Il Cinematografo

Source: Louis Couperus, ‘Il Cinematografo’, Het Vaderland, 22 April 1911, pp. 1-2, 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 following night, while my wife is exchanging small talk with the German Generals’ wives and Majors’ widows – in the drawing room of the pension house – I am walking around at a loose end, ‘with my soul under my arm’, and with that same soul I walk into a cinematografo, for the sum of 20 Centesimi. I just happen to like contrasts. I just happen to like to sit one night, chic, with my wife, on a rather expensive poltrone in a gala performance, and the next night visit those public amusements where the common man for a few Soldi gives himself the illusion of something very beautiful sad, gay, and in particular sentimental. I once read that Edison invented the cinema to give the common-man his theater. I entirely agree with that, but … But what I want to say, I won’t say right away. First I will describe what the waiting room looks like … because, if you have paid 30 Centesimi, you don’t wait: there are always places, however, if you want something cheaper, for two Soldi less, you need to wait … in the waiting room. You’ll understand, dear reader, that I am frugal that I will wait, right … [e]specially because the waiting amuses me, or rather interest me … This waiting room is very dirty. People often spit on the ground with great gobs, and nobody minds. The ground is covered not only with saliva but also with tangerine peel, used matches, cigarette butts and torn entrance tickets. On a platform is a palm-court orchestra of some pale girls dressed in white. All around are test-your-strength machines, shooting galleries, candy automats …Chairs are against the wall; every chair is taken; the place is full to the brim. Look at all those tired faces that sharply light up like ghosts in the cruel and stark electric light. These are not the Roman marchionesses, princesses, loaded with their family jewels; these are not gentlemen in tails and elegant lieutenants shining in gold; this is not the noble spawn of the Duke of the Abruzzi. This is the tired waiting of the ‘common man’ – with wife and kids, often with babies – after the common man has finished working. He is out, he is going to amuse himself; he wants above all to see something. When he is out with his family, it easily costs him almost a Lira. But he gets a lot in return. He starts with resting on a chair, in front of an enormous ‘mirror’, which, ghostlike, reflects to him his pale, tired face. He also perceives electric light on walls with art nouveau patterns and he hears the din of the palm-court orchestra. When he is finally allowed to enter, then he, his worn-out wife and worldly-wise children, first see a dal vero: a parade or an instructive industry film or a trip through Norway or Switzerland. Secondly, a sentimental drama, which moves their petty bourgeois souls to tears in such a marvellous way: stolen children, noble little chimney sweeps, virtue especially rewarded … And now and then something of opera or true comedy, but without the words and with no more music thank the plonky piano accompaniment. And as life is so merry and gay, the delicious show ends with a farce, which often consists of drunken men and people tumbling over each other and running after one other through fields and roads: oh such merry farces, drawn from lovely merry life! The little citizen, for his four soldi, is educated, has a tear squeezed from the eye, and has his ‘laughing muscle’ tickled. Alright, I allow him that. I allow him this cheap theater of Edison. But … And now I will say it … Why, after he is educated, cannot the tear be squeezed from his eye with beauty; the laughing muscle tickled … with grace? Does it have to happen – is it not possible to let it happen – but with coarse, false, weepy sentimentality … and with an even more coarse, more false, drunkard’s burlesque?

The show is over. I have stayed until the end. And not like yesterday, in the chic Opera, left before the end. It is because I wanted to see that distressing exodus of common men, with their pale, spent faces, arm in arm with their worn-out wives, behind them their worldly-wise children. And they seemed even more tired than when I saw them in the waiting room. They didn’t seem to be cheered up by the vulgar drunkard’s farce. Reader, forgive me that I led you to a gala night of the Cinematografo … I like contrasts, you know.

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, and occasionally elsewhere as in this piece on visiting a Rome cinema for Het Vaderland, which is part of a series ‘Pages from my diary’. The previous ‘diary’ article had covered a visit to the Teatro Costanzi in Rome to see Verdi’s opera Macbeth, alluded to here (the Roman marchionesses etc). 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.

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.

Kiss Me Again, Stranger

Source: Daphne Du Maurier, extract from ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’ in Kiss Me Again Stranger: A Collection of Eight Stories Long and Short (New York: Doubleday, 1953 [orig. pub. The Apple Tree, Gollancz, 1952]), pp. 9-12

Text: I’m one for routine. I like to get on with my job, and then when the day’s work’s over settle down to a paper and a smoke and a bit of music on the wireless, variety or something of the sort, and then turn in early. I never had much use for girls, not even when I was doing my time in the Army. I was out in the Middle East, too, Port Said and that.

No, I was happy enough living with the Thompsons, carrying on much the same day after day, until that one night, when it happened. Nothing’s been the same since. Nor ever will be. I don’t know …

The Thompsons had gone to see their married daughter up at Highgate. They asked me if I’d like to go along, but somehow I didn’t fancy barging in, so instead of staying home alone after leaving the garage I went down to the picture palace and, taking a look at the poster, saw it was cowboy and Indian stuff — there was a picture of a cowboy sticking a knife into the Indian’s guts. I like that — proper baby I am for westerns — so I paid my one and twopence and went inside. I handed my slip of paper to the usherette and said, “Back row, please,” because I like sitting far back and leaning my head against the board.

Well, then I saw her. They dress the girls up no end in some of these places, velvet tarns and all, making them proper guys. They hadn’t made a guy out of this one, though. She had copper hair, page-boy style I think they call it, and blue eyes, the kind that look short-sighted but see further than you think, and go dark by night, nearly black, and her mouth was sulky-looking, as if she was fed up, and it would take someone giving her the world to make her smile. She hadn’t freckles, nor a milky skin, but warmer than that, more like a peach, and natural too. She was small and slim, and her velvet coat — blue it was — fitted her close, and the cap on the back of her head showed up her copper hair.

I bought a programme — not that I wanted one, but to delay going in through the curtain — and I said to her, “What’s the picture like?”

She didn’t look at me. She just went on staring into nothing, at the opposite wall. “The knifing’s amateur,” she said, “but you can always sleep.”

I couldn’t help laughing. I could see she was serious though. She wasn’t trying to have me on or anything.

“That’s no advertisement,” I said. “What if the manager heard you?”

Then she looked at me. She turned those blue eyes in my direction; still fed-up they were, not interested, but there was something in them I’d not seen before, and I’ve never seen it since, a kind of laziness, like someone waking from a long dream and glad to find you there. Cats’ eyes have that gleam sometimes when you stroke them, and they purr and curl themselves into a ball and let you do anything you want. She looked at me this way a moment, and there was a smile lurking somewhere behind her mouth if you gave it a chance, and tearing my slip of paper in half, she said, “I’m not paid to advertise. I’m paid to look like this and lure you inside.”

She drew aside the curtains and flashed her torch in the darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. It was pitch black, like it always is at first until you get used to it and begin to make out the shapes of the other people sitting there, but there were two great heads on the screen and some chap saying to the other, “If you don’t come clean I’ll put a bullet through you,” and somebody broke a pane of glass and a woman screamed.

“Looks all right to me,” I said, and began groping for somewhere to sit.

She said, “This isn’t the picture, it’s the trailer for next week,” and she flicked on her torch and showed me a seat in the back row, one away from the gangway.

I sat through the advertisements and the newsreel, and then some chap came and played the organ, and the colours of the curtains over the screen went purple and gold and green — funny, I suppose they think they have to give you your money’s worth — and looking around, I saw the house was half empty — and I guessed the girl had been right, the big picture wasn’t going to be much, and that’s why nobody much was there.

