from a rapidly enlarging locomotive belching smoke that blackened the screen and dimmed the cinema too. An orchestra of White Russians in the pit made appropriate music with drum beats for revolver shots. The King of Kings, and City Lights with Charlie Chaplin (which Mama did not think funny), Rosalie would remember for many years; also a film, The Birth of a Nation, which showed hooded horsemen clad in white sheets riding down ugly black men, and the same fair-haired, buxom girl, throwing herself down some rocks because a black man was running after her and smiling. It was at this film that the incident occurred.

Someone in the audience (while it was dark and musically solemn because house was heing burnt with the white-clad horsemen ranged round watching) got up and started to shout. There was immediately a commotion, lights were switched on, policemen appeared from the four corners of the hall where they were always posted, and the young man who had shouted was dragged away, the usual sticks plying upon him quick and fast while he strove to cover his bleeding face with his hands. And it reminded Rosalie of Charlie Chaplin, though this young man was Chinese and had the scarf round his neck which indicated he was a university student.

While the young man was being dragged out, Mama turned to Rosalie. who was not sitting in the same row as Mama and Tiza and Papa, but alone behind, because there had been only three seats in the row. The young boy who occupied the seat next to Tiza had left it to run to the aisle, as many others did, to get closer to the young student, whom the policemen were dragging away. ‘Quick, now,’ said Mama, ‘sit here with us.’

Rosalie obeyed. She sat next to Tiza, in the seat left vacant by the boy.

But the boy now returned, and said: ‘This is my seat.’

Mama indicated the seat in the row behind, which Rosalie had left. ‘You can sit there.’

The young boy began to shout: ‘This is my seat, my seat.’

And all the people in the cinema now crowded round them, round Mama, Papa, Rosalie and Tiza.

Then another young man with a scarf began to shout, and the young boy suddenly raised his fist and screamed: ‘Down with all white devils from over the sea,’ and there was noise like a train approaching quickly, and it was the whole cinema, together making this noise. They stamped, clapped, whistled, and suddenly they were all shouting, in time: ‘Down with the colonialists, down with the imperialists,’ and singing.

The policemen reappeared, and again they began to use their sticks, but they were too few, and they crowded round Mama and the girls and got them out of the cinema, and Papa stayed behind. Then he too came out, and he was so pale, Rosalie had never seen him that colour before.

Comments: Han Suyin (1917-2012) was a Chinese Eurasian physician, novelist, memoirist and historian, best-known for her novel A Many-Splendoured Thing. She was born Rosalie Matilda Kuanghu Chou to a Chinese father and Belgian mother. Her book The Crippled Tree, a combination of history and memoir covering 1885-1928, documents the great challenges their family faced during a period of political turmoil in China. In this passage, recording an incident in a Peking cinema, she refers to herself in the third person (Rosalie). The anecdote continues with a bitter row over race between the two parents. There was a small amount of Chinese film production in the 1920s, particularly towards the latter end of the decade, but it is not clear when the incident described took place. A screening of The Birth of a Nation (1915) in China in the 1920s feels unlikely, but the scenes she recalls are part of the film.

Cocks and Bulls in Caracas

Source: Olga Briceño, Cocks and Bulls in Caracas; how we live in Venezuela (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945), pp. 126-130

Text: Everyone is curious to know how we amuse ourselves in South America. What, they wonder, do those strange people do for fun? It’s simple enough. We amuse ourselves like anybody else, admitting the while, parenthetically, that the whole world is short on pastime, with popular imagination in this respect the victim of a pernicious anemia.

Our amusements are those of any other country, but with one peculiarity. Others find their fun outside; we find ours mostly within.

First of all, we have the movies. We are devotees of adjectives, superlatives, and dithyrambs. In certain individuals the harmless mania is particularly marked — in mothers speaking of their children, naturally, and in lovers proclaiming their devotion. Impresarios of public entertainment also suffer from it. This surprises no one. ‘You must blow your own horn’ has come to be, with us, a basic premise. As a result, any statement that is highly flavored with adjectives is automatically reduced by half in the mind of the listener. In the case of impresarios, especially of moving pictures, this drastic reduction falls far short of being enough. One should credit no more than half of half of what is claimed, or better, only half of that! The imagination of these good gentlemen is ultra-supercolossal.

