Seeing American Films

Source: ‘Seeing American Films’, Yo-shi Bao [The Amusement Paper], September 1897, quoted in Jay Leyda, Dianying / Electric Shadows: An Account of Films and the Film Audience in China (London/Cambridge, Mass.: The MIT Press, 1972), p. 2

Text: Last night, in the cool of the evening following a shower of rain, my friends took me to the Chi Gardens to see a show. After the audience gathered, the lights were put out and the performance began. On the screen before us we saw a picture – two occidental girls dancing, with puffed-up yellow hair, looking rather silly. Then another scene, two occidentals boxing. Then a woman bathing in a tub … In another scene a man puts out the light and goes to bed, but he is disturbed by a bedbug. To catch it he throws off all the bedding, and when he finally puts it in the chamber pot he looks very funny …

Comment: The first projected film show in China was on 11 August 1896. The American photographer James Ricalton brought Edison films to Shanghai from June 1897 and according to Jay Leyda this is a review of a Ricalton show, but the films described appear to be Georges Méliès productions (and hence French films): Après le bal le tub (1897), Une nuit terrible (1896), and possibly Match de boxe (1897). The dancers with yellow hair suggests that the films had hand-painted colour.

The Kinetoscope

Source: ‘The Kinetoscope’, The Morning Post, 18 October 1894, p. 5

Text: Mr. F.Z. Maguire, the representative of Mr. Edison in Europe, last evening received a large number of visitors at a private view of Mr. Edison’s latest invention, the kinetoscope, which was held at No. 70, Oxford-street. Mr. Edison has devoted four years to the experiments which have led to the completion of the kinetoscope, an instrument which by presenting a series of photographs in rapid succession gives a continuous picture of moving objects. Among the scenes represented in the apparatus last evening were a blacksmith’s shop in which three men are at work, with all their movements as they strike the anvil realistically displayed, while the smoke from the furnace gradually ascends; Carmencita, the celebrated Spanish dancer, executing her graceful evolutions; Bertholdi, a female contortionist, going through her performance; a bar-room fight, and a cock-fight. The photographs are exhibited at the rate of 2,000 a minute on a continuous celluloid film 45ft. long. The pictures, which are all perfect in themselves, are magnified in the machine and illuminated by the electric light. The present exhibition, however, does not represent the degree of perfection to which Mr. Edison promises to carry his invention, and it suffers by the smallness of the pictures and the want of clearly defined light and shade as well as by the inconvenience of looking down into the instrument. The inventor intends in future developments to throw moving pictures of life-size figures on a screen, and by the aid of a perfected phonograph which can reproduce every vibration of the violin to perpetuate the voices concurrently with the gestures of orators and actors, and even to show entire scenes from operas and plays, with all the speeches and songs as well as the movements of the performers. The instruments at present exhibited are offered to the public at the price of £70 apiece. They can, however, only be regarded as an amusing toy and as a preliminary to the greater achievements that are promised in the future. Probably an improvement may be effected by reducing the rapidity of the display, for it is recognised in the science of optics that the human eye is incapable of appreciating more than eight impressions in a second, while Professor Tyndall places the number at only seven.

Comment: The Kinetoscope peepshow was introduced to the UK on 17 October 1894 at a press showing organised by Maguire & Baucus, Edison’s European agents, at 70 Oxford Street, London. There were ten machines on display, showing the Edison films Blacksmiths, Cock Fight, Annabelle Serpentine Dance, The Bar Room, Carmencita, Wrestling Match, Bertoldi and Barber Shop.

The Cinema Audience

Source: ‘The Cinema Audience’, The Evening Telegraph [Dundee], 11 September 1919, p. 4

Text: The Cinema Audience. Screengazers Under An Observant Eye. “Potting the Picturegoer” a Fascinating Sport. (Special to Telegraph and Post.)

“Potting the picturegoer” can be quite a fascinating sport. There is no necessity to don loud tweeds and light brogues or flannel trousers and white shoes. You enter the arena in everyday costume and arm yourself with the only weapon required — the observant eye. Of course, you are merely courting trouble if, when caught at the game in the entrance hall of a picture house, you call yourself a “practical psychologist.” The gold-braided gentleman who is the presiding genius of the place will rightly resent and suspect such language, and probably propel you streetwards. Rather tell him with disarming frankness that you are studying the “screengazer” in his native haunts and that you propose presently to inside and continue your investigations.

Ten minutes near the pay-box will convince you that your “victims” are drawn from every class of society. You soon understand why Mary Pickford can claim to be the “world’s sweetheart.” It this mingling of all sorts and conditions of people that makes the observer’s game worth while. Notice particularly the mood that prevails in the queue. It contrasts strangely with that of the audience passing through a theatre “foyer.”

There no ceremony about picture-going, no air of attending a function. The “pictures” are free and easy in spirit, and the audience is similarly affected. It largely this “come and go as you please” atmosphere that maintains the popularity of the cinema.

Inside the house, you come to close quarters with your “quarry.” Before long you discover that the shrewdest judge of a picture is the audience. You will find, of course, that criticism changes character you pass from back to front of the hall, but really good picture will be recognised and praised by all, while the faults of a film will be unerringly detected.

If a comedy is screened will be interesting to watch the effect on various members of the audience. Not every screen comedy is really humorous, and you may be surprised to find a friend who prides himself on his subtle and refined sense of humour taking advantage of the darkness to grin broadly at what is actually silly horseplay.

He may be comfortably placed in the best seats the house affords, while an occupant of the benches near the screen is only bored by the film. You therefore conclude that appreciation of real humour is not necessarily conferred by the ability, to pay for a “tip-up.”

Things That Annoy.

The “star” film flickers on to the screen. If it is a well-constructed picture the interest of the audience is maintained, but you need not a profound observer to note the sign of impatience when the story “drags. “Padding out” a picture irritates, and a player who takes thirty feet of film to accomplish what could reasonably be done in ten annoys the audience.

Your picture-goer is credulous, although he hates to be asked to swallow too much, He will stand absurd situations which no playwright would dream of foisting on theatre audience. But he is gradually coming to demand from the screen some approach to the happenings of real life, and to reject as impossible many situations that have hitherto passed muster. He likes what is novel, but refuses the wholly improbable.

Suppose that the film is of American production. The fact may account for a mystified and almost angry audience. You watch it vainly trying to grasp the meaning of tho letterpress or “leaders” between the scenes, for the American has entirely forgotten that the British audience, while capable understanding English, makes little of New York Bowery slang. Some of these Americanisms have an undeniable piquancy, but most are unintelligible, and only succeed in annoying the picture goer.

Comment: This curious article was published in Scotland by the Dundee-based Evening Telegraph newspaper. It addresses itself to an audience with seemingly little knowledge of cinema at all, at a time when cinema-going throughout the UK was coming to be adopted widely across the UK and no longer seen as a largely working class entertainment. The audience reported on was presumably in Dundee.

Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows

Source: ‘I.M. Pacatus’ (Maxim Gorky), Nizhegorodski listok, 4 July 1896, translated (by Leda Swan) and reproduced in Jay Leyda, Kino: A History of the Russian and Soviet Film (London: George Allen & Unwin, 1960), pp. 407-409.

Text: Last night I was in the Kingdom of Shadows.

If you only knew how strange it is to be there. It is a world without sound, without colour. Every thing there — the earth, the trees, the people, the water and the air — is dipped in monotonous grey. Grey rays of the sun across the grey sky, grey eyes in grey faces, and the leaves of the trees are ashen grey. It is not life but its shadow. It is not motion but its soundless spectre.

Here I shall try to explain myself, lest I be suspected of madness or indulgence in symbolism. I was at Aumont’s and saw Lumière’s cinematograph—moving photography. The extraordinary impression it creates is so unique and complex that I doubt my ability to describe it with all its nuances. However, I shall try to convey its fundamentals. When the lights go out in the room in which Lumière’s invention is shown, there suddenly appears on the screen a large grey picture, “A Street in Paris” — shadows of a bad engraving. As you gaze at it, you see carriages, buildings and people in various poses, all frozen into immobility.

