A Life in Movies

Source: Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (London: William Heinemann, 1986), pp. 90-91

Text: There was a cinema at Chantilly. There were local cinemas everywhere in those days. Chantilly was not a large town, but I think it had two. The one near us was down a side street and advertised that it was open for business by an electric buzzer which rang until the show started. I can hear that remorseless bell shattering the calm under the plane trees whenever I think of Chantilly. It is curious how the French, most sensitive of nations, are insensitive to noise, particularly if it is a new and splendid noise that stands for Progress.

The films were mostly serials, like the French films I had seen at the Palais de Luxe in Canterbury. One of my earliest movie images is of Fantomas, the Master Crook of Paris. When he wasn’t wearing white tie and tails, a can, a top hat, and an opera-cloak, he was in black tights with a black mask, performing incredible feats of hide-and-seek with the police. The image that stays with me is of an open cistern of water in the attic of some house. The police dash in, in pursuit of Fantomas, and find nobody. Baffled, they withdraw, but the Chief takes one last look at the cistern, sees a straw floating on the surface of the water, gives it an idle flush. Aha! we all think. And sure enough! As the last policeman goes, the water stirs and bubbles and the black form of Fantomas appears from the depths, between his lips the straw through which he has been breathing! I can see now his black figure, glistening like a seal’s, smiling triumphantly at the camera. For, in silent films, one learnt to “register” to the camera.

Candy and the movies have always gone together, and in the intervals at Chantilly girls moved up and down the aisle chanting “pochettes surprises!esqimaubriques!” There were frequent intervals. In 1919 most films were short comedies. In addition they were playing an interminable serial in fifteen episodes of The Three Musketeers, and there was another serial staring the famous French boxer Georges Carpentier. I believe that d’Artagnan was Aimé Simon-Girard, and as a movie historian I ought to check it with the dates, but I really don’t think it matters. Aimé Simon-Girard was in practically every romantic French costume film of that decade and the Musketeers serial may have been a year later. The Carpentier film I remember well. He was not an actor of any kind, but he was charming, and his flattened nose on his pretty face gave him a different look. The film was full of stunts, of course. All serials had to be full of stunts: jumping on and off moving trains. onto moving automobiles, flights on the edge of high buildings, all the tricks of the trade, from Georges Méliès to Superman. Carpentier moved obligingly (he had a pleasant smile) through the scenes, and we all thought he was splendid. Films were tinted then: the predominant colour of the Carpentier serial seemed to be green. The Musketeers did their stuff in a sort of Old Master yellowish-brown, suitable for cloak and rapier adventures. Night scenes, of course, were blue.

Comment: Michael Powell (1905-1990) was a British film director. His family stayed for a time immediately after the First World War at Chantilly in France, where his father had a share in a hotel. Les Trois Mosquetaires with Aimé Simon-Girard was made in 1921; the Georges Carpentier serial is probably Le trésor de Kériolet (France 1920).

The Cinema

Source: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (London: Williams and Norgate, 1917), pp. 276-282

Text: April 21, 1917. MINUTES OF EVIDENCE. Dr. Kimmins. Examined.

DR. KIMMINS: I think the simplest way would be for me to elaborate the evidence, and give you a few extracts from essays showing you the mind of the child with regard to the cinema. I would urge you not to attach much importance to the results from the girls’ central school, because I only had 184 papers sent in, which is not a sufficient number from which to draw a very definite conclusion. In many of the children’s essays they simply refer to the last performance or the one before that. I have thoroughly analysed the papers and there are several points which come out very clearly. I have noticed that the girls take a greater interest in domestic drama and fairy stories. Quite a large number of fairy stories have been filmed, and they have been described in great detail. As regards the comics they are very much more popular with the boys than the girls, and when one analyses every age one finds that in the upper standards the boys are less attracted by the comics than the boys in the lower standards. The boys are much keener on serial films than the girls, but this may be explained by the fact that the boys have more opportunities of attending the cinema than the girls. The interest in war films is very great and varies from school to school. Then, again, the boys take a keener interest in the crook films than the girls, while love films are more popular with the girls than the boys; and it is very noticeable that in the schools in very well-to-do districts the purely love film is more popular than in the poorer districts. To carry on this investigation I selected six schools from poor districts and six schools from good districts, in order to get a great difference in the home surroundings. One point comes out in the analyses of the papers of the girls’ central school; and that is, that there is an increased interest at twelve and thirteen years of age in films about cowboys and adventure. I will quote some extracts from essays as to why some of the children do not go to cinemas.

The first is rather pathetic, it is from a child of nine: “I have never been in a cinema. It was my dada’s wish that I was not to go in a cinema. Mother likes to keep his wish because he was killed” (in France).

Then another child of nine says: “My reasons for not going to cinemas are that the heat gives me a headache. I also found that germs like the dark and so cinemas are unhealthy, so father and mother decided I better not go. I like books very much and having many at home I do not want to go.”

Then a child of ten: “I have never been to cinemas. Last year my two sisters went, and in two or three days, one had scarlet fever and the other measles, and so mother would not let me go because she thought I might get it.”

Then a girl of thirteen says — and I must say here that a girl of thirteen is much more critical than a boy of thirteen: “I do not go to the pictures because of these reasons: (1) I save money by stopping at home; (2) it don’t do your eyes any good; (3) it’s not healthy to be stuck inside a hot place taking other people’s breath.”

Now I will read some extracts from essays on films. Here is a rather remarkable one from a boy of ten: “A girl had an extremely heroic mother whose husband was locked up in a den of tigers. The woman, who was determined to save her man, boldly went to the circus train where she begged pitifully and melancholily to give her the keys of the den. After a long argument they answered in the affirmative. When she got to the place they said ‘ You can have the keys on one condition only,’ and that was, when she got to the door and unlocked it they must give back the keys. At first she answered in the negative, afterwards she agreed. The second she got into the gloomy cavern she heard her husband’s voice. ‘Is that you, John?’ ‘Who is that?’ came a dreamy and fatigued voice. ‘It is me your wife, Charlotte.’ Then the tears flowed.”

Here is an extraordinary account of the impression a girl of thirteen obtained from seeing a film dealing with the death of Nurse Cavell: “They took her to a prison in a German neighbourhood and ordered her to tell the British plans. When she thought of her God and country she said: ‘I will not be a traitor to my own country.’ The German Emperor, who is called the Kaiser, said : ‘You will suffer for it if you do not tell us.’ Nurse Cavell knelt by her stony bed and said her evening prayer. When Von Bissing saw her he spoke some German language to her, and she did not understand it. The following day the Kaiser ordered his soldiers to fetch her to the place where she was going to be shot. When she was led through the market the people laughed and teased her. When she arrived at her destination the Kaiser said: ‘Fancy you trying to fight against me.’ He then ordered Von Bissing to level his revolver and shoot her. He did so, and then he was given an Iron Cross and some money for killing her.”

One small child after describing a country scene says : “The picture I like best is like a meadow. It had flowers and little hills. Why I like it is, because it makes you think that you are in the country yourself. It also learns you your Nature study.”

Then a child of eleven says: “I always look forward to pictures about people who do daring things. I like to see people climb mountains under great difficulties, or people running away and being pursued. There is one picture that I think is very good. It is called Liberty. It is a very daring play and the people go through very dangerous things.”

The girls, by the way, take very much more interest in scenery than the boys, and here is what one of the girls says: “The picture that I enjoyed most was one delivered in six parts and dealing with the wild life of Alaska and the Yukon District. I cannot exactly recollect the details, but I have a rather hazy, it is true, remembrance of them. It is about a man who, in disguise, tracks to the snowy regions of Alaska and there kills the man who ran away with his wife. The music that was played at the time, I think, has a great deal to do with my decision.”

Here is another: “It was a beautiful picture and beautiful scenery too; as we sat looking at it, it seemed to dazzle our eyes. The lady of the house was dressed in green velvet, while her son had a green suit; her son’s sweetheart also had a green dress, but it was trimmed with black fur. As they sat under the trees, on a seat made of oak, in the moonlight, it was picturesque. The green made it look more beautiful than ever. We held our breaths as we watched it, for it was so beautiful.”

At the age of thirteen, the girls like to describe the appearance of the people who are acting. That comes out very strikingly in one or two essays I have here: “Joan was a young and beautiful girl of about seventeen years of age, who worked in the mines. Her friend was Lizzie, a pretty girl of about the same age, but fragile and obstinate. Their ‘boss’ as they called the manager, was a young man, handsome and kind. Many a time had he saved Joan from blows from the foreman, and she had grown to love him. Joan’s father was a bully and the terror of the mine.”

Here is another short description: “It was a dull day, and a heavy storm was raging overhead ; and a man, evidently a newcomer, entered the inn. He was tall and respectable, with large bright eyes, which seemed to influence everybody. Having had his fill, and the storm having abated, he left the inn and proceeded homewards. On arriving there he sat down and seemed lost in meditation.”

Here is a good description: “The picture that I liked most was not a funny story nor a drama, but just views of water waving and curling, and also some falls. It gave some most beautiful falls and fountains splashing and sparkling in sunny France. The water first turned a beautiful blue, and then on the fountains it sprinkled with a silver tint. Then came the fall, with its beautiful waters jumping and bubbling over sharp stones and rocks, making many pools of white foam. Another picture was the river, and sometimes it did not sparkle but was dark and sullen.”

This is a remarkable production for a young child.

Then another child says: “I like mysteries and detective pictures, from them you can learn many things: first, you can learn to copy detectives’ ways; secondly, you can be careful of whom you make acquaintance, whether a nice girl or a nasty mean girl.”

Here is something for the Censor: ” Some pictures are degrading, and they do not do one any good; but they would help to make the people who see them less pure and have less moral support. These pictures are only shown in cheap and degraded picture palaces, and are only supported by the people of inferior education. Some pictures are degrading, and these never ought to be passed by the Censor.”

The age of that girl is only thirteen and she goes to an ordinary elementary school.

Then you have: “Pictures of foreign scenes, exploration and aviation give one ideas that are not to be found in books and do a great deal to improve our ideas. My opinion is, that pictures could be utilised for the education of children along with the form of education that is taught in our schools. Pictures about foreign countries are highly valued for their aid to education, and in the improvement of children’s minds.”

Another girl says: “Love pictures are sometimes ridiculous and are only meant for grown-ups. Pictures such as ‘Quo Vadis?’ ‘John Halifax, Gentleman’ and ‘The Three Musketeers’ are really a help to education and give one a good idea of the habits of the people at the time.”

Then here is a delightful child who gives this description: “I have an aesthetic taste for scenery, and one of the best pictures I have seen is ‘Doran’s Travels in China.’ This young lady travelled on the tranquil winding river. The mountains glistened in the sun and the traveller stood amazed at the wondrous spectacle. The people in the massive building were similar to the ancient people of years ago. The beautiful scenery helps to uplift one to purer thoughts. It helps to give one a better idea of the beauty of the world and gives one ideas of different countries.”

In one essay a girl traces the extraordinary influence of one person upon another: “Bob believed in crime, and reared Daisy, as the little girl was called, to believe in the same principles. One day Daisy was hungry, and being now a girl of seventeen and very pretty, she decided to pick some one’s pocket, but also was detected and carried to the police station, where a middle-aged man took pity on her and took her to his own home, which was situated in Park Lane. Daisy had never seen such a lovely house, and even after she was dressed in lovely clothes, the impulse to steal would come to her, and at last, while the haughty footman was asleep, she cut off the gorgeous gold braid from his shoulder, and tied it round her own waist.”

Then here is the essay of a boy of eight years of age: “There was a girl about fourteen years of age. She had a very nice young man. There was another lady who was very jealous, because she wanted the young man. So she made up her mind to murder this young lady. She got two young men to capture her. One day they saw her out. They blindfolded her and took her away. They put her in a house and left her there. While she was looking out of the window she saw her sweetheart. She opened the window and called out to him and told him all about it, so he knocked the door down and got her.”

Here is a boy of nine: ” The best film I have ever seen is ‘The Man Who Stayed at Home.’ I like it best, because it ended up nicely, and some pictures end up so funny. But ‘The Man Who Stayed at Home’ ended up where the Man Who Stayed at Home saves one of our biggest liners, and sunk one of the German submarines, and killed a lot of German soldiers. So you can see that it did end up very nicely.”

The boys’ descriptions of war films are extremely well done, as you will see by this one: “Name — Battle of the Ancre. Crash! Boom! The Tower Cinema Band is imitating the battle of the Ancre. You see the Tanks in action, also men slushing about in mud. Now you see a transport wagon being guided round a shell hole by an officer; the officer takes an unlucky step and has a bath in mud. Now the eighteen-pounders in action, making frightful havoc over in the German trenches. Now the whistle shrills, and they leap over the parapet, rat, tap, tap, tap, go the German machine guns, but nothing daunts our soldiers. Crack ! and their gallant captain falls. This enrages the men to fury. At last they reach the German lines. Most of the Germans flee for their lives shouting ‘Kamerad! Kamerad!’ etc. Now the British and German wounded are brought in, some seriously, others slightly. Soon after follow the German prisoners, some vicious-looking scoundrels that I should not like to meet on a dark night, others young boys, about sixteen years of age.”

Here is the essay of a boy of eleven: “Moving pictures are nice, and although I have seen and enjoyed many, that which I liked most was a film entitled ‘His Mistake.’ In the first picture one saw three evil-looking men in an old shepherd’s hut, plotting to kill Lord Harston of Myrtle Manor. The next shows these men slinking home in the dark to a dilapidated cottage. Third, one saw Lord Harston riding out with his faithful dog ‘Rufe.’ As Harston came down a leafy lane a masked man with a revolver calls upon him to stop. Harston speaks to his dog, which, unnoticed, creeps behind the masked man and then, with a low crouch, darts forward upon Harston’s would-be kidnapper. He, startled by the attack, falls and is immediately attacked by the dog. Part II shows Lord Harston’s Manor, which he is using as a convalescent home for wounded soldiers. Part III films a second attempt on Harston’s life, in which he receives a mysterious threat in a note brought by a shaggy dog. Last part: Lord Harston’s baby is kidnapped and threatened with death unless Harston turns up at a certain spot. Lord Harston takes ten constables, captures the robbers or plotters and imprisons them.”

I have had some fine descriptions of Tom Brown’s Schooldays. It is a very favourable film with the girls and many of them write upon that. Then just one description of the way in which the boys describe Charlie Chaplin —

“Charlie by the Sea. In this two-reel farce we see the inimitable Charlie Chaplin garbed in the clothes of a seaside lounger, bowler hat and baggy trousers complete, strolling along the front at Mud-splosh-on-Sea, winking merrily at the oysters and twiddling the toothbrush on his upper lip. A fair form hoves in sight, which gradually changes itself into a fair maiden, escorted by a fierce old gentleman with a moustache which nearly hid his uncomely face from view. She soon left him asleep, at which Charlie gaily tripped along, his golden locks waving gently to and fro in the breezes. On being asked, the fair damsel agreed to go for a stroll along the sands with our hero. After a game with another of the young maiden’s admirers in which a lifeboat came prominently into action, Charlie left his young lady to meet his friend Jerry Swiller, whom he treated to some ices. At the end of the picture we see all the irate maidens he had jilted chasing our hero.”

This is, I think, one of the best of the Battle pictures: “The best picture I have seen was the Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks. It shows us in Old England the privations Tommy has to undergo in blood-sodden France and Belgium. The Tommies went to the trenches stumbling and slipping, but always wore the smile which the Kaiser’s legions, try hard as they might, could not brush off. Lords, tinkers, earls, chimney sweeps, side by side, were shown in this splendid film. It showed and proved that although England was small and Germany large, the British Lion was a match for the German Eagle any day. The film also showed that monster terror and fear of the Germans, the Tank. Snorting, creaking, waddling, the huge bogey started for the German first-line trenches. The film showed the huge British guns. Day and night, night and day the huge monsters of destruction roared never ceasing.”

That I think is a remarkable essay for a small boy from an elementary school. I will conclude with one or two extracts from the girls’ essays.

A child of eight says: ” When I went to the picture palace I saw a picture of a fire. It was a large house which was on fire. The fire was caused by a little girl dropping a lighted lamp. When the house was burning a boy came walking along. He saw the house on fire and three little girls looking out of the window. He threw up to them a large rope. They took hold of it and climbed down in turns. The mother came down after her children and the father came down last. The mother and father were very pleased with the boy for saving their children’s lives and their own.”

Then a girl of ten says: “The pictures I like best are dramas not too sad. I like about when people get bankrupt. A lady has to marry a person she does not like to get her father’s business back. She loves another gentleman and she tells him her trouble. Then just as they are going to church a telegram boy comes to say that her uncle has died and she is an heiress. Then she marries her real young man. Her father is then able to keep his business on.”

Here is the extraordinary story of the reformation of a beer-drinker: “Once when I went to the cinema I saw a picture about a little girl named Mary, whose mother was very ill and whose father was a drunkard. One night her father came home very drunk and he aimed a jug at his wife and killed her, and when Mary saw it she ran away. Presently she came to a motor and got under a covering and went to sleep. Later, a gentleman got in who was very rich, and whose fiancée had broken off her engagement with him because he drank beer. When he got in the motor he put his feet on the blanket and he woke Mary up. He sat her on his lap and she said: ‘I don’t like you; your breath smells like my daddy’s.’ He took her home with him determined not to touch beer again.”

This next one is very typical and shows the child’s extreme love of detail: “‘The House of Fear’ was the moving picture I enjoyed most. It was a drama in four acts, but it was not as long as some dramas. It was about a very old lady, named Mrs. White, who was bedridden. She had only one child, a girl named Margaret, who was married to a certain Mr. Fairley, who had no relatives. Margaret had one child named. Elsie, who was thirteen months old. Soon after Elsie’s second birthday her father was accidently [sic] shot through the head and died immediately. Her mother, hearing of her husband’s sudden death, is taken very ill and dies soon afterwards. She then lived with her grandmother until she had turned five, knowing but little of her parents’ deaths. In her ninety-ninth year Mrs. White dies, leaving the child in the care of an uncle who is her godfather, but the uncle was a miser and did not wish to keep her. After the funeral of her grandmother Elsie is brought before a meeting in her house and the uncle is asked to keep his promise. He does not wish to, but in the end, wishing not to appear ungrateful, he consents. In the end Elsie is married to her uncle’s nephew, and here we leave her with a good husband, a comfortable home and two children.”

Comment: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917) is a report and summary of evidence taken by the Cinema Commission Inquiry, instituted by the National Council of Public Morals. This remarkable sequence features evidence from Commission member Dr. Charles William Kimmins, Chief Inspector under the Education Committee of the London County Council (his son Anthony Kimmins became an actor and film director). He had 6,701 children of different ages from 25 London schools each write an account of ‘the moving picture they liked most of all those they had seen in the cinema’. They had 15 minutes in which to do so, with no preparatory discussion. These extracts from the essays (the originals appear to be lost) form a precious and substantial body of evidence from children themselves about what they thought of films they had seen. Some of noteworthy points are the detailed recollection of artificial colour effects, the role of music in shaping memories of a film, the memory of film titles themselves, and the variety of films (fiction and non-fiction) that made a particular impression on their memories.

The films mentioned include Tom Brown’s Schooldays (UK 1916 d. Rex Wilson), John Halifax, Gentleman (UK 1916 d. George Pearson), The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (UK 1917, ph. Geoffrey Malins, J.B. McDowell, Oscar Bovill) (a War Office-sponsored documentary), Nurse and Martyr (UK 1915 d. Percy Moran), Quo Vadis (Italy 1913 d. Enrico Guazzoni), The Three Musketeers (USA 1916 d. Charles Swickard), The Man Who Stayed at Home (UK 1915 d. Cecil Hepworth), By the Sea (USA 1915 d. Charles Chaplin) and The House of Fear (USA 1915 d. Stuart Paton).

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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).

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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.

Rosedale Theater, 1938

Source: L.E. Sissman, ‘Rosedale Theater, 1938’, in Peter Davison (ed.), Hello, Darkness: The Collected Poems of L. E. Sissman (Boston, Mass.: Little, Brown, 1978)

Text: Feet on the parapet of the balcony,
We cup free sacks of penny candy, gum,
And unshelled peanuts, all included in
Our dime admission to the Saturday
Kids’ matinée, and see the Bounty heave
And creak in every block and halyard. Waves
Of raw sensation break upon each white
Face that reflects the action, and our ears
Eavesdrop upon the commerce of a more
Real world than ours. The first big feature ends;
We trade reactions and gumballs with friends
Above the marching feet of Movietone,
Which now give way to a twin-engine plane
That lands as we half watch, and Chamberlain
Steps out, in his teeth, Homburg, and mustache,
A figure of some fun. We laugh and miss
His little speech. After the Michigan-
Ohio game, Buck Rogers will come on.

