The Murder of Othello

Source: H.F. Hoffman, ‘The Murder of Othello’, Moving Picture World, 22 July 1911, p. 110

Text: It may be wrong for a writer in one department to go browsing around in the pasture of another. Mr. Richardson is supposed to be conducting the projection department of this paper, and no doubt I am violating all professional ethics when I deliberately steal some of his thunder. I have noticed that sometimes operators have criticised him because he goes to a show and then writes a “knock” about the operator.

If Mr. R. were not so capable of taking care of himself I might feel sorry for him and be inclined to help him out, but as it is I know he would not thank me for such a foolish proceeding on my part. However, there is no law that I can find against the giving of moral support, and therefore whatever I may write about the operator will come under the head of Moral Support.

Many of you exhibitors make use of a little slide that reads: “If you like our show tell others; if not, tell us.” Then when someone tells you your show is awfully bad you call it a “knock” and mumble something about deadheads being the biggest kickers, etc. That is, some of you do, but the majority of you take the criticism in the spirit in which it is given. The politicians say, “Let the tariff be reformed, but only by its friends,” and we say, “Let the moving picture be reformed, but only by its friends.”

Someone has got to do the kicking; that is a certainty, and we feel to a large extent the burden falls upon us who have the welfare of moving pictures at heart. We wish that everything about them were perfect, so we would not have to criticise. We believe we will live to see the day when they will be as nearly perfect as possible, but we also realize that nothing was ever improved by trying to gloss over the faults. One of the best ways to learn things is to learn by making mistakes. Teddy Roosevelt says that the only way to make a people correct their faults is to keep reminding them of those faults. In other words, “Ding it into em.”

There has been considerable written in the past in these pages about bad projection, etc., and the chances are that there will be and ought to be considerably more, just so long as there are exhibitors who stand for films to be run without titles or with the words reading backwards, or a dozen other stupid sins of comission or omission that are to be seen daily almost anywhere. The only way to remedy the fault is to keep on dinging about it.

Your little slide that says “If you like our show tell others; if not, tell us,” is all very pretty on the screen, but it doesn’t amount to much. If you are an exhibitor you know very well that none of your patrons comes to you and tells you your show is “rotten.” In the first place, they wouldn’t want to hurt your feelings, and secondly, they won’t take a chance on you swelling up and asking what people will want next for a nickel. If you are an exhibitor you also know that the public is fickle. You know that they simply reverse your little slide. When your show is good they tell you, and when it is bad they tell others. They like to flatter you, perhaps in the hope of getting on the free list some day. Your faults they relate to your competitor up the street because they may think he likes to hear it and may possibly grant them the freedom of his house, or something else. I don’t know why they do it, but they do.

The opinions of lay critics are not very safe guides, as I have found out once or twice to my sorrow. The public judges by results only. With them a picture is either good or bad, but they could not tell exactly why. Their criticism is not analytical. They do not know good projection from bad, except in the most superficial way. When the operating is bad you never hear them say, “What poor projection they have here.” No; you are more apt to hear them say “I like the pictures, but they hurt my eyes.” When the projection is good they forget about the technical end and lose themselves in the picture itself. Why? Because things are as they ought to be; they expect good projection when they come. They have a right to expect it.

[…]

Now then, having brushed away opposition from all sources, let us proceed with the Murder of Othello. He was murdered by an operator last Friday night. They took him out of his tin armour and placed him on the operating table in the operating room. They made a diagnosis, gave him an anasthetic [sic], then put him through a sausage machine and when the poor fellow came out of the other end he was mangled beyond recognition.

I had been talking just before with the manager. He said, “Yes, I take the Moving Picture World. A manager should not be without it because it is so full of valuable advice. Have you noticed our solid brick operating room?” I then took notice. The place was an airdome seating at least 1,500, with loads of room to spare. Behind the rear seats was a promenade fifty feet wide, and there at the end of the middle aisle stood the solid brick oven on four legs. It covered an area about six feet square or 36 square feet. He could have built a two-story residence there without interfering with anyone’s view, and yet he who took the World for its helpful hints had constructed this 6×6 oven and called it an operating room. Oh, Brother Richardson, you will have to use bigger type.

The Othello picture began with the usual chorus — “What’s the name of this?” “I wonder what this is.” “Mamma, who’s that man?” “Did you get the name?” “I beg pardon, sir, did you notice the title of this?” “I wish I knew what this is all about.” “What is it?” “I don’t know, looks like something from the Bible.” “What did it say?” “Excuse me, was there any name to this?” “No, I didn’t see any,” etc. Now in the name of just plain common sense, I am going to ask why this thing is done, day after day, in so many places. Is it possible that a man can have the nerve to call himself a manager or an operator, and still show such indifference to the one thing of all that brings the people to the place — the picture?

I would like to have a photograph of the mind of such a man to see by what mental process he concludes that the audience knows what it is looking at. After the first offense, if that party were in my employ, he would last about as long as a June frost. All this talk about reels coming from the exchange without titles is a lazy man’s excuse. Cover glass is cheap and title slides can be written in half a minute. Fancy lettering is not necessary and takes up too much time. There is nothing in a temporary slide that looks any better than good plain handwriting, especially if the slide is tinted and the principal words are properly capitalized and underscored. Try it and you will find it better than most of these horrible hand-printed affairs.

