The Picture-Palaces of London

picturepalace

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, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

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.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Excerpt from interview with Mrs Dankworth, C707/263/1-2, 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, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: Did the Sunday school or the chapel organise anything else apart from the annual outing?

A: I think there was a tea at Christmas time. A tea, and you’d pay a penny to it. And sometimes they had a magic lantern that you’d pay a ha’penny for, you know, to go and see the magic lantern.

Q: When would that be?

A: In a weekday, you know.

Q: In the evening?

A: Yes, only from about 5 to 6, you see.

Q: And would you children be allowed to go to that?

A: Yes, that’s what we had to use our pocket money, our savings for that, our ha’penny for that. And we’d see all the … it was only like … it wasn’t cinematograph, it was just slides in a lantern slide, you know. Because, I mean, it was so different to what …

Q: Did somebody tell a story as the pictures came up?

A: No, you could just see what the story was, you know, from the pictures, you know. It was like a Mickey Mouse thing, really …

A: … Now and again my mother and father would go to the pictures.

Q: They would go to the pictures?

A: Yes.

Q: Really?

A: Yes.

Q: How would they?

A: They would go to the one at the Baker’s Arms. They were in that picture when the place was bombed in the First World War. They were in the pictures there. And we were at home, the children. And they locked the doors of the cinema so that they couldn’t get out.

Q: Why?

A: Because of rushing into the road with bombs, they locked the doors so they couldn’t get out and they kept them in there. Because they were the first bombs that … they were zeppelins that dropped the bombs, you see. When they got back to Midland Station there were dead bodies lying in the middle of the road. I do know that. And my father lost his hat there, his bowler hat in the pictures. Never found it.

Comment: Mrs Dankworth was born in Holloway, London in 1892, the second child of six. Her father was a contract carpenter, often out of work. She was interviewed in November 1970, 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).

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Excerpt from interview with James Malone, C707/245/1-2, 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, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: There weren’t so many other recreations for working men in those days were there? [meaning pubs]

A: Well the cinema was a penny, come out for a packet of sweets, and there was clubs and turns, you know, old time – what they used to call old time variety…

Q: … How did you spend Saturdays as a child?

A: Oh now I’ve got to think now. – Saturdays – oh I suppose Saturdays to me was a – oh I know, we used to go to a cinema called the Star cinema, a penny. And we used to wait – ’til the pianist came down the aisle. We used to call him curly and when he come down we all used to stand and scream, good old Curley. And I remember Saturday afternoons a penny …

Q: … Did she [mother] ever go out to enjoy herself?

A: She used to go to the cinema with my father. By the way she behaved and other women too in a cinema – they used to live with it, they used to talk to the actors. She used to say to ’em, look behind you, and – he never done it. He done it, you see, it was very good indeed. They lived with it. Well I remember my mother coming out of the cinema with my father and I was very – very young and I remember what she said to him she said, Jim – she should never have married that man, he’ll never be any good to her. Now that’s what I call – living with a picture, that is true. Yes.

Q: How often would they go to the pictures?

A: Oh once or twice a week. People used to really cry at the cinema them days, when the lights went up you look around – see ’em all tears down their eyes you see. Used to snivel.

Comment: James Malone was born in Highgate, London 1904, eldest of four. ather was carpenter and joiner, often out of work, and the family was extremely poor, frequently moving house after evictions. .Malone wrestled for Great Britain as a middle-weight in the Olympic Games of 1928 and 1932. He was interviewed on 2 and 26 March 1971, 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).

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Excerpt from interview with Frank Henry Scott, C707/225/1-2, 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, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: A: And we had – we had a – a little circus place. Oh yes, they had circus there.

Q: Were these permanent or did they come every so often?

A: No, it was there permanent. Manley’s circus, oh yes.

Q: What sort of things did they have there?