No film is ever advertised in terms consistent with its quality. God forbid! If it were, no one would dream of going to it. After the customary discounting, it would appear an abstract minus quantity.

The time-honored grading of films that is regularly employed in the United States is practically unknown to us. It has been taken up to some slight extent in Caracas recently, but no one has bothered to explain the significance of it, and hence it conveys little or nothing. Venezuela is not grade-conscious like the United States. The only grades we know are the grades a student needs for his degree, the grades of fever shown by a thermometer, and the grades of — say, fervor, which no thermometer can show. The business of grading eggs or milk, for example, is not for us. Not yet.

Never is a film advertised merely by name, dates, and actors. Rather:

‘The most stupendous achievement of the Eighth Art. An unforgettable spectacle that will set you quivering with horror, joy, and anger. A veritable gem of modern moving pictures.’

‘The Downhill Donkey,’ let us say, is one such gay production which might be advertised, in fine print and parentheses, as ‘Grade F’ in North America. The announcement of it will fill a whole page in the daily papers, for in Venezuela, as everywhere else, fame is won by advertising, and impresarios spend real fortunes on publicity. Each strives to outdo the others, and their lives are spent in lawless rivalry, with magazines and papers the major beneficiaries. If all exhibitors were to agree to use a stipulated space, less money would be spent, and the result would be the same. But then the periodicals would be the losers, with sad results for us poor journalists.

When the public buys tickets to a movie, it is torn between the exhibitors’ publicity and its own skepticism. There is no telling what to expect. Hence any film is a surprise. Going to the movies is like roulette — you never know just where the ball will drop. Anyone who has been promised a sensation is bound to be surprised when he finds himself bored; if a sensation is not only promised but delivered, that is the biggest surprise of all.

Movies in Venezuela are not shown continuously. The admission fee buys a view of one film, regardless of grade; there is also a newsreel, but then — good night. This is not quite fair; I was forgetting that there is a fifteen-minute intermission too. At possibly its most exciting moment the film is stopped, the lights come on, gradually or with a flash, according to the impresario’s caprice, and boys come down the aisles to sell chocolate.

For many people the intermission is the high moment of the show. Think of it! Fifteen whole minutes in which to talk with friends, to see who has come with whom, to smoke a cigarette — but that must be done outside — to look at the women’s costumes and see how the men are looking. Fifteen minutes in which to emerge from the anonymity of darkness into the realm of light!

The showings at different hours are not equally important. The first is for children. The vespertina, at five o’clock, is for the formally engaged, who come accompanied by mother, aunt, sister, or little brother; that is also the time for well-bred girls of the old school, white, charming, distant, cool of manner. Altagracia prefers the vespertina. The intermediate showing, which begins at seven, is attended by people in mourning who do not wish to be conspicuous, by couples who may be shady or perhaps just not officially engaged as yet, and by families in good standing but reduced circumstances who have neither new clothes to show nor the five bolivares which are the price of the fashionable performances.

The last, at nine o’clock, is for family parties, the world of fashion, marriageable daughters who are not bespoken, night owls, and the generally emancipated, as well as for the wealthy and those supposed to be wealthy, since it is the most expensive. That is the time to display the new gown, the darling hat just received from Paris, the sweetheart, and financial affluence.

Different films are presented at any one day’s performances. The one shown at nine rates a whole page of publicity; from that peak a film descends to the vespertina, with a quarter page, and finally, in complete decadence, to the common grave which is the intermediate or the matinee performance and warrants only a stingy little epitaph of an advertisement that gives nothing but title and time. Vanitas vanitatum! as the disillusioned Preacher said.

In the smaller towns movies are far more enjoyable than in Caracas. Performances are usually presented out-of-doors, and the weather is always mild. Surrounded by low walls, the movie houses have the finest roof imaginable — a tropical sky of magic beauty, with moon, stars, Southern Cross, and all. One night Altagracia and I watched a raging Arctic blizzard with polar bears, ice-bound ships, seals, Eskimos, and all the frozen seasonings, while the heavens above seemed about to drop from the weight of stars, crickets chirped, and the intoxicating odor of magnolias filled the air. Grown blasé by travel, books, and fashion, we savored the incongruity and smiled in superiority, but the general public, farmers, muleteers, cowboys, travelers, Venezuelans all, exposed the virgin purity of their responsive souls to their emotions, and some even suffered a chill. A few dogs which had sneaked in among the seats barked at the polar bears. Several poor children who were watching, on horseback, outside, were excited by the snowstorm and produced a red one of their own with petals from the roses blooming on the wall; their perfumed shower caressed our faces. Suddenly, beside me, a thick but pleasant voice spoke with a countrified accent:

‘Will the young lady please shove over just a little?’

A farmer who had arrived late was looking for a seat. Frequently, in small-town theaters, the seats are only benches. The fellow must have hesitated a long time before venturing to bother us, but weariness at last had overcome timidity. Hat in hand, he waited for us to shove over and then sat down on the very end of the bench. When finally he had forgotten we were there, he gave free rein to his emotions. We watched him suffer, rejoice, worry, and laugh with the various episodes of the film. For him shouting children, barking dogs, the cries of vendors, stars, scents, had all ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, squeezed into her seat, Altagracia was grumbling about democracy and the absurd idea of rubbing elbows with anyone who came along. But all at once she stopped complaining and began to smile quietly. Her eyes had fallen on a pair of lovers, a half-breed muleteer and a dark-eyed country girl. They were holding hands in silence, and in their faces were reflected the beauty of the starlit night and all the fondness in the world. Southern Cross, rose petals, and magnolias seemed quite in keeping with that idyll unfolding on the bench of a country movie.

Comments: Olga Briceño (?-?) was a Venezuelan journalist, travel writer, novelist, lecturer and diplomat, who mostly wrote in Spanish. She was cultural attaché for her country in Cuba and the USA. Her charming book Cocks and Bulls in Caracas, describing family life in her native land, was published in English in America.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Valley of the Moon

Source: Jack London, The Valley of the Moon (New York: The Review of Reviews Company, 1917 [orig. pub. 1913]), p. 279

Text: They bought reserved tickets at Bell’s Theater; but it was too early for the performance, and they went down Broadway and into the Electric Theater to while away the time on a moving picture show. A cowboy film was run off, and a French comic; then came a rural drama situated somewhere in the Middle West. It began with a farm yard scene. The sun blazed down on a corner of a barn and on a rail fence where the ground lay in the mottled shade of large trees overhead. There were chickens, ducks, and turkeys, scratching, waddling, moving about. A big sow, followed by a roly-poly litter of seven little ones, marched majestically through the chickens, rooting them out of the way. The hens, in turn, took it out on the little porkers, pecking them when they strayed too far from their mother. And over the top rail a horse looked drowsily on, ever and anon, at mathematically precise intervals, switching a lazy tail that flashed high lights in the sunshine.

“It’s a warm day and there are flies—can’t you just feel it?” Saxon whispered.

“Sure. An’ that horse’s tail! It’s the most natural ever. Gee! I bet he knows the trick of clampin’ it down over the reins. I wouldn’t wonder if his name was Iron Tail.”

A dog ran upon the scene. The mother pig turned tail and with short ludicrous jumps, followed by her progeny and pursued by the dog, fled out of the film. A young girl came on, a sunbonnet hanging down her back, her apron caught up in front and filled with grain which she threw to the fluttering fowls. Pigeons flew down from the top of the film and joined in the scrambling feast. The dog returned, wading scarcely noticed among the feathered creatures, to wag his tail and laugh up at the girl. And, behind, the horse nodded over the rail and switched on. A young man entered, his errand immediately known to an audience educated in moving pictures. But Saxon had no eyes for the love-making, the pleading forcefulness, the shy reluctance, of man and maid. Ever her gaze wandered back to the chickens, to the mottled shade under the trees, to the warm wall of the barn, to the sleepy horse with its ever recurrent whisk of tail.

She drew closer to Billy, and her hand, passed around his arm, sought his hand.

“Oh, Billy,” she sighed. “I’d just die of happiness in a place like that.” And, when the film was ended. “We got lots of time for Bell’s. Let’s stay and see that one over again.”

They sat through a repetition of the performance, and when the farm yard scene appeared, the longer Saxon looked at it the more it affected her. And this time she took in further details. She saw fields beyond, rolling hills in the background, and a cloud-flecked sky. She identified some of the chickens, especially an obstreperous old hen who resented the thrust of the sow’s muzzle, particularly pecked at the little pigs, and laid about her with a vengeance when the grain fell. Saxon looked back across the fields to the hills and sky, breathing the spaciousness of it, the freedom, the content. Tears welled into her eyes and she wept silently, happily.

Comments: Jack London (1876-1916) was an American novelist and political activist. His 1913 novel The Valley of the Moon, named after the wine-growing Sonoma Valley of California, is about a working-class couple, Billy and Saxon Roberts, who leave city life behind for work on the land. Their visit to a cinema takes places in Oakland, California, before they settle in the country. A continuous show would indeed have meant that the same film programme would be shown over again, without need for those already seated to purchase another ticket. The Valley of the Moon was filmed as a six-reel feature in 1914, directed by Hobart Bosworth.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), p. 238

Text: AGE: 64 SEX: M. NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: BRICKLAYER
MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HELPMATE TO FATHER

I am going to mention the titles of four films. First The Common Touch. I cannot remember ever enjoying a film so much as this as regards a film for what I call a working class audience. To me there were no special ‘stars’ all actors and actress’s were of equal value, it was a very human, sensibly and elevating story, very well acted. The second picture or film is Smiling Through featuring Jeannette MacDonald and other ‘stars’. As I sat watching and listening to this film story I seemed to be taking part in it myself, and each time I saw it (and I saw it many times) I enjoyed it more and more. The singing was superb, the acting was such that it made the story very real, the facial expressions of all taking part was very convincing although I saw it during war time, it made me forget war, and lifted my thoughts to higher levels, this was a clean, decent and elevating film, and time well spent seeing it and also well worth the money paid.

Sentimentally yes, upholding that most beautiful of all things Love, yes, and if these two things were to die out, I think this world, would be even a poorer place than it is to day. Love is ridiculed far too much in some pictures or films and on the ‘stage’ yes I know that I am old fashioned, but let us have more films like these two. And now from the sublime to the most ridiculous, I refer to two films, in which I got up out of my seat to leave the cinema, I was that disgusted, but I saw them through. First The Miracle of Morgans Creek a film that was anything but elevating, in fact, if the producer had been sitting with me, and had heard what some children were saying about it I think his face would have gone very red, a film that was of no use to the world, in fact not even a good moral film. The other film was Cassonova Brown [sic] perhaps, it was with seeing Gary Cooper in such stirring films before, and then to see him in a dud film such as this, another film that I think could have been done without. Yes let us have ‘Decent’ films like the first two I have mentioned. If anyone should have had an Oscar award, I think all the leading ‘stars’ in Smiling Through should have one each. As I am getting on in years, perhaps I shall never have the chance to travel, so I would like to see more travel films, which are a delight, and also good education. Films with Jazz and Swing bands I do not like, they are far too harsh.

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 ‘A Study in Film Preferences’. The films mentioned are The Common Touch (UK 1941), Smiling Through (USA 1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (USA 1944) and Casanova Brown (USA 1944).

Magic Moments

Source: John Sutherland, Magic Moments: Life-Changing Encounters with Books, Films, Music … (London: Profile Books, 2008), pp. 1-2, 5, 8

Text: I could see stories before I could read them. And the first narrative I recall seeing is the film Tarzan’s Desert Mystery. I was around five years old. I’d had my Lacanian moment, in front of my mother’s dressing-table mirror. I knew I was I. Whatever that was.

All that ‘I’ can remember of the narrative of Tarzan’s Desert Mystery – stored haphazardly in the basement level of my sensibility – is a handful of vivid but disconnected snapshots. One such is the pulsing-beeping RKO logo (it carried one back, I now hypothesise, to the womb, and that life-sustaining maternal heartbeat). I had left that foetal haven just sixty months earlier. the only other residue is some scraps from the ten-minute chase scene which the makers of Tarzan’s Desert Mystery tacked on to the end of the movie.

That, alas, is it.

The Colchester Gazettte for that week in 1944 informs me that the film (which ran something under seventy minutes) was shown at the Hippodrome in a double bill with a cowboy film. Whether I sat through that other film, I don’t recall.

The narrative of the Tarzan movie, as I have recently re-experienced it (on DVD, after an interval of six decades), is bizarre …

… What stuck in my five-year-old mind (the only thing that, as it happens, did stick) were deadly sticky Venus flytraps, whose stamens shot up, without warning, nine feet out of the ground, creating a cage with quivering snake bars in which the victim was fatally imprisoned. Cheeta, I vividly recall, escapes by outjumping the deadly stamens. the less nimble Tarzan – Venus flytrapped – is assisted in his escape by his trusty, but bored-looking, pachyderm pals, summoned from their elephant grove by the famous Weissmullerian yell …

Tarzan’s Desert Mystery, as I experienced and archived it in my pinched little tabula rasa, squirming excitedly on my one-and-ninepenny seat, was all man-eating, octopoid vegetables, Triffids avant la lettre. the brain is very strange. I would carry those veggy-killers with me through life. Even now, I never look at fried calamari without thinking of them and somewhere deep inside, shuddering.

I remember where I saw the film film in more concrete detail than the flickering narrative itself. It was at the Hippodrome, in Colchester High Street. More precisely, in the downstairs stalls alongside my mother, who intended the outing as a treat for me. Her own treats at the time were more adult, and involved Americans who were carnal rather than celluloid. She, in her Colcestrian way, was a Venus flytrap.

Comments: John Sutherland (1938 – ) is a British literary critic and newspaper columnist, known for the literary puzzle books Is Heathcliff a Murderer? and Can Jane Eyre Be Happy? His father had died the year before in a wartime accident when he was four. His childhood and early adulthood memoir is told through the books and films that made a vivid impression on him. Tarzan’s Desert Mystery (US 1943) starred the former Olympic swimming champion Johnny Weissmuller as Tarzan. His chimpanzee companion was called Cheeta.

Candles, Carts & Carbolic

Source: Jim Callaghan, Candles, Carts & Carbolic: A Liverpool Childhood Between the Wars (Lancaster: Palatine Books, 2001), pp. 35-36

Text: The Saturday afternoon visit to the pictures was our one and only treat, twopence in the Balcony, penny in the Pit. Balcony patrons, as befitted their status, queued under a covered walkway, the Pit rabble submitting themselves to the open air. Attired in an ankle-length coat, adorned with brass epaulettes and a gold~braided cap held in place by his ears, Old Soupy-Eyes, armed with a long cane, stands at the top of the steps, guarding the entrance to the Pit, now and then administering a thwack to some youngster attempting to break ranks. Up and down the queue shuffles the Chewing Gum man, ‘Ere y’ar now; he intones, ‘everybody’s doing it, everybody’s chewing it, Wrigley’s spearmint, five sticks a penny,’ his doleful litany drowned in a rousing cheer as the projectionist is seen climbing the iron ladder to his box. Sounds of doors opening reach the ears of the waiting mob. Soupy-Eyes braces himself for the rush but he is swept aside, overwhelmed.

I honestly believe that no generation ever enjoyed the pictures much as we did. Wrapped in the warmth of hundreds of young bodies, the tang of peeling oranges in our nostrils, we sat under the dust-laden beam of the projectionist’s lamp in total darkness and in complete harmony with our idols on the screen. The airless cinema became a place of wonder: no sweet-wrappers rustled, no ice-cream sellers broke the spell; howls of derision greeted the occasional breakdown and when at times the screen appeared to dissolve in flames we knew it was all part of the magic.

Art Accord, William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, Lou Tellegan, J. Farrell McDonald (trapped in the miner’s shack at the head of the canyon and aware that the posse was getting closer: ‘Where was Moses when the light went out? he said, dropping his smouldering corncob into the barrel of dynamite). These were our heroes. Then there was Mary Miles Minter, Nazimova of whom we sang rather a rude song, Louise Fazenda, Polly Moran and once a glimpse of the Divine Sarah Bernhardt, her wooden leg tucked out of sight and the Queen of them all, Pearl White, who had a song written about her:

My little pearl of the army,
Pearl of the picture screen
You’re the Queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a pearl of a girl like you.

Anyway, that’s what it sounded like in 1917.

Comments: Jim Callaghan (1911-2001), one of eleven children, grew up among the working-class, Irish-Catholic neighbourhood of Scottie Road, Liverpool. In adult life he became a personnel officer. My thanks to Jenny Callaghan (his daughter, I believe) for having once recommended this passage from his memoirs on my Bioscope site.

Cinemas and Cemeteries

Source: Richard Carr, ‘Cinemas and Cemeteries’, World Film and Television Progress, vol. 2 no. 2 (May 1937), pp. 18-19

Text: Once synonymous with suburban snobbery, Tooting to-day is a progressive and up-to-date suburb, contrasting favourably with its encircling neighbours, Balham and Wandsworth. As inner-London suburbs go, Tooting is fairly new: not so long ago, green fields abounded where now stand rows and rows of middle-class villas or streets of Council houses. Only in the older part of the suburb are there slums, bad ones too, slowly giving way before a continued and, at times, ferocious anti-slum campaign.

The population to-day is largely lower-middle and working class: the higher-ups have gradually moved further out as Council housing development has brought working-class people from the more crowded parts of London. Now its inhabitants are mainly office, shop, transport, printing and building workers, progressive in opinion and making the suburb a busy, lively and progressive area. It has no industries: unless cinemas and cemeteries be such.

For a population of 39,000 Tooting has seven cinemas. There are of course several others, on the outskirts of surrounding districts, within easy reach. Two of Tooting’s seven are “supers,” one a cine-news; the others date from earlier days and are correspondingly inadequate.

In old Tooting, there is a cinema which has claimed to be one of the first halls in London to show films. During its chequered career it has been music-hall, theatre, cinema; has closed and re-opened so often that the legend “under new management” might well be engraved on its walls, second in importance only to the cinema’s name.

The exact date at which films were first shown at this theatre is uncertain but its type of programme certainly tends to take one back some years in movie history. Names appear on the programme strange to the new generation of cinema-goers. Serials are run here too, serials on the old model in which the hero is left for a whole week suspended over a precipice, or lying helpless before an oncoming express, or at the mercy of relentless enemies. The display bills, contrasting with the modernistic advertising of the “supers,” are just long black-lettered lists of films: lists of westerns, of thrillers, of serials, of comedies, films not for an age but for all time.

Besides children and lads, appreciative of exciting films, a small and rather depressed audience visits this cinema. One fancies them lost, hovering helplessly between the cinemas they knew in the ill-lit, novelty days and the new “supers.” These are neither the simple, easily satisfied audiences of the pre-war days, nor the sophisticated movie fans of to-day. Perhaps, too old or too tired to go farther than just round the corner to the pictures, or too conservative to accept change, or too dazed and bewildered by the luxury of the super and the speed and complexities of the modern film. Some are people from small provincial towns and villages who find the less luxurious cinema more like home. Much of this cinema’s custom depends of course on children to whom the cheaper prices are essential or the straight films more interesting.

One of the “supers,” Mr. Bernstein’s Granada, is the Mecca of cinema-goers for miles round, though its regular patronage is built of Tooting people. It opens at twelve, and for sixpence, in the afternoon, you can sit in a comfortable seat in luxurious surroundings and get somewhere around three and a half hours of entertainment. Two full-length films, a newsreel, a comedy cartoon or short and stage shows varying from straightforward acts to “sensations” and “circuses” at holiday times. No circus being complete without horses, elephants, and acrobats, even these are to be seen on the Granada stage at Christmas time.

Mr. Bernstein treats his patrons well: offers them substantial fare, good seating and reasonable prices and asks their opinions on films and stars regularly. There are minor criticisms though; the length of the programme means that the last performance starts around seven-thirty, sometimes a few minutes earlier or later. For men or women some distance from their work, or for shop-assistants in the area, this means missing part of the performance: even for those who can with a scramble get there round about seven, there is often a long wait outside in the cold, or standing inside, none too pleasant after a day’s work. This applies chiefly to the cheaper seats, the one-and-three and the nine-pennies and it is worth Mr. Bernstein’s while to give this some attention.

Repertory
Perhaps the best comment on this is provided by the success of Tooting’s newest venture: The Classic, a repertory cinema, where you can see the films you missed or those you liked well enough to see again. This cinema gives a two-and-a-half-hour show, one price only downstairs, sixpence. It was formerly a struggling independent cinema, bad lighting, bad screening, and bad sound diminishing its custom, its programmes being consequently limited. It has been renovated outside and in, seating and screening greatly improved, though the old structure has prevented it being all it should. One full length film is shown, the rest of the programme being made up of shorts, colour
cartoons and news.

It opened with David Copperfield; went on to Little Giant, the Edward G. Robinson success; Ruggles of Red Gap; Bengal Lancer; Top Hat; If I Had a Million; Desire; and The Informer. Its future programmes include Crime Without Passion; Design for Living; and Viva Villa. The highest of high-brow cinema-goers could hardly better this list within the limitations imposed. So far the attendances have been unusually good, showing increased appreciation of good films and a growing preference for a shorter programme. The mammoth programme is all right for the family outing, for an entire evening out, but for the late workers, a show starting at 8.30 gives time for a meal and allows a comfortable evening.

Audiences in this suburb vary greatly, both in size and in behaviour. Holiday shows, especially the Christmas circuses, bring crowds of children, mothers and fathers. They enjoy almost everything and applaud the stage acts with tremendous gusto. On the other hand gangster, tough-guy and western pictures bring a larger number of men than women to the cinema. The Shirley Temple type of film brings women and youngster. Recent successes have been Texas Rangers, Bullets or Ballots, Rhythm on the Range, San Francisco, Swing Time, My Man Godfrey, Manhattan Madness, The Great Ziegfeld, and Libelled Lady.

Speed, Action and Fast Dialogue
Differences in taste are noticeable: the audience in one of the smaller cinemas, catering mostly for working-class people, is much more responsive to speed, action, and fast dialogue than in the cinemas attended mainly by families, by women and by young girls, or middle-class people. Love stories get better response from the women of all classes. The Granada is a combination of lower middle-class and working-class audiences of the family type, and does fairly well with Shirley Temple and George Arliss for example; but an increase of men in the audience is very noticeable when a film like Texas Rangers, Bullets or Ballots, or Mutiny on the Bounty is shown. In the cinema where there is a tougher audience, much fidgeting and talking goes on during British pictures and most films of a purely love-interest type. With such audiences action pictures, good musicals, and good dialogue find an appreciative audience. The idols are Spencer Tracey, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Gary Cooper, and, in comedy films, W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy.

The Cine-news represents a real experiment, for the news-theatre has, in the past, got its chief support in the centre of towns, where many people have an hour to spare or to occupy. In a suburb, it does not invite the same support, the only attractions being newsreels of big races, fights, and other sporting events. A certain amount of custom is received as a result of nearby cinemas being crowded. In the main, the response has not been overwhelming. Whether local news items offer a means of building support remains to be seen, but it has to be remembered that the main attractions of the Cine-news — its cartoons and its newsreels — are often showing at the main cinemas as well.

Progressive Taste
Tooting provides much of interest and encouragement to the progressive cinemagoers or worker. Tip-top films are invariably well supported if shown under satisfactory conditions. The shifting of audiences from cinema to cinema corresponds strikingly to the merits of the film showing, save for such exceptional periods as holidays.

That there is a large and rapidly growing audience for the best type of film is strongly demonstrated by the likes and dislikes of Tooting audiences.

Comments: Richard Carr was a film journalist who wrote a series of articles on filmgoing habits across Britain for World Film and Television Progress. Tooting’s seven cinemas were the Granada Theatre, the Regent Cinema (founded c.1909 and probably the vintage cinema referred to by Carr), the Cinenews, the Broadway Palace Theatre, the Classic Cinema, the Mayfair Cinema, and the Methodist Central Hall.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive (c/o Media History Digital Library)