Video Night in Kathmandu

Source: Pico Iyer, Video Night in Kathmandu, and Other Reports from the Not-So-Far-East (London: Bloomsbury: 1988), pp. 241-243

Text: The moment was tense; a group of well-dressed dignitaries had assembled in the imperial palace. The country was in the midst of crisis; turbulence was all around. Then, suddenly, out into the center of the hall came an enormous birthday cake, and out of that popped our strapping hero, dressed as a Jesuit father and playing an antic tune on his fiddle. As soon as she saw him, our sultry heroine fell pouting to her knees. At that, the redeemer ripped off his disguise to reveal a white tuxedo, and the two began blurting out a duet while shaking their hips together in a copy of Saturday Night Fever. Instantly, there was joy all round. Scores of onlookers turned into blazered men and bangled and bejeweled houris, writhing and wriggling in unison. The lead couple shimmied and slithered through a Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers routine, arching their hips and flashing their eyes as they went. And everyone was happy, everything seemed good. There was plenty of singing and dancing.

Hero and heroine had met only shortly before. He had chanced to see her dragging an old woman through the dust of her palace grounds from the back of her snow-white Chevrolet. Hating such injustice, he had leaped into a horse cart and given chase. In the blink of an eye, he had overtaken the convertible and stood in its path and rescued the old lady. Little did he guess that this was the mother he had never known! And the girl was a princess, pale-skinned, pantsuited and voluptuous, while the man was nothing but a low-caste “tonga wallah.” Yet when her eyes flashed with rage, he stared back unterrified. And so it was that their eyes locked and their hearts beat as one and they knew they could never live apart. The rest, in its way, was history.

Meanwhile, the entire country was ablaze with the flames of strife! For its people were under the thumb of a race of wicked despots from across the sea, white of skin yet black of heart. Already, the cruel tyrants had killed a thousand brave fighters at Amritsar; now, merciless fiends, they wished to drain the blood of every Indian in order to sustain their own soldiers. Outside their opulent club hung a sign — “Dogs and Indians Are Not Allowed.” Inside, the shameless imperialists sat around a swimming pool, sipping wine as they ogled slinky girls in bikinis.

And then, without a warning and out of nowhere, who should come to the rescue but Our Hero? Sending his tonga crashing through the club’s french windows, he rode into the pool to deliver an impromptu sermon in his heroic baritone; then, striding out, he seized a shaven-headed villain by the throat, forced him to drink Indian beer, kicked him into the water and began playing the drums on his head. And by the hero’s side came Moti, the Wonder Dog, and behind them both the Wonder Horse, a silver stallion willing to risk anything in the cause of freedom. The Wonder Dog lifted his leg on the Empire. The Wonder Horse galloped this way and that. And the Wonder Man rubbed a foreigner’s bloody nose into the detested sign until it blotted out one of the hateful words. Now the sign read: “Dogs and Indians Are Allowed.” Jubilation! Ecstasy! Liberation! Joyfully, the crowd jumped up and followed its hero through a great deal of singing and dancing!

And so the humble tonga wallah led the downtrodden masses to freedom. He rescued poor babies, he lectured the oppressed, he brought speech to the dumb and made the lame to walk. He even, in the manner of a holy man, broke a coconut on his head. The dastardly British tried everything they could to stop him. They locked him up. They tied him up. They beat him up. They made him enter a gladiatorial arena and fight to the death the father he had never known. But nothing could stop him, neither Man nor Nature. Fearless in the fight for freedom, he burned effigies of Dyer and smashed a statue of Curzon. Like a good son, he embraced his father when he learned that he had been exchanged at birth for another. Like a good hero, he was ready at a pinch to wink and wiggle with his beloved. And like a good Hindu, he was as pious as he was playful: at his foster mother’s grave, he sorrowfully performed all the appropriate devotional rites before scattering her ashes on the Ganges.

And so, like a god from the heavens, he brought justice and democracy and happiness back to the afflicted land. Right beat Might. Love conquered all. The people were redeemed. And always there was plenty of singing and dancing.

The masses called him “Mard” (He-Man).

Mard was the cultural event of the season when I was in India. “Mard,” shouted the monstrous, many-colored hoardings that towered above the streets of Bombay. “Mard,” proclaimed the huge trailers splashed across the newspapers. Mard was the subject of passionate debates and diatribes. A single name was on a million minds and lips across the country: Mard.

Comments: Pico Iyer, full name Siddharth Pico Raghavan Iyer (1957- ), is a British essayist, travel writer and novelist. Mard (1985) was a hugely popular Hindi action drama directed by Manmohan Desai and starring Amitabh Bachchan and Amrita Singh.

Gone to the Pictures

Source: Hilda Lewis, Gone to the Pictures (London: Jarrolds, 1946), pp. 23-27

Text: Suddenly Lena stopped. Here was another of those blacked-in shops like the one opposite Mr. Dicks. The window was pasted all over with bills; but they were so dirty and dilapidated, it was impossible to read what they said. A dark and dirty boy was standing and yelling, All the latest … all the lat-est! Every time he bawled late he gave the open door of the shop a thwack with his stick. When he caught sight of Lena and me he changed his tune, bawling out that there was No waiting – ebserlootly no waiting … ending with an invitation to Walk in, walk in. …

We walked in.

It was very dark inside the shop and the smell was horrid. If it had not been for Lena, in spite of all my joyous anticipation I believe I should have turned tail – especially as we had not yet paid.

I stopped at the front row, but Lena said you could see better at the back so we pushed our way through the darkness, stumbling here and there over people’s outstretched legs and finally sat down on two rickety kitchen chairs.

“We haven’t paid yet,” I reminded Lena.

“Don’t you worry” she said, “they’re not here for love!”

In front of us, against the blacked-in window, hung a small greyish sheet on rollers, like a blank and crumpled map. “You keep your eyes on that!” Lena said.

I kept my eyes on that, and since nothing seemed to happen, or even to be about to happen, I looked about the dark shop. I could make out the shapes of people sitting here and there, with sometimes as much as an empty row of chairs between them.

We seemed to be sitting there a long, long time. My chair got harder and harder.

“They say continuous,’ I said fretfully. “It hasn’t begun yet, let alone continue. …”

“Got to wait till it fulls a bit,” Lena said cheerfully and diving into her handbag she produced a twisted paper of fruit-drops. I amused myself by trying to recognize the flavours on my tongue. I recognized lemon, orange, blackcurrant and possibly greengage, and then my palate being somewhat jaded, I turned my attention once more to my surroundings.

“Why don’t they light the gas?” I was bored with the darkness.

“Film might catch fire.” Lena explained.

“Oh,” I said. “Then why do people smoke?” I was coughing a little.

“Not supposed to,” Lena informed me.

“Oh,” I said.

“Shan’t be long now,” she promised after what seemed hours. “Going to collect now.”

The dingy curtain that hung in front of the open door was pushed aside by a man carrying an open cigar-box. He shoved his way through the now-full rows and the fall of clanking coppers went with him.

He retired. And with his retiring came silence. For as though it were a signal, a ray of silver light fell upon the hanging sheet.

I sat there forgetting to breathe, forgetting to finish the sweet that lay unheeded upon my tongue. I sat entranced. I remember how I kept saying to myself, I don’t believe it!

And all the time upon the silver screen people ran and walked and laughed and cried.

Living Pictures. Alive.

I remember every incident of that day. Even now, as I write, if I choose to shut my eyes and send my thoughts backwards, I am again that child sitting in the darkness of Cohen’s shop; and I see every shot in my first living pictures.

The first film is very sad. An old man lies in bed and he is very ill. The room is almost bare except for the bed and a chair and there is no doubt at all that he is very poor. An old lady who is presumably his wife goes to the cupboard and opens it. Empty. Nothing but bare boards. She wrings her hands. She points to the old man. The tears run down her thin old cheeks.

It is all terribly sad. The blurring of the screen is not entirely due to bad projection.

But stay. All is not lost! In the depths of her apron pocket the old lady finds a few coppers. Now she is going out. She is in the street.

It is, I think, a French street. Now the old lady is in the market. She is buying flowers. Why on earth flowers when there isn’t a thing to eat?

Oh, clever! She is going to sell them!

She stands at the corner of the street holding out her flowers. No one will buy them. No one will even stop to look at them. It is a cold day. People hurry by in their good boots, or in their handsome carriages. The old lady in her thin shawl shivers on the pavement.

It begins to rain. The pavements grow greasy. The old lady goes on holding out her bunches; the flowers are beginning to look bedraggled. The rainy street gets emptier and emptier. Rain falls upon the old woman standing in the deserted street holding out her unwanted flowers.

At last she sees it is hopeless. With a sad and helpless gesture she drops the flowers into the gutter. She hurries home. The old man is dying. I have never seen death before, but I know he is dying.

I try to turn my face away. Death is so frightening. But I must look. I have to look. These Living Pictures are so much stronger than my fears… they drag my fascinated eyes from the safety of my hands.

I look again. The old man is still a-dying. His thin chest jerks up and down; in and out it goes like a concertina. Suddenly his head falls backwards.

Dead.

His eyes are staring, staring in his head.

Do dead people’s eyes stare?

I turn to ask Lena. I am hoping she will say No. But we have started on a new picture. I must try to put those dead eyes out of my mind.

This time it is “a comic.” There are two gentlemen and a lady and they all look what Mamma calls “common.” Lena is smiling already.

The two gentlemen have each a bunch of flowers for the lady. The lady is very fat; she is as tall as a grenadier. She takes the flowers from each of the gentlemen.

But do dead people’s eyes …?

The fat lady invites the two gentlemen to have a piece of an enormous melon that is on the sideboard. She cuts a huge slice for the fat gentleman, a huge slice for the thin gentleman; and then she takes the biggest slice for herself.

They rub their stomachs, they roll their eyes, they grin all over their faces to show how good the melon is. Then they all have another slice. And then another and another. There is no melon left.

They don’t look so happy now. The fat lady gets up and steals away. The thin gentleman gets up and follows her. Then the fat gentleman follows them both.

Now the two gentlemen are standing outside a shed at the bottom of the lady’s garden. There is French writing on the door of the shed. I am not good at French but for all that I know perfectly well that this is a lavatory and the fat lady is inside.

I am beginning to feel uncomfortable; and all the time there is a pricking in my mind…. Do dead people’s eyes …?

The lady is still inside the lavatory and the two gentlemen are walking up and down quickly as if they dare not stand still. And all the time they are holding their stomachs and making uncomfortable faces. Now they begin to thump upon the lavatory door.

It is queer seeing the thumps and yet not hearing them… .

Tt is all rather horrid and quite stupid. I begin to think that perhaps Mamma is right. And yet everyone else is enjoying it.

Someone behind me is stamping on the rungs of my chair and jarring my spine. And Lena, even Lena is laughing … and … Do dead people’s eyes …?

There are three or four more pictures. There is no writing to explain, and no one to tell you what is happening. But then the stories are so simple.

There is one that I like best of all. It is another French one and very exciting. It is about the Devil; and it has the most lovely colours.

The Devil in a gorgeous red cloak and long black tights does magic tricks; and it is a thousand times more mysterious than Maskelyne’s. He sprinkles magic powder in a bowl and great flames leap up. He waves his hands over the flames and there are tiny people dancing — fairies and elves.

The Devil keeps walking about and his red cloak flows out behind him. Suddenly he begins to walk towards us and all the time he gets larger and larger; and nearer and nearer … it begins to look as if he will walk right out of the picture, right into the dark shop where I sit clutching hold of Lena. …

The earliest close-up in the world! I know that now. And it wasn’t accidental, either. Old Méliés who made it knew all the tricks.

It is absolutely terrifying seeing the Devil walk straight towards us – possibly my guilty conscience has something to do with it. I sit there, clutching, until the Devil moves slowly backwards, getting smaller and smaller as he goes … I am not at all sorry when he proves himself too clever and, pop—up he goes in flames himself!

And that is the end of the show. The screen goes dark. Lena says that when it lights up again it will start with the dying man in the place that perhaps is France: if we stay, Lena says, we shall have to pay again.

Pay or not, I don’t want to see that one again … and the question is back again, teasing at me, Do dead people’s eyes …?

Comments: Hilda Lewis (1896-1974) was a London-born author of children’s and historical fiction. Her 1946 novel Gone to the Pictures tells of a young girl growing up in London’s East End, where she is entranced by motion pictures. The film show described (recalled?) here is set in the East End (‘east of Aldgate’); from the description of the films the date would be the early 1900s. The novel has several subsequent accounts of film exhibition in London, as the heroine goes from film fan to cinema owner and then film director and producer in the period before the First World War. Méliés is the French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliés. Lewis’s 1947 novel The Day is Ours was adapted into the feature film Mandy (1952) about the education of a deaf child (Lewis’s husband Michael Lewis specialised in the education of the deaf at the University of Nottingham).

The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 161-162

Text: Damascus boasts of three theatres — all cinemas, as the “movies” are called in the Orient. I chose the Palace Theatre, near the hotel, because on its billboards it announced a troupe of dancers in addition to its photo plays. Twenty piasters (80 cents) bought a box, which was located in the balcony overlooking one of the strangest audiences in the world. The entire lower floor was filled with turbaned Arabs and befezed Syrians smoking “hobble bobbles,” as the Turkish water pipes are called in Syria. When you take your seat in a Damascus theatre, you are asked by the usher if you want a “hobble bobble,” and if so one is provided for a trifling tip.

Nearly five hundred men were puffing away downstairs, while thirty or forty smart looking Turkish officers were in the tier of boxes when I took my place. The pictures — mostly French made films — were shown without musical accompaniment, and when the lights were turned on after forty minutes of darkness a third of the audience was asleep.

Under the guidance of my dragoman I visited two cafes chantants, where the few unattached European women in Damascus make their headquarters, and where the “night life” of the officers and higher officials centers. One of the cafes — known as the American bar — proved quite gay. Its guests were being entertained by a phonograph, and I was informed that there would be muscle dancing as soon as the performers could leave the Palace Theatre.

That sent me back to the Victoria Hotel in a hurry, where I found real “night life” under my mosquito bar. But that, as Kipling says, is another story.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. His book The Night Side of Europe documents his experiences of theatres across Europe, Russia and the Near East. In 1914, Syria was part of the Ottoman empire.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Great Apple Raid

Source: Arthur Hopcraft, The Great Apple Raid & other encounters of a tin chapel tiro (London: Heinemann, 1970), pp. 39-41

Text: The Central Cinema has an off-white front, big posters in many-coloured paint and two show-cases of lusciously seductive photographs. In those show-cases pinned sill for savours were the exotics and the exquisites, the protectors and the menacers, the despicable and the flawless, who were the prototypes for the stars in the casts of thousands whom I deployed in my tumultuous cinema of the mind.

I took these cowboy sheriffs, boy runaways, space pilots, singing sword-fighters, jungle lords, banjo comedians, miniscule Chinese detectives, coloratura goddesses, dimple-kneed flirts, blood-fed pirates, hero-dogs and men made of mud and I directed them in thunderous extravaganzas of the silver screen which stretched across the vastness of the inside of my forehead. I needed only seconds between one conscious activity and another to mount a galloping adventure of epic dimension. Poised between the tying of one shoelace and wrestling with the other, invincibly locked in some self-imposed knot overnight, I could summon cavalry by the column and glint at their head in a metallic charge at Geronimo’s ochrous horde; could transmogrify while the dust still billowed and swing slab-thighed and bicepped like an elephant’s leg on my rope of jungle creepers, and snatch some plane-wrecked blonde from the tentacles of a spider the size of a willow tree; and could still have time to change yet again, as I landed in the treetop with Blue Eyes fluttering in my armpit, into goggles and flying jacket and sweep onwards and upwards into lone battle in my spitting bi-plane cockpit against a skyful of Huns.

I was a hero with a hundred faces, all copies and composites of the idols in the showcases and yet on all of them was superimposed my own. For supporting players, rivals and heroines I mixed the famous with a brilliant audacity that no De Mille or Korda ever approached. Hoppalong Cassidy had his horse shot from under him by King Ming’s bodyguard using ray guns; Shirley Temple got carried off by Zulu warriors; Mickey Rooney borrowed one of Tarzan’s giraffes for a race from the saloon to Boot Hill and back, got locked in his room again for smoking and was replaced to triumphant effect by me. Usually, even if mechanized or airborne at the moment of victory, I still rode out of my film on a tall, piebald horse, waving my hat in the air, the adoring, grateful faces of all those figures in the showcase flickering subliminally through the fade-out.

I knew the faces long before I saw them bloated in close-up inside the cinema. Not all of them were regarded at home as suitable for my interest. But they were already in my own shows. I was a slinking private detective, on that precursor of the Cinemascope screen that I carried behind my eyes, before I had ever seen Bogart or Powell. I knew what dames (hot) were, and rods (‘You man enough to carry that thing, Bug?’), and torpedos (out of town). Or at least I knew that those thin-eyed, snappy hatted men in the striped suits used those terms; there references were there in the captions under the showcase pictures. Imagination was enough to turn those pictures into a wealth of stories, tricky with sudden turns of fate, reckless with fists and gunfire. The showcase pictures changed every three days, but it was not often enough to match my impatience for new faces, new circumstances.

Comments: Arthur Hopcraft (1932-2004) was a British sports journalist and screenwriter, best known for his book The Football Man. He spent much of his childhood in the Blackfords area of Cannock, Staffordshire. His recollections of cinemagoing in the 1940s continue in the book with a more conventional account of riotous behaviour at Satursday afternoon film shows.

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

Under the Volcano

Source: Malcolm Lowry, Under the Volcano (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1962 [orig. 1947]), pp. 30-32

Text: He stood, out of breath, under the shelter of the theatre entrance which was, however, more like the entrance to some gloomy bazaar or market. Peasants were crowding in with baskets. At the box office, momentarily vacated, the door left half open, a frantic hen sought admission. Everywhere people were flashing torches or striking matches. The van with the loudspeaker slithered away into the rain and thunder. Las Manos de Orlac, said a poster: 6 y 8. 30. Las Manos de Orlac, con Peter Lorre.

The street lights came on again, though the theatre still remained dark. M. Laruelle fumbled for a cigarette. The hands of Orlac . . . How, in a flash, that had brought back the old days of the cinema, he thought, indeed his own delayed student days, the days of the Student of Prague, and Wiene and Werner Krauss and Karl Grune, the Ufa days when a defeated Germany was winning the respect of the cultured world by the pictures she was making. Only then it had been Conrad Veidt in Orlac. Strangely, that particular film had been scarcely better than the present version, a feeble Hollywood product he’d seen some years before in Mexico City or perhaps – M. Laruelle looked around him – perhaps at this very theatre. It was not impossible. But so far as he remembered not even Peter Lorre had been able to salvage it and he didn’t want to see it again … Yet what a complicated endless tale it seemed to tell, of tyranny and sanctuary, that poster looming above him now, showing the murderer Orlac! An artist with a murderer’s hands; that was the ticket, the hieroglyphic of the times. For really it was Germany itself that, in the gruesome degradation of a bad cartoon, stood over him. – Or was it, by some uncomfortable stretch of the imagination, M. Laruelle himself?

The manager of the cine was standing before him, cupping, with that same lightning-swift, fumbling-thwarting courtesy exhibited by Dr Vigil, by all Latin Americans, a match for his cigarette: his hair, innocent of raindrops, which seemed almost lacquered, and a heavy perfume emanating from him, betrayed his daily visit to the peluquería; he was impeccably dressed in striped trousers and a black coat, inflexibly muy correcto, like most Mexicans of his type, despite earthquake and thunderstorm. He threw the match away now with a gesture that was not wasted, for it amounted to a salute. ‘Come and have a drink,’ he said.

‘The rainy season dies hard,’ M. Laruelle smiled as they elbowed their way through into a little cantina which abutted on the cinema without sharing its frontal shelter. The cantina, known as the Cervecería XX, and which was also Vigil’s ‘place where you know’, was lit by candles stuck in bottles on the bar and on the few tables along the walls. The tables were all full.

Chingar,’ the manager said, under his breath, preoccupied, alert, and gazing about him: they took their places standing at the end of the short bar where there was room for two. ‘I am very sorry the function must be suspended. But the wires have decomposed. Chingado. Every blessed week something goes wrong with the lights. Last week it was much worse, really terrible. You know we had a troupe from Panama City here trying out a show for Mexico.’

‘Do you mind my – ‘

‘No, hombre,’ laughed the other – M. Laruelle had asked Sr Bustamente, who’d now succeeded in attracting the barman’s attention, hadn’t he seen the Orlac picture here before and if so had he revived it as a hit. ‘¿ – uno – ?

M. Laruelle hesitated: ‘Tequila,’ then corrected himself: ‘No, anís – anís, por favor, señor.’

Y una – ah – gaseosa,’ Sr Bustamente told the batman. ‘No, señor,’ he was fingering appraisingly, still preoccupied, the stuff of M. Laruelle’s scarcely wet tweed jacket. ‘Compañero, we have not revived it. It has only returned. The other day I show my latest news here too: believe it, the first newsreels from the Spanish war, that have come back again.’

‘I see you get some modern pictures still though,’ M. Laruelle (he had just declined a seat in the autoridades box for the second showing, if any) glanced somewhat ironically at a garish three-sheet of a German film star, though the features seemed carefully Spanish, hanging behind the bar: La simpatiquísma y encantadora Maria Landrock, notable artista alemana que pronto habremos de ver en sensacional Film.

‘ – un momentito, señor. Con permiso …’

Sr Bustamente went out, not through the door by which they had entered, but through a side entrance behind the bar immediately on their right, from which a curtain had been drawn back, into the cinema itself. M. Laruelle had a good view of the interior. From it, exactly indeed as though the show were in progress, came a beautiful uproar of bawling children and hawkers selling fried potatoes and frijoles. It was difficult to believe so many had left their seats. Dark shapes of pariah dogs prowled in and out of the stalls. The lights were not entirely dead: they glimmered, a dim reddish orange, flickering. On the screen, over which clambered an endless procession of torchlit shadows, hung, magically projected upside down, a faint apology for the ‘suspended function’; in the autoridades box three cigarettes were lit on one match. At the rear where reflected light caught the lettering SALIDA of the exit he just made out the anxious figure of Sr Bustamente taking to his office. Outside it thundered and rained.

Comments: Malcolm Lowry (1909-1957) was a British novelist and poet, best known for his 1947 novel Under the Volcano. The novel is set around the Day of Death in Mexico at the end of the 1930s, and culminates in the wretched death of British ex-consul Geoffrey Firmin. One of the characters is Laruelle, a filmmaker, who has had an affair with Firmin’s film star wife. The novel contains many references to cinema, including pointed mentions of the 1935 American film Mad Love, also known as The Hands of Orlac, starring Peter Lorre. It was a remake of the 1924 Austrian film Orlacs Hände, starring Conrad Veidt.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Source: Alfred Döblin (trans. Eugene Jolas), [Berlin] Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974 – orig. pub. 1929, English translation orig. pub. 1931), pp. 25-26

Text: MARKET DULL, LATER BEARS VERY ACTIVE, HAMBURG DEPRESSED, LONDON WEAKER

It was raining. To the left in Münzstrasse signs sparkled in front of the movies. At the corner he was unable to pass, the people were standing in front of a fence where there was a deep hole, the tram-car tracks ran on planks laid across the space, a car was just riding slowly over them. Aha, they are building an underground station, must be work to be had in Berlin. Another movie. Children under seventeen not allowed. On the huge poster a beet-red gentleman was standing on a staircase, while a peach of a young girl embraced his legs, she lay on the stairs, and he stood up above with a leering expression on his face. Undeneath was written: No Parents, Fate of an Orphaned Child, in Six Reels. Yes, I’ll take a look at that. The orchestrion was banging away. Price sixty pfennigs.

A man to the woman cashier: “Say, Fraulein, is it any cheaper for an old territorial without a belly?” “No, only for children under five months with a teat.” “Good. That’s our age. New-born on the instalment plan.” “All right, make it fifty then, get along in.” Behind him there meandered a young chap, slim of build, with a muffler on: “Hey, lady, I’d like to get in free.” “You’d like a lot. Does your mother know you’re out?” “Well, can I get in?” “In where?” “The movie.” “There’s no movie here.” “You really mean it, there’s no movie here?” She called through the window of the ticket-office to the watchman at the door: “Say Max, come here a minute. Here’s a fellow wants to know if there’s a movie here. He’s got no money. Go ahead and show him what we’ve got here.” “What we’ve got here, young fellow? You ain’t noticed it yet? This is the poor-box, Münzstrasse division.” He pushed the slim fellow out of the ticket-office, showed him his fist: “If you want me to, I’ll give you what’s comin’ to you right off the bat.”

Franz pushed on in. It just happened to be an intermission. The long room was packed full, 90 per cent men with caps on, they don’t take them off. The three lamps on the ceiling are covered with red. In front, a yellow piano with packages on top of it. The orchestrion makes a continuous racket. Then it gets dark and the film starts. A goose-girl is to be turned into a lady, just why, is not made so clear, at least not right in the middle. She wiped her nose with her hand, she scratched her behind on the staircase, everybody in the movie laughed. Franz thought it was quite wonderful, when the tittering began around him. Just people, free people, amusing themselves, nobody has a right to say anything to them, simply lovely, and I right here among ’em! It went on. The high-toned Baron had a sweetheart who lay in a hammock and stretched her legs vertically in the air. The girl had drawers on. That’s something. Wonder why people get so excited about that dirty goose-girl and her licking the platters clean? Again the girl with the slim legs flashed by. The Baron had left her alone, now she toppled out of the hammock, and flopped into the grass, lay there a long time. Franz stared at the screen, there was already another picture, but he still saw her toppling out and lying there for a long while. He gnawed his tongue, cripes, what was that? But when finally the one who had been the goose-girl’s lover embraced this fine lady, the skin of his chest felt hot as if he had been embracing her himself. It went all over him and made him weak.

Comments: Bruno Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a German doctor and novelist, famed for his modernist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which was filmed in 1931 and 1980. It follows the fortunes of Franz Biberkopf, a murderer released from prison, as he experiences Berlin amid the rise of Nazism. An orchestrion was a machine that played multi-part music automatically by means of a cylinder or music rolls. No Parents is a fictitious title.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Jean McKillop, C707/306/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q. What about cinemas?

A. Mm hm, they – we used to go to – the cinema and you sat on a wooden seat. And -when we were young and – you paid a cop – copper to get in. Sometimes we’d – we’d to take a jam jar back to the – grocers, Galbraith’s the grocer, and get a ha’penny on it to get into – the pictures. Mm hm.

Q. Was that a matinee?

A. Uh huh. Matinee. And then we used to go – my chum and I used to go to – any – shoemakers shops and they would be showing the bill – for the pictures, and they always had passes. And we used t o get a pass off them and away to the pictures for nothing.

Q. Because your father was a shoemaker himself?

A. No, just – we just asked them. Uh huh.

Q. Why did shoemakers get the passes, do you know?

A. They were just advertise it for them. A lot of shops did but – mostly – these were shoemakers shops tha t did it. And if they had any passes they would give you them. Mm hm.

Comments: Mrs Jean McKillop (1894-??) was one of seven children, daughter of a Glasgow shoemaker. 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).

An Island Night’s Entertainment

Illustration accompanying the article in The Ladies’ Mirror

Source: ‘Inbad’, ‘An Island Night’s Entertainment’, The Ladies’ Mirror, 1 May 1925, pp. 59-60

Text: Those who only know the “Movies” in such palatial homes as New Zealand provides may care to hear how we unsophisticated South Sea Islanders keep in touch with the screen world.

As I sit on my front steps watching the star-shadows of the coco-palms lengthen on the green until they fade away as the sun sinks, and the hills take on the wonderful afterglow of the tropics, there comes into my head a verse of Laurence Hope’s which might have been written about this spot:

The daylight is dying. the flying fox is flying,
Amber and amethyst flame in the sky;
See, the sun throws a late, lingering roseate
Kiss to the landscape to bid it goodbye.

The glow on the hills gradually fades until only little clouds high up keep the warm tint; the chatter of hundreds of mynahs in the purau trees dies away as they settle for the night, and gradually the scent of a myriad flowers, unnoticed in the day, steals down the soft breeze and mingles with the smell of wood smoke from the neighbouring village as the evening meal is prepared. Just as I knock the ashes from my pipe preparatory to going indoors to light the lamp and settle to an evening’s reading, a figure comes soft-footed across the lawn and proves to be Johnny Pokia. a native planter who is my nearest neighbour. The white vest and scarlet pareu set off his muscular figure as our bifurcated garments never could, and one wonders anew at the narrow ignorance of the missionaries who introduced and insisted on European clothing.

“Haeremai, Johnnie! Metaké?” and his wonderful teeth flash as he comes up and takes a seat on the steps.

“You goin’ pickshurs to-night?”

I had forgotten that it was picture night, and had looked forward to a quiet evening. Still –

“Good picture you think. John?”

“Yes. Charlie Brown tellin’ me gooood pickshu. Plen-ty fight’n!”

“You going John?”

“I dunno. What you t’ink?”

The troubled look on John’s face is explained. Alas. a lack of the needful has kept others from their heart’s desire ere this!

“All right. I’ll come. Go and get dressed and tell your boy and girl they can come too.”

Johnnie’s gloom vanishes as if by magic. As he turns away and as I rise to go in to change (for I, too. wear vest and pareu in my isolated home). there is a faint distant throbbing in the air which gradually draws nearer and nearer until the headlights of a big lorry appear round a point.

This brings Charlie Brown with the projector and films from his plantation home near Arorangi and the throbbing emanates from a number of his “boys” clustered on the tail of the car who beat a drumming advertisement along the route that this is picture night. Their instruments are crude – an empty kerosene tin, two or three sections of hollowed log. and a bass drum, but the effect is surprising. First a rattling roll on the tin, then the logs take it up, the tin stops and a single drummer beats time on a hollow bamboo. Suddenly the others join in with a crash in marvellous time and the lorry thunders past my wharé to the accompaniment of a rolling, throbbing, reverberating roar that gets into the blood as does no other instrument but the pipes.

As I go in to change I concur with the writer who said that every South Sea native appeared to have swallowed a metronome.

In a few minutes I am ready – island toilets are not elaborate – and there comes a timid knock at the door. It is John’s small girl who brings me a crown of flowers to wear. As this custom is not commercialised here as in the larger islands of Hawaii and Tahiti. it is still a sign of friendship and esteem, so I am proud to wear it. It is composed of the waxen tiaré maori interspersed with the scented pits of pineapple rind and red berries from the “bush,” cut in spirals which dangle down at the sides.

John appears in a smart white duck suit and white canvas shoes and we start off down the sandy road, the kids racing on ahead to ensure good places for themselves.

There is a young moon, just sufficient to silhouette the tall coco-palms that border the road, turning their spreading fronds to studies in black and silver, and as we look up we see ever and anon the flittering shape of “mor kiri-kiri,” the flying fox.

As we come into the village we enter an arch of flamboyant trees. which are now in full bloom. and the road is carpeted with their scarlet flowers. The neat concrete houses bordering the road are almost lost in their bowers of flowering shrubs hibiscus of all colours, roses, tiaré maori, and gardenia grow like weeds in the rich soil. and the houses themselves are half smothered in masses of alamanda and bougainvillea. Gradually the road is filled with natives bound for the picture house. the men in whites or blue denims; the women in flowing “Mother Hubbards” of muslin.

After a walk of nearly a mile we reach the grassy plot beside the tin shed which forms our local picture palace. We are late. but Charlie Brown does not consider the audience sufficiently large yet, so blows several loud blasts on his whistle to warn stragglers that the show is about to commence, and the “band” strikes up anew. Curious to watch the crowd as the stirring rattle gets into their veins – many of them find it too much for them and do little impromptu shuffles as they stand talking in groups. Suddenly there is a burst of laughter and applause as a little man in white vest and dungarees with an enormous hibiscus flower over his ear leaps into the space near the drummers and goes through the knee-bending, wriggling motions of a hula. A barrow laden with fruit pasties and huge slabs of water-melon does a brisk trade with the waiting crowd.

Charlie Brown comes across to pass the time of day, and gives us an inkling of the pictorial treat in store. He looks round, considers that the crowd is now large enough, and blows a long blast on his whistle. The drums die away after a final tattoo and we file in and take our places. The front benches are packed with a mob of chattering kiddies so John and I take our places well to the rear under the projector. Next to me is the charming wife of a neighbouring planter with her daughter who is home from her New Zealand boarding school for the holidays. In front of me is one of the real “old-timers” who came here years ago, before the mast of a wind-jammer and found the island lure too much for him. He has a little store in the village, but knows that there will be no trade while the shows lasts.

The chief picture to-night is a Pearl White serial, “The House of Hate,” and provides enough strenuous action to satisfy even the present audience. Dark Tony Moreno, always a great favourite with the natives, is the hero, and his timely rescues of the fair lady stir the excited crowd to frenzy. When he is embroiled in a “rough house” with the villain’s myrmidons, the audience rises and yells encouragement.

The natives cannot, of course, read the captions. so Charlie Brown keeps up a running fire of explanation. One suspects that he does not keep much to the text. and from the chuckles and roars that greet his witty sallies, and the point-blank refusal of the lady beside me to translate some of his jokes it is to be feared that much of his talk is distinctly Rabelaisian in character.

The episode from the serial draws to an end, and the Impresario announces that there will be a further instalment next week. Follows a short interval in which we go out for a breath of fresh air.

John presents me with a big slice of water melon, which is thirst-quenching and refreshing, and takes the place of the whisky and soda of more civilised lands.

The whistle blows and we once more take our seats. The next film is a mystery picture featuring a man who has invented a cloak which renders the wearer invisible, and is tremendously popular with the crowd, who love anything that savours of “mana-mana!”

There are many thrills in the picture, but they affect the audience in a different way. Instead of the ear-shattering roar which acclaimed the fights, the mysterious vanishments are greeted with long-drawn gasping “A-h-h-s” of excitement. One remembers some of the old fairy tale pictures with their suddenly appearing djinns and melons that become coaches in the twinkling of an eye. What excitement they would create here!

The show comes to an end at last and the crowd disperses chattering like daws about the night’s thrills. The planter’s wife and daughter are offered a lift on the lorry, which passes their home, so we bid them good-night and wander home along the beautiful road. John is busy discussing the picture with friends, so I hurry and overtake the young daughter of my nearest white neighbours, who has been to the show in care of a native lady. The moon has disappeared, but it is a wonderful night of stars and the cool refreshing breeze is grateful after the somewhat close atmosphere we have left.

We discuss “Shakespeare and the musical glasses” until my little home is reached, the lass goes on with her friends and I wait at the gate set in the tall hedge of mock-coffee until John comes up. This is a “dry” island, so we go in and have a couple of glasses of home-brewed orange beer, and my guest takes his leave with many expressions of thanks and as a parting gift insists that I accept the half of a fruit pastie he has bought at the barrow and is taking home to his vahine. She, too, is a “movie fan,” but, alas, the duties devolving upon a newly-arrived piccaninny keep her at home for the present.

I go round to the back of the house to investigate the cause of a rattling noise and find that a big heady-eyed hermit crab has somehow got into my rubbish bucket and cannot get out. The varmint shows no signs of alarm in the ray of my electric torch, but sits up and waves his black glistening claws at me menacingly. I pick him up by his “house” gingerly – no fun to get a nip from his claws, which are capable of breaking a finger – and heave him away towards his home under the purau trees that fringe the beach. The soft lap-lap of ripples on the white coral sand of the lagoon catches my cars. Shall I? The night seems too wonderful for bed. In a few seconds I am on my ‘way to the calm water of the lagoon, a pareu knotted round my middle. The next half hour is spent swimming lazily about or floating in a water so buoyant that it is almost impossible to sink, until I find I am nearly asleep. A run home across the grass, a quick shower under the bathroom tap, and so to bed. As I put out the lamp and turn in, the palms and trees rustle as though the night had turned over in its sleep. and the distant harmonies of a “himene” drift down the village.

So ends another happy island day. Can a man be more than happy?

Comments: The film show described here took pace on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. The racial language used is only typical of its period. The 20-episode serial The House of Hate (USA 1918) starred Pearl White and Antonio Moreno. I have not been able to identify what the mystery film with the invisibility theme might be. My thanks to Carol O’Sullivan for having drawn this article to my attention.

Links: Copy at Paper Past

Cocks and Bulls in Caracas

Source: Olga Briceño, Cocks and Bulls in Caracas; how we live in Venezuela (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945), pp. 126-130

Text: Everyone is curious to know how we amuse ourselves in South America. What, they wonder, do those strange people do for fun? It’s simple enough. We amuse ourselves like anybody else, admitting the while, parenthetically, that the whole world is short on pastime, with popular imagination in this respect the victim of a pernicious anemia.

Our amusements are those of any other country, but with one peculiarity. Others find their fun outside; we find ours mostly within.

First of all, we have the movies. We are devotees of adjectives, superlatives, and dithyrambs. In certain individuals the harmless mania is particularly marked — in mothers speaking of their children, naturally, and in lovers proclaiming their devotion. Impresarios of public entertainment also suffer from it. This surprises no one. ‘You must blow your own horn’ has come to be, with us, a basic premise. As a result, any statement that is highly flavored with adjectives is automatically reduced by half in the mind of the listener. In the case of impresarios, especially of moving pictures, this drastic reduction falls far short of being enough. One should credit no more than half of half of what is claimed, or better, only half of that! The imagination of these good gentlemen is ultra-supercolossal.

No film is ever advertised in terms consistent with its quality. God forbid! If it were, no one would dream of going to it. After the customary discounting, it would appear an abstract minus quantity.

The time-honored grading of films that is regularly employed in the United States is practically unknown to us. It has been taken up to some slight extent in Caracas recently, but no one has bothered to explain the significance of it, and hence it conveys little or nothing. Venezuela is not grade-conscious like the United States. The only grades we know are the grades a student needs for his degree, the grades of fever shown by a thermometer, and the grades of — say, fervor, which no thermometer can show. The business of grading eggs or milk, for example, is not for us. Not yet.

Never is a film advertised merely by name, dates, and actors. Rather:

‘The most stupendous achievement of the Eighth Art. An unforgettable spectacle that will set you quivering with horror, joy, and anger. A veritable gem of modern moving pictures.’

‘The Downhill Donkey,’ let us say, is one such gay production which might be advertised, in fine print and parentheses, as ‘Grade F’ in North America. The announcement of it will fill a whole page in the daily papers, for in Venezuela, as everywhere else, fame is won by advertising, and impresarios spend real fortunes on publicity. Each strives to outdo the others, and their lives are spent in lawless rivalry, with magazines and papers the major beneficiaries. If all exhibitors were to agree to use a stipulated space, less money would be spent, and the result would be the same. But then the periodicals would be the losers, with sad results for us poor journalists.

When the public buys tickets to a movie, it is torn between the exhibitors’ publicity and its own skepticism. There is no telling what to expect. Hence any film is a surprise. Going to the movies is like roulette — you never know just where the ball will drop. Anyone who has been promised a sensation is bound to be surprised when he finds himself bored; if a sensation is not only promised but delivered, that is the biggest surprise of all.

Movies in Venezuela are not shown continuously. The admission fee buys a view of one film, regardless of grade; there is also a newsreel, but then — good night. This is not quite fair; I was forgetting that there is a fifteen-minute intermission too. At possibly its most exciting moment the film is stopped, the lights come on, gradually or with a flash, according to the impresario’s caprice, and boys come down the aisles to sell chocolate.

For many people the intermission is the high moment of the show. Think of it! Fifteen whole minutes in which to talk with friends, to see who has come with whom, to smoke a cigarette — but that must be done outside — to look at the women’s costumes and see how the men are looking. Fifteen minutes in which to emerge from the anonymity of darkness into the realm of light!

The showings at different hours are not equally important. The first is for children. The vespertina, at five o’clock, is for the formally engaged, who come accompanied by mother, aunt, sister, or little brother; that is also the time for well-bred girls of the old school, white, charming, distant, cool of manner. Altagracia prefers the vespertina. The intermediate showing, which begins at seven, is attended by people in mourning who do not wish to be conspicuous, by couples who may be shady or perhaps just not officially engaged as yet, and by families in good standing but reduced circumstances who have neither new clothes to show nor the five bolivares which are the price of the fashionable performances.

The last, at nine o’clock, is for family parties, the world of fashion, marriageable daughters who are not bespoken, night owls, and the generally emancipated, as well as for the wealthy and those supposed to be wealthy, since it is the most expensive. That is the time to display the new gown, the darling hat just received from Paris, the sweetheart, and financial affluence.

Different films are presented at any one day’s performances. The one shown at nine rates a whole page of publicity; from that peak a film descends to the vespertina, with a quarter page, and finally, in complete decadence, to the common grave which is the intermediate or the matinee performance and warrants only a stingy little epitaph of an advertisement that gives nothing but title and time. Vanitas vanitatum! as the disillusioned Preacher said.

In the smaller towns movies are far more enjoyable than in Caracas. Performances are usually presented out-of-doors, and the weather is always mild. Surrounded by low walls, the movie houses have the finest roof imaginable — a tropical sky of magic beauty, with moon, stars, Southern Cross, and all. One night Altagracia and I watched a raging Arctic blizzard with polar bears, ice-bound ships, seals, Eskimos, and all the frozen seasonings, while the heavens above seemed about to drop from the weight of stars, crickets chirped, and the intoxicating odor of magnolias filled the air. Grown blasé by travel, books, and fashion, we savored the incongruity and smiled in superiority, but the general public, farmers, muleteers, cowboys, travelers, Venezuelans all, exposed the virgin purity of their responsive souls to their emotions, and some even suffered a chill. A few dogs which had sneaked in among the seats barked at the polar bears. Several poor children who were watching, on horseback, outside, were excited by the snowstorm and produced a red one of their own with petals from the roses blooming on the wall; their perfumed shower caressed our faces. Suddenly, beside me, a thick but pleasant voice spoke with a countrified accent:

‘Will the young lady please shove over just a little?’

A farmer who had arrived late was looking for a seat. Frequently, in small-town theaters, the seats are only benches. The fellow must have hesitated a long time before venturing to bother us, but weariness at last had overcome timidity. Hat in hand, he waited for us to shove over and then sat down on the very end of the bench. When finally he had forgotten we were there, he gave free rein to his emotions. We watched him suffer, rejoice, worry, and laugh with the various episodes of the film. For him shouting children, barking dogs, the cries of vendors, stars, scents, had all ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, squeezed into her seat, Altagracia was grumbling about democracy and the absurd idea of rubbing elbows with anyone who came along. But all at once she stopped complaining and began to smile quietly. Her eyes had fallen on a pair of lovers, a half-breed muleteer and a dark-eyed country girl. They were holding hands in silence, and in their faces were reflected the beauty of the starlit night and all the fondness in the world. Southern Cross, rose petals, and magnolias seemed quite in keeping with that idyll unfolding on the bench of a country movie.

Comments: Olga Briceño (?-?) was a Venezuelan journalist, travel writer, novelist, lecturer and diplomat, who mostly wrote in Spanish. She was cultural attaché for her country in Cuba and the USA. Her charming book Cocks and Bulls in Caracas, describing family life in her native land, was published in English in America.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust