Doing My Bit for Ireland

Source: Margaret Skinnider, Doing My Bit for Ireland (New York, The Century Co., 1917), pp. 202-204

Text: At a moving-picture performance of “The Great Betrayal,” I was surprised at the spirit of daring in the audience. The story was about one of those abortive nationalist revolts in Italy which preceded the revolution that made Italy free. The plot was parallel in so many respects to the Easter Week rising in Ireland that crowds flocked every day to see it. In the final picture, when the heroic leaders were shot in cold blood, men in the audience called out bitterly:

‘That’s right, Colthurst! Keep it up!”

Colthurst was the man who shot Sheehy Skeffington without trial on the second day of the rising. He had been promoted for his deeds of wanton cruelty, and only the fact that a royal commission was demanded by Skeffington’s widow and her friends, made it necessary to adjudge him insane as excuse for his behavior, when that behavior was finally brought to light.

It was on the occasion of my visit to the moving-pictures that I was annoyed by the knowledge that a detective was following me. His only disguise was to don Irish tweeds such as “Irish Irelanders” wear to stimulate home industry. He had been following me about Dublin ever since my arrival for my August visit. To this day I don’t know why he did not arrest me, nor what he was waiting for me to do. But I decided now to give him the slip. In Glasgow I have had much practice jumping on cars going at full speed. The Dublin cars are much slower, so as a car passed me in the middle of the block, I suddenly leaped aboard, leaving my British friend standing agape with astonishment on the sidewalk. Doubtless he felt the time had come for me to carry out whatever plot I had up my sleeve, and that he had been defeated in his purpose of looking on. I never saw him again.

Comments: Margaret Skinnider (1892-1971) was a Scottish revolutionary who fought as a sniper for the Irish republicans during the Easter Rising, being the only woman wounded during the action. The Great Betrayal was the British release title for the Italian four-reel feature film Romanticismo (Italy 1915), a drama of Italian partisans fighting the Austrians in the 19th century, directed by Carlo Campogalliani and starring Tullio Carminati and Helena Makowska. Skinnider dates her cinema visit to August 1916. She left Dublin for the United States, to avoid internment, publishing her autobiography there.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Old Glory

Source: Jonathan Raban, Old Glory: An American Voyage (London: Collins, 1981), pp. 94-95

Text: I tried the wardrobe, a handsome reproduction piece of pine colonial. The drawers, when I pulled at them, turned out to be doors, and opened on an enormous colour television. I found my weather report. Nothing does so much justice to the gargantuan scale of American life as its national weather maps. In Europe, one is allowed to see the weather only as scraps and fragments: a cake-slice of a depression here; a banded triangle of a ridge of high pressure there. In the United States I was enthralled by the epic sweep of whole weather systems as they rolled across the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic, or coasted down from the Arctic Circle, or swirled up from Mexico and Cuba. The weathermen tapped their maps with sticks. Without betraying the slightest flicker of wonder or concern, they announced that people were being frozen to death in Butte, roasted in Flagstaff and blown off their feet in Tallahassee. Each day they rattled off every conceivable variety of climactic extremity in a blasé drawl. I’d never seen so much weather at once, and was deeply impressed. I shivered vicariously for the Montanans, sweated for the Texans and ran for shelter with the Floridans.

Comments: Jonathan Raban (1942 – ) is a British travel writer and novelists. Old Glory records a journey he takes down the Mississippi River, including this visit to a Minneapolis hotel.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Mrs Winifred Sturgeon, C707/363/1-6, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: A. And then – a great thing in the church was the conversazione, it was a shilling and the ladies – the ladies all at the tables and there was a great – they – they brought their teapots and things. This was a – the conversazione, it was a great thing, I’d go just once.

Q. Did they have any entertainment at that or did you just go for a cup of tea?

A. Yes – oh – there would be singing and that and speechifying at the conversazione. And the Sunday school then, the party – Sunday school party was a cinematograph – a cinema – a magic lantern. It wasnae – a magic lantern, did you ever see a magic lantern? Aye well, it was a magic lantern. And – they would have a set of slides and then they had some comic slides that we knew, we’d see it there every time that they – would see this – this comic, and it was a card thing and they – they could manipulate it that the – the – a chinaman that was dancing or doing something. And you went – and – your – when you came out you got a parkin and an orange and an apple. That – that was your entertainment. That was the entertainment you got for the Sunday school party.

Q. Was that at Christmas?

A. Round about – round about the Christmastirne. But that was all the entertainment you got.

Comments: Mrs Winifred Sturgeon was born in 1885 in Dumfries, the eldest child of a master slater. She is describing what childhood entertainments there were in the 1890s. She 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).

Vaudeville and Motion Picture Shows

Source: William Trufant Foster (with the aid of sixty investigators), Vaudeville and Motion Picture Shows: A study of theaters in Portland, Oregon (Portland, Or.: Reed College, 1914), pp. 52-53

Text: “Picture 1 ‘A Seaside Samaritan.’ Robbers are reformed immediately by kind treatment. Picture of simple and happy home life. Kindness shown to strangers. Wrong-doers are converted too suddenly to be convincing. The right triumphs. Harmless but not helpful.

“Picture 2 ‘Rory O. The Bogs.’ Melodrama. Impossible to follow the story. Effect apparently harmless.” (1)

“Picture 1 ‘The Cross in the Cacti.’ Melodrama. Without moral value. Worst wrong-doer was killed but no evidence that the one who escaped deserv[e]d better treatment. Purely adventure. Comparativ[e]ly harmless.

“Picture 2 ‘Curing the Doctor.’ Melodrama. Harmful morally. Improper ethical standards. Low ideals of love.

“Picture 3 Farce. Cheap, vulgar in parts, probably harmless.

“Picture 4 ‘The Hounded Bride.’ Morbid, unmoral. Would have caused nightmare to me as a child.” (1)

“Picture 1 Saloon scene, drinking.

“Picture 2 Altho not elevating, still not bad.

“Picture 3 Ridiculous in a vulgar way. Without moral value.

“Picture 4 Morbid.” (1)

“I saw nothing morally wrong with any of the pictures. However, I question scenes showing brutality between a father and a mother, also extended death scenes.

“‘Betty’s Nightmare.’ show[e]d the unsatisfactory results of patent medicines and sensational novels. It perhaps dasht a little cold water on some embryo Mary Garden but it left the final impression that there is no place like home.

“Picture 2 Good, the right-doer prospers. Effect somewhat inspiring.” (2)

“Picture 1 Tragedy. Seducer shot. Moral value good. The wrong-doer was punisht.

“Picture 2 Portrays act of stealing. Might instigate theft.

“Picture 3 Farce. Portrays unwholesome scenes. Effect bad.

“Picture 4 Tragedy depicting dual life of a man.

“Singing disgustingly vulgar, coarse and exceedingly flat.” (3)

“The film has no educational value. The villians [sic] are worsted but not in such a manner as to teach the triumph of virtue. For blowing up a bridge to wreck a train, for throwing the hero into the ocean to drown and casting the heroine down an old well to perish they suffer merely a few blows at the hands of the rightfully angry hero.

“The children were intensely interested in the hero and heroine overcoming the obstacles placed in their way by the villains. The film appeal[e]d to their imagination and love of adventure in a harmless way.” (3)

“Picture 1 ‘The Intruder.’ Melodrama. Moral value good if any. True love scenes.

“Picture 2 Farce. Harmless for adults, bad for small boys. It suggests dangerous pranks.

“Picture 3 ‘Cue and Miss-Cue.’ Farce. Man lies to his wife. Much drinking at billiards and at the bar, vulgar hotel scene, unwholesome picture of family life.

“Picture 4 ‘The Female of the Species.’ Melodrama, Moral effect bad. No person worthy of admiration with the possible exception of the gypsy. Shooting and acts of violence. Man unfaithful to both women. The adventure appeals to children but much of it has a demoralizing effect on them.

“Vaudeville stunt of Reuben who told vulgar jokes and sang silly songs.” (3)

“Picture 1 ‘The Return of Helen Redmond.’ Moral value good, possibly, for a melodrama.

“Picture 2 ‘Wild Man from Borneo.’ Apparently not harmful.

“Picture 3 ‘What the Burglar Got.’ Husband lies to wife. His trickiness is made to appear laudable. Effect demoralizing. The cartoons were ill-disguised defences of the use of whiskey and tobacco.” (4)

“Picture 1 ‘A Rattle Snake.’ A disgusting scene of a Mexican harboring the snake and placing it in a bed to be occupied by a child. Other acts of a violent nature.

“Picture 2 Shows beer wagons and violence to persons. No act of immoral nature and very little to appeal to the intellectual. No censorship stated.’ (5)

“There was positiv[e]ly nothing of an educational nature and the finer qualities of chivalry, kindness and love were not shown to advantage. Je[a]lousy, intrigue and violence were generously portray[e]d in three out of four pictures. Only one picture was passed by the National Board. That such subjects should be thus used is most unfortunate. The effect must be morbid ideas and depression.” (6)

“Picture 1 ‘Indian Massacre.’ Shooting and daring riding. About as uplifting as the usual dime novel.

“Picture 2 Villain drinks whiskey. Commits robbery. Meets violent de[a]th. Of poor moral value for children.

“Picture 3 Pleasant fore[ig]n pictures.

“Picture 4 A so-called comedy on the ‘Mannish Old Maid.’ Not a wholesome plot. Promiscuous kissing and other acts not clean.” (7)

“Picture 1. ‘The Adventure of the Alarm Clock.’ Moral value bad. General effect bad. Passed by National Board.

“Picture 2 ‘Desperate Chance.’ Tragedy. Kindness, true love, faithfulness, violence, hanging scene, murder, drunkenness, neglect. Moral value bad until the end. Passed by National Board.

“Picture 3 ‘Iron and Steel.’ Kindness, brutality, fist encounters, de[a]th scene, cowards, cheating, true love, trechery, disobedience, revenge. Bad more than off-sets the good.” (8)

“Picture 1. ‘Too Much Love.’ Immoral. Virtue made source of mirth. General effect bad.” (9)

Comments: William Trufant Foster (1879-1950) was an American educationalist and economist, president of Reed College, Oregon, which published this report into vaudeville and motion picture shows in Portland, aiming to determine their influence upon children. It was conducted with the co-operation of local theatre managers and involved sixty investigators. The report states that fifty-one theatres showing motion pictures were investigated (the number in brackets refer to one of the cinemas). It includes blank versions of the investigators’ forms and a list of all their names. The text above comes from an appendix giving individual comments from the reports received. The films seen include A Seaside Samaritan (USA 1913), Rory o’ the Bogs (USA 1913), The Cross in the Cacti (USA 1914), Curing the Doctor (USA 1913), Betty’s Nightmare (USA 1912), Cue and Mis-cue (USA 1913), The Female of the Species (USA 1912), The Return of Helen Redmond (USA 1914), The Wild Man from Borneo (USA 1914), What the Burglar Got (USA 1914), The Rattlesnake (USA 1913), The Indian Massacre (USA 1912) and The Adventure of the Alarm Clock (USA 1914). The apparent absence of non-American film is noteworthy. The references to singing are to vaudeville acts that were sometimes part of early cinema shows.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Mornings in Mexico

Source: D.H. Lawrence, Mornings in Mexico (London: Martin Secker, 1927), pp. 98-100

Text: The audience in the theatre is a little democracy of the ideal consciousness. They all sit there, gods of the ideal mind, and survey with laughter or tears the realm of actuality.

Which is very soothing and satisfying so long as you believe that the ideal mind is the actual arbiter.

So long as you instinctively feel that there is some supreme, universal Ideal Consciousness swaying all destiny.

When you begin to have misgivings, you sit rather uneasily on your plush seat.

Nobody really believes that destiny is an accident. The very fact that day keeps on following night, and summer winter, establishes the belief in universal law, and from this to a belief in some great hidden mind in the universe is an inevitable step for us.

A few people, the so-called advanced, have grown uneasy in their bones about the Universal Mind. But the mass are absolutely convinced. And every member of the mass is absolutely convinced that he is part and parcel of this Universal Mind. Hence his joy at the theatre. His even greater joy at the cinematograph.

In the moving pictures he has detached himself even further from the solid stuff of earth. There, the people are truly shadows: the shadow-pictures are thinkings of his mind. They live in the rapid and kaleidoscopic realm of the abstract. And the individual watching the shadow-spectacle sits a very god, in an orgy of abstraction, actually dissolved into delighted, watchful spirit. And if his best girl sits beside him, she vibrates in the same ether, and triumphs in the same orgy of abstraction. No wonder this passion of dramatic abstraction becomes a lust.

That is our idea of entertainment.

Comments: The British novelist and short story writer David Herbert Lawrence (1885-1930) makes numerous references to the cinema in his writings, usually from a hostile point of view but clearly based on knowledge of cinemagoing. The essays were written during his time in Mexico, but the picturegoing described in this essay – which goes on to analyse the Pueblo Indian concept of entertainment – seems to relate to moving pictures anywhere, not Mexico as such.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Spell of China

Source: Archie Bell, The Spell of China (Boston: Page Co., 1917), pp. 102-104

Text: Charlie Chaplin has “invaded” the Orient and he is winning friends for the “American drama,” where acting and singing companies have failed to do so. They told me of an American comic opera company that visited Shanghai some time ago. My informant declared that the troupe gave creditable performances, but the Chinese ears were tortured by the singing. At first the audience calmly endured it, thinking that the agony would soon be over. Then they looked at one another absent-mindedly, and, finally, before the evening was over, most of the men had folded their coat sleeves over their mouths, so their laughter would not be audible. But they all have heard about the popularity of Chaplin in America, and for once in their lives Orient agrees with Occident. Chaplin is a great entertainer! The Chinese enjoy him, because his antics coincide exactly with their ideas of what comedy should be; and think he is the funniest man who ever lived. It is amusing to attend a theater in China where a Chaplin exhibition is in progress. When I first saw him in the country it was in a rather imposing theatre and “Our Best People” were said to be in attendance. The first glance at them, however, was rather shocking. Here was “full dress” with a vengeance; “full dress” that quite put into the shade any similar effort at undress in the Metropolitan horseshow in New York. Many Chinese were stripped to the waist and wore either a pair of bathing trunks—the idea was borrowed from America—or the long, baggy Chinese trousers that are tied around the ankles with ribbons. As I looked out over the audience from the back of the house, the bathing trunks, trousers and ribbons were invisible. What I saw was an ocean of bare backs and shoulders. I took a seat among this strangely costumed multitude, and finally recovered sufficiently to note that a Charlie Chaplin comedy was being shown. Bang! Something came down and hit him on the head. Zipp! He tripped his toe and fell headlong. The audience laughed as I had never seen Chinese laugh. There were few ladies present, because it is not yet considered quite the “proper” thing for a Chinese matron or her daughters to attend a cinema exhibition, but I carefully observed the perspiring gentlemen close to me. They seemed to be having the time of their lives, sometimes laughing so violently that it seemed to pain them, doubtless because it pained them to realize that they were so far forgetting themselves. Whenever “Our Charlie” took a particularly heavy fall, or whenever something fell on his head, apparently causing him great suffering, the Chinese closed their eyes, sat back on their benches and laughed facially and inwardly. It was a typical July night and it was very warm. The perspiration flowed down their backs in streams as they literally undulated with glee.

Comments: Archie Bell was an American travel writer. The racially questionable piece goes on to argue that “no better exhibition could be devised for the entertainment of the Chinese audience. He is supposed to have a ‘heart,’ but the Chinaman derives much satisfaction when he sees another man suffering, particularly if there is a remote possibility that he deserves it.”

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Social Influence of the Moving Picture

Source: Rev. H.A. Jump, The Social Influence of the Moving Picture (New York: Playground and Recreation of America, 1911), pp. 3-4. Reprinted from The Playground, June 1911; originally given as a talk to the People’s Institute, Cooper Union, March 12, 1911, New York City

Text: Recently I was conversing with a group of Persians who are employed in my city. Desirous of ascertaining how American life had impressed them, I put this question: “What was the most amazing experience that came to you after your arrival in the United States?” One man answered, “the subway,” another replied, “a black woman,” a third confessed that it was “the moving picture.” And I observed by the nodding of heads among other members of the company that they were saying amen to his verdict. Further inquiries brought out the fact that practically every one of these foreigners had the habit of going to moving picture shows. One man declared, “I like them because they make me forget that I am tired.” Another said, “I like them because I learn so much from them without knowing the English language.” Evidently the motion picture looms large in the experience of the immigrant.

A few weeks ago I visited the public library and had a chat with some three dozen children in the Children’s Room. “How many of you visit the moving picture shows?” I asked, and every hand went up. “What kind of pictures do you like best?” was my second inquiry. “I like the sad pictures,” answered one pale-faced little girl. “I like the kind where they get married,” replied a jolly miss. “I like the pictures of American soldiers marching down the street with the flags going on before,” came from a dark skinned lad. I asked him his name. He answered, “Guiseppi Calderoni.” The librarian of the Children’s Room told of a Hebrew boy who had recently inquired for a story called “The Bride of Lammermoor.” When asked where he had ever heard of that story, he replied, “I saw it in a moving picture show” Before he was through patronizing the library he had read every novel of Sir Walter Scott and much other good fiction besides. Evidently the motion picture occupies a large place in the experience of the school child.

College professors sometimes surprise us by their humanity. One of them told me not long ago that he patronized the moving picture show as often as he could find the time to do so. I expressed surprise, and asked him why he followed up the practice. He answered, “I always find something human in moving pictures; they seem to bring me close to the life of humanity.” Evidently there are educated men who are not above enjoying this marvelous invention.

In short, a new form of entertainment for the people has grown up without our realizing its extent. It appeals to all races, all ages, all stages of culture. In fact, it is one of the most democratic things in modern American life, belonging in a class with the voting booth and the trolley car.

Comments: The Reverend H.A. Jump, of the South Congregational Church, New Britain, Connecticut published the text of a talk he gave in New York City on the new phenomenon of the motion picture show, of which the above are the opening paragraphs. It is a markedly more positive assessment of the effect of motion pictures on audiences, especially the young, than was common from similar social guardians at this time. There had been four film adaptations of Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, some by way of Donizetti’s opera version, by 1911.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Legion of Decency

Source: Extracts from Mary J. Breen, ‘The Legion of Decency: Running a Movie Theater in the 1950s’, http://the-toast.net/2015/11/10/the-legion-of-decency-running-a-movie-theater-in-the-1950s/, originally published as ‘The Legion of Decency’, The Windsor Review, 48:1, Spring 2015

Text: In 1949, when I was five, my cautious Catholic parents bought a movie theatre in a Lutheran-Mennonite village in southern Ontario. My mother later told me they were trying to give my father a break from teaching high school—a rest from the long hours, the conscientious prep and marking, and the stress of dealing with unruly teenagers. What it doesn’t explain is why he of all people agreed to buy a theatre of all things that depended on movies from, of all places, Hollywood.

But I was much too young to ask any of those questions. All I knew was that The Regent Theatre was a wonderful place. I didn’t care that “our show,” as my parents called it, was a low, dark hall that had once been a hotel livery stable. I didn’t care that it was nothing like the grand movie palaces in Toronto that my mother took me to every summer. I didn’t care that the marquee lights didn’t flash, and the maroon curtains covering the screen were heavy with dust, and the plush seats were half-bald and prickled our bare legs in the summer. I didn’t care that we had no snack bar or velvet ropes or uniformed ushers. Instead of perfumed bathrooms, we had smelly outhouses out the back. Instead of soft carpets, we had concrete floors sticky with gum, candy wrappers, and cigarette butts. I didn’t care. I loved being there. I loved helping my father unfurl the loud, garish posters and tack them into the display boxes out front. I loved helping him sweep up on Saturday afternoons. I loved roller-skating fast down one aisle, across the front, and seeing how far I could coast up the other aisle, knowing all the while that the gunfights and runaway stagecoaches would be back in just a few hours.

All of us kids loved the movies, whether they were tales of cowboys or soldiers, pirates or sultans. We also understood them as they echoed the familiar justice of the playground and the Bible: the bad were always punished, and the good always inherited the earth. As soon as Mighty Mouse or Heckle & Jeckle ended and we heard the opening bars of the newsreel, most of us kids would run out past my mother yelling, “We’ll be back!” We’d race to the corner store where we’d cram little paper bags with gum, jaw breakers, banana marshmallows, red licorice sticks, and black liquorice pipes, and then tear back in time for the double bill. My parents never cared if someone without a quarter slipped in with the rest of us. Back in our seats we’d figure out who the good guys were, and then set about helping them by yelling things like, “Look out!” or “Run!” or “Behind the door!” We’d also clap and holler when help arrived, often the US Cavalry charging over the same hill the silent Indians had lined up on minutes before. The fun of it came back to me years later when I was watching Apollo 13 on TV. I cheered out loud when Tom Hanks’ voice came crackling through the clouds. The heat shields had held! That’s what it felt like at our show, week after week after week.

[…]

Then, in 1953, things changed. One night as my father was getting me ready for bed, I started raving on about how, when I grew up, I was going to be either a real cowgirl or a cowgirl in the movies where I’d get paid to play Maple Leaf with great costumes and real horses. He turned to me, his face dark and sober. “I don’t want to hear about Hollywood. It’s a heathen, godless place where everyone is divorced and has far too much money for their own good!” I was stunned. It was the very first time he’d ever scolded me. Then he went on to say I needed to start adding Three Hail Marys for Purity to my nightly prayers. “Remember,” he said, “God knows your every thought, word, and deed. With Almighty God we have no secrets.” I had no idea what he was talking about except that I had better keep my thoughts about the movies to myself.

Comments: Mary J. Breen is a Canadian author who has written two books on women’s health and has published widely in newspapers, magazines and online. Her father was a member of the Christian Brothers order but married before taking his final vows. Her parents ran a cinema despite the Catholic Church’s strong objections to aspects of the film industry, exemplified by the National Legion of Decency and its blacklisting of films to which it objected on moral grounds. After giving up the cinema her father never saw another film. My thanks to Mary J. Breen for permission to reproduce these extracts from her essay on her parents and their cinema venture.

Links: Full article at The Toast

How to Enjoy the Movies

Source: Anon., ‘How to Enjoy the Movies’, Peterborough Examiner, Oct. 12, 1921, p.14

Text: You think you will drop in to the “movies” for a few minutes, and if happens to be the [theatre where] they have those luxurious wicker chairs, you choose a handy one, right near the aisle, and settle back. There is a nasty rain outside, but in here it is nice and warm and comfortable.

Presently a party of young people come in and settle directly behind you. They appear to be a great many of them. They make a loud noise and spend some time selecting seats. After two or three bumps, you sit forward until they are all settled. A cautious look around reveals that there are only four, two of each sex. One of the girls is powdering her nose and the other seems to be looking for something on the floor. She wriggles around, finally locates it, and settles down. Then they begin in earnest. The girls read the titles aloud and make remarks about them in half-whisper. They giggle about every little while and tell all they know about the actors in various pictures. It is a good deal. The vaudeville arrives, and they recognise one of the performers as an old acquaintance who visited the town some years ago. They know a good deal about his private life and tell each other. The young man directly behind you appears to have some difficulty with his knees. Every once in so often he changes their position and makes you get it in the back. He makes no excuse however. You look around. There are no other aisle seats vacant, so you resolve to endure to the bitter end. The young fellow at the farther end is very silent. The girls decide that he has gone to sleep and start to “kid” him. Their voices are louder now, and they giggle at every remark. Suddenly something descends upon your head. You have been contemplating the picture, and it is rather a shock. You are surprised. No excuse is made. Then whispering ensues. Then the young man directly behind proffers some information about the dancer, but is contradicted immediately by the girl next him who says she knows all about that young lady. He subsides into a morose silence, and gives you another vicious jab in the rear with his replaced knee. You shift your chair a little. The girls think they want some place to rest their feet, so turn to two vacant chairs around and in doing so knock your elbow. No excuse is made. They arrange their two pairs of feet on the cushioned chairs, and another era of whispering, giggling, fussing, conversation starts in. The comedy provides some situations which give them a chance to snicker. They do so. The young man re-adjusts his feet once more, and nearly capsizes your chair. No excuse is made. You move a couple of feet, and quiet down a bit. Then the girl says she wants to go and sit beside “Jack,” who is at the farther end, and the other one won’t let her. A slight scuffle ensues. The young men say nothing. You can hear him just behind re-arranging his feet once more, but this time you are out of range, so it doesn’t matter. The feature unrolls its romantic story, and the girls whisper and giggle some more. They are talking about another girl now, and enjoying themselves immensely. Finally the hero embraces the heroine, the young man changes his position for the last time, and you all go home.

Comments: This article appears in a Canadian newspaper, but may originate from another source. My thanks to Robert Clarke for bringing this piece to my attention.

Mr. Wells Reviews a Current Film

Source: H.G. Wells, ‘Mr. Wells Reviews a Current Film: He Takes Issue With This German Conception of What The City of One Hundred Years Hence Will Be Like’, New York Times, 17 April 1927, p. 4

Text: I have recently seen the silliest film.

I do not believe it would be possible to make one sillier.

And as this film sets out to display the way the world is going, I think The Way the World is Going may very well concern itself with this film.

It is called Metropolis, it comes from the great Ufa studios in Germany, and the public is given to understand that it has been produced at enormous cost.

It gives in one eddying concentration almost every possible foolishness, cliché, platitude, and muddlement about mechanical progress and progress in general served up with a sauce of sentimentality that is all its own.

It is a German film and there have been some amazingly good German films, before they began to cultivate bad work under cover of a protective quota. And this film has been adapted to the Anglo-Saxon taste, and quite possibly it has suffered in the process, but even when every allowance has been made for that, there remains enough to convince the intelligent observer that most of its silliness must be fundamental.

Possibly I dislike this soupy whirlpool none the less because I find decaying fragments of my own juvenile work of thirty years ago, The Sleeper Awakes, floating about in it.

Capek’s Robots have been lifted without apology, and that soulless mechanical monster of Mary Shelley’s, who has fathered so many German inventions, breeds once more in this confusion.

Originality there is none. Independent thought, none.

Where nobody has imagined for them the authors have simply fallen back on contemporary things.

The aeroplanes that wander about above the great city show no advance on contemporary types, though all that stuff could have been livened up immensely with a few helicopters and vertical or unexpected movements.

The motor cars are 1926 models or earlier. I do not think there is a single new idea, a single instance of artistic creation or even intelligent anticipation, from first to last in the whole pretentious stew; I may have missed some point of novelty, but I doubt it; and this, though it must bore the intelligent man in the audience, makes the film all the more convenient as a gauge of the circle of ideas, the mentality, from which it has proceeded.

The word Metropolis, says the advertisement in English, ‘is in itself symbolic of greatness’- which only shows us how wise it is to consult a dictionary before making assertions about the meaning of words.

Probably it was the adapter who made that shot. The German ‘Neubabelsburg’ was better, and could have been rendered ‘New Babel’. It is a city, we are told, of ‘about one hundred years hence.’ It is represented as being enormously high; and all the air and happiness are above and the workers live, as the servile toilers in the blue uniform in The Sleeper Awakes lived, down, down, down below.

Now far away in the dear old 1897 it may have been excusable to symbolize social relations in this way, but that was thirty years ago, and a lot of thinking and some experience intervene.

That vertical city of the future we know now is, to put it mildly, highly improbable. Even in New York and Chicago, where the pressure on the central sites is exceptionally great, it is only the central office and entertainment region that soars and excavates. And the same centripetal pressure that leads to the utmost exploitation of site values at the centre leads also to the driving out of industrialism and labour from the population center to cheaper areas, and of residential life to more open and airy surroundings. That was all discussed and written about before 1900. Somewhere about 1930 the geniuses of Ufa studios will come up to a book of Anticipations which was written more than a quarter of a century ago. The British census returns of 1901 proved clearly that city populations were becoming centrifugal, and that every increase in horizontal traffic facilities produced a further distribution. This vertical social stratification is stale old stuff. So far from being ‘a hundred years hence,’ Metropolis, in its forms and shapes, is already, as a possibility, a third of a century out of date.

But its form is the least part of its staleness. This great city is supposed to be evoked by a single dominating personality. The English version calls him John Masterman, so that there may be no mistake about his quality. Very unwisely he has called his son Eric, instead of sticking to good hard John, and so relaxed the strain. He works with an inventor, one Rotwang, and they make machines. There are a certain number of other people, and the ‘sons of the rich’ are seen disporting themselves, with underclad ladies in a sort of joy conservatory, rather like the ‘winter garden’ of an enterprising 1890 hotel during an orgy. The rest of the population is in a state of abject slavery, working in ‘shifts’ of ten hours in some mysteriously divided twenty-four hours, and with no money to spend or property or freedom. The machines make wealth. How, is not stated. We are shown rows of motor cars all exactly alike; but the workers cannot own these, and no ‘sons of the rich’ would. Even the middle classes nowadays want a car with personality. Probably Masterman makes these cars in endless series to amuse himself.

One is asked to believe that these machines are engaged quite furiously in the mass production of nothing that is ever used, and that Masterman grows richer and richer in the process. This is the essential nonsense of it all. Unless the mass of the population has the spending power there is no possibility of wealth in a mechanical civilization. A vast, penniless slave population may be necessary for wealth where there are no mass production machines, but it is preposterous with mass production machines. You find such a real proletariat in China still; it existed in the great cities of the ancient world; but you do not find it in America, which has gone furtherest in the direction of mechanical industry, and there is no grain of reason in supposing it will exist in the future. Masterman’s watchword is ‘Efficiency,’ and you are given to understand it is a very dreadful word, and the contrivers of this idiotic spectacle are so hopelessly ignorant of all the work that has been done upon industrial efficiency that they represent him as working his machine-minders to the point of exhaustion, so that they faint and machines explode and people are scalded to death. You get machine-minders in torment turning levers in response to signals – work that could be done far more effectively by automata. Much stress is laid on the fact that the workers are spiritless, hopeless drudges, working reluctantly and mechanically. But a mechanical civilization has no use for mere drudges; the more efficient its machinery the less need there is for the quasi-mechanical minder. It is the inefficient factory that needs slaves; the ill-organized mine that kills men. The hopeless drudge stage of human labour lies behind us. With a sort of malignant stupidity this film contradicts these facts.

The current tendency of economic life is to oust the mere drudge altogether, to replace much highly skilled manual work by exquisite machinery in skilled hands, and to increase the relative proportion of semi-skilled, moderately versatile and fairly comfortable workers. It may indeed create temporary masses of unemployed, and in The Sleeper Awakes there was a mass of unemployed people under the hatches. That was written in 1897, when the possibility of restraining the growth of large masses of population had scarcely dawned on the world. It was reasonable then to anticipate an embarrassing underworld of under-productive people. We did not know what to do with the abyss. But there is no excuse for that today. And what this film anticipates is not unemployment, but drudge employment, which is precisely what is passing away. Its fabricators have not even realized that the machine ousts the drudge.

‘Efficiency’ means large-scale productions, machinery as fully developed as possible, and high wages. The British Government delegation sent to study success in America has reported unanimously to that effect. The increasingly efficient industrialism of America has so little need of drudges that it has set up the severest barriers against the flooding of the United States by drudge immigration. ‘Ufa’ knows nothing of such facts.

A young woman appears from nowhere in particular to ‘help’ these drudges; she impinges upon Masterman’s son Eric, and they go to the ‘Catacombs,’ which, in spite of the gas mains, steam mains, cables, and drainage, have somehow contrived to get over from Rome, skeletons and all, and burrow under this city of Metropolis. She conducts a sort of Christian worship in these unaccountable caverns, and the drudges love and trust her. With a nice sense of fitness she lights herself about the Catacombs with a torch instead of the electric lamps that are now so common.

That reversion to torches is quite typical of the spirit of this show. Torches are Christian, we are asked to suppose; torches are human. Torches have hearts. But electric hand-lamps are wicked, mechanical, heartless things. The bad, bad inventor uses quite a big one. Mary’s services are unsectarian, rather like afternoon Sunday-school, and in her special catacomb she has not so much an altar as a kind of umbrella-stand full of crosses. The leading idea of her religion seems to be a disapproval of machinery and efficiency. She enforces the great moral lesson that the bolder and stouter human effort becomes, the more spiteful Heaven grows, by reciting the story of Babel. The story of Babel, as we know, is a lesson against ‘Pride.’ It teaches the human soul to grovel. It inculcates the duty of incompetence. The Tower of Babel was built, it seems, by bald-headed men. I said there was no original touch in the film, but this last seems to be a real invention. You see the bald-headed men building Babel. Myriads of them. Why they are bald is inexplicable. It is not even meant to be funny, and it isn’t funny; it is just another touch of silliness. The workers in Metropolis are not to rebel or do anything for themselves, she teaches, because they may rely on the vindictiveness of Heaven.

But Rotwang, the inventor, is making a Robot, apparently without any license from Capek, the original patentee. It is to look and work like a human being, but it is to have no ‘soul.’ It is to be a substitute for drudge labour. Masterman very properly suggests that it should never have a soul, and for the life of me I cannot see why it should. The whole aim of mechanical civilization is to eliminate the drudge and the drudge soul. But this is evidently regarded as very dreadful and impressive by the producers, who are all on the side of soul and love and suchlike. I am surprised they do not pine for souls in the alarm clocks and runabouts. Masterman, still unwilling to leave bad alone, persuades Rotwang to make this Robot in the likeness of Mary, so that it may raise an insurrection among the workers to destroy the machines by which they live, and so learn that it is necessary to work. Rather intricate that, but Masterman, you understand, is a rare devil of a man. Full of pride and efficiency and modernity – all those horrid things.

Then comes the crowning absurdity of the film, the conversion of the Robot into the likeness of Mary. Rotwang, you must understand, occupies a small old house, embedded in the modern city, richly adorned with pentagrams and other reminders of the antiquated German romances out of which its owner has been taken. A quaint smell of Mephistopheles is perceptible for a time. So even at Ufa, Germany can still be dear old magic-loving Germany. Perhaps Germans will never get right away from the Brocken. Walpurgis Night is the name-day of the German poetic imagination, and the national fantasy capers insecurely for ever with a broomstick between its legs. By some no doubt abominable means Rotwang has squeezed a vast and well-equipped modern laboratory into this little house. It is ever so much bigger than the house, but no doubt he has fallen back on Einstein and other modern bedevilments. Mary has to be trapped, put into a machine like a translucent cocktail shaker, and undergo all sorts of pyrotechnic treatment in order that her likeness may be transferred to the Robot. The possibility of Rotwang just simply making a Robot like her, evidently never entered the gifted producer’s head. The Robot is enveloped in wavering haloes, the premises seem to be struck by lightning repeatedly, the contents of a number of flasks and carboys are violently agitated, there are minor explosions and discharges. Rotwang conducts the operations with a manifest lack of assurance, and finally, to his evident relief, the likeness is taken and things calm down. The false Mary then winks darkly at the audience and sails off to raise the workers. And so forth and so on. There is some rather good swishing about in water, after the best film traditions, some violent and unconvincing machine-breaking and rioting and wreckage, and then, rather confusedly, one gathers that Masterman has learnt a lesson, and that workers and employers are now to be reconciled by ‘Love.’

Never for a moment does one believe any of this foolish story; for a moment is there anything amusing or convincing in its dreary series of strained events. It is immensely and strangely dull. It is not even to be laughed at. There is not one good-looking nor sympathetic nor funny personality in the cast; there is, indeed, no scope at all for looking well or acting like a rational creature amid these mindless, imitative absurdities. The film’s air of having something grave and wonderful to say is transparent pretence. It has nothing to do with any social or moral issue before the world or with any that can ever conceivably arise. It is bunkum and poor and thin even as bunkum. I am astonished at the toleration shown it by quite a number of film critics on both sides of the Atlantic. And it costs, says the London Times, six million marks! How they spent all that upon it I cannot imagine. Most of the effects could have been got with models at no great expense.

The pity of it is that this unimaginative, incoherent, sentimentalizing, and make-believe film, wastes some very fine possibilities. My belief in German enterprise has had a shock. I am dismayed by the intellectual laziness it betrays. I thought Germans even at the worst could toil. I thought they had resolved to be industriously modern. It is profoundly interesting to speculate upon the present trend of mechanical inventions and of the reactions of invention upon labour conditions. Instead of plagiarizing from a book thirty years old and resuscitating the banal moralizing of the early Victorian period, it would have been almost as easy, no more costly, and far more interesting to have taken some pains to gather the opinions of a few bright young research students and ambitious, modernizing architects and engineers about the trend of modern invention, and develop these artistically. Any technical school would have been delighted to supply sketches and suggestions for the aviation and transport of A.D. 2027. There are now masses of literature upon the organization of labour for efficiency that could have been boiled down at a very small cost. The question of the development of industrial control, the relation of industrial to political direction, the way all that is going, is of the liveliest current interest. Apparently the people at Ufa did not know of these things and did not want to know about them. They were too dense to see how these things could have been brought into touch with the life of today and made interesting to the man in the street. After the worst traditions of the cinema world, monstrously self-satisfied and self-sufficient, convinced of the power of loud advertisement to put things over with the public, and with no fear of searching criticism in their minds, no consciousness of thought and knowledge beyond their ken, they set to work in their huge studio to produce furlong after furlong of this ignorant, old-fashioned balderdash, and ruin the market for any better film along these lines.

Six million marks! The waste of it!

The theatre when I visited it was crowded. All but the highest-priced seats were full, and the gaps in these filled up reluctantly but completely before the great film began. I suppose every one had come to see what the city of a hundred years hence would be like. I suppose there are multitudes of people to be ‘drawn’ by promising to show them what the city of a hundred years hence will be like. It was, I thought, an unresponsive audience, and I heard no comments. I could not tell from their bearing whether they believed that Metropolis was really a possible forecast or no. I do not know whether they thought that the film was hopelessly silly or the future of mankind hopelessly silly. But it must have been one thing or the other.

Comments: Herbert George Wells (1866-1946) was a British novelist, short story writer, historian and social commentator. He is best known for this works of science fiction, of which When the Sleeper Wakes (1898) is close in theme to Metropolis (Germany 1926), so thoughts of plagiarism may have coloured his attack on Fritz Lang’s film. He presumably saw the film in London. The Way the World is Going was a non-fiction work published by Wells in 1928.

Links: Copy at New York Times archives (subscription site)
Transcription at The Time Machine