A: Oh they had – equestrian riding you know, a couple of clowns, a bit of acrobating and – perhaps a little sketch they’d put on. Yes. And they’d had – what they called penny gas [gaff], they had little side shows you know. Shadow pantomimes and – well fat ladies and the biggest rats you know, a coypu that’s what they were, oh, rat about that size, they were coypus, I know what they are now but we didn’t at the time. The bearded ladies you know, tattooed – tattooed ladies, tattooed man. A penny to go in you know and – that was the first time I’d seen – moving pictures. Paid a penny to go in, you – and I can remember that picture even now. I don’t suppose I was about seven or eight. And that was a – they would play cards, it was a French picture. There’s two blokes playing cards on the side of the kerb, van came by with the tailboard down. They got up with their cards and playing cards on the tailboard of this van, ’til it went round the corner, that was the finish of it.

Q: That was more or less the whole film?

A: Well that was – yes, about five or ten minutes I suppose. Then perhaps they’d put on a – a short comic one on, drunken sailors or something like that you know. That was – when I went home and told – father and mother I’d seen moving pictures they wouldn’t believe me. I said, well you go up and have a look. Up Falcon Road, that’s where it is, in the – swing yard. Oh they got a big fair going as well. Another one on Lavender Hill. Swings and roundabouts there and they were more or less permanent …

Q: … How about cinemas, did you or your wife go to cinemas before the First World War very much?

A: Oh yes. Yes, we always went once a week. Well it was only about threepence to go in at that time.

Comment: Frank Henry Scott was born in Hoxton, London in 1884, so his recollection that he was seven or eight when he saw films in a circus is incorrect. He married in 1904. He was interviewed on 4 March 1971, 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).

The Island

Source: Henry Turner, in The Island: The life and death of an East London community 1870-1970 (London: Centerprise, 1979), p. 19

Text: I can recollect my mother being up at past midnight making a pair of trousers for one of us kids … Goodness knows what time she got up in the morning, I suppose the same time as we did, 6 a.m. And she was on the go till midnight. She died when she was 69, absolutely worn out. I can never recollect her going to the pictures, or the “Empire” or anything like that. Never.

Comment: Henry Turner was born in 1902 and lived in ‘The Island’, Hackney, London. He wrote an account of his working class childhood for the Hackney Borough Archives, from which this extract is taken.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Excerpt from interview with Henry Elder, C707/71/1-2, 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, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: Did you go to music-halls?

A: Oh yes. Oh yes. You go – I think I told you the Islington Empire. Yes, the Islington Empire that was the Islington Empire. Yes, that was line up and tuppence to go in. Oh yes.

Q: What about cinemas?

A: Well, the first cinema that ever I went to was the corner of Lime Street and Caledonian Road which is a shop now, and it was no bigger than a shop and it was – a recognised thing for me to be tipped out of there because they used to issue you with a ticket and when you’d seen the programme they come round and collect this coloured ticket when you’d seen the programme. Well, I used to dive underneath the seat to see it – see it again.

Q: What programmes would they be?

A: It – used to have a little sheet up I suppose no bigger – no bigger than six foot square and a bloke’d come round every now and again and squirt water on it and then you’d have cowboys and Indians as well call it – and a bloke with a drum making the bullets. And sometimes the screen used to fall down. Yes, that’s the first place that ever I remember seeing the pictures.

Q: How old would you have been then?

A: Oh, let’s see. I was still at school. About twelve I suppose – about twelve years of age.

Q: Did your parents give you any pocket money?

A: Yes – this is up at – when we done that – a farthing for a farthing worth of sweets.

Comment: Henry Elder was born in 1896 in Swindon Street, Gray’s Inn Road, London. His family then moved to Cumberland Street for 24 years, living in 8-room tenement house shared with other families. His father was musician, who worked in piano manufacturing as a finisher. He was interviewed on 30 October and 2 November 1969, 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). My grateful thanks to Sam Nightingale of the Islington’s Lost Cinemas site for pointing out that the cinema on ‘Lime Street’ is in fact on the corner of Lion Street. It was the Variety Picture Palace – see http://www.islingtonslostcinemas.com/portfolio/variety-picture-palace.

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

An Autobiography

Source: Hymie Fagan, An Autobiography, n.d. [typescript] (Brunel University Library, 2-261), pp. 18-20, 41-42

Text: The Picture Palaces, as cinemas were then known, or the Bioscopes, were becoming very popular. I vaguely remember once going with my father to one in Shoreditch High Street, where I was given a bag of sweets, and he a packet of Woodbines to popularise the cinema still more. After his death I used to go to one in Brick Lane. Admission was one ha’penny. Only one film was shown, usually a cowboy and Indian film. We cheered the cowboys like mad and hissed and booed the Indians, for they were always the baddies.

