Madeline of the Movies

Source: Stephen Leacock, ‘Madeline of the Movies: A Photoplay Done Back into Words’, in Further Foolishness: Sketches and Satires on the Follies of the Day (New York/London: John Lane, 1917), pp. 133-150

Text: (EXPLANATORY NOTE – In writing this I ought to explain that I am a tottering old man of forty-six. I was born too soon to understand moving pictures. They go too fast. I can’t keep up. In my young days we used a magic lantern. It showed Robinson Crusoe in six scenes. It took all evening to show them. When it was done the hall was filled full with black smoke and the audience quite unstrung with excitement. What I set down here represents my thoughts as I sit in front of a moving picture photoplay and interpret it as best I can.)

Flick, flick, flick … I guess it must be going to begin now, but it’s queer the people don’t stop talking: how can they expect to hear the pictures if they go on talking?

Now it’s off. PASSED BY THE BOARD OF —. Ah, this looks interesting — passed by the board of — wait till I adjust my spectacles and read what it —

It’s gone. Never mind, here’s something else, let me see — CAST OF CHARACTERS — Oh, yes — let’s see who they are —MADELINE MEADOWLARK, a young something — EDWARD DANGERFIELD, a — a what? Ah, yes, a roo — at least, it’s spelt r-o-u-e, that must be roo all right — but wait till I see what that is that’s written across the top — MADELINE MEADOWLARK; OR, ALONE IN A GREAT CITY. I see, that’s the title of it. I wonder which of the characters is alone. I guess not Madeline: she’d hardly be alone in a place like that. I imagine it’s more likely Edward Dangerous the Roo. A roo would probably be alone a great deal, I should think. Let’s see what the other characters are — JOHN HOLDFAST, a something. FARMER MEADOWLARK, MRS. MEADOWLARK, his Something —

Pshaw, I missed the others, but never mind; flick, flick, it’s beginning — What’s this? A bedroom, eh? Looks like a girl’s bedroom — pretty poor sort of place. I wish the picture would keep still a minute — in Robinson Crusoe it all stayed still and one could sit and look at it, the blue sea and the green palm trees and the black footprints in the yellow sand — but this blamed thing keeps rippling and flickering all the time — Ha! there’s the girl herself — come into her bedroom. My! I hope she doesn’t start to undress in it — that would be fearfully uncomfortable with all these people here. No, she’s not undressing — she’s gone and opened the cupboard. What’s that she’s doing — taking out a milk jug and a glass — empty, eh? I guess it must be, because she seemed to hold it upside down. Now she’s picked up a sugar bowl — empty, too, eh? — and a cake tin, and that’s empty — What on earth does she take them all out for if they’re empty? Why can’t she speak? I think — hullo — who’s this coming in? Pretty hard-looking sort of woman—what’s she got in her hand? —some sort of paper, I guess — she looks like a landlady, I shouldn’t wonder if …

Flick, flick! Say! Look there on the screen:


Oh, I catch on! that’s what the landlady says, eh? Say! That’s a mighty smart way to indicate it isn’t it? I was on to that in a minute — flick, flick — hullo, the landlady’s vanished — what’s the girl doing now — say, she’s praying! Look at her face! Doesn’t she look religious, eh?

Flick, flick!

Oh, look, they’ve put her face, all by itself, on the screen. My! what a big face she’s got when you see it like that.

She’s in her room again — she’s taking off her jacket—by Gee! She is going to bed! Here, stop the machine; it doesn’t seem — Flick, flick!

Well, look at that! She’s in bed, all in one flick, and fast asleep! Something must have broken in the machine and missed out a chunk. There! she’s asleep all right—looks as if she was dreaming. Now it’s sort of fading. I wonder how they make it do that? I guess they turn the wick of the lamp down low: that was the way in Robinson Crusoe — Flick, flick!

Hullo! where on earth is this — farmhouse, I guess — must be away upstate somewhere — who on earth are these people? Old man — white whiskers — old lady at a spinning-wheel — see it go, eh? Just like real! And a young man — that must be John Holdfast — and a girl with her hand in his. Why! Say! it’s the girl, the same girl, Madeline — only what’s she doing away off here at this farm — how did she get clean back from the bedroom to this farm? Flick, flick! what’s this?