All this is in grey, and the sky above is also grey — you anticipate nothing new in this all too familiar scene, for you have seen pictures of Paris streets more than once. But suddenly a strange flicker passes through the screen and the picture stirs to life. Carriages coming from somewhere in the perspective of the picture are moving straight at you, into the darkness in which you sit; somewhere from afar people appear and loom larger as they come closer to you; in the foreground children are playing with a dog, bicyclists tear along, and pedestrians cross the street picking their way among the carriages. All this moves, teems with life and, upon approaching the edge of the screen, vanishes somewhere beyond it.

And all this in strange silence where no rumble of the wheels is heard, no sound of footsteps or of speech. Nothing. Not a single note of the intricate symphony that always accompanies the movements of people. Noiselessly, the ashen-grey foliage of the trees sways in the wind, and the grey silhouettes of the people, as though condemned to eternal silence and cruelly punished by being deprived of all the colours of life, glide noiselessly along the grey ground.

Their smiles are lifeless, even though their movements are full of living energy and are so swift as to be almost imperceptible. Their laughter is soundless although you see the muscles contracting in their grey faces. Before you a life is surging, a life deprived of words and shorn of the living spectrum of colours — the grey, the soundless, the bleak and dismal life.

It is terrifying to see, but it is the movement of shadows, only of shadows … Suddenly something clicks, everything vanishes and a train appears on the screen. It speeds straight at you — watch out!

It seems as though it will plunge into the darkness in which you sit, turning you into a ripped sack full of lacerated flesh and splintered bones, and crushing into dust and into broken fragments this hall and this building, so full of women, wine, music and vice.

But this, too, is but a train of shadows.

Noiselessly, the locomotive disappears beyond the edge of the screen. The train comes to a stop, and grey figures silently emerge from the cars, soundlessly greet their friends, laugh, walk, run, bustle, and … are gone. And here is another picture. Three men seated at the table, playing cards. Their faces are tense, their hands move swiftly, The cupidity of the players is betrayed by the trembling fingers and by the twitching of their facial muscles, They play … Suddenly, they break into laughter, and the waiter who has stopped at their table with beer, laughs too. They laugh until their sides split but not a sound is heard. It seems as if these people have died and their shadows have been condemned to play cards in silence unto eternity. Another picture. A gardener watering flowers. The light grey stream of water, issuing from a hose, breaks into a fine spray …

This mute, grey life finally begins to disturb and depress you. It seems as though it carries a warning, fraught with a vague but sinister meaning that makes your heart grow faint. You are forgetting where you are. Strange imaginings invade your mind and your consciousness begins to wane and grow dim …

Besides those pictures I have already mentioned, is featured “The Family Breakfast,” an idyll of three. A young couple with its chubby first-born is seated at the breakfast table. The two are so much in love, and are so charming, gay and happy, and the baby is so amusing …

I am convinced that these pictures will soon be replaced by others of a genre more suited to the general tone of the “Concert Parisien.” For example, they will show a picture titled: “As She Undresses,” or “Madam at Her Bath,” or “A Woman in Stockings.” They could also depict a sordid squabble between a husband and wife and serve it to the public under the heading of “The Blessings of Family Life.”

Yes, no doubt, this is how it will be done. The bucolic and the idyll could not possibly find their place in Russia’s markets thirsting for the piquant and the extravagant. I also could suggest a few themes for development by means of a cinematograph and for the amusement of the market place. For instance: to impale a fashionable parasite upon a picket fence, as is the way of the Turks, photograph him, then show it.

It is not exactly piquant but quite edifying.

Comment: This famous first impression of witnessing motion pictures was written by the Russian writer Maxim Gorky (1868-1936) after attending a Lumière film show organised by Charles Aumont at the Nizhny-Novgorod All-Russian Exhibition on 30 June or 1 July 1896. Aumont’s Théâtre Concerto Parisienne also served as a brothel.