Comment: Louis Edward Sissman (1928-1976) was an American poet. Five of his cinema-related poems are published in Philip French and Ken Wlaschin’s The Faber Book of Movie Verse. Bounty refers to Mutiny on the Bounty (USA 1935). Movietone is the Fox Movietone newsreel, with the reference being to the celebrated film showing British prime minister Neville Chamberlain at Heston aerodrome telling reporters about his discussions with Hitler and waving a piece of paper with a signed agreement “symbolic of the desire of our two peoples never to go to war with one another again”. The Buck Rogers serial was produced in 1939.

Not Expecting Miracles

Source: Alice Linton, Not Expecting Miracles (London: Centerprise Trust, 1982), p. 13

Text: On Saturday mornings when we would get a penny from mother, we went to the cinema in East Road. There was a serial called ‘Pearl White’. Poor Pearl White was always experiencing terrible dangers in those silent films and although I was terrified watching it and always felt that it was me going through all those awful dangers, yet it so fascinated me that I couldn’t keep away.

Comment: Alice Linton was born in Hoxton, London, in 1908. Pearl White was the name of the actress, of course; she was the star of the serial The Perils of Pauline (USA 1914).

The Cinema

Source: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (London: Williams and Norgate, 1917), pp. 209-201

Text:
23. THE CHAIRMAN. What do you like best at the cinema? — All about thieves.
24. The next best? — Charlie Chaplin.
25. And you? — Mysteries; and then Charlie Chaplin.
26. And you? — Mysteries, and Charlie Chaplin.
27. What do you mean by mysteries? — Where stolen goods are hidden away in vaults so that the police can’t get them.
28. And you? — Cowboys; and then Charlie Chaplin second.
29. When you have seen these pieces showing thieving and people catching the thief, has it ever made you wish to go and do the same thing? — Yes.
30. Do you think the fellow who steals, then, a fine man? — No.
31. But you would like to do it yourself? — Yes.
32. Do you like the adventure or what? — I like the adventure.
33. You have no desire, then, to steal in order to get things for yourself, but you like the dashing about and getting up drain-pipes and that sort of thing? Yes.
34. And you? — No, I don’t like that, I should not like to do that.
35. Do you like pictures where you see flowers growing? — No.
36. Do you like ships coming in and bringing things from distant lands? — (One boy replied “No,” and the other three “Yes.”)
37. You like to have a consistent programme of detective stories and Charlie Chaplin, and you don’t want any more? — Yes.
38. Do you sit amongst the girls ? — Sometimes.
39. What do you pay? — 1d. and 2d.
40. Do you ever have to sit on the ground? — No, we always have a seat.
41. Have you ever seen the boys behave roughly to the girls? — Yes.
42. What do they do? — Aim orange peel at them.
43. Do they pull the girls about? — Yes, their hair.
44. And do the girls pull back again? — No; they seem to enjoy it.
45. Do your sisters go? — I take baby every night; it is four and a half years old.
46. Does baby like it and laugh? — Yes.
47. She likes Charlie Chaplin best? — Yes.
48. Is your father at the war? — (One boy here stated his father was on the Midland Railway; another one on war work; the third, a sailor; and the fourth, working at Woolwich Arsenal.)
49. Then your fathers are away a great deal, and you don’t see much of them? — No.
50. And mother? — Mother looks after us at home.
51. I suppose mother is very busy on Saturday night, and she gives you the baby to take to the pictures? — Yes.
52. Do you pay for the baby? — Yes, a penny.
53. Do you go to Sunday School? — (One boy stated he went to Sunday School, but the other three said they did not.)
54. Are you able to sleep long on Sunday morning after going to the pictures? — I do not feel tired.
55. PRINCIPAL GARVIE. Can you tell me the film you like best? — (One boy liked “The Broken Coin,” and three boys preferred “Red Circle.”)
56. Can you tell us the story of the “Red Circle”? — A man has a red circle on his hand and it forces him to do crime.
57. MR. KING. If there were no picture palaces what would you do? — Stop at home; but sometimes we go out and play football.
58. Why do you like the cowboy films? — Because they are exciting.
59. DR. KIMMINS. What other films do you like besides the “Red Circle” and “The Broken Coin”? — Tragedy.
60. What is the nicest one you have ever seen? — A picture about the death of a boy’s mother and he revenges her.
61. Do you care about love stories at all? — No.
62. MONSIGNOR BROWN. If there were two picture houses together, and one was showing flowers and geography films, and
the other one Charlie Chaplin films, which would you go to? — The one showing Charlie Chaplin.
63. Supposing they put on some of the films you do not like, what would the boys do? — They would grumble and shout “Chuck it off.”
64. MR. LAMERT. Did you ever on a film see a man do anything with any apparatus or things which you could get hold
of? — No.
65. Would you know how to get any of these things? — No.

Comment: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917) is a report and summary of evidence taken by the Cinema Commission Inquiry, instituted by the National Council of Public Morals. It includes several passages taken from interviews with children where commission members asked them questions about their cinema-going habits. Here four schoolboys from Bethnal Green, London were questioned. Two were aged eleven, two thirteen. Two attended cinemas on Saturday night and two on Saturday afternoon, each going once a week. The Red Circle (USA 1915) was a serial starring Ruth Roland as a woman with a birthmark which compelled her to steal in times of stress. The Broken Coin (USA 1915) was another serial, directed by Francis Ford.

Going to the Pictures

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Eventually Mum gave us an extra halfpenny for our sweets.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mother Knew Best

Source: Dorothy Scannell, Mother Knew Best: An East End Childhood (London: Macmillan, 1974), pp. 46-47

Text: We went to the ‘pictures’ on Saturday mornings. The Picture Palace was like a huge garage with dirty red doors opposite Mrs Crutchington’s shop and it cost a ha’penny. It was called the Star Picture Palace and we would all cheer when the pictures finally started for the screen was a long time flickering and shaking and tearing itself in two with brief glimpses of the previous week’s serial before it settled down, and whenever it broke down during the performance, which was often, we would all boo loudly. A lady played the piano, sad music, frightening music, and happy music according to how the film was progressing and what was taking place. Because we had so few ‘arrants’ to do, we were nearly always the first ones there and so sat in the front row where the cowboys were nine feet tall, the horses hunched up in the middle and the heroine had a ‘Dish ran away with the spoon’ face.

Marjorie was the most terrible person to accompany to the pictures … We all left the world mentally, but she left it physically as well in a sense. When the heroine was tied to the railway line, and tried to fight her captors, Marjorie would fight in her seat. When the poor mother was pleading with the wicked landlord for her starving children, Marjorie was on her knees pleading too. Her screams of terror when the heroine was about to be tortured seemed louder to me than the frightening music being played by the lady pianist and I would thump Marjorie to bring her back to the world. All in vain, she never felt or heard me, and I ceased going to the pictures on Saturdays long before Marjorie did, for she could wait patiently until the next episode of an exciting serial. Rather than wait and wonder, I decided not to go. I hated serials, I just had to see a complete picture, and most of the films shown to the children had been cut and made into serials, for by chopping the films into little bits they would last the Picture Palace for weeks and weeks. I always thought it had been raining on the screen and it wasn’t until years later I realised it was the poor quality of the film. The black streaks moved everlastingly up and down.

Comment: Dorothy Scannell lived in Poplar; her father was a plumber and she was one of ten siblings living in the East End of London.. Her memoir covers memories from before the Great War and after (when she was Dolly Chegwidden), with this section on section relating to the pre-war period.

I Was a Walworth Boy

Source: H.J. Bennett, I Was a Walworth Boy (Peckham Publishing Project, 1980), p.20

Text: If one turned to the left at the top of East Street the first pub was the Roundhouse. Here too was a little cinema where I saw my first silent films with a woman playing what was [sic] considered appropriate tunes on the piano. Among the films I saw here were ‘The Exploits of Elaine’ and the early Chaplin comedies.

Comment: H.J. Bennett was born in East Street, Walworth, London, in 1902. The Exploits of Elaine was a 1914 American serial, starring Pearl White.