Just before the hall went dark again she came sauntering down the aisle. She had a tray of ice creams, but she didn’t even bother to call them out and try to sell them. She could have been walking in her sleep, so when she went up the other aisle I beckoned to her.

“Got a sixpenny one?” I said.

She looked across at me. I might have been something dead under her feet, and then she must have recognised me, because that half smile came back again, and the lazy look in the eye, and she walked round the back of the seats to me.

“Wafer or cornet?” she said.

I didn’t want either, to tell the truth. I just wanted to buy something from her and keep her talking.

“Which do you recommend?” I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders. “Cornets last longer,” she said, and put one in my hand before I had time to give her my choice.

“How about one for you too?” I said.

“No, thanks,” she said, “I saw them made.”

And she walked off, and the place went dark, and there I was sitting with a great sixpenny cornet in my hand, looking a fool. The damn thing slopped all over the edge of the holder, spilling on to my shirt, and I had to ram the frozen stuff into my mouth as quick as I could for fear it would all go on my knees, and I turned sideways, because someone came and sat in the empty seat beside the gangway.

I finished it at last, and cleaned myself up with my pocket handkerchief, and then concentrated on the story flashing across the screen. It was a western all right, carts lumbering over prairies, and a train full of bullion being held to ransom, and the heroine in breeches one moment and full evening dress the next. That’s the way pictures should be, not a bit like real life at all; but as I watched the story I began to notice the whiff of scent in the air, and I didn’t know what it was or where it came from, but it was there just the same. There was a man to the right of me, and on my left were two empty seats, and it certainly wasn’t the people in front, and I couldn’t keep turning round and sniffing.

I’m not a great one for liking scent. It’s too often cheap and nasty, but this was different. There was nothing stale about it, or stuffy, or strong; it was like the flowers they sell up in the West End in the big flower shops before you get them on the barrows — three bob a bloom sort of touch, rich chaps buy them for actresses and such — and it was so darn good, the smell of it there in that murky old picture palace full of cigarette smoke, that it nearly drove me mad.

At last I turned right round in my seat, and I spotted where it came from. It came from the girl, the usherette; she was leaning on the back board behind me, her arms folded across it.

“Don’t fidget,” she said. “You’re wasting one and twopence. Watch the screen.”

But not out loud so that anyone could hear. In a whisper, for me alone. I couldn’t help laughing to myself. The cheek of it! I knew where the scent came from now, and somehow it made me enjoy the picture more. It was as though she was beside me in one of the empty seats and we were looking at the story together.

When it was over and the lights went on, I saw I’d sat through the last showing and it was nearly ten. Everyone was clearing off for the night. So I waited a bit, and then she came down with her torch and started squinting under the seats to see if anybody had dropped a glove or a purse, the way they do and only remember about afterwards when they get home, and she took no more notice of me than if I’d been a rag which no one would bother to pick up.

I stood up in the back row, alone — the house was clear now — and when she came to me she said, “Move over, you’re blocking the gangway,” and flashed about with her torch, but there was nothing there, only an empty packet of Player’s which the cleaners would throw away in the morning. Then she straightened herself and looked me up and down, and taking off the ridiculous cap from the back of her head that suited her so well, she fanned herself with it and said, “Sleeping here tonight?” and then went off, whistling under her breath, and disappeared through the curtains.

It was proper maddening. I’d never been taken so much with a girl in my life. I went into the vestibule after her, but she had gone through a door to the back, behind the box-office place, and the commissionaire chap was already getting the doors to and fixing them for the night. I went out and stood in the street and waited. I felt a bit of a fool, because the odds were that she would come out with a bunch of others, the way girls do. There was the one who had sold me my ticket, and I dare say there were other usherettes up in the balcony, and perhaps a cloakroom attendant too, and they’d all be giggling together, and I wouldn’t have the nerve to go up to her …

Comments: Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989) was a British novelist, short story writer and playwright. Her collection of short stories, The Apple Tree was published in the USA under the title Kiss Me Again, Stranger, the title of the story from which the above extract is taken. The story is about a shy garage mechanic who falls for a mysterious usherette with a murderous secret. The same collection includes The Birds, filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963. ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’ has been made into a TV play in the USA on three occasions: 1953, 1958, and 1974, the latter made for Rex Harrison Presents Stories of Love, starring Juliet Mills and Leonard Nimoy.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Joseph Flower, C707/321/1-3, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: Cinemas while you were still at school?

A: Yes. Now then. This is where the’ fun starts. We had – tickets. Now wait a moment – the shop where I lived was a tailor’s shop of course. Well now in the window we used to display these – advertisement – bills for these different things you see. And – there was – a picture house opened in Shakespeare Street called Hibberts. Well used to get a ticket – given us by – with, you know, with these – chaps that brought the bills , and that entitled you to go in for – abou[t] a penny. And you’d see the whole – programme you see for a penny. Well – we’d take advantage of this and – these fellows – that brought the bills, they weren’t particular just giving you one, they’d give you a dozen, to get rid of ’em. Well we used to dish ’em around to our friends and so on you see. Well we used to go to those pictures, and become a bit of a nuisance sometimes. Used to play – bits of tricks, like everybody else, yes. There was a fellow there that – well of course they were silent pictures of course. And – there was this fellow used to sit behind the curtain – with a – these coconut shells during these – horse – clip-clop, well we should – we should take – get – cut down reeds, open the centres – take all the pith out the centre, and use – hawthorn hips, and – sit over in the balcony over this end and keep – pipping ’em down to him and he’d got a bald head you know and it –

Q: Could you aim straight?

A: Oh yes, hit him plenty of times. ‘Til eventually we got turned out of course. And then – at this particular – picture house, they first started to synchronise a gramaphone [sic] record with the picture. And of course then we changed our seating, from the – balcony onto the front row of all. Now they had this gramaphone [sic] on a stand, and they’d start it off and it was pretty good, for a time it was pretty good. But of course – we could always stretch a hand out and just put a finger on the turn table for a second which would throw the whole thing all – haywire. That went on for a bit and then of course they rumbled us and we were – thrown out.

Q: I should think it was very funny wasn’t it?

A: Well it was to see the picture – you know, going along and then the – all of a sudden the – the sound and the – picture – was all – distorted all sorts. But it – that was a – these were – these are the kind of tricks we used to get up to. We never did any real damage like vandalism, it were just sheer devilment. You see, and it – gradually the – these people that – that run these places, they got to know us and – sometimes they’d let us in and sometimes they’d just say, well now look, let’s have no – bother with you lot today and that kind of thing. There was no real hardship, they didn’t knock us about or anything like that you see.

Q: Was your lot all roughly your age?

A: Oh yes.

Q: Did it have an actual leader or did you all sort of things these things up together?

A: Well, no, there was no leader. It was just a matter of – someone might suggest a new idea you see and – we’d – we should – try it out once and if it was a success well of course that’d carry on ’til we got stopped.

Q: Any other things you can remember like that?

A: Well we’d go to the Albert Hall on a Saturday evening and – I don’t know how much we used to pay there, I don’t know whether it was a penny or tuppence, and – it’d open out – with a – the parson – saying a prayer, and we’d probably sing a hymn. Then the – picture would start. And then –

Q: S[o] this was pictures too was it?

A: This was pictures, yes, on a Saturday evening. And then of course – we should start our little bit of devilment, kicking up noises and things like that, generally trying to upset things and which we in those days thought funny, you see. And this went on for a time until the – we’d get thrown out of there, and – we’d go back the next week and it was all right again, but it – they – they never bore any malice or anything, they just put it down to boys – high spirits, that was all. And of course at the – interval we – we would help, you see, as a kind of a – retribution we would – they used to sell – chocolate, and things like that, and we should – take it round on the trays and – and sell it for them, amongst the – people that were gathered – you know, went to the pictures. But – I think by doing that and – trying to help what we could – part of the – time, they’d – it made up for the devilment and trouble.

Comments: Joseph Flower (1899-?) was one of six children of a Nottingham pavier but was brought up by foster parents and saw little of his own family. He lived in the Sneinton suburb of Nottingham. He was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975). Nottingham’s Albert Hall was a Methodist mission which put on concerts, film screenings and other entertainments. Hibbert’s Pictures operated in Shakespeare Street 1910 to 1920 before becoming the Lounge Picture Theatre. Films synchronised with gramophone recordings (usually to depict a song being sung) were common in the early 1910s but are seldom mentioned in memoir evidence for the period.

So Laugh a Little

Source: Molly Picon, So Laugh a Little (New York: Julian Messner, 1962), pp. 136-142

Text: If someone were to write a history of the movies from the fan’s point of view, he would have to include my grandmother. From the day she walked in to see her first nickelodeon, she was completely captivated by Hollywood. She might not have gone to the nickelodeon if my grandfather hadn’t used every argument he could muster to get her there – what did she need it for, she cried, the first time the subject came up, she had a million things to to around the house, she didn’t feel like getting all dressed up, if he wanted to go, she wouldn’t stand in his way. My grandfather patiently outwaited all her cogent reasons for not leaving the house and eventually bore her off triumphantly to witness the marvel of moving pictures. Afterwards he used to complain that a man didn’t know when he was well off, why hadn’t he left well enough alone, if he had known how she would react he would have had his head examined before he talked her into it. My grandmother would smile and wave her hand at him and tell him not to get excited, at least she wasn’t a gambler or a drinker. My grandmother didn’t need alcoholic stimulation; she was intoxicated by the silver screen. Although she loved the theatre, she never responded to it the way she did to the movies. I have often thought that the plays she saw on the Yiddish stage hit too close to home; the situations were exaggerated, perhaps, but always contained nuggets of reality; the people were too easily identified with. They were, after all, her own people. But up there on the screen, magnified out of all contact with her world, scenes would unfold before her that would transport her into a never-never land. Even when she didn’t understand what was happening – and this occurred more often than not – she still loved every minute of it.

When I would ask her what she had seen, she would shrug her shoulders and say, “Do I know? They were hitting and fighting, and the girl didn’t like the good-looking one, and then she did like him, and then she changed her mind again. I don’t know what’s the matter with the girls today. In my time nobody asked you. You got married and that finished it.”

“Then you didn’t care for the picture?” I asked.

“Didn’t care for it?” she repeated incredulously. “With all that fighting and hitting and that poor boy up there eating his heart out for her? Why didn’t I like it?”

She became such an avid movie fan that Helen and I had to sit and read every little bit of gossip we could find in the papers to her, up to and including the blurbs of coming attractions. To my grandmother this wasn’t gossip, but gospel. She never for a moment doubted that every word was true. After all, it was printed, right there, in black and white. In those days, we lost my grandmother regularly once a week. For this was the era of the weekly serial, and Pearl White was its human sacrifice in fifteen installments. In spite of my grandmother’s shrieking warnings, Pearl White always managed to get herself into utterly hopeless situations. She would be huddling in some dank cellar while up above the villain would be peering down at her through a convenient hole in the floor, threatening to flood the cellar and drown poor Pearl unless she immediately and forthwith yielded what my grandmother always called her “good name.” Both Pearl White and my grandmother rejected these advances haughtily, no matter what the consequences. And the villain, of course, would then promptly turn on the waterworks.

All week long, my grandmother would worry and fret and strain for the days to pass so she could see how Pearl was doing. Pearl would escape from drowning only to wind up, at the end of that particular installment, in an even more precarious position, maybe tied to the railroad tracks, or about to be evenly distributed in a sawmill, or hanging by her fingertips from a cliff whilst the villain carefully and painstakingly lifted her fingers, one by one. I remember one time my grandmother was ill and unable to attend the next showing. She went into an absolute frenzy. I couldn’t go, because I was involved in a rehearsal. Helen was out of town. My mother had to stay home and take care of my grandmother. That left only my grandfather, who regarded the whole thing as bordering on simple insanity. “I should spend a beautiful day in the dark to watch a girl make a fool of herself,” he scoffed. “This week she’ll hang by the neck, and next week she’ll hang by the toes, and after the fifteen weeks is up, she’ll only start all in again with the foolishness. You would think with all the trouble she gets into that she would learn something.”

“Aaron, I beg you,” my grandmother pleaded. “I left her last week the house was burning down, and she was choking … such choking she was purple in the face. Like this she was, Aaron …” And my grandmother went into a graphic illustration that almost purpled her own face, but my grandfather remained unmoved.

“So what are you so worried?” he replied indifferently. “You think they’ll let anything happen to her? And for her I should miss my checkers?”

Even my grandmother couldn’t expect my grandfather to give up a checker game for Pearl White. All week she brooded. A whole episode missed and gone forever. When she would return to the theatre, Pearl would be facing a completely new peril. It was too much for flesh and blood to stand, my grandmother complained. As soon as she was well, she hurried off to the theatre and cornered the manager.

“Mr. Brody,” she panted. “From you I can have an answer. Tell me what happened last week. One foot I don’t put outside this office till I hear what happened.”

“God love you, Mrs. Ostrow,” said Mr. Brody, who had come to know my grandmother very well, in weekly installments, “how would I be knowing that? I’ve more adventures of my own keeping an eye on the little devils that come to watch her than she’ll ever be having.”

My grandmother couldn’t believe it. She herself would sit through both showings of the serial, just in the hope that it might come out differently at the end the second time, and here was Mr. Brody, with such a golden opportunity, who didn’t even care!

“Do you have any idea what the little monsters do here of an afternoon?” Mr. Brody warmed up to his subject as one who had had much practice. “I won’t mention the condition of the floors, with the boxes and papers and bags filled with banana peels and apple cores,” he said, waving an angry finger under my grandmother’s nose. “Nor do I care to mention the state of the bathrooms in front of a lady. But do you have any idea what happens to the seats?” He clutched his head. “The black plague on him that invented chewing gum!”

“I ask him about last week and he gives me chewing gum. Mr. Brody. A whole week I’m dying …”

“It’s the back of my hand to the next whippersnapper I see with a mouthful of the stuff.” Mr. Brody, my grandmother could understand, was too full of his own woes to be concerned with hers. She left his office, muttering to herself angrily. Fortunately she ran into an usher who was as much enraptured with Pearl White as my grandmother.

“Ya dint see ut?” he whispered, aghast.

“I was sick. Please. I’m dying. How did she get out of the fire?”

“It was the cat’s pajamas,” the usher said. “Ya know how she dint see no way outa there, an thuh fire gettin’ closer alla time, and she was kinda chokin’ up from the smoke …?”

“Yeh, yeh, I know the fire and the smoke … what did she do?”

“Well, just when it looked like she was a goner, she noticed a little door she never seen before and …”

And turned the knob and escaped into the clean, outside world to start running from the villain in Chapter Ten, to be seen at this theatre next week, don’t miss this exciting episode.

When talking pictures came in, my grandmother became an even more ardent fan. She would come home beaming and repeat the story to us whether we wanted to hear it or not. Since the plot suffered considerably in the retelling, it was like trying to solve a puzzle with half the pieces missing. For some reason or other, my grandmother would identify the actor or actress with the role he was playing, so that if John Gilbert’s name in the story was Henry, he would remain Henry to her.

I’ll never forget the day she saw Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. She sobbed so hard through this performance that even after the curtain swished across the screen and the house fights were put on, she sat in her seat and cried vigorously. She came home with a bagful of sodden handkerchiefs, convinced that Al Jolson had sustained a terrible loss. In the picture, he sang a tearjerker called Sonny Boy to an angelic-faced child who subsequently died. Nothing could persuade my grandmother that this boy was not Al Jolson’s child. For weeks she would walk around the house, heaving racking sighs and wiping tears from her eyes.

“Bubba. For heaven’s sake,” I said, annoyed. “It was only a picture! That boy will be in a dozen new pictures before the year is over.”

“What do you know how a father’s heart can break? Wait. When you’re a mother, you’ll understand what it is to have love for a child.”

“But, Bubba. That child did not die. It was just a story.”

“Malkele,” she replied sorrowfully. “I know you mean well and you’re trying to make me feel better. But you’re young yet. You don’t know what real suffering is.”

From that time on, she became especially interested in Al Jolson’s career. If she heard gossip that was good, she felt considerably cheered. If she heard comments that were unfavorable, she would shake her head gravely and say, “That poor man hasn’t been the same since he lost his little boy.”

As she became older, she preferred stories with modern settings. When we took her to see a picture depicting early days in man’s history, she would turn to me or to Yonkel and say disapprovingly, “Why do you take me to see a picture made in olden days?”

“Bubba,” I would answer. “The picture wasn’t made in those days. The movies are practically brand new. That is a picture that just came out this year from Hollywood.”

“Go on,” she denied unbelievingly, “don’t I see with my own eyes what they’re wearing and how they are living?”

We discovered, after a while, that my grandmother would go to the movies for still another reason than to see what was playing. It was so dark and cozy and relaxing, my grandmother found it ideal for sleeping. The music would crash through the theatre; sirens would wail; heroines would shriek. My grandmother would doze blissfully through it all, awaken refreshed, and remark that she didn’t remember when she had enjoyed a picture more.

Finally my grandmother took to going to see foreign films. This was somewhat of a puzzle to me, since she had rough going with American films. One day I spoke to her as she was busily preparing to go to a Spanish movie.

“Bubba,” I protested. “A Spanish movie you want to see? Do you understand Spanish?”

She looked at me, and her eyes crinkled with amusement as she answered, “And who understands English?”

My grandmother was constantly amazed at the new innovations in the motion picture field, but I think there was never a time to equal, for her, the Pearl White days. Once, when I took her to see some mystery film, remembering how she loved the suspense in the old-time serials, she turned to me and said, “You think she is suffering?” – pointing scornfully to the quaking heroine on the screen – “you should have seen little Pearlie White. She was a real wreck.”

Comments: Molly Picon (1898-1992) was a renowned American star of Yiddish theatre and film. The above is a chapter from her memoir (‘as told Eth Clifford Rosenberg’) of her family and upbringing. Her Ostrovsky (later Ostrow) grandparents came from Rizshishtchov in Russia, where Picon’s mother was born. Molly Picon herself was born in New York. Al Jolson’s song ‘Sonny Boy’ comes from the film The Singing Fool (USA 1928), not The Jazz Singer (USA 1927). Pearl White starred in the serial The Perils of Pauline (USA 1914).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Sense of Touch

senseoftouch

Source: ‘Ole Luke-Oie’ [Ernest Dunlop Swinton], extract from ‘The Sense of Touch’, The Strand Magazine, December 1912, pp. 620-631. Illustrations by John Cameron.

Text: ‘Pon my word, I really don’t know what made me go into the place. I’ve never been keen on cinemas. The ones I went to when they first came out quite choked me off. The jiggling of the pictures pulled my eyes out till they felt like a crab’s, and the potted atmosphere made my head ache. I was strolling along, rather bored with things in general and more than a bit tired, and happened to stop as I passed the doors. It seemed just the ordinary picture palace or electric theatre show – ivory-enamelled portico, neuralgic blaze of flame arc-lights above, and underneath, in coloured incandescents, the words, “Mountains of Fun.”

Fun! Good Lord!

An out-sized and over-uniformed tout, in dirty white gloves and a swagger stick, was strolling backwards and forwards, alternately shouting invitations to see the “continuous performance” and chasing away the recurring clusters of eager-eyed children, whose outward appearance was not suggestive of the possession of the necessary entrance fee. There were highly-coloured posters on every available foot of wall-space – sensational scenes, in which cowboys, revolvers, and assorted deaths predominated – and across them were pasted strips of paper bearing the legend, ” LIFE-REPRO Novelty This Evening.”

I confess that, old as I am, it was that expression which caught me – ” LIFE-REPRO.” It sounded like a new metal polish or an ointment for “swellings on the leg,” but it had the true showman’s ring. I asked the janitor what it meant. Of course he did not know – poor devil! – and only repeated his stock piece: “Splendid new novelty. Now showing. No waiting. Continuous performance. Walk right in.”

I was curious; it was just beginning to rain; and I decided to waste half an hour. No sooner had the metal disc – shot out at me in exchange for sixpence – rattled on to the zinc counter of the ticket-window than the uniformed scoundrel thrust a handbill on me and almost shoved me through a curtained doorway. Quite suddenly I found myself in a dark room, the gloom of which was only accentuated by the picture quivering on a screen about fifty feet away. The change from the glare outside was confusing and the atmosphere smote me, and as I heard the door bang and the curtain being redrawn I felt half inclined to turn round and go out. But while I hesitated, not daring to move until my eyes got acclimatized, someone flashed an electric torch in my eyes, grabbed my ticket, and squeaked, ” Straight along, please,” then switched off the light.

Useful, wasn’t it? I couldn’t see an inch. You know, I’m not very touchy as a rule, but I was getting a bit nettled, and a good deal of my boredom had vanished. I groped my way carefully down what felt like an inclined gangway, now in total darkness, for there was at the moment no picture on the screen, and at once stumbled down a step. A step, mind you, in the centre of a gangway, in a place of entertainment which is usually dark! I naturally threw out my hands to save myself and grabbed what I could. There was a scream, and the film then starting again, I discovered that I was clutching a lady by the hair. The whole thing gave me a jar and threw me into a perspiration – you must remember I was still shaky after my illness. When, as I was apologizing, the same, or another, fool with the torchlight flashed it at my waistcoat and said, “Mind the step,” I’m afraid I told him, as man to man, what I thought of him and the whole beastly show. I was now really annoyed, and showed it. I had no notion there were so many people in the hall until I heard the cries of “Ssshh! ” “Turn him out! ” from all directions.

When I was finally led to a flap-up seat – which I nearly missed, by the way, in the dark – I discovered the reason for the impatience evinced by the audience. I had butted in with my clatter and winged words at the critical moment of a touching scene. To the sound of soft, sad music, all on the black notes, the little incurable cripple child in the tenement house was just being restored to health by watching the remarkably quick growth of the cowslips given to her by the kind-hearted scavenger. Completely as boredom had been banished by the manner of my entrée it quickly returned while I suffered the long-drawn convalescence of ” Little Emmeline.” As soon as this harrowing film was over and the lights were raised I took my chance of looking round.

The hall was very much the usual sort of place – perhaps a bit smaller than most – long and narrow, with a floor sloping down from the back. In front of the screen, which was a very large one, was an enclosed pit containing some artificial palms and tin hydrangeas, a piano and a harmonium, and in the end wall at its right was a small door marked ” Private.” In the side wall on the left near the proscenium place was an exit. The only other means of egress, as far as I could see, was the doorway through which I had entered. Both of these were marked by illuminated glass signs, and on the walls were notices of “No smoking,” “The management beg to thank, those ladies who have so kindly removed their hats,” and advertisement placards – mostly of chocolate. The decorations were too garish for the place to be exactly homely, but it was distinctly commonplace, a contrast to the shambles it became later on. What?

Yes! I daresay you know all about these picture palaces, but I’ve got to give you the points as they appealed to me. I’m not telling you a story, man. I’m simply trying to give you an exact account of what happened. It’s the only way I can do it.

The ventilation was execrable, in spite of the couple of exhaust fans buzzing round overhead, and the air hung stagnant and heavy with traces of stale scent, while wafts of peppermint, aniseed, and eucalyptus occasionally reached me from the seats in front. Tobacco smoke might have increased the density of the atmosphere, but it would have been a welcome cloak to some of the other odours. The place was fairly well filled, the audience consisting largely of women and children of the poorer classes – even babies in arms – just the sort of innocent holiday crowd that awful things always happen to.

By the time I had noticed this much the lights were lowered, and we were treated to a scene of war which converted my boredom into absolute depression. I must describe it to you, because you always will maintain that we are a military nation at heart. By Jove, we are! Even the attendants at this one-horse gaff were wearing uniforms. And the applause with which the jumble of sheer military impossibility and misplaced sentiment presented to us was greeted proves it. The story was called “Only a Bugler Boy.” The first scene represented a small detachment of British soldiers ” At the Front” on ” Active Service” in a savage country. News came in of the “foe.” This was the occasion for a perfect orgy of mouthing, gesticulation, and salutation. How they saluted each other, usually with the wrong hand, without head-covering, and at what speed ! The actors were so keen to convey the military atmosphere that the officers, as often as not, acknowledged a salute before it was given.

Alter much consultation, deep breathing exercise, and making of goo-goo eyes, the long-haired rabbit who was in command selected a position for “defence to the death” so obviously unsuitable and suicidal that he should have been ham-strung at once by his round-shouldered gang of supers. But, no! In striking attitudes they waited to be attacked at immense and quite unnecessary disadvantage by the savage horde. Then, amid noise and smoke, the commander endeavoured to atone for the hopeless situation in which he had placed his luckless men by waving his sword and exposing himself to the enemy’s bullets. I say “atone,” for it would have been the only chance for his detachment if he had been killed, and killed quickly. Well, after some time and many casualties, it occurred to him that it would be as well to do something he should have done at first, and let the nearest friendly force know of his predicament. The diminutive bugler with the clean face and nicely-brushed hair was naturally chosen for this very dangerous mission, which even a grown man would have had a poor chance of carrying out, and after shaking hands all round, well in the open, the little hero started off with his written message.

Then followed a prolonged nightmare of crawling through the bush-studded desert.

Bugler stalled savage foe, and shot several with his revolver. Savage foe stalked bugler and wounded him in both arms and one leg. Finally, after squirming in accentuated and obvious agony for miles, bugler reached the nearest friendly force, staggered up to its commander, thrust his despatch upon him, and swooned in his arms. Occasion for more saluting, deep breathing, and gesticulation, and much keen gazing through field-glasses – notwithstanding the fact that if the beleaguered garrison were in sight the sound of the firing must have been heard long before ! Then a trumpet-call on the harmonium, and away dashed the relief force of mounted men.

Meanwhile we were given a chance of seeing how badly things had been going with the devoted garrison at bay. It was only when they were at their last gasp and cartridge that the relief reached them. With waving of helmets and cheers from the defenders, the first two men of the relieving force hurled themselves over the improvised stockade. You know what they were? I knew what they must be long before they appeared. And it is hardly necessary to specify to which branches of His Majesty’s United Services they belonged. The sorely-wounded but miraculously tough bugler took the stockade in his stride a very good third. He had apparently recovered sufficiently to gallop all the way back with the rescuers – only to faint again, this time in the arms of his own commanding officer. Curtain! “They all love Jack,” an imitation of bagpipes on the harmonium, and “Rule Britannia” from the combined orchestra. As I say, this effort of realism was received with great applause, even by the men present.

As soon as the light went up I had a look at my neighbours. The seats on each side of me were empty, and in the row in front, about a couple of seats to my right, there was one occupant. He was a young fellow of the type of which one sees only too many in our large towns – one of the products of an overdone industrialism. He was round-shouldered and narrow-chested, and his pale thin face suggested hard work carried out in insanitary surroundings and on unwholesome food. His expression was precocious, but the loose mouth showed that its owner was far too unintelligent to be more than feebly and unsuccessfully vicious. He wore a yachting cap well on the back of his head, and on it he sported a plush swallow or eagle – or some other bird – of that virulent but non-committal blue which is neither Oxford nor Cambridge. It was Boat-Race week. He was evidently out for pleasure – poor devil! – and from his incidental remarks, which were all of a quasi-sporting nature, I gathered that he was getting it. I felt sorry for him and sympathized in his entire absorption in the strange scenes passing before his eyes – scenes of excitement and adventure far removed from the monotonous round of his squalid life. How much better an hour of such innocent amusement than time and money wasted in some boozing-ken – eh?

Well, I’m not quite sure what it means myself – some sort of a low drinking-den. But, anyway, that’s what I felt about it. After all, he was a harmless sort of chap, and his unsophisticated enjoyment made me envious. I took an interest in him – thought of giving him a bob or two when I went out. I want you to realize that I had nothing but kindly feelings towards the fellow. He comes in later on – wasn’t so unsuccessful after all.

Then we had one of those interminable scenes of chase in which a horseman flies for life towards you over endless stretches of plain and down the perspective of long vistas of forest, pursued at a discreet distance by other riders, who follow in his exact tracks, even to avoiding the same tree-stumps, all mounted on a breed of horse which does forty-five miles an hour across country and fifty along the hard high road. I forget the cause of the pursuit and its ending, but I know revolvers were used.

The next film was French, and of the snowball type. A man runs down a street. He is at once chased by two policemen, one long and thin and the other fat and bow-legged with an obviously false stomach. The followers very rapidly increase in number to a mixed mob of fifty or more, including nurses with children in perambulators. They go round many corners, and round every corner there happens to be a carefully arranged obstacle which they all fall over in a kicking heap. I remember that soot and whitewash played an important part, also that the wheels of the passing vehicles went round the wrong way.

Owing to the interruption of light, was it? I daresay. Anyway, it was very annoying. Then we had a bit of the supernatural. I’m afraid I didn’t notice what took place, so I’ll spare you a description. I was entirely engrossed with the efforts of the wretched pianist to play tremolo for ten solid minutes. I think it was the ghost melody from “The Corsican Brothers ” that she was struggling with, and the harmonium did not help one bit. The execution got slower and slower and more staccato as her hands grew tired, and at the end I am sure she was jabbing the notes with her aching fingers straight and stiff. Poor girl! What a life!

At about this moment, as far as I remember, a lady came in and took the seat in front of mine. She was a small woman, and was wearing a microscopic bonnet composed of two strings and a sort of crepe muffin. The expression of her face was the most perfect crystallization of peevishness I’ve ever seen, and her hair was screwed up into a tight knob about the size and shape of a large snail-shell. Evidently not well off – probably a charwoman. I caught a glimpse of her gloves as she loosened her bonnet-strings, and the fingertips were like the split buds of a black fuchsia just about to bloom. Shortly after she had taken her seat my friend with the Boat-Race favour suddenly felt hungry, cracked a nut between his teeth, spat out the shell noisily, and ate the kernel with undisguised relish. The lady gathered her mantle round her and sniffed. I was not surprised. The brute continued to crack nuts, eject shells, and chew till he killed all my sympathy for him, till I began to loathe his unhealthy face, and longed for something to strike him dead. This was absolutely the limit, and I should have cleared out had not the words LIFE-REPRO” on the handbill caught my eye. After all it must come to that soon, and I determined to sit the thing out. After one or two more films of a banal nature there was a special interval – called “Intermission” on the screen – and signs were not wanting of the approach of the main event of the show.

Two of the youths had exchanged their electric torches for trays, and perambulated the gangways with cries of “Chuglit— milk chuglit.” A third produced a large garden syringe and proceeded to squirt a fine spray into the air. This hung about in a cloud, and made the room smell like a soap factory. When the curtain bell sounded the curtain was not drawn nor were the lights lowered. A man stepped out of the small door and climbed up on to the narrow ledge in front of the screen, which served as a kind of stage or platform, and much to my disgust made obvious preparation to address the audience. He was a bulky fellow, and his apparent solidity was increased by the cut of his coat. His square chin added to the sense of power conveyed by his build, while a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles gave him an air of seriousness and wisdom. I at once sized him up as a mountebank, and thought I knew what sort of showman’s patter to expect. He did not waste much time before he got busy. Looking slowly all round the room, he fixed my sporting friend with a baleful glare until the latter stopped eating, then cleared his throat and began …

Comments: Ernest Dunlop Swinton (1868-1951) was a British military officer (influential in the development of tanks in the First World War) and a writer, producing fiction under the pseudonym O’le Luk-Oie. The story continues with an announcer promising a natural history film of unsurpassed life-like realism. The film shows a praying mantis and a scorpion which come out of the screen giant-sized and attack the audience, killing those that the narrator disliked before turning on him (see illustration below). In the end it turns out to have been a dream. The description of a cinema show, though sardonic, is filled with useful documentary detail. The garden syringe is a reference to the disinfectant sprays commonly used on cinema audiences at this time.

Links: Copy of the complete story on the Internet Archive

scorpion

Going to the Cinema

Source: Luke McKernan, ‘Going to the Cinema’, from lukemckernan.com, http://lukemckernan.com/2012/12/16/going-to-the-cinema, published 16 December 2012

Text: I am out in London, and it has been a long day. I am walking towards the train station for the journey home, when I pass close by a shopping centre with an art house cinema in the middle of it. It is still early evening, and I think to myself why not see if that film you read about is still screening. I turn up at the cinema and find that its next showing will be in ten minutes’ time.

There are two queues, one for each person manning the the ticket office. I join one of them. The people in the queue are a mixed crowd, some young, some middle-aged, generally of the sort one expects to see queuing for this sort of film. It is to be a cultural treat. We stand by a display of DVDs of other art house films, each with quotations announcing that film’s exceptional qualities. There is nothing average on display here; everything proclaims itself remarkable. I wonder how so many films can all be so good and worry about those that I have not heard of, let alone seen. I feel reassured about those that are familiar to me. I have come to the front of the queue. It will cost £11.50 to see this film, which seems a lot of money to purchase something that you cannot take away with you afterwards. Were it a DVD I would hope to pay less.

I pay the money, take my ticket, and go down a set of stairs, where there is a bar with a few people seated on stools with drinks and snacks. There are posters on the walls for films past and film to come. I go down a second set of stairs. A young man takes my ticket, tears it in two and hands it back to me. It occurs to me that this is not much of an occupation for anyone. I go into a darkened room with seats in rows, each with a letter to differentiate it from the next. There are seats for around 200 people. Probably 50 or so people are arranged at various points, facing a large screen. I calculate how much revenue the cinema may take from a single screening such as this and how this helps pay for the women at the box office and the young man tearing tickets. I find a corner three-quarters of the way back, away from other people and with some leg room. I set down my bag of recently-purchased clothes, take off my coat and switch off my mobile phone. The seat is soft and comfortable. The room itself is sloped so that those at the back are higher than those nearer the front, enabling those behind to see over the heads of those in front, so long as we are all of uniform height.

The screen in front of us is showing advertisements for products. These advertisements help pay for the cinema; we understand this. There is one for a Beetle car, another an animation with young men self-consciously walking down a street with their shoes changing colour – it is advertisement for sports shoes of some kind. Another advertisement attempts to be amusing in a laboured way, and I concentrate on my knees until it is over. Two women behind me laugh at what they see on the screen. Then we are shown trailers for films that the cinema will screen in future days. One trailer tells us that its film is the best produced in Ireland this century. I try to consider what this might mean. I have not heard of any of the films trailed, nor do I feel any compulsion to see any of them. The screen then shows us advertisements for the cinema itself, including its upcoming screenings of live opera from New York. The operas look sumptuously staged. I almost forget that I do not much care for opera. The trailers show the highlights and none of the trials that may come between.

A disembodied voice asks us to switch off our phones. Some rustle with objects in their coat pockets. The film we have paid to see is about to begin. There is a message from the British Board of Film Classification to tell us that this film has been classified as 12A, which means that it is considered unsuitable for children under 12 unless they are accompanied by an adult. There are no children aged 12 or under in the cinema. All is well.

The film has started. It is an earnest work about an elderly couple, one of whom suffers from a stroke, leaving the other one to care for her. Probably we would not normally have chosen to pay money to see a film with such a theme, but it has received awards and many favourable reviews, and the director has made notable films before now, so we expected to be impressed. Certainly we are not expecting fast-paced action or the any of the other kinetic thrills of a cinema film. We are prepared for what we see. A mobile phone goes off five minutes into the proceedings, and I wonder for a moment whether it is part of the film. But it comes from the women behind me and is swiftly turned off. The film rolls on. It is in French, and there are subtitles. It is very accomplished work, with exceptional cinematography capturing interior natural light with a quality that makes me think of Norwegian paintings of the late 19th century. Perhaps this is intentional. The director is clearly very skilled, and nothing seems incidental or without relevance. One cut from close-up to medium shot of the couple jars by its unnaturalness, but that is all. There is no story to speak of. There are incidents, because a film is drama and must have incidents, but they are not important.

We admire the flat where the couple live. It is filled with books and paintings and interesting objects. I wish my own home had some of these books and paintings and interesting objects. Probably others in the audience are thinking the same. The film shows us some of the paintings in close-up, filling the screen. The director knew that we would like to look more closely, and knew when we would want to do so.

The film runs for around two hours, during which time we sit still and watch it. I sometimes arrange my legs to the left, sometimes to the right. Sometimes I think of other things, such as whether I will want to eat after the film or not, but mostly the film holds my attention. Occasionally I wonder when it will end, and how, but I never look at my watch. One of the subtitles has a grammatical error, and this bothers me. The film is filled with significant sounds, such as a tap running, a pigeon flapping or the clink of plates being washed. There is no music, except that which is played on a CD player or by the people who are acting in the film. It is a film about musicians. The main protagonists are more cultured and accomplished than we the audience watching them, but we do not resent or envy them for this. It is simply who they are. This is one of the film’s accomplishments.

The ending comes, and end credits follow which tell us all the names of the many talented people who made the film. They roll past in silence. Some of the audience get up, but I stay to the end out of a long habit which says that I must see the name of every person who contributed to this work, even though their names mean nothing to me. When the film has had its final say, we get up and walk out of the auditorium and up the stairs once more. The film has been bleak and sad and all are silent at first, then turn to chatter as they near the open air above.

I come up to the foyer, where a new set of people is gathering to see either a further screening of this film or another film showing on a second screen. I step out of the doors, where the cold air greets me. I do up my coat, head out into the dark and think not so much of the film but rather of the strange rituals involved in seeing a film. Once it was an act of faith, now it is an act of remembrance. What did that film mean, and why did I see it? I knew these things once, but now no more.

The cold wind blows and I head for home.

Comments: Luke McKernan (born 1961) is a film historian, news curator, and editor of the Picturegoing website. This posting from his personal site lukemckernan.com documents a visit to the Renoir Cinema, Bloomsbury, London to see Amour (France/Germany/Austria 2010 d. Michael Haneke).

Stately pleasure-domes

Source: Steve Woolley, contribution to David Thomson, ‘Stately pleasure-domes: The first cinema opened 100 years ago (arguably)’, The Independent, 17 April 1994, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/film–stately-pleasuredomes-the-first-cinema-opened-100-years-ago-arguably-david-thomson-shows-you-to-your-seat-while-other-film-fans-name-their-favourite-picture-palaces-1370670.html

Text: I was fortunate to grow up in Islington when most of the cinemas were still running. I was mad about films. I’d go to the Odeon Angel and the Rex, which is now the Screen on the Green. My dad or uncles would take me to the ABC in the evenings. I became highly attuned to audiences and the environment a film was shown in. I rate it as highly as the movie itself. If you see Performance, as I did, at three in the morning at the Classic in Victoria, it’s not the same as seeing it on the box. It was one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and coming out and walking from Victoria to Notting Hill Gate afterwards was extraordinary.

There are no character cinemas in London now. Places like the Biograph in Victoria. It was 28p to get in and a huge gay pick-up. It was great, like watching a film in a Baghdad market. The toilet door kept crashing into you. They showed films like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Then there was the Starlight, which just showed Thirties and Forties doubles. They used to serve cucumber sandwiches with the corners cut off – I’d never had them before.

At the Scala I strove to create an atmosphere, because that’s how I saw films when I was young. People say the Scala wasn’t great because not all the seats worked and the trains ran underneath, but who else would show Kenneth Anger films, or do proper late shows? It’s because of videos. People don’t seem to get it any more, they don’t want to see a film on a big screen. There was hardly a ripple when the Scala closed. It’s kind of sad.

The Screen on the Green has a really big place in my heart. I remember it as the Rex, a fleapit. I was forbidden by my parents to go there. Working as an usher there in 1976 was definitely the most exciting time. We put the Sex Pistols on – it was the summer of punk. And there were all-night Marx Brothers films. It would show Duck Soup at four in the morning. The first weekend I worked there the double bill was Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘I’m being paid to watch these films three nights a week, I must be the luckiest person alive’.

There was an atmosphere in London then rivalling France and New York – movies were suddenly hip. I was going to the cinema on my own, thinking I was mad. As I was about to enter my twenties, I realised that all these other people were obsessed too. It was a great time. It was pre-Channel 4 and before BBC 2 got its act together. You really had to search the films out.

Comments: Steve Woolley (born 1956) is a British film producer, who was programmer at The Screen on the Green in Islington, London and managed the Scala at King’s Cross, London, before establishing Palace Video and then moving into film production (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game etc). This is one of a series of memories of favourite cinemas published in an article to mark the centenary of film exhibition (in the USA).

Seats in All Parts

Source: Leslie Halliwell, Seats in All Parts (London: Granada, 1985), pp. 54-56

Text: … the Lido in Bradshawgate, as unprepossessing an unVenetian a building as could be imagined despite its gondola-filled proscenium frieze. Financed by a small Salford-based circuit, it was little more than a cheap shell. The foyer was bare and cramped, and the centre stalls exists were by crash doors which opened from the auditorium straight out into the side alleys, sometimes drenching the adjacent customers in rain or snow.

But we were unaware of such inconveniences on the Saturday in 1937 when we queued for the gala opening. For some reason the attraction chosen for that one night only was a revival of Jessie Matthews in Evergreen, very welcome but quite uneventful, since we had previously seen it at the Hippodrome. The place nevertheless was mobbed, and we found ourselves in a low point of the front stalls from which it was difficult for me to see more than the top half of the screen over the heads of the people in front. I was comforted, however, by a handful of sample packets of a confectionery, then new, called Maltesers: the usherettes were practically throwing them at everyone who came in, and I grabbed as many as I could from the tray on the way to my seat.

We went again on Monday to see the Lido’s first première, which was Song of Freedom, staring Paul Robeson. It was enjoyable enough while the star held sway, and I responded to his voice as to no one else’s since Al Jolson, who seemed unaccountably to have retired from the screen; but by now we had discovered two of the Lido’s failings. The first was its long, long intervals for ice cream sales, drastically curtailing the supporting programme we expected; the second was an even longer non-attraction called Younger’s Shoppers’ Gazette, a compilation of crude advertising filmlets (I once counted twenty-eight on the one reel). This was certainly not value for money, especially since the Lido was also the proud possessor of a Christie organ, and the interlude for this could stretch the gap between solid celluloid items to as much as thirty-five minutes. Though it had the advantage of a phantom piano attachment, the Lido organ did not rise from the orchestra pit as we expected, nor did it change colour as it came. From some of the side seats you could see it waiting in the wings throughout the performance, and since the main curtain hung slightly short, front stalls patrons could count the feet of the men who pushed it on stage at the appropriate moment. This musical marvel was operated by one Reginald Liversidge, an eager-to-please young man with a gleaming smile and a fine head of skin; his natty tailcoat and graceful manners probably endeared him to the matrons, but not to me. So far as I was concerned, his slide-accompanied concerts of ‘Tchaikovskiana’ were just one more nail in the coffin of a disappointing venue in which I had expected to spend many delightful evenings.

And so I was not impelled, in the years before the 1939 war, to visit the Lido very often. Its schedulers did not have the booking power of the established cinemas, and certainly not of the new Odeon which was to menace them all. It was too often to take the cheapest programme available, and I was happiest when it settled for a re-issue. One such attraction was the 1931 Fredric March version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which my mother wanted to see again, having been impressed by it when I was still in swaddling clothes. It was my first experience, in our well-behaved town, of an audience cat-calling and rough-housing during a performance. Mum said comfortingly that they only did it to prove they were not scared by Jekyll’s transformations into Hyde; I was, but tried not to show it, my fear being tempered by a burning desire to wear, when I grew up, a dress cape, cane and top hat just like Mr March’s. I realize now that this superbly crafted film, by far the best version of the story, is not only horrifying but surprisingly one-track-minded in the matter of sex, and therefore not at all a suitable entertainment for a boy of tender years; nonetheless what I most remember from that long-ago evening is how lustrous and dramatic it was to look at. Mum anxiously watched my reactions to the shock moments and, since I showed no ill effects, took me along a few weeks later to see the Lido’s ‘double thrill bill’ consisting of re-issues of The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. This time, to our astonishment, we were forestalled by the burly commissionaire in the second-hand uniform, who informed us between pursed lips that Children were no Admitted. My mother pointed out that both films had ‘A’ certificates, not ‘H’, and that she regularly took me to ‘A’ pictures, but argument proved useless, and we could only conclude that this was an entirely unofficial rule drawn up by the management either for the public good or (more likely) to drum up business during a dull week. Adamant, the commissionaire repeatedly tapped a hanging notice on which the words ADULTS ONLY had been inscribed in shaky green lettering. Although, he assured us confidentially, he had seen both pictures and wouldn’t give you that (he snapped his fingers) for their horror content, he was powerless to help us, and could only suggest that we went round the corner to the Theatre Royal where Old Mother Riley was showing. His sister had described it as a real good laugh. Disconsolately, we took his advice; but I don’t remember laughing much: the rather primitively filmed knockabout failed to capture the instinctive zest of Lucan and MacShane’s crockery-smashing stage act which I had seen at the Grand on one recent Saturday night.

Comments: Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) was a film historian and programme buyer for ITV and Channel 4. Seats in All Parts is his memoir of cinemagoing, including his Bolton childhood. ‘A’ certificates were introduced in 1912 and stood for ‘Adult’; from 1923 a child attending an ‘A’ film had to be accompanied by an adult. ‘H’ certificates, for Horror, were introduced by the British Board of Film Censors in 1932, to be replaced by the X certificate in 1951. The Lido cinema opened in March 1997 and closed in 1998, by which time it was called the Cannon Cinema. The site is now occupied by a block of flats. The films recalled by Halliwell are Evergreen (UK 1934), Song of Freedom (UK 1936), The Old Dark House (USA 1932), The Invisible Man (USA 1933) and Old Mother Riley (UK 1937). Younger’s Shopper’s Gazette was produced by Younger Publicity Service and ran from the 1920s to the 1940s. An example can be seen on the website of the Media Archive for Central England.

The Cinema Habit

Source: ‘The Cinema Habit’, Punch, vol. 146, 18 March 1914, p. 215

Text: The writer of “The Ideal Film Plot,” which appeared in a recent issue of Punch, has quoted an “authority” (anonymous) for the approval of his scenario. It is quite evident that this “authority” (so-styled) must belong to the plebeian ranks of the film-world. It cannot reside in our suburb.

Our cinema theatre is, I venture to state, of a far superior order, both as to drama and as to morality. It is not a mere lantern-hall, close and stuffy, with twopenny and fourpenny seats (half-price to children, and tea provided free at matinée performances), but a white-and-gold Picturedrome, catering to an exclusive class of patrons at sixpence and a shilling, with neat attendants in dove-grey who atomise scent about the aisles, two palms, one at each side of the proscenium (real palms), and, in addition to a piano, a mustel organ to accompany the pathetic passages in the films. Moreover, the commissionaire outside, whose medals prove that he has seen service in the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Black Hole of Calcutta, and the Great Raid on the House of Commons in 1910, is not one of those blatant-voiced showmen who clamour for patronage; he is a quiet and dignified réceptionnaire, content to rely on the fame and good repute of his theatre. Sometimes evening dress (from “The Laburnums,” Meadowsweet Avenue, who are on the Stock Exchange) is to be seen in the more expensive seats.

It is unquestionably a high-class Picturedrome. True that the local dentist, who is a stickler for correct English, protests against the designation. I have pointed out to him that if a “Hippodrome” is a place where one sees performing hippos, then surely a place where one sees performing pictures is correctly styled a “Picturedrome.”

I am acquiring the cinema habit.

It is very restful. Each film is preceded on the screen by a certificate showing that its morality has been guaranteed by Mr. REDFORD. I have complete confidence in Mr. REDFORD’S sense of propriety. If, for instance, a bedroom scene is shown and a lady is about to change her gown, one’s advance blushes are needless. That film will be arrested at the loosing of the first hook or button. Virtue will always be plainly triumphant and vice as plainly vanquished. Even the minor imperfections of character will be suitably punished. When on the screen we see Daisy, the flighty college girl, borrowing without permission her friend’s hat, gown, shoes, necklace and curls in order to make a fascinating display before her young college man, it is certain that she will be publicly shamed by her friends and discredited in the eyes of her lover whose affections she seeks to win in this unmoral fashion.

On the screen we shall be sure to meet many old friends. The young American society nuts, in square-rigged coats, spacious trousers, and knobbly shoes, will buzz around the pretty girl like flies around a honey-pot, clamouring for the privilege of presenting her with a twenty-dollar bouquet of American Beauty roses. The bouquet she accepts will be the hero’s; and the other nuts will then group themselves in the background while she registers a glad but demure smile full in the eye of the camera.

The hero, however, loses his paternal expectations in the maelstrom of Wall Street. Throwing off his coat – literally, because at the cinema we are left in no doubt as to intentions – he resolves to go “out West” and retrieve the family fortunes.

Our old friends the cow-boys meet him at the wooden shack which represents the railway station at Waybackville, registering great glee at the prospect of hazing a tenderfoot. We know full well that he will eventually win their respect and high regard – probably by foiling a dastardly plot on the part of a Mexican half-breed – and we are therefore in no anxiety of mind when they raise the dust around his feet with their six-shooters, toss him in a blanket or entice him on to a meek-looking, but in reality record-busting, broncho.

In the middle of the drama we look forward to the “chases,” and we are never disappointed. Our pursued hero, attired in the picturesque bandarilleros of shaggy mohair and the open-throated shirterino of the West, will race through the tangled thickets of the picadoro-trees; thunder down the crumbling banks of amontillados so steep that the camera probably gets a crick in the neck looking up at him; ride the foaming torrent with one hand clasping the mane of his now tamed broncho, and the other hand triggering his shooting-iron; and eventually fall exhausted from the horse at the very doorstep of the ranch, one arm, pinged by a dastardly rifle-bullet, dangling helplessly by his side. (It is, by the way, always the arm or shoulder; the cinema never allows him to get it distressingly in the leg or in the neck.)

In the ultimate, with the wounded arm in a sling, he will tenderly embrace the heroine through a hundred feet of film, she meanwhile registering great joy and trustfulness, until the scene slowly darkens into blackness, and the screen suddenly announces that the next item on the programme will be No. 7, Exclusive to the Picturedrome.

We are greatly favoured with “exclusives.” It may be possible that other suburbs have these films, but it must be second-hand, after we have finished with them. The names of the artistes who create the róles are announced on the screen: “Captain Jack Reckles – Mr. Courcy van Highball,” or it maybe “Juliet, Miss Mamie Euffles.” Or it is a film taken at the local regatta or athletic sports, and the actors in it include all the notabilities of the district. We flock to see how we (or our neighbours) look on the screen, and enjoy a hearty laugh when the scullers of “The Laburnums” register a crab full in the eye of the camera, or “The Oleanders” canoe receives a plenteous backwash from a river-steamer.

But the staple fare is drama – red-blooded drama, where one is never in doubt as to who is in love with whom, and how much. Sometimes, to be frank, there is a passing flirtation, due to pique, between a wife and a third party, leading to misunderstandings, complications and blank despair on the part of the husband; but as there is always a “little one” somewhere in the background, we are never anxious as to the final outcome. It will end with the husband embracing the repentant (but stainless) wife, and at the same time extending a manly hand of reconciliation to the third party.

We also like the dying fiddler (with visions) and the motor-car splurges – especially the latter. In our daily life we are plagued with motor-cars, cycle-cars and motor-cycle side-cars, being on a highroad from London town to the country; but on the screen we adore them.

The cinema is very restful. There are no problems to vex the moral judgment; no psychological doubts; no anxieties. It will be “the mixture as before,” ending in the loving, lingering kiss.

Say what you will of Mr. REDFORD, he never deprives us of the kiss.

Comments: Punch was a British humorous magazine which frequently poked fun at the cinema and its audiences. George Redford was head of the British Board of Film Censors.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg