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.

Diaries of Alexander Goodall

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Source: Diaries of Alexander Goodall, State Library of Victoria, Australia

Text: 1 July 1895, Monday
Geelong. At Exhibition Theatre today. Edison’s marvellous invention. Five scenes on view. “The Indian War dance”, “The Boxing Cats”, “The Skirt dancer”, “Buffalo Bill”, and “Sandow the Strong Man”.

Comment: Alexander Goodall (1874-1901) was a Post and Telegraph Office clerk living in Victoria who died young of tuberculosis. His vividly-illustrated diaries, covering 1892-1897, have been made available online in facsimile form by the State Library of Victoria. This extract records his seeing the Edison Kinetoscope peepshow at Geelong. Other extracts record Goodall’s impressions of the Edison Kinetophone (combing the Kinetoscope and the Phonograph) in July 1896 and the Cinematograph in May 1897. The films referred to are Sioux Ghost Dance (or possibly Buffalo Dance) (1894), The Boxing Cats (1894), Buffalo Bill (1894), Annabelle (1894) and Sandow (1894).

Links:
Diaries of a Working Man

Movies and Conduct

Source: Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), pp. 105-106

Text: In the gloom of the Fox Theater, I sat with my gang, and I gasped in pleasurable anticipation as the tense moment approached. The hero placed his hands about the heroine’s divinely small waist and pulled her half-fiercely toward him. Her beautiful lips parted slightly; he looked into her heavenly eyes with infinite adoration and their kiss was perfect. My response was inevitable. My hand clutched Vera’s; we thrilled in ecstasy.

Short-lived this bliss which passed all understanding. From behind, where a group of boys sat there came a rude burst of laughter, of smacks and kisses. A furious wave of anger engulfed me. How revolting and vulgar they were! I wanted to knock their heads together, to destroy them, to tramp upon them for they had hurt my sensitive soul without a thought. They had ruined the sacred beauty of that moment with their vulgarity. I had experienced that moment because I had put myself in the heroine’s place; I had felt the sweeping silk of her garment against me; I had been as beautiful as she, in surroundings as glamorous; and the hero had been replaced by a certain boy a few rows away who, I felt, was watching me at that moment. It was a personal insult to me that they had laughed. I turned, haughty scorn in my glance, to look at those insufferable creatures,- and I caught his eye. He smiled – a warmth suffused me, in that moment I knew –

The minutes hurried by. There came the close-up, the flare of lights, the noise of stamping crowds, anxious to gain the exit. I walked in a dream, feeling a spell and a magic touch upon me. I had scarcely left my friends at the corner when the well-known lines of his roadster loomed before me, and the headlights cut gaudy streaks across the pavement. Came the creaking of brakes, a subdued question, my mute assent, the opening of the car-door, and the purr of the engine as we slid into the mystery of a vaguely fragrant night.

I had known it all along, from the moment I had seen that perfect embrace in the movies; I had felt that this would happen. He had parked in lover’s lane, his arms were about me, persuading. To my bewildered mind there came two thoughts; one, “Mama said, ‘ Don’t kiss the boys'”; the other, “What harm can it be? It is beautiful.” So I struggled no longer; and I learned the charm which before I had only dreamed of.

Comment:American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. Most of the evidence relates to picturegoing in the 1920s. This extract, from a college girl aged nineteen, is given in the chapter ‘Emotional Possession: Love and Passion’. The full autobiographical essay is reproduced as ‘Case 5: My Movie Autobiography’ in Garth Jowett, Ian C. Jarvie, Kathryn H. Fuller, Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 255-260.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

A North London Childhood

Source: Louise M. Blundell, A North London Childhood 1910-1924 (Islington Libraries, 1985), p. 21

Text: I was now eleven and something wonderful happened. The cinema came! Two were opened in archway Road, the Electric Palace and the Highgate Empire. Opposite the Archway Tavern was the Electric Palace. It had an eastern look about it and had an arch with rows of electric lights and when they were switched on it looked like an Arabian palace in the fairy tale books that I read. An hour before the first performance crowds of children came, with their twopence-halfpennies clutched tightly in their hands. Nell and I were among them. We danced and played around the entrance hall until an attendant dressed in a smart uniform opened the doors for the cashier to take our money at the kiosk. We pushed and shoved and at last with tickets held tightly in our hands we rushed in – past the gilt mirrors and glossy photographs of famous stars, down the aisles to find the best seats and to wait for the magic to begin. We stared in wonderment at the ceiling which was covered in paintings of angels and cherubs with garlands of flowers and lovely ladies disporting themselves all over the ceiling. At last the pianist arrived to play as the film was shown … We were carried along on a wave of music and emotion … The cinema was really the only colourful thing in our world. North London was so drab and ugly, everyone wore such dark clothes in those days. It all seemed black and grey to me. I felt starved for colour.

Comment: In terms of the chronology of her memoir Louise Blundell is writing about the pre-WWI period of her London childhood, but the Electric Palace and the Highgate Empire were both built post-1914, and some of the memories seem to relate to the early 1920s. Blundell lived in Willesden, then Archway Road; her memoir was published by the local library.

I Was a Walworth Boy

Source: H.J. Bennett, I Was a Walworth Boy (Peckham Publishing Project, 1980), p.20

Text: If one turned to the left at the top of East Street the first pub was the Roundhouse. Here too was a little cinema where I saw my first silent films with a woman playing what was [sic] considered appropriate tunes on the piano. Among the films I saw here were ‘The Exploits of Elaine’ and the early Chaplin comedies.

Comment: H.J. Bennett was born in East Street, Walworth, London, in 1902. The Exploits of Elaine was a 1914 American serial, starring Pearl White.

Nice Work

Source: Adrian Brunel, Nice Work: The Story of Thirty Years in British Film Production (London: Forbes Robertson, 1949), p. 16

Text: In 1912 my mother and I were film fans. We lived in Brighton where there were at least half-a-dozen bioscopes, as cinemas were usually called, although my mother’s maid always referred to them as “the fumes”. Many of them were converted shops, with hard, noisy, tip-up seats and bare boards, but they were cheap, the price of seats ranging from threepence to ninepence, and in some cases one shilling, and the programme varied in length between three and four-and-a-half hours. Threepence was our price; we generally managed to afford two or three shows a week, and if my mother went to town or I was on my own, my meagre savings quickly diminished while I went to as many as three shows in a day, starting at ten in the morning and finishing at eleven at night.

Comment: Adrian Brunel (1892-1958) was a British film director and editor, as well as a writer of guides to film production. His films includes The Man Without Desire (1923), The Constant Nymph (1928) and The Vortex (1928). Nice Work is his autobiography.

The East End Years

Source: Fermin Rocker, The East End Years: A Stepney Childhood (London: Freedom Press, 1998), pp. 60, 62. Freedom Press uses the Attribution- NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International license.

Text: High on my list of favourites were the Indians of North America, a people for whom I had an unusual degree of admiration and sympathy. Their picturesque appearance as well as their skill and bravery as hunters and warriors greatly impressed me. Coupled with this regard and affection was a strong feeling of outrage aroused by my father’s stories of the deceit and treachery practised upon them by the white man. I dearly wished that some day the redskins would be able to turn the tables on their white oppressors and drive them from the continent which their cunning and duplicity had helped them conquer …

… My partiality for the redskin was to have some unhappy consequences when I received my first exposure to the cinema. The Westerns, which featured rather prominently in the repertory of those days, invariably had the Indians getting the worst of it in their encounters with the white man, a headlong rout of the redskins being the usual outcome. I found it quite impossible to look on calmly while my friends were being massacred on the screen. Not being nearly so stoical as my Indian idols, I would raise a tremendous commotion and have to be taken out of the theatre to prevent things from getting completely out of hand. After a few experiences of this kind, it was decided not to take me to the “pictures” any more, a resolution I did not in the least regret.

Comment: Fermin Rocker (1907-2004) was the son of anarchist theorist Rudolf Rocker and became an artist and illustrator. His memoir recalls a heavily-politicised upbringing in Stepney. His father was German, his mother a Russian Jew. He writes that he much preferred Punch and Judy to cinema.

Yesteryears

Source: Evelyn Jones, in Sylvia Bond (ed.), Yesteryears – School, Work and Leisure Remembered by Highgate Residents (London: Sylvia Bond, 1979)

Text: Then I went to the cinema. They were all silent films in those days and they had little captions underneath. We saw Lillian Gish, and one serial was very exciting yet; they’d stop at the most exciting part and it made you come the next week. But we weren’t all that regular. If it was a serial we used to like to go, but apart from that we weren’t a family that went just for the sake of going. There was a cinema down the bottom of Highgate Hill called the Electra Palace. People used to call it the Flea Pit. It was very small compared with the cinemas we get now and in those days there used to be queues of people. You’d go inside and they’d have a rope, or a piece of string or something, stuck across the bottom and you had to all stand behind before you got your seat. We used to hate that. There wasn’t much else to attract people – just concerts and cinema, so a lot of people used to go and you often had to wait a long time before you got a seat. Then there was a Plaza at Crouch End, a similar sort of place. There was a Marlborough Theatre, that was a theatre in my youth; they used to give pantomimes at Christmas time. Some years after it was turned into a cinema.

Comment: Evelyn Jones was born in 1903, and lived all her life in Milton Park, London. The cinema to which she refers is possibly the Electric Palace, 17 Highgate Hill. There is a copy of Yesteryears in Holborn archives.

The Circle in the Square

Source: Postcard c.1908 of The Circle in the Square, 28 Leicester Square, London

circleinthesquare

Comment: The Circle in the Square was the first cinema (as opposed to variety theatres showing films as part of their programme) in London’s Leicester Square. Originally known as the Bioscopic Tea Rooms, it opened in June 1909 and in common with many cinemas at this time offered teas to its patrons, here in an adjoining room, though teas could be taken into the cinema itself. The cinema, which seated 192 with standing room for 42, was open daily 2pm to 11pm, with teas provided 2pm to 7pm. Today the same location is occupied by an Angus Steak House.

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.