Who says that? What music? Here, stop —

It’s all gone. What’s this new place? Flick, flick, looks like a street. Say! see the street car coming along — well! say! isn’t that great? A street car! And here’s Madeline! How on earth did she get back from the old farm all in a second? Got her street things on — that must be music under her arm — I wonder where — hullo — who’s this man in a silk hat and swell coat? Gee! he’s well dressed. See him roll his eyes at Madeline! He’s lifting his hat — I guess he must be Edward Something, the Roo — only a roo would dress as well as he does — he’s going to speak to her —


Oh, I see! The Roo mistook her; he thought she was somebody that he knew! And she wasn’t! I catch on! It gets easy to understand these pictures once you’re on.

Flick, flick — Oh, say, stop! I missed a piece — where is she? Outside a street door — she’s pausing a moment outside — that was lucky her pausing like that — it just gave me time to read EMPLOYMENT BUREAU on the door. Gee! I read it quick.

Flick, flick! Where is it now? — oh, I see, she’s gone in — she’s in there — this must be the Bureau, eh? There’s Madeline going up to the desk.


Pshaw! I read too slow — she’s on the street again. Flick, flick!

No, she isn’t — she’s back in her room — cupboard still empty — no milk — no sugar — Flick, flick!

Kneeling down to pray — my! but she’s religious — flick, flick — now she’s on the street — got a letter in her hand—what’s the address — Flick, flick!

Mr. Meadowlark
Meadow Farm
Meadow County
New York

Gee! They’ve put it right on the screen! The whole letter!

Flick, flick — here’s Madeline again on the street with the letter still in her hand — she’s gone to a letter-box with it — why doesn’t she post it? What’s stopping her?


Break their what? They slide these things along altogether too quick — anyway, she won’t post it — I see —s he’s torn it up — Flick, flick!

Where is it now? Another street — seems like everything — that’s a restaurant, I guess — say, it looks a swell place — see the people getting out of the motor and going in — and another lot right after them — there’s Madeline — she’s stopped outside the window — she’s looking in — it’s starting to snow! Hullo! here’s a man coming along! Why, it’s the Roo; he’s stopping to talk to her, and pointing in at the restaurant — Flick, flick!


Oh, I see! The Roo says that! My! I’m getting on to the scheme of these things — the Roo is going to buy her some dinner! That’s decent of him. He must have heard about her being hungry up in her room — say, I’m glad he came along. Look, there’s a waiter come out to the door to show them in — what! she won’t go! Say! I don’t understand! Didn’t it say he offered to take her in? Flick, flick!


Gee! Why’s that? What are all the audience applauding for? I must have missed something! Flick, flick!

Oh, blazes! I’m getting lost! Where is she now? Back in her room — flick, flick — praying — flick, flick! She’s out on the street! — flick, flick! — in the employment bureau — flick, flick! — out of it — flick — darn the thing! It changes too much — where is it all? What is it all —? Flick, flick!

Now it’s back at the old farm — I understand that all right, anyway! Same kitchen — same old man — same old woman — she’s crying — who’s this? — man in a sort of uniform — oh, I see, rural postal delivery — oh, yes, he brings them their letters — I see —


Flick! It’s gone! Flick, flick — it’s Madeline’s room again — what’s she doing? — writing a letter? — no, she’s quit writing — she’s tearing it up —


Flick — missed it again! Break their something or other — Flick, flick!

Now it’s the farm again — oh, yes, that’s the young man John Holdfast — he’s got a valise in his hand — he must be going away — they’re shaking hands with him — he’s saying something —


He’s off — there he goes through the gate — they’re waving good-bye — flick — it’s a railway depot — flick — it’s New York — say! That’s the Grand Central Depot! See the people buying tickets! My! isn’t it lifelike? — and there’s John — he’s got here all right — I hope he finds her room —

The picture changed — where is it now? Oh, yes, I see — Madeline and the Roo — outside a street entrance to some place — he’s trying to get her to come in — what’s that on the door? Oh, yes, DANCE HALL — Flick, flick!

Well, say, that must be the inside of the dance hall — they’re dancing — see, look, look, there’s one of the girls going to get up and dance on the table.

Flick! Darn it! — they’ve cut it off — it’s outside again — it’s Madeline and the Roo — she’s saying something to him —my! doesn’t she look proud —?


Isn’t she splendid! Hear the audience applaud! Flick — it’s changed — it’s Madeline’s room again — that’s the landlady — doesn’t she look hard, eh? What’s this — Flick!


Flick, flick — it’s Madeline — she’s out in the street — it’s snowing — she’s sat down on a doorstep — say, see her face, isn’t it pathetic? There! They’ve put her face all by itself on the screen. See her eyes move! Flick, flick!

Who’s this? Where is it? Oh, yes, I get it — it’s John — at a police station — he’s questioning them — how grave they look, eh? Flick, flick!