The one-film shows were for the childrens’ matinees. When the film ended the lights went on, and the children ushered out, to enable the next show to start, but some of the boys hid under the seats, so that they could see the film again without paying. Finally the manager became aware of this, and at the end of each performance the attendant would poke under the seats with a long pole to flush out the stowaways, who were then somewhat forcibly removed.

There was another, more expensive, picture palace in Commercial Street, where the gallery cost one penny and the stalls sixpence. A full programme was shown, and not only cowboy and Indian films. Such dramas as “Leah the Forsaken” all about the plight of a Jewess caught in the toils of the Spanish Inquisition. Another was “The Indiarubber Man” who could scale high walls with amazing jumps and disguise himself by changing the shape of his face. Then there were the serials. The heroine in most of these was a star named Pearl White. She was usually left tied to the rails whilst an express came thundering down towards her. I remember her in one serial named “The Perils of Pauline”, and I underwent agonies of suspense each week, until I learned how she managed to escape in the following episode.

Real picture lovers, but poor like me, went into the gallery. Others, who simply wanted to snog in the dark, went into the stalls. Looking down into it, it seemed that nearly all the seats were empty, as indeed they were, for the snoggers preferred the walls round the stalls. The floors from the gallery to the stalls were knee-deep in orange peel and pea-nut shells.

To keep Pearl White’s image before the public the P.R.O. [?] composed a song about her. It went

My Little Pearl of the Army,
Pearl of my heart so true.
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 …

… Apart from reading and swimming, another joy was the cinema. It was becoming very popular indeed and there was a children’s matinee every Saturday afternoon. Admission was one penny and since mother had no objection because of the Sabbath, I went regularly. I used to arrive almost before anyone else, queuing up impatiently at the box-office, and as the crowd of children grew, so did the yells demanding that it opened, which at last it did, dead on two o’clock. Chaplin was always shown since he was the favourite, and I remember falling off my seat, helpless with laughter at “Champion Charlie”. Then there was Douglas Fairbanks, whose athletic exploits I tried to emulate. Once after he had escaped from his enemies by jumping down a cliff by a series of ledges, I tried to do the same thing on our pitiful crumbling cliffs, but when I jumped onto the first ledge it crumbled under me and I hobbled home on a badly sprained ankle.

Comment: Hymie Fagan was born in Stepney, 1903 of a Jewish working class family. This is two extracts from his unpublished autobiography, the manuscript for which is held by Brunel University Library. The first section describes the pre-WWI period, second covers the war years.

Movies and Conduct

Source: ‘Female, 20, white, college junior’, quoted in Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 132

Text: However, I received one of the greatest disappointments of my young life, I believe, when I went to a movie that ended sadly. I cannot remember what it was, but it surely revolutionized my ideas. I had always believed that no matter how badly things seemed, everything would turn out happily in the end. Some people had a long period of difficulties, and others were more fortunate, but both at some time would finally obtain their desires and would “live happily ever after.” I used to call that belief my philosophy (I liked the word), and comforted my playmates at every opportunity by telling them they just hadn’t reached the turning point yet. I had quite a group of followers who were the same friends with whom I went to the movies. I could always refer to the movies to confirm my beliefs until that fatal day. They asked for explanations and I couldn’t give any. I was almost heartbroken and finally went to mother and told her all about it. She didn’t laugh. I often wondered why. She talked to me for a long time and told me I must not take movies too seriously. They only showed a few experiences of lives of imaginary people, both pleasant and unpleasant. She told me I could pity people who must live as some did who were represented in the movies and at the same time by contrast appreciate my own opportunities. It was during this talk too that she impressed upon my mind that to obtain money was not the main aim in life, another idea I had gathered from movies. There were two parallel points she stressed, happiness for myself and happiness for others. I shall always remember that talk.

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 extract is given in the chapter ‘Emotional Detachment’.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive