Not Expecting Miracles

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

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

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

The Cinema

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

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

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

Silent Magic

Source: Ivan Butler, Silent Magic: Rediscovering the Silent Film Era (London: Columbus Books, 1987), p. 15

Text: I saw my first film in 1915 – from the wrong side of the screen. It was at a private show at a school and my mother had brought me in, aged all of six, by a door at the back of the room. We were probably there for only a few minutes before someone discovered us and found us seats in the proper place. I have no memory of the programme apart from that brief glimpse, through wooden struts holding the makeshift screen in place, of what appeared to be a lot of pumpkins careering down a hill to the accompaniment of raucous laughter of (to me) enormous boys almost drowning a well-thumped piano. It must have been a very primitive production, probably a comedy short made some years previously, but in those pre-television days it was miraculous to a child that a picture could move at all – and I was hooked.

Comment: Ivan Butler (1909-1998), after a career as an actor, went on to become a notable writer on the art and history of cinema. His Silent Magic is a particularly evocative memoir of the silent films he could remember when in his eighties.

Memories of Old Poplar

Source: John Blake, Memories of Old Poplar (London: Stepney Books Publications, 1977), pp. 34-36

Text: Round about 1908 there appeared something new in the field of entertainment. This was during our childhood days, when after school hours the streets were poorly lit. Fogs were everywhere in the winter months, and naturally the youngsters, and their parents, were eagerly seeking anything that would brighten up their outlook in the drab surroundings of those days. On the scene, then, came a wonderful idea. The Reverend Tyldesley [sic], the pastor at the Poplar and Bromley Tabernacle, in Brunswick Road, commenced showing pictures on Thursday evenings in the Chapel. These were Magic Lantern with still slides, or a very early model of a cinematograph show. Children were admitted to the first performance, and parents the second. A large sheet was hung on the rostrum, which could be pulled up and down, before and after the show. There was a gallery, running the length of the hall, and at the far end of the gallery, a projection box had been erected, which housed the cinematograph. During the summer months, the Reverend Gentleman had curtains installed in the windows, so that light could not penetrate, to spoil the view of the films. He always gave a speech before the show commenced, and went to great lengths to impress the children, of the tremendous expense that had been entailed to enable this to be done, so that they would still have their entertainment in the summer. He asked us not to kick the backs of the seats in front, in excitement at the adventures of Lt Rose, one of the prevailing heroes of the time. Their few coppers of admission would not allow for payments of any damage. For us children the excitement was intense and we were glad when the introductory prayers had been completed. For many years the Music Halls and Theatres enjoyed the popularity of the public with no opposition, but suddenly a rival entertainment appeared on the horizon. I refer to the silent films appearing at ‘Picture Palaces’. Some had a white sheet, suspended tightly, over which water was squirted before the show commenced, or even a white painted wall. The seating consisted of forms, and flooring all concrete. The first Picture Palace I remember was the ‘Empire’ in East India Dock Road, opposite Woolmore Street. Then there was ‘The Star’ in High Street Poplar. It was a case of lining up outside, where the attendant on duty was periodically shouting out at the top of his voice, ‘Standing only in the ha’pennies’. This form of entertainment was springing up everywhere such as ‘Grand Palace’, ‘Poplar Pavilion’, ‘The Gaiety’, all in East India Dock Road, and the interior decorations were improving rapidly. Better screens, improved fireproofed projection boxes, spring-backed covered seats, lady ushers with hand torch, to guide you to your seat, piano accompaniment to the silent film. Usually there were two feature films, and a News Reel and the performance was continuous. Chocolates and ices were sold by attendants from trays on wheels. The pianist had to operate in a curtained off enclosure. The music had to be adapted to the theme of the film, such as exciting, or sad and tearful passages, and the timing was important. As time went on, a violin was added, even a cello. In some of the sad moments of a film the musicians must have been crying their eyes out and too upset to eat or drink their lunch, during a break.

Comment: John Blake was born in 1899, one of seven children of a plumber’s mate. The Reverend Alfred Tildsley was Baptist pastor of the Poplar and Bromley Tabernacle. Tildsley came to the Tabernacle in 1898, and turned round a debt-ridden and neglected mission through an energetic programme of activities, which included what he called the Pleasant Thursday Evening series. These weekly meetings combined music, stories, lantern slides, and – from 1900 onwards – films. See Dean R. Rapp, ‘A Baptist Pioneer: The exhibition of film to London’s East End working classes 1900-1918,’ Baptist Quarterly vol. 40 (2003), pp. 6-10. Lieutenant Rose was a character who featured in a series of films made by British film company Clarendon.

Tell Me Grandpa

Source: Josef Morrell, Tell Me Grandpa (Easthill Brauton, Devon: Merlin Books, 1981), pp. 99-101

Text: However low were the family’s finances, most parents tried to afford one penny for each of their children to visit the local cinema on Saturday mornings. I think there was method in this sacrificial attitude, and mothers could be forgiven for an innocent piece of blackmail. What better reason for withholding the entrance money, if certain jobs weren’t accomplished, before being allowed to see the latest episode of the exciting thriller that had been eagerly discussed since last week’s instalment. Also, most mothers thought that to be rid of her offspring for two or three hours was no bad thing, and at least they knew where their children were.

There were two picture palaces in the district, each competing with the other to show films that would fill their halls with screaming children each Saturday morning at ten o’clock. The proprietors no doubt were pleased to see a long queue of waiting customers, but whether the manager and his brave staff were as enthusiastic, is open to doubt.

However, the preparation of the showings were arranged with considerable thought. While each cinema had to provide a lengthy and attractive programme to ensure everybody had their money’s worth, the manager had to allow his staff sufficient time after the children had gone, to prepare for the adult programme starting early in the afternoon. It must have been a daunting task each week to clear the floor of sweet bags, orange peel and apple cores, thrown down by anything up to three hundred children.

The doors were opened and we filed in dropping our pennies into a box on the table, under the eagle eyes of two large gentlemen whose principal job was to see that no one disappeared through the curtains before their hot little hands had released their pennies. Once inside we scrambled to a seat, often resulting in skirmishes reminiscent of the action we were about to see in the films. There were another two attendants inside supervising the seating arrangements, but as I remember, they quickly lost heart when they saw the unruly and unorthodox manner the children chose their seats.

Miraculously, as soon as the curtains parted to reveal the screen, everyone was settled and cheered the announcement that the first film was to commence shortly. It was now that my praise of the management’s timing showed itself. Just as we were becoming restless, the lights went out and the beam from the projector showed on the screen.

Usually the first film was short and lasted about five minutes, and was probably a testing exercise to see that the apparatus was working correctly; it also allowed the lady pianist, seated below the screen, to be ready for her marathon performance. I still wonder at her marvellous concentration and ability to keep her eyes on the events of those silent screens and the synchronization of her hands to fit the action.

Immediately the introductory film finished, the title and captions of the main feature appeared. No time for the boy behind to be tempted to stuff orange peel down your collar, or to crawl under your seat and tie the laces of your boot together!

There was silence until the film got underway, then the piano gave the clues of the story. The pianist thumped the keys fortissimo when the hero was hurrying to rescue the heroine from all sorts of terrible fates, and we gave him every encouragement by raising our voices to a deafening pitch. It was when the leading lady’s baby was desperately ill, that the pianist gave her best. Soul stirring melodies were played in unbelievable silence, and the boys had to be on their guard not to be caught crying with the girls. Of course justice was seen to be done, and had we been able to reach him, we would have assisted the hero to throw the villain off the cliff. The end came with most of us standing on our seats cheering the epic drawing to a close.

With little or no time, in order to prevent private wars breaking out between children in the audience, the weekly serial appeared, and we had a few seconds flash-back to recount to the unfortunates who hadn’t been able to attend the previous week, what has so far taken place. ‘Pearl White’ and ‘Elmo the Mighty’ are names which only the very elderly will recall, but it is possible those not so old will remember their parents tell of those pioneers of the screen.

The makers of those serial films really knew their business and their audience. Our hearts beat fast when the train carrying the heroine approached the damaged railway viaduct, and the gallant hero tried to bring his galloping horse alongside to warn the train driver of the peril.

It had come to an end, and we were left with feelings nearly as emotional as the film, realizing it would be a whole week before we knew for certain whether our favourite would be in time to save his sweetheart.

As we jostled our way out, the relief of the watching attendants can only be guessed. Then they made a systematic check by turning up the seats and examining the toilets, in case someone had secreted themselves away in order to see the adult programme without paying.

Arguments took place on the way home, trying to guess what would happen the following week, and our parents were of little help; when relating the exciting finish to the serial and asking whether everything would turn out the way we wished, they smiled and irritatingly said we would just have to wait and see.

Very rarely, perhaps on my birthday, I was taken to the cinema by my parents. These visits were in complete contrast to the Saturday morning adventure, principally because we went in the evenings, and coming home in the dark was part of the grown-up world which I didn’t experience very often.

Mother and my sisters were always eager to go, but Father had to be coaxed. There were two feature films, and provided one of them was a western, he would be agreeable to come with us. I approved his taste, and hoped that if the other film was a love story, it would be shown first, so although having to endure it, I could sit and anticipate the fight between the cowboys and Indians later on.

Of course the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the hall although nearly full, was in sharp contrast to the morning’s performance. For instance, with everyone orderly, there was no need for attendants to be waiting to throw out anyone misbehaving, and was therefore an early glimpse into the future and what was expected of me when I grew up.

Comment: Josef Morrell was born in 1906, the son of a tailor living in Fulham. His evocatively-written memoirs cover the pre-war, war, and 1920s period. This section on his cinemagoing habits is especially eloquent, covering most of the key themes as they relate to children, including the different modes of behaviour for different kinds of audience. Pearl White was the star of the hugely popular Perils of Pauline serial. American actor Elmo Lincoln was cinema’s first Tarzan.

Seeing in the Dark

Source: Alan Garner, in Ian Breakwell and Paul Hammond (eds.), Seeing in the Dark: A Compendium of Cinemagoing (London: Serpent’s Tail, 1990), p. 9

Text: I was three years old. Nobody had told me what a cinema or a film was, and certainly nothing about the concept of an animated cartoon; and I was taken into the largest enclosed space I’d ever seen, into a crowd of strangers, put on a seat, and the lights went out. Figures fifteen feet high loomed over me. The film was Snow White; and I felt my sanity slipping until the moment when the queen metamorphosed into the witch. Then I screamed and screamed, and could not stop. My mother called an usherette to have me removed, and I was handed into strange-smelling arms behind a bright beam that dazzled me. The arms hugged my squirming form and carried me out, while my mother stayed to watch the rest of the film. But the exit was at the foot of the screen, and I was being borne up towards that great and drooling hag, away from safety, pinioned by someone I couldn’t see, and the witch was laughing.

When we got home I was thrashed for making mu mother ‘look a fool’. The nightmares began and have haunted me ever since. The witch has my mother’s face.

Comment: Alan Garner (born 1934) is a British novelist best-known for his ‘children’s’ novels such as The Weirdstone of Brisingame and The Owl Service. Disney’s Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs was released in 1937. Seeing in the Dark is a collection of commissioned reminiscences of cinemagoing.