Seeing in the Dark

Source: Ivor Cutler, in Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond (eds.), Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990), p. 18

Text: Mosspark Picture House. 1927. Saturday matinee. Age four. A gothic thriller. The tall lantern jawed villain in top hat and tails plays an organ. I am terrified and run home as fast as I can. Years of nightmare. Age thirty-four. I buy a harmonium – nearly an organ – and spent the rest of my life playing it, thickened with doleful dirges, vainly trying to lay the trauma, my only satisfaction the ashen faced, staring eyed audiences, staggering out at the end of the performances, primed, and ready to carry on the good work.

Comment: Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) was a Scottish poet, author, musician and humourist, whose doleful works were often accompanied by the harmonium. The film he recalls is presumably The Phantom of the Opera (USA 1925), starring Lon Chaney. Mosspark is an area of Glasgow. Seeing in the Dark is a collection of commissioned reminiscences of cinemagoing.

Seeing in the Dark

Source: Ivor Cutler, in Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond (eds.), Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990), p. 18

Text: Mosspark Picture House. 1927. Saturday matinee. Age four. A gothic thriller. The tall lantern jawed villain in top hat and tails plays an organ. I am terrified and run home as fast as I can. Years of nightmare. Age thirty-four. I buy a harmonium – nearly an organ – and spent the rest of my life playing it, thickened with doleful dirges, vainly trying to lay the trauma, my only satisfaction the ashen faced, staring eyed audiences, staggering out at the end of the performances, primed, and ready to carry on the good work.

Comment: Ivor Cutler (1923-2006) was a Scottish poet, author, musician and humourist, whose doleful works were often accompanied by the harmonium. The film he recalls is presumably The Phantom of the Opera (USA 1925), starring Lon Chaney. Mosspark is an area of Glasgow. Seeing in the Dark is a collection of commissioned reminiscences of cinemagoing.

Movies and Conduct

Source: ‘Negro male student in High School. Age 17’, quoted in Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), pp. 254-257

Text: I first became interested in the movies when I had started to kindergarten. I had gone to the theater before but I had not paid much attention to them while sitting on my mother’s lap or down in what seemed to me a very low seat. In school I heard the other children talking about cowboys and detectives and policemen that they had seen on the screen. When I again went I saw an exciting serial and William S. Hart which made me clamor to come back on the same day weekly. I kept up with that serial and several others when that one had ended. I did not lose interest in these pictures until a few years ago when I took to a higher type and more refined picture. I learned through education to distinguish between a good picture educationally and a bad or poor picture. This led me to those dramas mostly, although I occasionally go to see a serial or a Western story.

The earliest movie stars that I can remember were Wm. S. Hart and Tom Mix who played entirely in Western stories. I liked to see them shoot the villain and save the girl and “live happily ever after.” It caused me to shout as loudly, or louder, than the rest. Following them came Douglas Fairbanks, who seemed so carefree and light that he won nearly everyone with his personality. He would jump, use a lasso, thrust a sword, and fight in a way to satisfy any child’s desire for action. Now I have no special star but I think Emil Jannings is a great actor because he seems to put his heart and soul into his work.

As a boy, I went with nearly every one to the theater; my mother, father, sister or brother, relatives, and friends. Usually I went in the afternoon or evening, anywhere from one to five times a week. Now I still go with my relatives occasionally but mostly with friends or alone.

I cannot recall anything that I have done that I had seen in the movies except try to make love. It happened that when I was small there were no boys in my neighborhood and I had to go several blocks before I could play with some my size or age. But there were a few girls in my neighborhood my size. Seeing Douglas Fairbanks woo his maiden I decided to try some of ” Doug’s stuff” on one of the girl friends. I know I was awkward and it proved more or less a flop.

Several times on seeing big, beautiful cars which looked to be bubbling over with power and speed, I dreamed of having a car more powerful and speedier than all the rest. I saw this car driven by myself up to the girl friend’s door and taking her for a ride. (I was then eight years old and in my dreams I was no older.) Then too, I saw Adolphe Menjou, the best dressed man in the world, try in various ways to kill me because I had won his title. Perhaps the picture that left the most depressing picture on my mind was one in which a murdered man was thrown over a high cliff from a mountain top. I could see that dead body falling, falling to the rocky depths far below and squash into almost nothing. Some nights I dreamed of falling and other nights I had nightmares from dreaming of the same thing, awoke in a cold sweat, and was not able to go to sleep again till dawn. Whenever I saw anyone looking down from some rather high place or some workman in the precarious position, I had a sickly feeling in the pit of my stomach and averted my eyes.

The most heartbreaking picture that I ever saw and which caused me to shed uncontrollable tears was “Over the Hill,” starring Mary Carr. She was ill treated by all her children except one and had to go to the poorhouse and scrub daily. This picture caused me to see my mother in a new light and make a vow that I would always protect and provide for her as long as I or she lives. This mood lasted until the comedy, when I soon forgot it, but I have always kept my vow.

I have not adopted any mannerisms from the movies but I have tried to act like the actors of a picture for a short time after seeing the picture. Such actions were trying to act like a screen drunkard, a hero cowboy who shot and killed the villain and rode triumphantly away with the fair one. I used to go to “wild western” pictures and observe the Indians grab their hearts, or put their hands over their hearts, turn all away around and fall dead after they had been shot while resisting the unlawful Americans. When my chums played cowboy or cops and robbers, I tried to imitate these Indians in falling. Of course, many besides myself, I suppose, have tried to imitate Charles Chaplin or Douglas Fairbanks but I became so proficient in imitating Charles Chaplin that I became to be known as Charles in the neighborhood in which I formerly lived which made me dream of the time when I, Charles Chaplin, would be the star of the silver screen. Douglas Fairbanks gave me an inspiration to jump, fight, use long whips, ride, use rapiers and to be as happy and as full of life as he seemed to be.

While imitating these stars I became interested in love pictures and went to see them as often as I could. This liking developed after seeing such stars as Wallace Reid, Norma Talmadge, Rudolph Valentino, Mary Pickford, and Pola Negri. These actors stirred within me a desire to do an ardent love scene with a girl. The first girl that I tried this on said that I was crazy. The second girl wasn’t interested. But the third girl actually thought that I really meant what I was saying about her eyes and lips and she permitted me to try out everything that I had planned and this occasion proved successful in more ways than one.

Occasionally I used to think constantly of such actors as Wallace Reid, Rudolph Valentino, or Pola Negri; especially the latter whose bewitching eyes instilled within me many ungodly thoughts that never were voiced.

I cannot say that I received any temptations from the movies but I did get one real ambition. That being, to fly and be an aviator. This desire originated from such pictures as “Wings,” “The Flying Fleet,” and “Lilac Time,” all of which featured airplanes. Now I visit all the aviation exhibits and “talks” possible. The most interesting show I have yet seen is the one that was at the Chicago Coliseum. I visit the municipal airport often and just the sound of an airplane’s motor is enough to start one thinking of that time when I am going to have a powerful plane of my own and see all the world by means of it.

Another ambition that I had was to be a “Jackie Coogan” at the age of eight. I thought I would be more of a star than Jackie himself. I dreamed of the time when I would be a great star and have a great deal of money because of it. Then I could buy a tiny automobile, just my size, that would run as fast as any big car. I would also have some ponies, a beautiful home for my mother and myself and be a veritable “lady’s man.” (All this time I was eight years old.)

Sometimes from seeing such pictures as “The Birth of a Nation” I would not but feel the injustice done the Negro race by other races. Most of the bad traits of unintelligent Negroes are used in many pictures and a lovable or educated character is rarely pictured.

At other times, “West Point,” a picture of college life and a military training school, stirs within me a desire to go to college or some military or naval school away from home and serve my country as best I can.

In crime pictures, as in real life, the criminal not only becomes the hero on the screen but outside the theater as well. At other times the criminal’s life is such that the audience simply abhors being such a character. If there were more of the latter type of picture I am of the opinion that there would be far less crime.

Comment: American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. Most of the evidence relates to picturegoing in the 1920s. The interview above comes from Appendix C, ‘Typical Examples of the Longer Motion Picture Autobiographies’. The films referred to include Over the Hill to the Poorhouse (USA 1920), Wings (USA 1927), The Flying Fleet (USA 1929), Lilac Time (USA 1928) and The Birth of a Nation (USA 1915).

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), p. 115

Text: Age 21 Sex: F
Occupation: Shorthand typist secretary
Father’s occupation: Hairdresser (English)
Mother’s occupation: Housewife (Irish)

When I was 15, I managed to get to see a ‘H’ certificate picture called The Vampire Bat, which was the most frightening film I have ever seen. It was about a woman who lived on human blood which she sucked from the neck of people asleep in there [sic] beds at night. I think what made me terrified was the scene in which she looked through the window into a girls [sic] bedroom watching her chance to get in (during this suspense, I gripped and tore a bit of stuffing out of my seat). I also remember how white looking her face was with a sort of black tinge to it, and her hair was black and down to the waist in length. This vision at the window remained in my memory all the way home afterwards. I could not even speak to the girl I went with very much as she was also shaken. That night I never slept at all. I imagined I saw her looking in at my bedroom window, and I remember screaming which brought my mother hurrying in to see what the matter was. She found me in a cold sweat. I told her about seeing the face at the window just like I did inthe film. She said ‘all pictures are not real but just imagination, and that there was no such thing as a woman vampire. A Vampire was a sort of bird that lived hundreds of years ago in foreign countries’. Anyway it took me some time to get over it. I shiver now when I think of it.

Comment: 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 a competition in Picturegoer magazine. Contributors were to supply personal details, to trace the history of their interest in films, to say if they were ever frightened by a film, what they may have imitated from films, any temptations or ambitions they had due to films, and if films gave them any vocational ambitions. Prizes were offered for the best answers. In her full autobiography this contributor describes joining the Gaumont British Kiddies Club when aged 11, her fondness for cowboy and Indian films, then for Deanna Durbin, her later idolising of Tyrone Power, and her dissatisfaction with her adult life compared with that which she saw on the screen (she went to the cinema four days a week). The Vampire Bat (USA 1933 d. Frank Strayer) starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. It has no female vampire. ‘H’ certificates, for Horror, were introduced by the British Board of Film Censors in 1932, to be replaced by the X certificate in 1951.

Seeing in the Dark

Source: Alan Garner, in Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond (eds.), Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990), p. 9

Text: I was three years old. Nobody had told me what a cinema or a film was, and certainly nothing about the concept of an animated cartoon; and I was taken into the largest enclosed space I’d ever seen, into a crowd of strangers, put on a seat, and the lights went out. Figures fifteen feet high loomed over me. The film was Snow White; and I felt my sanity slipping until the moment when the queen metamorphosed into the witch. Then I screamed and screamed, and could not stop. My mother called an usherette to have me removed, and I was handed into strange-smelling arms behind a bright beam that dazzled me. The arms hugged my squirming form and carried me out, while my mother stayed to watch the rest of the film. But the exit was at the foot of the screen, and I was being borne up towards that great and drooling hag, away from safety, pinioned by someone I couldn’t see, and the witch was laughing.

When we got home I was thrashed for making mu mother ‘look a fool’. The nightmares began and have haunted me ever since. The witch has my mother’s face.

Comment: Alan Garner (born 1934) is a British novelist best-known for his ‘children’s’ novels such as The Weirdstone of Brisingame and The Owl Service. Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937. Seeing in the Dark is a collection of commissioned reminiscences of cinemagoing.

The Child and the Cinematograph Show

Source: Canon H.D. Rawnsley, The Child and the Cinematograph Show and the Picture Post-Card Evil (reprinted from the Hibbert Journal, vol. xi. 1913), pp. 3-11

Text: It is not improbable that the cinematograph film has a good deal to answer for in this matter of the public demand for horror and sensation. On many of the hoardings near the cinematograph halls or pavilions, beneath the sensational programmes are written such words as “nerve-thrillers”, “eye-openers tonight”, and when we turn to these programmes we cannot help noticing that it is the horrible that draws. “Massacre; a terrible tragedy, 2000 feet”; “The Wheel of Destruction”; “The Motor Car Race: the car when going at prodigious speed overturns and buries its living occupants. Don’t miss this”. “Dante’s hell”, the Devil film, with a huge invitation beneath it, “Don’t miss this opportunity of seeing Satan – Satan and the Creator; Satan and the Saviour, 4000 feet in length”; all these are signs of a downgrade pandering to a sense of horror which is being fostered throughout the length and breadth of the land by the downgrade film.

I spoke to a boy, about twelve years old, who had attended a cinematograph show in a little country town a week or two ago, and he positively trembled as he reported what he had seen. He said, “I shall never go again. It was horrible”. I said, “What was horrible?” He said, “I saw a man cut his throat”.

As I write, a friend tells me that a week or two ago his neighbours, seeing pictures of Sarah Bernhardt advertised as the chief item in a cinematograph show, visited the hall with their little daughter. They found to their disgust the bulk of the entertainment was sensational horrors of such a character that in consequence they were obliged to sit up all night with the child, who constantly woke with screams and cries …

Nor is this sense of horror alone appealed to. Many of these films prove to be direct incentives to crime. Clever burglaries are exhibited before the eyes of mischievous boys, who at once have their attention called to the possibility of the “expert cracksman’s life” …

In the face of the claims of the cinematograph proprietors that the exhibitions are for the moral improvement and amusement of the masses, and in opposition to all the tall talk about the educational value of the film to which the trade from time to time treats us, we have only to reply, “Look at your posters and the items of horror or fierce excitement or degrading sensationalism which, in spite of Mr Redford and his censorship, are still being exhibited up and down the country, to the detriment and discouragement of the nobler feelings of gentleness and compassion!”

The worst of it all is, that neither the police nor the agents of the cinematograph firms who are sent out as exhibitors, are sufficiently educated to know what is horrible and what is not. Thus, for example, when the mayor was appealed to in a town where the most terrible exhibition of the horrors of hell and the tortures of the damned were being visibly enacted as illustrations in gross caricature of Dante’s Inferno, he in turn appealed to the police to visit the cinematograph hall and report. The officer who was well up in the legal aspect of the case and was probably on the look-out for a criminally indecent film as a thing to be objected to, reported to the mayor that he could see nothing objectionable in this horrible Hell film, and therefore had not thought it necessary to speak to the exhibitor …

It is not only the sensational, cruel, or crime film that is sowing seeds of corruption among the people. The film manufacturers have invaded the most holy mysteries of our religious faith. There can be no question that in suitable surroundings, and with specially reverent treatment, pictures from the life of our Lord may be impressive and educational, but the idea of exploiting the life of our Lord as a commercial speculation, and the getting of a troupe of actors to go out to Palestine and pose in situ as His disciples, and as impersonators of the scenes described in the Gospels, is in itself abhorrent; and the quickness of motion needed by the film takes away reverence and imparts a sense of what is artificial, and sometimes almost comic …

It is not only the health of the religious and moral sense and spiritual understanding of the child which needs safeguarding. The time has come when the educationists of the country must realise that it is no use spending millions of money upon elementary education if children beneath school age are allowed to attend a cinematograph show till eleven o’clock at night, and then go home so overwrought and excited by the scenes they had witnessed that sleep is impossible.

I say overwrought advisedly, for it was reported in the press a short time ago that a child going home from a cinematograph hall pleaded piteously with a policeman to protect him from those two men with long beards that were following him. The two men with long beards were two ruffians that he had seen, and actually supposed to be living beings, in a cinematograph film that night …

… A census was taken on a certain Saturday in November last, in Liverpool, with the result that it was proved that there were 13,332 children below the age of fourteen present at matinees held in twenty-seven halls in that city, which appeared to cater especially for children so far as the price of entrance was concerned. The children’s ages … ranged from four or five up to thirteen, and they were viewing the ordinary films shown at the other performances during the rest of the week. Parts of the programme were composed of pictures of a sensational character, some showing crimes, others serious accidents, while not a few were suggestive of immorality.

Comment: Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley (1851-1920) was an outspoken critic of the cinema, who wrote and lectured widely on its supposed evil effects on children. The Dante film referred to is the Italian production L’inferno (1911). The troupe of actors going to Palestine is a reference to the American film company Kalem’s production of From the Manger to the Cross, made in 1912. George A. Redford was the first president of the British Board of Film Censors.