Brother Robert

Source: Annye C. Anderson (with Preston Lauterbach), Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson (New York: Hachette Books, 2020), pp. 51-52

Text: Once I got to go to Beale Street, I’d tag along with Brother Robert, Brother Son, and Sister Carrie to the movies at the Palace Theater. They liked to see Mae West and Bette Davis, and I was a nuisance, always running to the bathroom and wanting popcorn.

Most of the movies we saw at the Palace were Westerns. Buck Jones and Tom Mix were Brother Robert’s favorite cowboys. He wore that big Stetson, like them. All of the young men in our family wore Stetson—that was on the go. My father and Uncle Will wore Dobbs.

At the Palace, Son and Brother Robert saw Gene Autry in Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Gene and another guitar player did a song called “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.”

That piece became a part of Son and Brother Robert’s repertoire whenever they entertained.

All the top bands, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, and Jimmie Lunceford played at the Palace. We could see big entertainment for a small price. These acts also played the Orpheum, the grand opera theater on Main Street at Beale, one of the few integrated venues in the city, though blacks sat in the balcony.

It’s my understanding that Brother Robert would hang out at the Palace while waiting on his next gig. Mr. Barrasso, the owner, let you stay all day on one ticket price. Brother Robert would sleep while the movie played over and over, and the Looney Tunes, shorts, and newsreels ran. He’d sit with the guitar across his chest, watching the old-time cowboy movies. He’d cool off in there on a hot day or warm up on a cold day until the time to meet up with his friends or return to Sister Carrie’s.

Comments: Annye C. Anderson (1926 – ) is the step-sister of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the legendary American blues guitarist and singer. Her memoir provides much personal detail of the life of the step-brother, who was murdered when she was twelve years old, as well as a vivid account of black lives in the American south in the 1930s. Charles ‘Son’ Spencer was his (and her) musician step-brother and Carrie Spencer his (and her) step-sister.

Leaves from a Greenland Diary

Source: Ruth Bryan Owen, Leaves from a Greenland Diary (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1935), pp. 162-164

Text: Julianehaab has been out in boats and kayaks all day, circling around the ship, and when the Danes and the principal Greenlanders and their wives came on board, for a moving picture show this evening, all the rest of Julianehaab was grinning genially through the portholes and feeling equally a part of the unprecedented festival.

I wondered what the Greenlanders, who were having their first experience with moving pictures, must have thought. Even if the first film, a drama of the covered wagon days in the West may have been a little incomprehensible to people who have never seen horses or a wagon, the antics of Mickey Mouse were well within the range of everyone’s understanding. One Eskimo nudged his wife so violently at Mickey’s vagaries that he almost pushed her off the slippery bench. Certainly Mickey Mouse never had more rapt attention or more whole-hearted appreciation!

There were Bestyrrer Ipsen and his wife and Landsfoged Svane on the front seat, of course; and there were Walsoe and Froken Sabroe, the school-teacher, and the telegraph operator and his wife and children, and the young clergyman who is heading the Julianehaab high school of 24 pupils. And there were Pavia, in his white anorak, and the Eskimo village councilmen and their wives.

After the movie show, they all came into the wardroom for coffee and cakes and music from the big electric gramophone. All of the blaze of electric lights was actually there in their harbor, close to their candles and blubber-lamps. The big searchlight of the Champlain played around over the hills, picking out here a little red painted house and there a boatload of Greenlanders who screamed with amusement as the blinding light fell upon them. All the shining brass and gleaming paint of the ship, all the leather and silver in the wardroom, all of the bit of America, for that incredible hour in their harbor, was being absorbed, along with the coffee and cakes.

Comments: Ruth Bryan Owen (1885-1954) was an American politician. In 1933 she became the first women to be appointed a US ambassador, when President Franklin Roosevelt assigned her to Denmark and Iceland. Greenland had been owned by Denmark since 1814. Owen had been a filmmaker herself, writing and directing a self-funded feature film, Once Upon a Time aka Scheherazade (1922), an ambitious undertaking for an amateur. which gained some distribution through the Society for Visual Education.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

America Day By Day

Source: Simone de Beauvoir (trans. Patrick Dudley), America Day by Day (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1952), pp. 62-63

Text: And how easy it was to take part in New York life! From early morning people on Broadway queued up for the movies. At any time of the day, with an hour to kill, you can go to see animated cartoons or newsreels. But above all it is at night, in crowded Forty-second Street, that the movies have the dual attraction of fairs in foreign countries and national rejoicings. On Times Square you can see the latest Hollywood films; on Forty-second Street they show old Westerns, comedies and pictures that give one goose-flesh: I mean the thrillers. In a small cinema on one of the grands boulevards of Paris they used to show one of these horror films weekly twenty years ago. Now that they have become talkies they have scarcely altered. Once more I watched the murdered mummies finally stabbed through the heart with hunting knives; vampires greedily drinking up fresh blood; robots charged with uncontrollable forces, sowing death and terror …. Every time the mummy appears the audience shouts, not with terror, of course, but with delight, for they no longer believe it.

But the animated cartoons disappointed me; they have become set and mechanical. And the films I saw did not reveal New York to me as I had hoped they would one evening. But they helped to bind me to America. I no longer looked at the screen in the same way that I did at home; the exotic drugstores, the streets, the elevators and the press-bells had disappeared; they were now just realistic details. But this realism had poetry all the same. The screen transfigured everyday objects and reimposed that distance between me and the drugstore which was abolished every time I drank an orange juice, although continuing to exist nevertheless. It was by means of these black and white pictures that I had come to know America, and still they seemed to me to be its real substance; the screen is a platonic heaven where I find my concept in all its purity. The houses built of stone are but doubtful embodiments of it.

Comments: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a French intellectual. She visited America over a four-month period in 1947. Her account of her journey was first published in France in 1948 as L’Amérique au jour le jour.

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

Red, Black, Blond and Olive

Source: Edmund Wilson, Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations – Zuñi, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel (London: W.H. Allen, 1956), pp. 72-73

Text: What draws people down to this vacuum? How do they amuse themselves here?

These vacationists look soft and vapid. You rarely see a really pretty girl, and the men do not give the impression of doing much fishing or swimming. You find them at the movies in the evening. The American ideal of luxury is in Miami carried to lengths that I have never encountered before. At my hotel, I had the annoyance of removing encasements of cellophane from the toilet-seat and the drinking tumbler. In the movie-house, the seats are the kind that swing noiselessly back and forth to let people get in and out, and their cushions melt beneath one like a featherbed. A subdued indirect lighting, like the sweet creamy liquid of an ice-cream soda, bathes a dove-gray and shrimp-pink interior, the walls of which are ornamented with large cameo-like white seashells framing naked mythological figures that seem to have been badly imitated from the bas-reliefs of Paul Manship in Rockefeller Center, and with branching white plaster exfoliations that remind one of the legs and defensive antennae of the crawfish in the Miami aquarium. The film – Oh, You Beautiful Doll – was a technicolor that covered the whole surface of a high and overpowering screen with a routine sentimental romance, trumped up to manufacture glamor from the career of an American song-writer whose songs were widely sung in my college days. They were commonplace enough then, and today they are simply sickly. These attempts on the part of Hollywood to exploit the immediate past – in which the fashions of the eighties and nineties are sometimes confused with those of the twenties – show the precipitous decline of the movies as purveyors of entertainment, since the producers, after wrecking such contemporary talent as their salaries have tempted to Hollywood, have now been obliged to fall back on the favorites, first, second or third rate, of the day before yesterday and yesterday, when it was possible for a producer or an actor, a composer or a dancer, to perfect an art of his own and create for himself a reputation. Yet this product has its steady customers: one finds oneself among them here. Comfortably padded in the muffled atmosphere that seems to smell of scented face-powder – one cannot tell whether the theater has been perfumed or the women are all using the same cosmetics – this inert and featureless drove that have been drifting through the bleached sunny streets now sit watching stereotyped characters that are made to appear impressive by being photographed in very bright colors and gigantically magnified. The three shorts that follow the first showing of the film all happen to deal with animals: a hunting number, an animated cartoon that gets some not ill-deserved laughs, and a picture about racing whippets. The commentator seems slightly embarrassed at the spectacle of the uniformed attendants who have a full-time job grooming the whippets. “You may think they work as hard as the dogs,” he propounds, with his microphone emphasis that gropes through time and space and can never drive any nails. “Well, they work a lot harder!” The truth is that so many Americans, specialized in operating machines or in transacting long-distance business, have deteriorated as animal organisms, that we now have a special pleasure in watching almost any agile animal. What the audience gets out of these animal shorts is the same thing that l have been getting out of looking out the window at the birds and contrasting them with the Miami vacationers.