The big laugh in Othello came with the first scene when the title and sub-titles came through reading backwards. It was the same laugh you hear when a song slide gets in upside down. But the fun didn’t end there. Instead of clipping his film at once and reversing the upper reel, the operator let the whole thing go through the way it was. We are all aware that Othello is not the easiest subject in the world to follow, even under the best of circumstances. The title and all the sub-titles are extremely necessary, even to those who know it, and a good lecture should go with it for those who do not. Imagine the audience then, for the most part in utter ignorance of what they were looking at. The light was vile. The patrons had their choice of two things to look at. On the sheet the spectacle of a white woman smearing her love upon a colored man, or in the operating room, the operator who had attracted their attention.

It seems that in his dilemma he had hit upon the idea of hiding his mistake by speeding up his machine when the sub-titles appeared, so as to get them over with quickly. But the racket of it only made matters worse by drawing their attention to him. All thought of how the audience was enjoying the picture was far from his mind, but they were enjoying it just the same. They quickly saw that he was trying to pull the wool over their eyes so they began to watch for the sub-titles. When these appeared mid he put on the high speed the audience would howl with delight. He was greeted with mock applause, laughter, cat calls and other noises. Nobodv felt bad when Othello breathed his last. The program was short on comedy anyhow, and this filled the bill very nicelv. On my part, for a long time to come, I will remember the murder of Othello.

Comments: The film of Othello was probably the Film d’Arte Italian production Otello (Italy 1909), which was released in the USA in April 1910. Mr Richardson is F. H. Richardson, who wrote a technical advice column for Moving Picture World. H.F. Hoffman was a film lecturer and occasional writer for the journal.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Reminiscences of an Early Motion-Picture Operator

Source: Francis Doublier, ‘Reminiscences of an Early Motion-Picture Operator’ in Marhsall Deutelbaum (ed.), ‘Image’ on the Art and Evolution of Film (New York: Dover Publications, 1979), p. 23 (text of 1949 lecture originally reproduced in Image magazine, vol. 5 issue 6, 1956)

Text: The Dreyfus affair was still a source of great interest in those days, and out of it I worked up a little film-story which made me quite a bit of money. Piecing together a shot of some soldiers, one of a battleship, one of the Palais de Justice, and one of a tall gray-haired man, I called it L’affaire Dreyfus. People actually believed that this was a filming of the famous case, but one time after a showing a little old man came backstage and inquired of me whether it was an authentic filming of the case. I assured him that it was. The little old man then pointed out that the case had taken place in 1894, just one year before cameras were available. I then confessed my deception, and told him I had shown the pictures because business had been poor and we needed the money. Suffice to say, I never showed L’affaire Dreyfus again.

Comments: Francis Doublier (1878-1948) was a camera operator and projectionist for the Lumière company, and toured Russia with their films 1896-1898. This incident, which took place in southern Russia, refers to exhibiting films that supposedly represented the original trial of French artillery captain and victim of anti-Semitism, Alfred Dreyfus. Dreyfus’s second trial took place in 1899, and was filmed in actuality (exterior shots) and dramatised on film.

Come and See the Pictures

Source: Donald McGill, ‘Come and See the Pictures’, postcard (not sent), 1910s, from the Nicholas Hiley collection

comeandsee

Comments: Donald McGill (1875-1962) was a British postcard artist who became famous (and at times notorious) for his ‘saucy’ seaside postcards. Postcards in the 1910s often portrayed the cinema as a place suggestive of sex, though not usually involving cinema staff.

The Movies in Moscow

Source: V.P., extract from ‘The Movies in Moscow’, The Manchester Guardian, 5 January 1927, p. 16

Text: Since the vogue of “Potemkin” it has been recognised that we must reckon, both artistically and politically, with the Russian historical film. It is well to remember that under the Romanoffs historical drama was practically forbidden on the Russian stage; Alexis Tolstoy’s “Czar Feodor” was an exception, and even it was cut. With such a past, is it to be wondered at that among the hundred films made this year by the Soviets’ two big companies the majority are historical? Consider some of the titles: “The Year 1905,” “The Ninth of January,” “Pushkin and Nicolai the First,” “Rasputin’s Plot,” “The End of Koltchak,” “Ivan the Terrible,” “The Decembrists,” “Black Sunday,” “The Wings of the Slave.” As for the historical accuracy of these stories, we say the Soviets distort. The retort that they merely correct a previous distortion which silence has shaped, as a hole in the ground shapes the earth about its mouth.

When I asked my Russian friends on a recent visit to Moscow “What motion pictures are on now, and what shall I see?” they answered, “Our beautiful new film ‘Matt’ you must see. It is beautiful, as splendid as “Potemkin”; but of course it is about the revolution. It shows us again our sorrows. So we ourselves like best our newest comic picture ‘The Case of the Three Million.'”

The seats at the “Kino” were from forty kopecks to a rouble, and, wishing to be as inconspicuous a stranger as possible, I compromised on a fifty-kopeck place. Yes, said the girl at the window, the picture had just begun, but, of course, I could enter. And would I not like her to keep an extra five kopecks of the change and give me this postcard instead? The extra was for the British miners – it was not obligatory, but it would be gracious of me. The postcard was a picture of Lenin making a speech.

Then I went upstairs and found myself in a long foyer, where I was made to understand that I must wait for the next show because it was taken for granted no one would care to see a picture in the middle or disturb others already arrived. After two hours I was admitted, and found myself unpleasantly conspicuous as the only person sitting in the cheap seats; three or four rows behind me the audience began to appear, and far back, where the view was good, were all the rouble places – full. As for “The Case of the Three Million,” it was a bad film, but interesting, about a comic thief whom, at the end of his nefarious adventures, we saw tailored into a serious, self-satisfied bourgeois and sending a pitiful pickpocket who had inefficiently filched his white gloves to gaol. Another day I saw a new picture, not yet released, called “The Wings of the Slave” – of little interest, except that it was incredibly cruel. The slave was a sixteenth-century peasant who made himself a pair of wings that worked and, before the Czar and his Court, flew to the ground from a high tower, proved the principle of the airplane, and was persecuted by the Czar. He was imprisoned and his wings were smashed because it was believed that such intelligence could only come from the Devil. But this flying scene was but one scene in thousands of feet of film unwinding one horror after another – stupid horror that showed all nobles cruel and all peasants kind, and showed these things without beauty or reticence or any hint of any principle of art. This indescribable picture was shown us in a little room in a school building, and as its horrors accumulated I heard the voice of little children raised in repeating lessons, and after a little while some of them came and watched with us. Could this thing be made by men of the same community as those who had made “Potemkin”? But apparently it was the public, not the company, that knew how to appraise “Potemkin.” “Its success was a great surprise to us,” said the Sov-Kino, “a great triumph.” I was told many interesting things. The great popularity here of the American films is permitted because it was felt after the Revolution that kinos must be kept open at all costs, and there were no Russian pictures to fill them, so the American pictures were freely cut and recaptioned and distributed. Now the Russians make films of their own; but a film that only runs in Russia earns only one-third of its cost, so a foreign market will be acceptable. No noticeable stars have arisen in the Red film firmament, nor are the 300 student-players now studying in Moscow at the Kinema University encouraged to aspire to stardom, nor the stage stars encouraged to come to the screen. Balanovkaya is a name to remember; and, after Eisenstein, who is now in the provinces making a new historical film, the three best producers are Ivonosky, Kilischoff, and Pudolfkin. It was Pudolfkin who made “Matt.” …

Comments: The article is signed ‘V.P.’. Among the films mentioned are Bronenosets Potemkin / Battleship Potemkin (USSR 1925), Devyatoe yanvarya / The Ninth of January (USSR 1925), Poet and Tsar / Poet i tsar (USSR 1927), Konets Sankt-Peterburga / The End of St Petersburg (USSR 1927), Dekabristi / The Decembrists (USSR 1927), Krylya kholopa / Wings of a Serf (USSR 1926), Mat / Mother (USSR 1926), Protsess o tryokh millyonakh / The Three Million Case (USSR 1926). The Year 1905 was a planned multi-episode history from which Battleship Potemkin was the only outcome. Ivan the Terrible was title given to Wings of a Serf when shown outside the USSR. I cannot identify Rasputin’s Plot or Black Sunday. The film directors mentioned are Sergei Eisenstein, Alexander Ivanovsky, Lev Kuleshov (presumably) and Vsevolod Pudovkin. The article continues with a review of Pudovkin’s film Mat.

If I Don't Write It, Nobody Will

Source: Eric Sykes, If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 78-80

Text: If the world was not exactly our oyster, it was most definitely our winkle. Our main Saturday night attraction was the Gaumont cinema at the end of Union Street. As for the films, the question we first asked ourselves was, ‘Is it a talkie?’and the second ‘Is it in colour?’ This didn’t bother us a bit; it was Saturday night, hey, lads, hey and the devil take the hindmost.

The Gaumont cinema was a large, luxurious emporium showing the latest films and up-to-date news, not forgetting Arthur Pules at the mighty Wurlitzer. For many Oldhamers the perfect panacea for the end of a stressful working week was a Saturday night at the pictures. Just relaxing into the armchair-like seats was an experience to savour. Uniformed usherettes busily showed patrons to their seats; one usherette stood against the orchestra pit, facing the audience with a smile as she sold crisps, peanuts, chocolates and soft drinks from a tray strapped round her shoulders; another usherette patrolled the aisles, selling various brands of cigarettes and matches from a similar tray. There was a general feeling of content in the audience, excitement slowly rising under subdued babble of conversation. The audience were the same people who had gone off to work during the week in overalls, dustcoats, ragged clothing and slightly better garb for office workers, but at the Gaumont cinema they had all, without exception, dressed up for the occasion. All the man wore collars and ties and the ladies decent frocks and in many cases hats as well. What a turnaround from my dear-old Imperial days; no running up and down the aisles chasing each other and certainly no whistling, booing or throwing orange peel at the screen during the sloppy kissing bits. In all fairness, though, I must add that it was only at the Saturday morning shows and we were children enjoying a few moments not under supervision or parental guidance. In fact when I was old enough to go to the Imperial for the evening films the audience even then dressed up and enjoyed the films in an adult fashion.

Back to the sublime at the Gaumont cinema; as the lights went down, so did the level of conversation. A spotlight hit the centre of the orchestra pit and slowly, like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the balding head of Arthur Pules would appear as he played his signature on the mighty Wurlitzer. He was a portly figure in immaculate white tie and tails, hands fluttering over the keys and shiny black pumps dancing over the pedals as he rose into full view, head swivelling from side to side, smiling and nodding to acknowledge the applause; but for all his splendid sartorial elegance, having his back to the audience was unfortunate as the relentless spotlight picked out the shape of his corsets. Regular patrons awaited this moment with glee, judging by the sniggers and pointing fingers. We were no exception; having all this pomp and circumstance brought down by the shape of a common pair of corsets on a man was always a good start to the evening’s entertainment.