I guess that’s what he asks them, eh? Flick, flick —


Too bad — flick — it’s changed again — it’s Madeline on the doorstep — she’s fallen asleep — oh, say, look at that man coming near to her on tiptoes, and peeking at her — why, it’s Edward, it’s the Roo — but he doesn’t waken her — what does it mean? What’s he after? Flick, flick —

Hullo — what’s this? — it’s night — what’s this huge dark thing all steel, with great ropes against the sky — it’s Brooklyn Bridge — at midnight — there’s a woman on it! It’s Madeline — see! see! She’s going to jump — stop her! Stop her! Flick, flick —

Hullo! she didn’t jump after all — there she is again on the doorstep — asleep — how could she jump over Brooklyn Bridge and still be asleep? I don’t catch on —or, oh, yes, I do — she dreamed it — I see now, that’s a great scheme, eh? — shows her dream —

The picture’s changed — what’s this place — a saloon, I guess — yes, there’s the bartender, mixing drinks — men talking at little tables — aren’t they a tough-looking lot? — see, that one’s got a revolver — why, it’s Edward the Roo — talking with two men — he’s giving them money — what’s this? —


It’s in the street again — Edward and one of the two toughs —they’ve got little black masks on — they’re sneaking up to Madeline where she sleeps — they’ve got a big motor drawn up beside them — look, they’ve grabbed hold of Madeline — they’re lifting her into the motor — help! Stop! Aren’t there any police? — yes, yes, there’s a man who sees it — by Gee! It’s John, John Holdfast — grab them, John — pshaw! they’ve jumped into the motor, they’re off!

Where is it now? — oh, yes — it’s the police station again — that’s John, he’s telling them about it — he’s all out of breath — look, that head man, the big fellow, he’s giving orders —


Hoorah! Isn’t it great — hurry! don’t lose a minute — see them all buckling on revolvers — get at it, boys, get at it! Don’t lose a second —

Look, look — it’s a motor — full speed down the street —look at the houses fly past — it’s the motor with the thugs — there it goes round the corner — it’s getting smaller, it’s getting smaller, but look, here comes another my! it’s just flying — it’s full of police — there’s John in front — Flick!

Now it’s the first motor — it’s going over a bridge — it’s heading for the country —s ay, isn’t that car just flying —Flick, flick!

It’s the second motor — it’s crossing the bridge too — hurry, boys, make it go! — Flick, flick!

Out in the country — a country road — early daylight — see the wind in the trees! Notice the branches waving? Isn’t it natural? — whiz! Biff! There goes the motor — biff! There goes the other one — right after it — hoorah!

The open road again — the first motor flying along! Hullo, what’s wrong? It’s slackened, it stops — hoorah! it’s broken down — there’s Madeline inside — there’s Edward the Roo! Say! isn’t he pale and desperate!

Hoorah! the police! the police! all ten of them in their big car —see them jumping out — see them pile into the thugs! Down with them! paste their heads off! Shoot them! Kill them! isn’t it great — isn’t it educative —that’s the Roo — Edward — with John at his throat! Choke him, John! Throttle him! Hullo, it’s changed — they’re in the big motor — that’s the Roo with the handcuffs on him.

That’s Madeline — she’s unbound and she’s talking; say, isn’t she just real pretty when she smiles?


Flick, flick!

What pretty music! Ding! Dong! Ding! Dong! Isn’t it soft and sweet! — like wedding bells. Oh, I see, the man in the orchestra’s doing it with a little triangle and a stick — it’s a little church up in the country — see all the people lined up — oh! there’s Madeline! in a long white veil — isn’t she just sweet! — and John —

Flick, flack, flick, flack.


What! Isn’t it over? Do they all go to Bulgaria? I don’t seem to understand. Anyway, I guess it’s all right to go now. Other people are going.

Comments: Stephen Leacock (1869-1944) was a Canadian humorist who was probably the most popular comic writer of his day. In the printed text the mock intertitles are presented in boxes.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

Musical Accompaniment

Source: Dorothy Richardson, extract from ‘Continuous Performance II: Musical Accompaniment’, Close Up vol. I no. 2, August 1927, reproduced in James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus (eds.), Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism (London: Cassell, 1998), pp. 162-163

Text: Our first musician was a pianist who sat in the gloom beyond the barrier and played without notes. His playing was a continuous improvisation varying in tone and tempo according to what was going forward on the screen. During the earlier part of the evening he would sometimes sing. He would sing to the sailing by of French chateaux, sotto voce, in harmony with the gently flowing undertone that moved so easily from major to minor and from key to key. His singing seemed what probably it was, a spontaneous meditative appreciation of things seen. For the Gazette he had martial airs, waltzes for aeroplanes. Jigs accompanied the comic interludes and devour low-toned nocturnes the newest creations of fashion. For drama he usually had a leitmotif, borrowed or invented, set within his pattern of sound moving suitably from pianissimo to fortissimo. He could time a passage to culminate and break punctually on a staccato chord at a crisis. This is a crude example of his talent for spontaneous adaptation. As long as he remained with us music and picture were one. If the film were good he enhanced it, heightened its effect of action moving forward for the first time. If it were anything from bad to worst his music helped the onlooker to escape into incidentals and thence into his private world of meditation or of thought.

The little palace prospered and the management grew ambitious. Monthly programmes were issued, refreshments were cried up and down the gangways and perfumed disinfectants squirted ostentatiously over the empty spaces. The pianist vanished and the musical accompaniment became a miniature orchestra, conspicuous in dress clothes and with lights and music stands and scores between the audience and the screen, playing set pieces, for each scene a piece. At each change of scene one tune would give place to another, in a different key, usually by means of a tangle of discords. The total result of these efforts towards improvement was a destruction of the relationship between onlookers and film. With the old unity gone the audience grew disorderly. Talking increased. Prosperity waned. Much advertisement of ‘west-end successes’ pulled things together for a while during which the management aimed still higher. An evening came when in place of the limping duet of violin and piano, several instruments held together by some kind of conducting produced sprightly and harmonious effects. At half-time the screen was curtained leaving the musician’s pit in a semi-darkness where presently wavered a green spot-light that came to rest upon the figure of a handsome young Jew dramatically fronting the audience with violin poised for action. Fireworks. Applause. After which the performance was allowed to proceed. Within a month the attendance was reduced to a scattered few and in due course the hall was ‘closed for decorations’, to reopen some months later ‘under entirely new management’, undecorated and with the old pianist restored to his place. The audience drifted back.

But during the interregnum, and whilst concerted musical efforts were doing their worst, an incident occurred that convinced me that any kind of musical noise is better than none. Our orchestra failed to appear and the pictures moved silently by, life less and colourless, to the sound of intermittent talking and the continuous faint hiss and creak of the apparatus. The result seemed to justify the curses of the most ardent enemies of the cinema and I understood at last what they mean who declare that dramatic action in photograph is obscene because it makes no personal demand upon the onlooker. It occurred to me to wonder how man of these enemies are persons indifferent to music and those to whom music of any kind is a positive nuisance …

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 Growth of the Silent Drama

Source: Walter Anthony, extract from ‘The Growth of the Silent Drama’, The San Francisco Call, 30 April 1911, p. 29


Insert from the illustration that accompanies this article, showing nickelodeon audience types, drawn by the theatre’s manager, Art Hickman

Text: A matinee audience at a nickelodeon is interesting. I noticed at the Garrick five baby buggies, three of them occupied by pretty youngsters sound asleep, and over in a dark corner the mother of another was rendering such substantial consolation as infants cry for. An invalid chair was at the end of the aisle set so that the wan occupant, while not in the way of the passerby, could still see the pictures. Hickman said, “he comes every other day.” The “audience” was quiet and well behaved. It applauded its favorites, laughed at John Bunny, was curious at the exhibition of a picture showing what a drop of water contains – mightily magnified bugs of nightmare forms. It traveled to India for 15 minutes and watched a tragedy develop to a conclusion. “Strangely enough,” said Hickman, “a nickelodeon audience doesn’t necessarily want a play to end happily. It wants it to end logically, and it doesn’t especially care for spectacles involving hundreds of supers, but is content with a quick story told plainly and with a point to it, well worked out. Travel scenes are popular; outdoor cowboy pictures go well, but mostly the people seem to want stories, and so the nickelodeon has given a new lease of life to popular plays of 15 years ago, like ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and ‘The Octoroon,’ which are put on in tabloid form and explained, here and there, with a flash paragraph which puts the observer in touch with the action.”

Comments: Walter Anthony (1872-1945) was an American journalist who went on to become a screenwriter and film title writer (The Man Who Laughs, The Cat and the Canary, The Phantom of the Opera). Art Hickman (1886-1930) was manager of the Garrick Theatre, San Francisco. He went on to become a big band leader. John Bunny was a highly popular American film comedian. This is an extract from a longer article which also covers motion picture history, production and the cinema business.

Links: Copy at Chronicling America

A Time to Speak

Source: Anthony Quayle, A Time to Speak (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1990), p. 52

Text: What flicks they were in those days. Not only did they flicker, but they whirred. The pianist was usually thumping away too loud for you to hear the film running over the sprockets; but when the love scenes came and the piano went soft and mushy, then the projectionist came into his own. Every time Rudolph Valentino narrowed his eyes and the heroine shrank from him in mingled love and loathing, then, just as surely as the next caption would be ‘I Love You!’ and the one after would be ‘No, No!’, so without fail would be heard the whirring, chirring rattle of the projector.

Sometimes the machine broke down. When that happened the whole audience, Aggie and me included, would groan loudly; then, as the lights came on, we would all laugh and applaud ourselves for being such audacious wags. After a few minutes the lights would be turned out again to renewed cheers and whistles. The whirring started up once more, a few feet of film jerked onto the screen – only to suffer a further collapse. Louder groans from the audience: more ribald cheering. No one ever made a fuss or complained about breakdowns; they were accepted as part of the entertainment. You paid your money, you came out of the cold and rain, and whichever way things went you had a good time.

Comments: Anthony Quayle (1913-1989) was a British stage and film actor and theatre director. His family lived in Southport. Aggie was his maternal grandmother. At the time of this extract from his autobiography he was aged around eight.

Babylon at Brixton

Source: James Agate, extract from ‘Babylon at Brixton’, in Around Cinemas (London: Home & Van Thal, 1946), pp. 52-53 [originally published in The Tatler, 25 September 1929]

Text: … For the Brixtonian, Brixton is clearly the hub of the universe. There is a large railway bridge which bears to the Brixton landscape the same relationship that St. Paul’s bears to Cheapside. But I am convinced that the Brixtonians regard their railway bridge as a thing in itself and serving no purpose save the ornamental. That train should use that bridge to convey people to other parts of the world seems unthinkable There is no other part of the world that matters.

These things being so, it was obvious that Brixton must be provided with a cinema equal to any of those which, if the worlds of travellers might be believed, had been erected on the other side of the big river. But what Brixton wants, Brixton has, and that was why we alighted at a building which was certainly much less of an eyesore than, for example, the Regal Picture Palace, the exterior of which I take to be the biggest blot on the new London landscape. At the same time the architect had made a great mistake in despising the side street down which half his building runs. For this side street, which has no façade, is just as visible as the main Stockwell Road which is plentifully bedizened, with the result that the visitor receives the impression of a building only two-thirds completed. Inside, of course, completion has done her utmost. In the entrance-hall there is a running fountain in whose basin may be seen, disporting themselves, gold-fish, numbering, as Mr Belloc used to say in the old war days, more than fifteen and less than thirty. Marble stairs, lusciously carpeted, lead the giddy visitor into an auditorium alleged to resemble an Italian garden. Stars twinkle; fronds fan the fevered forehead, and, what is more important, the seats are admirably cushioned. The place is one of extraordinary, almost Babylonish magnificence. Tea-lounges abound. There are cubicles where the jaded shopper may repose; and wherever marble has a right to be, there marble is. The Directors, whose mobile, eager, and pleasantly acquiline features decorate the handsome souvenir with which the management presents you, have obviously not demanded any change out of their capital expenditure of £250,000 and will be satisfied, I imagine, with a return of something like 1000 percent on their money. I am not very good at figures, but the house holds over four thousand people at prices from sixpence to three shillings and sixpence, and there are three performances a day, at all of which up to now the house has been crowded out. Well, that is good business, but not better than such enterprise deserves. I guessed correctly the number of charwomen employed, to which must be added twenty-four brass cleaners. I was, however, £8000 out in my estimate of the organ. The instrument would appear even to the unskilled as a noble one, and fit for the performance in the best cinema manner of pieces written for the piccolo, pianoforte, and every instrument except the organ. On the afternoon that I attended, Mr Pattman played a selection from “Peer Gynt,” which I shall say, with bated breath, needs that drama to jog it along. But the reasons why I intend to be outrageously and unfairly favourable to his picture palace are, first, that it has not wholly gone over to the talkies; and second, that it has retained a first-class orchestra, the excellence of which has been made possible by the poltroonery and short-sightedness of those West End houses which have dismissed their orchestras. It is true that there was a talkie on that afternoon, but I took advantage of this to inspect the lighting plant, the drains, and the strictly business side of the venture. The talkie being over, I saw an admirable silent film about a New York journalist. “Get your street scenery on,” said that journalist to a chorus girl. “You’re going up town with God’s gift to literature!” But he had the sense to say it in a sub-title. While Mr Haines was delivering himself of this amiable nonsense, the first-class orchestra played Offenbach’s “Orpheus in the Underworld” Overture, Dowling’s “Sleepy Valley,” Montague Phillips’ “Arabesque (a piece I didn’t know), “Oh, Maggie, What Have You Been Up To?”, and if I mistake not, “The Lost Chord.” And I hereby announce that in the bosom of one cinema fan there is more joy over chords that are lost than over tongues that are found.

Comments: James Agate (1877-1947) was a British theatre and film critic. His film reviews, mostly written for The Tatler, often mention the cinema in which he saw the film. The cinema described here is the Brixton Astoria, London, built in 1929 and now the Brixton Academy. The architect was Edward A. Stone. The film about a New York journalist was Telling the World (USA 1928 d. Sam Wood), starring William Haines.

Swanson on Swanson

Source: Gloria Swanson, Swanson on Swanson (London: Michael Joseph, 1980), p. 25

Text: She asked us if we had ever seen any motion pictures in Puerto Rico. We said yes, and they were terrible. Most of them were made in Sweden or Denmark. They flashed them on a white sheet in the hot little movie house that used to be a store. First you saw a picture of a polar bear on a globe. Then you could see people moving around waving their arms, and then some words printed in Swedish, and then more people making faces. In ten minutes it was all over. Once you’d see how it worked, you never needed to waste another nickel to see it again.

“Well, you haven’t seen Quo Vadis?, then,” Aunt Inga said, grandly exhaling a thin stream of smoke.

“What’s that?” my mother asked, through a mouthful of pins.

It was a new Italian motion picture, Aunt Inga said, and she had positively loved it. They were showing it in the opera house and it cost a dollar to get in. The music alone was worth the price of admission. A live symphony orchestra played all through the picture. There were chariot races and slave galleys and an arena full of lions and you felt as if you were right there. She said Quo Vadis? had proved to her that motion pictures could be very educational. That was why she was ready to take George Spoor up on his invitation and see if Americans were doing anything nearly as good as the Italians.

Comment: Gloria Swanson (1899-1983) was one of the leading American film stars of the silent era. She spent part of her childhood in Puerto Rico. Her visit to George Spoor’s Essanay studios in Chicago in 1914 led to work as a film extra, and subsequently film stardom. Nordisk Films of Denmark had the polar bear logo. Why such films would be available in Puerto Rico with the intertitles not being translated is, if true, unclear. Quo Vadis? (Italy 1913) was directed by Enrico Guazzoni.

The Picture-Palaces of London


Illustration accompanying the original article

Source: ‘The Picture-Palaces of London’, The Daily Chronicle, 9 April 1910

Text: The Picture-Palaces of London. Have They Comes to Stay?

Pricked out in electric lights, on an imposing brand new structure of white stucco, you read the words “Cinematograph Theatre.” You wonder where the thing has come from. Like Aladdin’s Palace, it seems to have sprung up in a single night. On yesterday there was a block of old houses on that very spot. You remember looking in a the greengrocer’s window as you sauntered home to dinner, wondering what kind of fruit the children would like.

Well, no, it could not have been yesterday, but it was certainly the week before last!

A few weeks later the white stucco erection appears to have budded. There are two of the now, side by side. The matter is worth further enquiry, so you cross over, and read the “bill of fare” at either door. The rival attendants, gorgeously arrayed, glance at you with enticing eyes, but you regard not their mute entreaties. Then you are probably taken by surprise. The charm of the things catches you. Perhaps it is best set down as a free-and-easiness. Go when you will, after the door is opened, you are never late; never in anxiety over a seat. The show goes on continuously. There is a set of pictures for the day – six perhaps, or eight – and if you miss numbers one and two, why, you will see them for certain after number eight.

Entertainment Ad Lib.

The set may last an hour, to an hour and a half, but you need not go out at that time unless you have a mind to. You may sit still, if you choose, and see the whole set over again. I dare say you won’t, unless it is pouring wet outside, and you have forgotten your umbrella, but it is something to know that you can.

The cinematograph theatre fills a gap in our scheme of amusement. It may be a small gap, but still it was there, and now it is filled. It catches the leakage from the theatres and halls, the unfortunately who are sent sorrowfully away by the unwelcome announcement of “House full.”

It gives the tired sightseer an hour’s respite from the noise and fatigue of the streets, and in some cases it dangles the tempting bait of “afternoon tea[“] gratis before this type of prospective patron. To the regular theatre it stands in the same relationship as a “snack” does to a formal luncheon. It is the resource of the man with only an hour to spare, the lady who doesn’t like to be out late, the girl whose papa doesn’t approve of theatres, the little boy who must be in bed at six, the hospital nurse who only has two hours off duty, and the family party from the provinces, whose train starts at ten sharp.

Oh, and one must not forget the lovers! Humble lovers, perhaps, with a few shillings to spare. one sees them often in the sixpenny seats, holding hands in the friendly dark. They watch the films go spinning on, with absent eyes and beatific smiles. They haven’t come there for the show, but to find a corner to sit in, out of the wet. One can’t always go round and round the Inner Circle with a penny ticket without catching the eye of the cute conductor!

The Aristocratic Sixpence.

There are differences in the quality of these as of all other types of amusement. There are the second-raters in the outlying streets, just beyond the radius of West-end style. The modest sum of threepence will gain you admittance here, and if you indulge yourself to the tune of sixpence you are “a swell.” The pictures are usually quite up to the average, but the environment is not. The dark is not friendly, but apprehensive. One is suspicious of one’s neighbour, and keeps a tight clutch on one’s belongings. There is every prospect of carrying away with you less than you ought, and more than you bargained for. Reminiscences of the place are forced upon you next day by the odour of stale and indifferent tobacco that clings to your clothes. As you near the vicinity of Oxford-street there is a decided attempt at luxury in the internal appointments of the “Palaces.” The goods are not all in the shop window. Decidedly, too, the “orchestra” plays better. It consists usually of a girl with a piano, the latter very much at her mercy. In some of the theatres visited by the writer, it would be only charitable to suppose that the lady pianist had fallen a victim to the prevalent disease newly christened by a London daily as “The Hump.” She played in spasms, with a reckless disregard of time and tune, and an obvious idea that her function was merely to drown out the silence.

In the West they have changed all that, and, incidentally, the prices have gone up. We may now pay two shillings for a “fauteuil” (which is a horrid, awkward word to spell, and means exactly the same as seat, anyway!). Along with the fauteuil we have the advantage of being shone upon by rose-shaded electric lights, vastly improving to the complexion, and of feasting our eyes on the artistic decorations of the walls when we tire of the pictures.

People do not laugh so boisterously here as they do in the north and east. At most they chuckle. On the whole, there is a remarkable absence of all kinds of noise in these cinematograph theatres. Applause seems to be a thing unknown. It is a relief to hear the voice of a child imperiously demanding, as the name of the film appears, “Read it, mother. Read it quick!”

Child’s Living Picture Book.

The little folks are mostly to be found at the afternoon performances. It must all seem a kind of glorified picture book to them. How they roar over the man who knocks down everything, or the fat old lady pursued by some strange fatality, who is knocked down by everybody! They have a wonderful aptitude, too, for following the “story” in some of the more ambitious pictures. The kidnapped child is one of their favourites. “Did they find him, mother? Are you sure?” a little lad asks in a tearful voice, to the kindly amusement of all who sit near by. The tragic subjects find favour with young ladies, one fancies, and indeed they are sometimes admirably conceived – real dramas, in which the words are hardly missed. The marvellous power of facial expression to convey an emotion in all its subtle shades is brought home to the mind with striking force by the intense interest one feels in these “mimed” plays. Of course it is hard to forget that the pictures are “faked.” One could never for a moment admit the possibility of pictorial drama affecting the taste for the drama of the regular stage. Too much talk may be bad, as was instanced in a recent much-criticised production, but no talk at all is the worse evil of the two.

Perhaps most successful of all are the travel pictures, where the scenery is absolutely realistic, and the sense of motion admirably conveyed. No “book of views,” however beautiful, can fascinate as this moving panorama does. It is as good as a holiday – and somewhat cheaper!

Have the pictures come to stay? Yes, they have filled a gap. It will be long before anything more novel or more entertaining appears to fit that precise niche in the House of Pleasure.

Comment: The inner Circle refers to a London underground train line.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Excerpt from interview with Jack Brenner, C707/391/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000,

Text: A: Amusements at the time I’m speaking about, that is to say between the 1900’s going on – were actually the only type of amusement was either – dance halls – cinemas, in their early beginnings, and we as children paid a penny – to go to the cinema, and some cinemas we paid a ha’penny. Now I went to a cinema once – and we children, they put us at the back of the screen, so the words were – double dutch, because we couldn’t understand the words, you understand. All you could see was just the pictures of the silent altogether – there was also – we used to play cards …

Q: … Did your mother ever go out by herself to enjoy herself?

A: Oh we used to take her to the cinema. Or theatre. Variety.

Q: You, her sons?

A: Oh yes yes yes. Yes. Yes, very often …

Q: … Did you ever go to any concerts or theatres or music halls when you were young?

A: Well I think I told you I did used to go to music halls. There used to be the London – the London in Shoreditch. The Olympia, also in Shoreditch. The Cambridge Theatre in – Commercial Street. There was the Wonderland, in the Whitechapel Road. That was also – a boxing – for boxing, all kinds of sport – a few booths outside with – snake charmers and things like that. And there was one fellow in particular, a very good boxer, his name was Hack – Hackensmitt …

A: … Then the – then the Wonderland in the Commercial Road – that – that would – that was also changed after the first world war and come – and become a cinema. It was called the Reveille, and next the – next to that used to be – the old – it used to be a station called St Mary’s station.

Q: Did you go to the cinema at all?

A: Oh yes. Yes, yes. Quite a lot.

Q: Would there be quite a lot of cinemas at the same time as music halls?

A: Then were hun – there were hundreds, hundreds of cinemas. All over the place. In the Whitechapel Road there must have been about – ten or twelve cinemas, say from the Whitechapel Road – up to – what they called Burdett Road. There was also a cinema in Aldgate itself, from – from the Leman Street, up to Mansell Street. There was a cinema there. And there was quite a lot of provision shops and – tobacconist shops and all that. Tea shops.

Q: I suppose this was the great age of the cinema wasn’t it when it first started?

A: Oh yes, yes, yes, sure.

Q: Did they used to be crowded?

A: Oh definitely.

Q: How much would it cost to go in?

A: About ninepence. About ninepence. Nine old pennies.

Q: Could people afford that?

A: Well, they managed, they managed all right, yes.

Comment: Jack Brenner was born in 1900, the sixth of seven children of a Jewish family living in London’s East End. His father came from Lithuania and met his wife there. Father was a small master-builder and did oven work. Mother was expert cook and pastry maker. He was interviewed on 11 April and 5 July 1972, one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975). Wonderland was a renowed boxing and amusements arena in Whitechapel Road. It converted into the Rivoli super-cinema.

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.

Ben’s Limehouse

Source: Ben Thomas, Ben’s Limehouse: Recollections by Ben Thomas (London: Ragged School Books, 1987), p. 43

Text: The first moving film I saw was of a man being chased, who kept falling over and tripping over things. I thought it very funny, and there were roars of laughter from the children. The other picture was a sad one with a woman holding a little girl’s hand going through the snow. This was at the Brunswick Chapel, and they charged ½d to go in. The next moving picture I went to see, was at a little cinema in the High Street Poplar, called the Star, and it also cost ½d to go in. I saw John Bunny, Pearl White, and a lot of big stars of them days. We used to see two comics, two dramas and slides about what was being shown next week. The other cinemas I was taken to by my youngest sister, these were the Kinema, or Fleapit (its nickname) in Whitehorse Street, also the Ben Hur in Whitehorse Street.

Whitehorse Street was a busy market then, near the Church, and nicknamed the ‘Old Road’. The other cinema was the Majestic, which was in a cul de sac and near a school in Ben Jonson Road.

I remember people reading aloud in the days of the silent films. In them days a lot of people, especially the elderly, couldn’t read owing to little schooling or bad eyesight. So while you would be looking at the picture being shown, as soon as the captions or wording came on someone would read it aloud to the person they were with. It might be a man reading to his wife, or vice versa, or a couple of women, or some woman would have one of her kids read to her. So there was always a good deal of mumbling going on and if the cinema wasn’t too packed, you kept away from them. Jews done a lot of this reading aloud, for there were a lot of Russian, Polish and German Jews in the East End who couldn’t read or speak English.

Another thing at the Ben Hur cinema was women doing their potato peeling, during the 1914-1918 War and on until the late 1920’s. The ‘Old Road’ was a very cheap market, so what some women used to do, was to do their bit of shopping just before 2 o’clock, then queue up at Ben Hur’s which opened at 2 o’clock. While watching the films the women would peel their spuds or when the film changing was on, for the lights would go up then. So the cleaners, besides nut shells and orange peelings to clear up, had potato peelings as well, some women peeled carrots, swedes and parsnips as well.

Comment: Ben Thomas was born in London’s East End 1907, youngest in a lighterman’s family of seven. The cinema he refers to was the Palaceadium, 137 Whitehorse Street, which was run by a local businessman nicknamed ‘Ben Hur’.