At this point the words of a popular melody would flash on to the screen – for instance, the ‘in’ song of the day, ‘It Happened on the Beach at Bali Bali’ – and, after a frilly arpeggio to give some of the audience time to put their glasses on, a little ball of light settled on the first word of the song. In this case the first word was ‘It’; then it bounced onto ‘Happened’; then it made three quick hops over ‘on the Beach at’; then it slowed down for ‘Bali Bali’. The women sang with gusto and the men just smiled and nodded.

Happily this musical interlude didn’t last too long. Arthur Pules, the organist, was lured back into his pit of darkness and the curtains opened on the big wide screen. The films at the Gaumont were a great improvement on the grainy pictures at the Imperial, and so they should have been: after all, the film industry had made great strides in the eight years since John and I had sat in the pennies, dry mouthed as the shadow moved across the wall to clobber one of the unsuspecting actors.

After two hours of heavy sighs and wet eyes ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the lights in the auditorium came up, bringing us all to our feet as the drum roll eased into the National Anthem … no talking, no fidgeting, simply a mark of respect for our King and Queen.

Comments: Eric Sykes (1923-2012) was a British comic actor and writer, who wrote and performed widely over many years for film, television and radio, including the 1970s sitcom Sykes. He was born and raised in Oldham, Lancashire, and at the time of this recollection was in his mid-teens, having left school aged fourteen. John was his half-brother. The Gaumont cinema in Oldham was at corner the King Street and Union Street, having been re-built as a cinema in 1937 out of an earlier theatre.

If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will

Source: Eric Sykes, If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 78-80

Text: If the world was not exactly our oyster, it was most definitely our winkle. Our main Saturday night attraction was the Gaumont cinema at the end of Union Street. As for the films, the question we first asked ourselves was, ‘Is it a talkie?’and the second ‘Is it in colour?’ This didn’t bother us a bit; it was Saturday night, hey, lads, hey and the devil take the hindmost.

The Gaumont cinema was a large, luxurious emporium showing the latest films and up-to-date news, not forgetting Arthur Pules at the mighty Wurlitzer. For many Oldhamers the perfect panacea for the end of a stressful working week was a Saturday night at the pictures. Just relaxing into the armchair-like seats was an experience to savour. Uniformed usherettes busily showed patrons to their seats; one usherette stood against the orchestra pit, facing the audience with a smile as she sold crisps, peanuts, chocolates and soft drinks from a tray strapped round her shoulders; another usherette patrolled the aisles, selling various brands of cigarettes and matches from a similar tray. There was a general feeling of content in the audience, excitement slowly rising under subdued babble of conversation. The audience were the same people who had gone off to work during the week in overalls, dustcoats, ragged clothing and slightly better garb for office workers, but at the Gaumont cinema they had all, without exception, dressed up for the occasion. All the man wore collars and ties and the ladies decent frocks and in many cases hats as well. What a turnaround from my dear-old Imperial days; no running up and down the aisles chasing each other and certainly no whistling, booing or throwing orange peel at the screen during the sloppy kissing bits. In all fairness, though, I must add that it was only at the Saturday morning shows and we were children enjoying a few moments not under supervision or parental guidance. In fact when I was old enough to go to the Imperial for the evening films the audience even then dressed up and enjoyed the films in an adult fashion.

Back to the sublime at the Gaumont cinema; as the lights went down, so did the level of conversation. A spotlight hit the centre of the orchestra pit and slowly, like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the balding head of Arthur Pules would appear as he played his signature on the mighty Wurlitzer. He was a portly figure in immaculate white tie and tails, hands fluttering over the keys and shiny black pumps dancing over the pedals as he rose into full view, head swivelling from side to side, smiling and nodding to acknowledge the applause; but for all his splendid sartorial elegance, having his back to the audience was unfortunate as the relentless spotlight picked out the shape of his corsets. Regular patrons awaited this moment with glee, judging by the sniggers and pointing fingers. We were no exception; having all this pomp and circumstance brought down by the shape of a common pair of corsets on a man was always a good start to the evening’s entertainment.

At this point the words of a popular melody would flash on to the screen – for instance, the ‘in’ song of the day, ‘It Happened on the Beach at Bali Bali’ – and, after a frilly arpeggio to give some of the audience time to put their glasses on, a little ball of light settled on the first word of the song. In this case the first word was ‘It’; then it bounced onto ‘Happened’; then it made three quick hops over ‘on the Beach at’; then it slowed down for ‘Bali Bali’. The women sang with gusto and the men just smiled and nodded.

Happily this musical interlude didn’t last too long. Arthur Pules, the organist, was lured back into his pit of darkness and the curtains opened on the big wide screen. The films at the Gaumont were a great improvement on the grainy pictures at the Imperial, and so they should have been: after all, the film industry had made great strides in the eight years since John and I had sat in the pennies, dry mouthed as the shadow moved across the wall to clobber one of the unsuspecting actors.

After two hours of heavy sighs and wet eyes ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the lights in the auditorium came up, bringing us all to our feet as the drum roll eased into the National Anthem … no talking, no fidgeting, simply a mark of respect for our King and Queen.

Comments: Eric Sykes (1923-2012) was a British comic actor and writer, who wrote and performed widely over many years for film, television and radio, including the 1970s sitcom Sykes. He was born and raised in Oldham, Lancashire, and at the time of this recollection was in his mid-teens, having left school aged fourteen. John was his half-brother. The Gaumont cinema in Oldham was at corner the King Street and Union Street, having been re-built as a cinema in 1937 out of an earlier theatre.

The Picturegoers

Source: David Lodge, The Picturegoers (London: Penguin, 1993 [orig. pub. 1960]), pp. 18-20

The Picturegoers (from Wikipedia) Text: ‘Take us in, Mister?’

The question startled him.

‘I beg your pardon?’ he said politely, and peered down through his spectacles at the group of rough dirty children who surrounded him.

‘G’orn, guv, take’s in.’

Father Kipling smiled uncertainly, and decided on an I’m-in-the-same-boat-as-you-fellows approach.

‘Well, really, you know, I don’t think that I can afford it.’ Things had come to a pretty pass when children begged unashamedly on the streets for money to indulge in luxuries such as the cinema. He glanced meaningfully at his companions, and began to explain.

‘We don’t want you to pay for us, Mister. We just want you to take us in.’

‘Jus’ say we’re wiv yer,’ backed up another.

”Ere’s the money, Guv.’ A grimy, shrivelled paw held up some silver coins.

‘But why?’ asked Father Kipling, bewildered.

The leader took a deep breath.

‘Well yer see, Mister, it’s an “A” and you can’t get into an “A”….’

Father Kipling listened carefully to the explanation. At the end of it he said:

‘The really, you’re not allowed to see this film unless accompanied by a parent or guardian?’

‘That’s right, Mister.’

‘Well then, I’m afraid I can’t help you, because I’m certainly not your parent, and I can’t honestly say I’m your guardian. Can I now?’ He smiled nervously at the chief urchin, who turned away in disgust, and formed up his entourage to petition another cinema-goer. Father Kipling stared after them for a moment, the hurriedly made good his escape.

Inside the foyer he was faced with a difficult decision: the choice of seats. The prices all seemed excessively high, and he was conscious of a certain moral obligation to go in the cheapest. On the other hand, this was a rare, if not unique occasion, and as he had few enough treats, he was perhaps entitled to indulge himself to the extent of a comfortable seat. He couldn’t choose the middle price, because there were four. As he hesitated he caught the eye of the commissionaire staring at him, and he hastily purchased a ticket for the second most expensive seat.

For the next few minutes he seemed to be in the grip of a nightmare. When the young woman at the swing door had rudely snatched the ticket from his hand, and just as rudely thrust a severed portion of it back again, he was propelled into a pit of almost total darkness and stifling heat. A torch was shone on his ticket, and a listless voice intoned:

‘Over to your left.’

In the far recesses of the place another torch flickered like a distant lighthouse, and he set out towards it. When he couldn’t see it he stopped; then it would flicker impatiently again, and he would set off once more. Beneath his feet he crunched what appeared to be seashells; he gasped in an atmosphere reeking of tobacco and human perspiration. Dominating all, the screen boomed and shifted. At last he reached the young woman with the torch. But his ordeal was not over. She indicated a seat in the middle of a full row. The gesture was treacherously familiar. Horror of horrors! He had genuflected! The usherette stared. Blushing furiously he forced his way into the row, stumbled, panicked, threshed, kicked his way to the empty seat, leaving a trail of execration and protest in his wake. He wanted to die, to melt away. Never again would he come to the cinema. Never again.

Comments: David Lodge (born 1935) is a British novelist and academic, who often writes on Roman Catholic themes. The Picturegoers is his first novel. The novel follows the visits to a London cinema in the late 1950s of a group of characters, using their thoughts and experiences to comment on religion and a changing society, reflected in the decline of cinema itself. Father Kipling has gone to the cinema under the misapprehension that he is to see The Song of Bernadette. Children asking adults to accompany them into the cinema so that they could see ‘A’ certificate films was a common activity in the 1950s.

Bioscoop

Source: Louis Couperus, ‘Bioscoop’, Haagsche Post, 2 December 1916, English translation by Ivo Blom in ‘North and South: two early texts about cinema-going by Louis Couperus’, Film History vol. 20, issue 2 (2008), pp. 127-132

Text: The contrast between North and South manifests itself in many different ways. At the Bioscoop, too. First of all, in the South the Bioscoop is called Cinematografo in Italy or Cine in Spain. Well, this difference is negligible. But in both southern countries the difference is great as compared with cinema in Germany and the Netherlands. As soon as we go North, the cinema becomes something of a theater, becomes pretentiously heavy. You are received by employees in braided frocks, your coat and stick are taken from you, you are allocated a certain, fixed seat, you are not allowed to stand up, you notice everyone around you in the shimmering darkness in their seats for hours, there is an intermission … Nothing of all this in Italy or Spain. Not only is the cinematografo or the cine much cheaper than the bioscoop, but the whole interior is more light-hearted, comfortable, accommodating. The illuminated foyer which you can see from the street is inviting, with a salon orchestra (albeit not very attractive to me personally), and a reading table. To enter when it rains, when I don’t want to go to a bar, when I have paraded around enough, when I am tired, bored … I pay 30 centimes and whenever I want to look rich, 50 centimes. I cannot go above that, unless for a world famous film such as Quo Vadis? Even for 50 centimes – both in Italy and Spain – my seat is too chic, so terribly chic, that I prefer to pay 30 centimes … Around me are casual, very decent people, so decent that if I want to see the less decent, I need to descend into places where I pay only 20 or 15 or 10 centimes. I see the same films, but … one week later. But everywhere the experience is light and capricious, an ephemeral joy, while in the North cinema has shut itself inside an impenetrable shell. Really, when I walk into a cinema I want to do it in a light-hearted and casual way. I’ll stand up for a quarter of an hour if necessary, just to see Max Linder or a scene of the war, and then leave again. Dear heavens, you really notice when you are in the North, as soon as you are away from Italy: in Munich or … The Hague. There is no question of standing up; everything is so solemn and heavy, that your first casual impulse to see a film is immediately crushed. In Italy I saw the whole war in Tripoli screened before me, surrounded by a decent officer-with-family audience, without reserving seats and always for 30 centimes each day. Here, I am hesitant to go and see The Battle of the Somme because I don’t want to reserve a seat. I want to keep my coat on, even keep my wet umbrella with me; I’d rather stand than sit; in particular I don’t want to turn my cinema joy into a solemn visit; rather I desire an unpretentious, casual ‘walking in’, a passing pleasure, which should not last more than twenty minutes at the most.

Oh North and South, not even in the bioscoop and cinematograph do you have anything in common.

But now the analysis. Why is it so different in the North and the South? Because of the heavy soul of the Northerners? Of course, but also because ‘street life’ does not exist in the North and because in the South ‘walking into a cinema’ is a part of everyday life. Just as in the North it is not allowed in a lunchroom bar to toss off a little glass of vermouth standing up, so it is not normal to consider the cinema as a short halt in your flanerie, as a shelter from the rain, as a short, oh, so short, distraction from the melancholy which can so affect the flaneur when he is lonely, wandering among the busy crowd. And so he longs for Max Linder or Charles Prince; yes, even some lively pictures of actuality, whose photographic ugliness, teasing and screeching, scratch the silently suffering soul of the purposeless street wanderer when the winter twilight hour nears, when the shopping lights and street lanterns are starting to flame and the pain of wistfulness hurts him, without really knowing why …

It is then that you lose yourself – not in a bar where the electric light shines mercilessly – and where you need to drink something; it is then that you lose yourself, in the South, in the cinematograph, where you can watch pictures as if still on your mother’s lap.

Comments: Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was a Dutch novelist and poet and is considered one of the leading figures in Dutch literature. He wrote about films in his regular ‘Bioscoop’ column for the Dutch newspaper Haagsche Post. The films referred to are Quo Vadis? (Italy 1913) and The Battle of the Somme (UK 1916). Max Linder and Charles Prince were French film comedians, the latter known on-screen as Rigadin. Bioscoop is the Dutch word for a cinema building, taken from the English word Bioscope. My thanks to Ivo Blom for his permission to reproduce his translation, and to Deac Rossell for alerting me to the Film History article. Ellipses are as given in the Film History translation.

The Front Rows

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Peformance VII: The Front Rows’, Close Up vol. II no. 1, January 1928, pp. 59-64

Text: As the heavy drops fell and the first cannonade rumbled through the upper layers of the heatwave I saw close at hand garish placards and wide open doors. Entering, following the torch on and on through the darkness until we could go no further was for retreating and spending the hour elsewhere. But as the torch-bearer stood aside for me to pass to a seat, the light of the screen fell full upon the occupants of the front row: three small boys, one collapsed in the attitude of sleep, and indeed, I saw as I sat down, soundly sleeping, propped against the shoulder of my neighbour whose thin face, sheened by nervous excitement, lifted a foolish gaze towards the glare. Here was the worst. Here indeed was “the pictures” as black villainy. I remembered all I had heard and tried to forget on the subject of the evils of the cinema, as it is, for small children and especially for the children in the front rows. All the week these boys were penned in stuffy class-rooms. And this was their Saturday afternoon, their time to reverse engines and go full steam backwards into savagery, make their street a jungle and learn from each other the lessons of the jungle. Or perhaps their time for becoming boy scouts. And here they were, “ruining nerves and eyesight and breathing stifling air” and learning either less than nothing or more than was good.

But the air was not stifling. In spite of the weather the place had a certain coolness and when I raised my eyes to the screen I had no sense of blinding glare or effort to focus. There was indeed no possibility of focussing a scene so immense that one could only move about in it from point to point and realise that the business of the expert front-rower is to find the centre of action and follow it as best he can. Of the whole: as something to hold in the eye he can have no more idea than has the proverbial fly of the statue over which he crawls. But at least as far as I could tell there was no feeling of glare or of eyestrain. Though it may be that the interest of making discoveries put the censor off guard. It seemed at any rate that unless it be bad for young eyes to gaze for three hours at a large mild brilliance close at hand, the eye-strain alarmists were disposed of. And if indeed it is bad, it is for the public health people to legislate for an increase of the distance between the screen and the front rows. But supposing the worst to exist only in the imaginations of the officiously fussy, what I wanted if possible to discover was just what it was these three boys got from the discreet immensity so closely confronting us. The one nearest to me certainly nothing more than unhealthy excitement, but he poor soul whether pent in school or ramping in alley, called for special help before he could get anything anywhere and was therefore disqualified to act as a test. Left to himself the poor moth was fated merely to gravitate.

The enormous bears moved in foolish gravity upon their cliffs in a scene too dispersed to be impressive. But they were of course bears, real bears. Bears in movement. They passed and soon we were looking at the deck of a ship in mid-ocean. Crew, deeds, drama, a centre of action moving from point to point. Suddenly, before the weight of a funny man in difficulties and at bay, a portion of the gunwale swung round in the manner of a gate upon its hinges and held him dangling in mid-air above the seething main. From the endmost boy, the one beyond the sleeper, came a shriek I can never forget. It filled the silent hall, one pure full high note that curved swiftly up to the next and ceased staccato; blissful terror in a single abrupt sound. People behind craned forward hoping for a happy glimpse of the face of a child in transport. The man on the ship swung back to safety and out again and again the cry pealed forth. This time I caught sight of the blood-thirsty little villain. A perfect gamin, rotund. Clear-eyed, clean-skinned, bolt upright with pudgy fists on knees to watch the event. We had that yell four times, the outflung utterly unselfconscious being of a child attained, the kind of sound Chaplin listens for when he is testing a film.

It changed the direction of my meditation on the front rows.

Since that far-off incident I have seen and heard a good deal of the front rows and much as I should like to see widened the gap between them and the screen I no longer desire to send the juvenile front rowers to amuse or bore themselves elsewhere. Thinking them back into a filmless world and particularly into filmless winters, I am glad of their presence on the easy terms that are compensation for their inconveniences. Presently no doubt there will be children’s cinemas with films provided by the good folks who like to believe they know both what children need and what they like. Before this prospect I hesitate thinking of the children’s hour upon the wireless. But such films, any films put together for children regarded as dear little darlings, inviting their own fate will have their little day and cease to be. Most children unless forcibly excluded from all other films, will refuse to sit them out. There are plenty of people about whose love for children is tinctured with a decent respect. Let us hope that some of them are even now meditating possible films.

Meanwhile the front rowers of all ages, the All-out responsive pit and gallery of the cinema are getting their education and preparing, are indeed already a little more than prepared for the films that are to come. Anyone visiting from time to time a local cinema whose audience is almost as unvarying as its films, cannot fail to have remarked the development of the front rowers, their growth in critical grace. Their audible running commentary is one of the many incidental interests of a poor film. It is not only that today the lingering close-up of the sweet girl with tragically staring tear-filled eyes is apt to be greeted with jeers, and the endless love-making of the endless lovers with groans. It is not only that today’s front rowers recognise all the stock characters at a glance and can predict developments. It is that the quality of the attention and collaboration that almost any stock drama can still command is changed. For although attention never wavers and collaboration is still hearty and still the sleek and sleekly-tailored malefactor is greeted at his first and innocent seeming entry as a wrong’un and the hero, racing life in hand through a hundred hairbreadth escapes to the rescue is still loudly applauded and applause breaks forth anew when the villain is flung over the cliff, the front rows are no longer thrilled quite as they were in their earlier silent days by all the hocus-pocus. They come level-headed and serenely talking through drama that a year ago would have held them dizzy and breathless. Even a novel situation does not too much disturb them. They attend, refuse to be puzzled, watch for the working out. And films “above their heads”, if the characters are fairly convincing, the acting fairly good and the whole fairly well-knit, do not bore them. They see, possibly not all that is intended, but if quality is there, they see and assist. It is never the goodish to good film that produces fidgets, giggles, audible yawns, waitings and gnashings of teeth. Only to the film that is halt maimed and blind, no matter what magnificence it may present, will these tributes be paid. In the film as in life, the what matters less than the how. All this of course within reasonable limits. There are certain films the front rows prefer above all others. And of some kinds they can apparently never have too much. Comics for instance. And family drama of all kinds. Family drama must be very feeble indeed to fail to capture. This is hardly surprising. There is very little about family life the front rows do not know. Animals too, tame or wild, are greatly beloved though there is no longer a thrill to be got from the seedy old lion trotting half-heartedly from room to room after prey known to be in no danger. And the American language. Once it was part of the puzzles and bewilderments of “the pictures”, but is there now a child in London who cannot at the right moment say: “Oh, boy” and read and delightedly understand each idiom, and grin through the Hollywood caption that is metaphor running amuk and crammed with facetiousness?

They are there in their millions, the front rowers, a vast audience born and made in the last few years, initiated, disciplined, and waiting.

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. This entry has been posted to mark the very welcome addition of Close Up to the Internet Archive by the Media History Digital Library.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

This is a movie that ends in the middle…

Source: Terry Gallacher, “This is a movie that ends in the middle…”, from Terence Gallacher’s Recollections of a Career in Film, http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/”this-is-a-movie-that-ends-in-the-middle-“/, published 29 December 2010

Text: In the thirties, forties and fifties, there was always visual entertainment available in the cinemas. In Tottenham and Edmonton in London, we had a number of cinemas at our disposal.

There was the Tottenham Palace, which was almost opposite Chestnut Road, Tottenham, which had, originally, been a theatre from 1908 and a cinema from 1926. There was the Bruce Grove Cinema which was just up Bruce Grove Road on the right hand side past the railway bridge. This was built in 1921 as a cinema, then, of course running silent movies.

Then there was the Pavilion which was a very old single story cinema and was situated opposite Argyle Road next to what was Charrington’s Brewery, in Tottenham.

The cinema was partially demolished around 1937 and rebuilt as the Florida, a bright new cinema which opened in 1938. It held 529 people. However, it, too, has been demolished. In Edmonton at the junction of Fore Street, Silver Street (now called Sterling Way) and Angel Road, there were three cinemas. The Regal Edmonton, was opened in 1934 and was extremely well designed. It was to operate as a theatre as well as a cinema. It had sixteen dressing rooms and the largest revolving stage in Europe. It had an audience capacity of almost 3,000.

In contrast to that was the Hippodrome which was just up Angel Road on the right. It was very old, run down and known as the “flea-pit” or “The Hip”. An original theatre , it would have opened for the movies at a very early stage. It was an extremely awful place which had not been given any attention since the silent days. Then there was the Alcazar, another of the exotic names used for cinemas in those days. It would take me forty years to discover what it meant. Al Casr is Arabic for “The Castle”. This was a medium sized cinema located in Fore Street, just north of the Silver Street junction. The frontage was built in the style of an Arab fort. It had glass doors all along its forty yard frontage. The foyer ran the full width of the building and on the dividing wall between the foyer and the auditorium were huge mirrors about six feet wide and from ceiling to floor.

The Alcazar was destroyed by a bomb in August 1940. Two days before War was declared, I was evacuated to Mildenhall in Suffolk with my elder brother. The local cinema in Mildenhall was the Comet and it only showed old films. We returned home for Christmas 1939. While we were away, the Tottenham cinemas were showing the latest films. My brother and I missed them, particularly Gunga Din and The Four Feathers.

We discovered that The Ritz at Turnpike Lane were showing both films in one showing. Off we went. In April, we had returned home and when the bomb went off at the Alcazar, I was woken up. It was the next day that we found out where the bomb had struck. We went off to see the damage. All the glass was blown out of the front and the foyer looked in a very bad state. There was no doubt that it would be a long time before it would re-open. In fact, it never did. There was a theory that the German bomber crew mistook the junction of Fore Street, Silver Street and Angel Road, together with the three cinemas, Alcazar, Regal and Hippodrome, to be an airbase. The cinemas might have looked like hangers. However, such theories abounded in those days.

While attending the cinema, at that time, if there should there be an air raid warning, it would show on the screen that the siren had sounded. I do not recall anyone leaving the cinema as a result of that information.

In the Spring of 1946, my friends and I went to the site where they were clearing away the bomb damage. We knew that there were some good things to collect from there. At the time, we were building a canoe and raw materials were extremely hard to come by. In the Alcazar, the Foyer mirrors had been backed by half-inch laminated plywood. Such material had not been seen since before the War. We bought a complete sheet for 10/- (50 pence).

Finally, there was the Edmonton Empire which was on a hill which had been built to take a bridge over the railway which ran underneath and connected the Edmonton – Southbury line to the Angel Road – Ponders End line. Now the railway line, the hill, the bridge and the Empire are long gone and the site forms the South East corner of Edmonton Green.

There were advantages in having all these cinemas. The Palace, the Bruce Grove and the Pavilion (Florida) all showed different programmes, but the Regal showed the same as the Palace, the Alcazar the same as the Bruce Grove. The Edmonton Empire seemed to be different to all of them. As for the Hippodrome, it showed whatever the distributors would allow it to have. Probably a set of films they did not need to pass on to another cinema somewhere.

Programmes ran from Monday to Wednesday, Thursday to Saturday with another film, usually an old one, showing on Sunday. With the combination of the various cinemas, it was possible to go to a different cinema every night.

While visiting these cinemas, I was able to watch newsreels provided by a variety of producers, such as Gaumont British, Movietonews, Pathe News and Paramount News.

In those days, we had what was known as “continuous performance” which meant that the cinema would start showing a film at around one o’clock in the afternoon to be immediately followed by the main film, which was immediately followed by the first film and the shorts and newsreel. The screen was showing moving pictures from one o’clock until the close of programmes at ten-thirty at night. In effect this meant that people would come in whenever they could. They would pick up the story and see the programme through until they reached the point when they entered. They would then leave. Hence the amusing song by Danny Kaye which had a line which said “This is a movie that ends in the middle for the benefit of the people who came in the middle”.

I would not think these casual comings and goings were by complete choice, I imagine that the picture goers had a good reason to go into a cinemas to be confronted, on arrival, with a film that only had another ten minutes to run.

Of course the result was that throughout the performance, people were coming in and going out. Other disturbances occurred when the ice-cream girl came down the centre isles, in the circle and the stalls, to take up station prior to a short interval. She would arrive before the end of a film and would still be selling when the next film started. During the running of the films, she would still be walking up and down the aisles selling ice creams.

The system of “continuous performance” also allowed that a person could go in at the afternoon start and stay in the cinema until it closed, provided they were not discovered. People were only thrown out of the cinema if they misbehaved.

If a film was showing that had had good reports, it was quite common for the cinema to become full and there would be a queue formed outside. There would be a separate queue for each price range of ticket. We all became experts at judging whether it was worthwhile joining the queue or whether to come back another day.

From the late thirties, cinema entrance fees ranged from 1/3d (6 pence) to 1/9d (9 pence) and later from 2/6d (12.5 pence) to 3/6d (17 pence). In 1940, the price of a ticket to the Bruce Grove cinema was 1/9d, but, when they showed “Gone with the Wind”, which runs four hours, they put up the price of a ticket to 2/6d.

For a while, and from time to time, the Regal in Edmonton provided a live variety show. I remember seeing a Music Hall act called “The Seven Eliots” perform, they were musicians and, I think, acrobats. At the organ there would be Sidney Torch who would appear, playing, out of the depths. Later he made a name for himself as an all round musician, conductor and music arranger.

When I see, on television, some of the old films that we paid to go to see, and even queued up for, I often wonder what we saw in them, and yet we enjoyed them at the time. Unlike today’s television schedule, there was always something to look forward to.

Comments: Terence Gallacher is a former newsreel and television news manager and editor who now documents his career through his website http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com. The post is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author.