Comments: Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was an American writer and critic. This account of a film show in Miami occurs at the start of an account of a visit to Haiti in 1949. Oh, You Beautiful Doll (USA 1949) was directed by John M. Stahl and starred June Haver and Mark Stevens. It was a musical based on the life of the composer Fred Fisher.

Cinemas and Cemeteries

Source: Richard Carr, ‘Cinemas and Cemeteries’, World Film and Television Progress, vol. 2 no. 2 (May 1937), pp. 18-19

Text: Once synonymous with suburban snobbery, Tooting to-day is a progressive and up-to-date suburb, contrasting favourably with its encircling neighbours, Balham and Wandsworth. As inner-London suburbs go, Tooting is fairly new: not so long ago, green fields abounded where now stand rows and rows of middle-class villas or streets of Council houses. Only in the older part of the suburb are there slums, bad ones too, slowly giving way before a continued and, at times, ferocious anti-slum campaign.

The population to-day is largely lower-middle and working class: the higher-ups have gradually moved further out as Council housing development has brought working-class people from the more crowded parts of London. Now its inhabitants are mainly office, shop, transport, printing and building workers, progressive in opinion and making the suburb a busy, lively and progressive area. It has no industries: unless cinemas and cemeteries be such.

For a population of 39,000 Tooting has seven cinemas. There are of course several others, on the outskirts of surrounding districts, within easy reach. Two of Tooting’s seven are “supers,” one a cine-news; the others date from earlier days and are correspondingly inadequate.

In old Tooting, there is a cinema which has claimed to be one of the first halls in London to show films. During its chequered career it has been music-hall, theatre, cinema; has closed and re-opened so often that the legend “under new management” might well be engraved on its walls, second in importance only to the cinema’s name.

The exact date at which films were first shown at this theatre is uncertain but its type of programme certainly tends to take one back some years in movie history. Names appear on the programme strange to the new generation of cinema-goers. Serials are run here too, serials on the old model in which the hero is left for a whole week suspended over a precipice, or lying helpless before an oncoming express, or at the mercy of relentless enemies. The display bills, contrasting with the modernistic advertising of the “supers,” are just long black-lettered lists of films: lists of westerns, of thrillers, of serials, of comedies, films not for an age but for all time.

Besides children and lads, appreciative of exciting films, a small and rather depressed audience visits this cinema. One fancies them lost, hovering helplessly between the cinemas they knew in the ill-lit, novelty days and the new “supers.” These are neither the simple, easily satisfied audiences of the pre-war days, nor the sophisticated movie fans of to-day. Perhaps, too old or too tired to go farther than just round the corner to the pictures, or too conservative to accept change, or too dazed and bewildered by the luxury of the super and the speed and complexities of the modern film. Some are people from small provincial towns and villages who find the less luxurious cinema more like home. Much of this cinema’s custom depends of course on children to whom the cheaper prices are essential or the straight films more interesting.

One of the “supers,” Mr. Bernstein’s Granada, is the Mecca of cinema-goers for miles round, though its regular patronage is built of Tooting people. It opens at twelve, and for sixpence, in the afternoon, you can sit in a comfortable seat in luxurious surroundings and get somewhere around three and a half hours of entertainment. Two full-length films, a newsreel, a comedy cartoon or short and stage shows varying from straightforward acts to “sensations” and “circuses” at holiday times. No circus being complete without horses, elephants, and acrobats, even these are to be seen on the Granada stage at Christmas time.

Mr. Bernstein treats his patrons well: offers them substantial fare, good seating and reasonable prices and asks their opinions on films and stars regularly. There are minor criticisms though; the length of the programme means that the last performance starts around seven-thirty, sometimes a few minutes earlier or later. For men or women some distance from their work, or for shop-assistants in the area, this means missing part of the performance: even for those who can with a scramble get there round about seven, there is often a long wait outside in the cold, or standing inside, none too pleasant after a day’s work. This applies chiefly to the cheaper seats, the one-and-three and the nine-pennies and it is worth Mr. Bernstein’s while to give this some attention.

Repertory
Perhaps the best comment on this is provided by the success of Tooting’s newest venture: The Classic, a repertory cinema, where you can see the films you missed or those you liked well enough to see again. This cinema gives a two-and-a-half-hour show, one price only downstairs, sixpence. It was formerly a struggling independent cinema, bad lighting, bad screening, and bad sound diminishing its custom, its programmes being consequently limited. It has been renovated outside and in, seating and screening greatly improved, though the old structure has prevented it being all it should. One full length film is shown, the rest of the programme being made up of shorts, colour
cartoons and news.

It opened with David Copperfield; went on to Little Giant, the Edward G. Robinson success; Ruggles of Red Gap; Bengal Lancer; Top Hat; If I Had a Million; Desire; and The Informer. Its future programmes include Crime Without Passion; Design for Living; and Viva Villa. The highest of high-brow cinema-goers could hardly better this list within the limitations imposed. So far the attendances have been unusually good, showing increased appreciation of good films and a growing preference for a shorter programme. The mammoth programme is all right for the family outing, for an entire evening out, but for the late workers, a show starting at 8.30 gives time for a meal and allows a comfortable evening.

Audiences in this suburb vary greatly, both in size and in behaviour. Holiday shows, especially the Christmas circuses, bring crowds of children, mothers and fathers. They enjoy almost everything and applaud the stage acts with tremendous gusto. On the other hand gangster, tough-guy and western pictures bring a larger number of men than women to the cinema. The Shirley Temple type of film brings women and youngster. Recent successes have been Texas Rangers, Bullets or Ballots, Rhythm on the Range, San Francisco, Swing Time, My Man Godfrey, Manhattan Madness, The Great Ziegfeld, and Libelled Lady.

Speed, Action and Fast Dialogue
Differences in taste are noticeable: the audience in one of the smaller cinemas, catering mostly for working-class people, is much more responsive to speed, action, and fast dialogue than in the cinemas attended mainly by families, by women and by young girls, or middle-class people. Love stories get better response from the women of all classes. The Granada is a combination of lower middle-class and working-class audiences of the family type, and does fairly well with Shirley Temple and George Arliss for example; but an increase of men in the audience is very noticeable when a film like Texas Rangers, Bullets or Ballots, or Mutiny on the Bounty is shown. In the cinema where there is a tougher audience, much fidgeting and talking goes on during British pictures and most films of a purely love-interest type. With such audiences action pictures, good musicals, and good dialogue find an appreciative audience. The idols are Spencer Tracey, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Gary Cooper, and, in comedy films, W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy.

The Cine-news represents a real experiment, for the news-theatre has, in the past, got its chief support in the centre of towns, where many people have an hour to spare or to occupy. In a suburb, it does not invite the same support, the only attractions being newsreels of big races, fights, and other sporting events. A certain amount of custom is received as a result of nearby cinemas being crowded. In the main, the response has not been overwhelming. Whether local news items offer a means of building support remains to be seen, but it has to be remembered that the main attractions of the Cine-news — its cartoons and its newsreels — are often showing at the main cinemas as well.

Progressive Taste
Tooting provides much of interest and encouragement to the progressive cinemagoers or worker. Tip-top films are invariably well supported if shown under satisfactory conditions. The shifting of audiences from cinema to cinema corresponds strikingly to the merits of the film showing, save for such exceptional periods as holidays.

That there is a large and rapidly growing audience for the best type of film is strongly demonstrated by the likes and dislikes of Tooting audiences.

Comments: Richard Carr was a film journalist who wrote a series of articles on filmgoing habits across Britain for World Film and Television Progress. Tooting’s seven cinemas were the Granada Theatre, the Regent Cinema (founded c.1909 and probably the vintage cinema referred to by Carr), the Cinenews, the Broadway Palace Theatre, the Classic Cinema, the Mayfair Cinema, and the Methodist Central Hall.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive (c/o Media History Digital Library)

Kiddar's Luck

Source: Jack Common, Kiddar’s Luck (Glasgow/London: Blackie & Son, 1974 – originally published by Turnstile Press, 1951), pp. 104-107

Text: Our enthusiasms were kindled or quenched often enough by the accident of possession. It was the devil’s own job for us to get hold of any equipment that cost more than a few coppers. We were likely to hunger a very long time for anything we needed before chance threw something like it our way. For instance, we were regular cinema-goers and also ex-magic-lantern manipulators; each of us had spent long periods at shop windows looking at home cinematographs so impossibly expensive you could only dream of ever owning one. Well, long-continued desire is apt to produce not its true object, but an approximation of it. One day I found myself embarked on a mighty feat of barter which in the end denuded me of my best cigarette-card sets and a ball-bearing skate, but enthroned me in the possession of a workable cinematograph projector of a sort. It wasn’t any great shakes, really: a tin cabinet bearing a curved chimney and holding an oil-lamp and its glass; then a gate and handle standing separate, which carried a barely-adjustable lens. With this illumination, the throw was limited to five feet. All the same, it was pretty terrific, we thought; and it would have been very much better if we’d had more films to show. The machine could take ordinary 35-mm. stuff, and what we had were mainly bits and snippets from news-reels. One of the big lads from our corner, actually, he was smaller than me by a lump all round, but as he was working, he rated as ‘big,’ had a job with Pathé, delivering news-reels on a tricycle, I think. Tich didn’t get the sort of salary later current in the world of films, in fact he was often hard put to it to keep himself in Woodbines. He was one of that great tribe of Briton who considered life a fair thing as long as the supply of Woods didn’t run out, and when it did would have parted with his grandmother and his only shirt so as to see once again the lovely white cylinder alight in his lips. When we were able to knock off some Woods, we used to waylay him as he came home from work to get lengths of film in exchange.

Thus we built up a collection of snippets. The best was a sequence from an Italian film showing a fire at sea. What made it so good was that it was in colour – not Technicolor, then still a belly-ache in the womb of time, but some kind of dye. It showed a bluish, moonlit sea, across which crept a two-masted schooner (probably a model, but the loyalty to the Battle-axe still latent in me continues to protest that it was genuine). The ship looked so ghostly against the ambience of blue as it bore upon the dark waves you felt that it was doomed, it and the crew we never saw since we were without benefit of close-up still, and sure enough the sign of calamity came upon it. There was a sudden puff of smoke amidships. ‘Fire!’ said a caption on a blue background, as I turned the handle faster because we all knew that. ‘Fire at Sea!’ said a caption on a red background, and I slowed down ready for the reappearance of the ship now being licked by red flames and a pretty lurid sight, I can tell you. ‘Ooh,’ said my audience. I turned more and more slowly in order to make it last, which it wouldn’t do for long, because that was all we had of that. There was no proper end to it. When last seen that ghost ship still bore its blossom of flame across the hopeless empty seas and left us with that slight after-yearning which is the sign of perfect pleasure.

Well, that was our best piece. Now for our worst. One tremendously wet night I was out buying that week’s Gem on the windy corner where Geeling, the newsagent’s, was. Lord, it was wet. There was such a wind about, too, that you could see the rain coming at you, flung in whole sheets all the way across the Junction, shawls of it, ropes of it, lashing round your legs, clapping down like a watery cloche over your bent head, and flattening in liquid running veils on the lit shop windows. There were few about, you bet. The shops stayed undisturbed behind the wet gaslight they showed outside. Even the fish-and-chip was so blinded and sealed up in this flat rain, you couldn’t taste a smell from it. But in the dark doorway next to it, there stood a small figure who gave me a hail. I swung the peak of my dripping cap around. It was Tich, the big lad from Pathés. He was broke and hungry; he wanted some chips. What’s more, he had on him the biggest roll of film I’d yet encountered – oh, there must have been two hundred feet of it. Of course, I’d only the penny for my Gem, but there wasn’t going to be anybody else about on such a night – Tich reckoned it would have to be a deal.

So it was, indeed, but what a disappointment. The whole film showed nothing but a visit of the King and Queen to a Tyneside shipyard. At least that is what a caption said. You see, it is a well-known fact that whenever any distinguished visitors are due on the Tyne, you reach for your mack; if they are going to a shipyard, reach for two macks because if there is any place wetter than a shipyard on a rainy day, it must be in Davy Jones’s province. Not that you could see any rain in this picture; all you could see was a soup-plate, Queen Mary, stalking a saucer, King George. Sometimes other pieces of china strolled across or retreated into the murk, but they were just flashes of pans, you might safely say. Just at the end, a ghostly motor-car wrapped itself round the crockery, and a line of washing waved to it. That was all this immense footage gave one. Whenever I showed it to younger audiences they yelled that my lamp was going out; and they never asked to have it run through again.

One night we got an idea for the salvaging of this wasted footage. Why not scrape the roll free of film and draw cartoons on it. You can imagine what we’d let ourselves in for. It isn’t easy to draw on celluloid, less so if you are rationed to the 35-mm. frame for space, and only two of us were any good at drawing anyway. After many hopeless attempts, we hit on a formula. Our characters would be match-stick men, so that any one of us could follow the master-drawing; and their adventures would be limited to what could be done with the simplest of props, a lamp-post, say, or a chamber-pot. This worked, you know. It enabled us to set up a sort of poor boy’s Hollywood of doorstep Disneys. We had script and production conferences properly controlled by the general awareness that anybody who thought he had a good idea would presently have to make it. A wearisome labour it was, too. Amazing what a perseverance boys will put into a task if nobody has told them to do it. Night after night with homework shelved and forgotten we struggled with spluttering pens over the celluloid coils. The result was a great success with our public. We hit Broadway to some extent when we were invited to put on a show at a rather posh girls’ party. After that we dreamed of greater ventures and performed none.

Comments: Jack Common (1903-1968) based his novel on his own working-class childhood in Heaton, an inner suburb of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, covering the years 1903-1917. Common gained little recognition as a writer in his lifetime (George Orwell was a friend and admirer), but has more recently enjoyed critical acclaim. This passage from the book takes place during First World War period.

Diaries and Letters 1930-39

Source: Harold Nicolson (ed. Nigel Nicolson), Diaries and Letters 1930-39 (London: Collins, 1971), p. 390

Text: 4th February, 1939
V. and I go round to the Beales where there is a Television Set lent by the local radio-merchant. We see a Mickey Mouse, a play, and a Gaumont British film. I had always been told that the television could not be received above 25 miles from Alexandra Palace. But the reception was every bit as good as at Selfridge’s. Compared with a film, it is a bleary, flickering, dim, unfocused, interruptible thing, the size of a quarto sheet of paper as this on which I am typing. But as an invention it is tremendous and may alter the whole basis of democracy.

Comments: Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) was a British diplomat, politician and diarist. V is his wife, the poet Vita Sackville-West. The Beales were tenant farmers of their farm at Sissinghurst Castle in Kent. The Nicolsons acquired their own television set later in February 1939. The Mickey Mouse film was Pied Piper; the play was a one-act piece (repeated live from January 31st) entitled A Marriage Has Been Arranged, written by Alfred Sutro and starring Margaretta Scott. There were no BBC television news programmes at this date: instead it showed Gaumont British News and British Movietone News newsreels. BBC programmes were broadcast via a transmitter at Alexandra Palace in north London. Demonstrations of television had featured at Selfridge’s department store in London.

Links: Radio Times listing for 4 February 1939, from the Genome database

Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 136-138

Text: Another possibility of getting at the children’s film taste is by listing their answers to question 23 of our questionnaire. They are as follows:

What Kind of Film would you like to have made?

1 . A film which has Deana [sic] Durbin in it and George Formby that what I would have liked made. (Girl, first preference ghost picture.)

2. The films I want are the news reels. (Girl, first preference, news reels.)

3. Musical films. (Girl, first preference, musicals.)

4. A sad film. (Girl, first preference, detective pictures.)

5. Cowboy film called The Famous Cowboy Joe. (Girl, first preference, cartoons.)

6. I would like a cow boy film that lasted for six hours. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

7. A Detective film like The Hound of Basivile [sic]. (Girl, first preference, detective pictures.)

8. A film of Walt Disney’s. (Girl, first preference, cartoons.)

9. A sad film called When Will the Happy Life Come about a poor family. (Girl, first preference, cartoons.)

10. A Murder film. (Girl, first preference, gangster films.)

11 . Gone with the Wind which had Clark Gable in it thats what I would like to have made. (Girl, first preference, Historical pictures.)

12. One from the stories of the Arabian Nights. (Girl, first preference, ghost pictures.)

13. I would like a musical film with dancing in it. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

14. I would like a film with a lot of music in it (Girl, first, preference, love pictures.)

15. I would like to make a Cartoon about Donald Duck. (Girl, first preference, cartoons.)

16. I would like to make a Murder film. (Girl, first preference, detective films.)

17. I would like to have a film made with a lot of dancing in it. (Girl, first preference, musicals.)

18. One of Shirley Temples films. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

19. A Cowboy film from Roy Rogers. (Girl, first preference, ghost pictures.)

20. A very funy [sic] one, and it must have some very pretty girls in it. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

21. I would like a film of somebodys Life. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

22. The Film Bambi in Technicolour [sic]. (Girl, first preference, ghost pictures.)

23. I would like a ghost film that would last 3 hours. (Girl, first preference, ghost pictures.)

24. A Walt Disney Film. (Girl, first preference, detective pictures.)

25. A Happy-go-Lucky film with dancing, singing, and funny bits, sad bits, happy bits and some of my favourite film stars. (Girl, first preference, cartoons.)

26. I would like to have a musical film made in technicolour [sic]. (Girl, first preference, love pictures.)

27. A Detective film. (Boy, first preference, detective films.)

28. I would like a long Walt Disney’s Cartoon made. (Boy, first preference, gangster pictures.)

29. A Tarzan Film. (Boy, first preference, detective pictures.)

30. I would like a nice Detective film. (Boy, first preference, detective pictures.)

31. A good film of the prehistoric ages to the present. (Boy, first preference, historical pictures.)

32. I would like a Cowboy film with Roy Rogers acting. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

33. Comedy. (Boy, first preference, ghost pictures.)

34. A Cowboy Picture. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

35. The Life story of ‘Winston Churchal’ [sic]. (Boy, first preference, comedies.)

36. Walt Disney Cartoons. (Boy, first preference, cartoons.)

37. I would like to have a Walt Disney film made. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

38. A cowboy. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

39. Gipsy Wildcat. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

40. A funny ghost picture with Monty Woolley acting. (Boy, first preference, ghost pictures.)

41. I would like a cowboy film to be made with all the famous cowboys in it. (Boy, first preference, ghost pictures.)

42. A cowboy Picture. (Boy, first preference, cowboy pictures.)

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above comes from the section ‘Children and Adolescents and the Cinema’ and lists comments made by children as part of a questionnaire on their film tastes.

The Land of Haunted Castles

Source: Robert J. Casey, The Land of Haunted Castles (New York: The Century Co., 1921), pp. 239-255

Text: They don’t go to the opera.

Luxemburg has no opera.

They go to the cinema!

Luxemburg is by history and environment a cinema in itself,—in the midst of natural grandeur is the omnipresent conspiracy of the story-books.

The larger powers play for a great stake and the existence of this tiny duchy is tolerated for purely strategic reasons. A war is waged and a great army sweeps over it—confident of victory—and back, inglorious in defeat. A charming duchess plays politics and loses. Strangers sit in conference in a strange land and calmly determine the fate of her abandoned throne. The while petty conspirators plan revolutions, installing new governments, reinstating old, vacillating betwixt republic and monarchy, immensely proud of themselves and all unmindful of the exterior forces that work their ruin.

Had the novelists designed this country to suit themselves they could have done no better.

A gendarme—or was it a general?—surveyed all comers with a critical eye from a point of vantage in the shelter of a high battlemented building. There was snow in his cerise plume and frost upon the shoulders of his green overcoat that robbed his silver epaulets of their effect. But in his serene dignity he stood as Ajax might have stood in his celebrated dispute with the lightning.

He was impressive enough to have spoiled the business of many a European moving-picture house and brilliant enough to have attracted great quantities of dimes to the cinema palaces of the United States.

One had only to see the disdainful glance which he bestowed upon the Luxembourgeoise questing the joys of the film to see that he disapproved of such idle pursuits. The grown-ups passed him with haughty antagonism. The children hurried by with sidelong glances as if fearful that this splendid figure might interpose himself between them and the doorway behind which flickered the delectable movies.

Once one had braved the guardian at the gate, the way led up three little stone steps to a door common enough in American cottages of twenty years ago,—three panels of wood, a pane of glass, and a wealth of iron grating.

It didn’t look much like the entrance to a theater, but, for that matter, nothing in Graystork looks like what it’s supposed to be. The house was a narrow, three-story stone affair with slim windows and green shutters. A sign over the door proclaimed it to be a cafe. A second sign, obviously a generation or two younger, conveyed the added information that the cinema might be found here and that English was spoken.

I pushed down on the brass lever—there are no door-knobs in Luxemburg—and stepped in out of the blizzard.

There was an instant impression of bar glass, electric lights, tables, straight-backed chairs, and warmth, with an all-pervading atmosphere of hot rum. Some civilians in velour hats and tight-fitting overcoats looked up from their steaming drinks as we added ourselves to the party.

The Kellner, whose memory of Americans hadn’t been entirely obliterated by the long hiatus in the tourist business, came running over from the cage-like bar to bid us welcome.

But we hadn’t come to study the liquid nourishment of Ettelbruck. A book may be written on that particular subject some day, if some brave soul manages to live through the dangers of personal research. Meerschaart instantly removed Herr Kellner’s doubts concerning the cause of our visit with a question:

Ou est la cinema?

Herr Kellner looked shocked, then turned to me.

“You will find the moving pictures,” he said in a good brand of Minnesota English, “at the end of the hallway through that little door.” He indicated a door behind the bar, and added graciously as we started to follow his directions:

“For ten years I lived in the United States.”

We walked behind the bar, and a narrow squeeze it was between the porcelain counter and the shelf of glass-ware. With the venturesome air that befitted the circumstances, I opened the door and crossed the threshold into a cold corridor.

Here was a foyer unique in the world of theatricals. Meerschaart may have been prepared for it—for, after all, his country and this are half-sisters—but nothing in my experience had given me warning. Women’s clothes, some very intimate articles of wearing-apparel, hung upon a row of hooks along one side of the hall. I hesitated a moment.

“We’re breaking into somebody’s bedroom,” I declared.

“Maybe that’s where they have the cinema,” returned the Belgian, in a matter-of-fact tone. “Either there or in the kitchen.”

The atmosphere of the corridor, redolent of garlic and boiled cabbage, seemed to give assurance that supper was to be served somewhere soon, but as yet we had no right to leap at conclusions. Anything might happen before we came to the exit.

Beyond the clothes-hooks was another door. We passed through it into a big bare room with plain white walls hung with ancient champagne advertisements. On the side opposite the entrance was a double doorway curtained with red chenille hangings, and at one side of it was a table where a woman, probably the owner of the clothes in the hallway, sold tickets.

The entrance fee was three francs apiece. The original cost, however, was the only expense that had to be figured in the afternoon’s entertainment. No tip was expected by the “usherette” inasmuch as there was no “usherette,” and there was no charge for the program, that being salvaged from the floor in the vicinity of one’s seat.

A reel of post-war comedy showing the triumph of President Wilson over a caricature of the kaiser—an animated cartoon of the French school—was just flickering to a close as we entered. The spectators, whom we could not see in the gloom, were dutifully applauding. How much of this frantic enthusiasm was due to inward faith and how much to public policy it would be difficult to say.

National ideas in a country like Luxemburg are bound to change as conditions which affect the national existence are altered. Tastes in moving pictures as in governments are likely to be decided by artillery duels a hundred miles across the frontier.

The lights flashed up and we got a glimpse of what our three francs had brought us to.

We were standing in a sort of low balcony along one side of a rectangular room. The screen was stretched across the corner opposite the door. On the main floor the seating-facilities consisted of two benches and perhaps fifty straight-backed wooden chairs. A bar with china fixtures, similar to the one in the room through which we had passed, occupied one end of the room, leading one to suspect that this place had not always been a temple of the cinema.

It is not altogether correct to infer that all of this was immediately visible. For all the brilliance of perhaps a dozen incandescent lamps, we had been in the place some minutes before the salient features of it began to impress themselves upon us. The atmosphere was a vast, well-nigh impenetrable cloud of tobacco smoke.

We found some seats on a bench at the edge of the balcony and disposed ourselves as best we could. The seats in the pit were occupied mostly by children, little girls about ten years old predominating, with a scattering representation of adults. There was an incessant chattering among the youthful patrons, but no functionary in brass buttons came to interrupt them. There seemed to be any number of little black velvet bonnets in the house, some of them trimmed with pink ribbons, some with blue. A minority of small boys in the round cap of the French-marine type assisted in the manufacture of the din, making one notable contribution in the way of a fist fight before we had been in the place five minutes.

I took advantage of the wait between pictures to look at the red program.

The information conveyed in three assorted languages was little short of astonishing. I learned from the English part of it that there would be:

MOVING PICTURES
at Sunday
In the Afternoon at 3 o’Clock
at night 8 o’clock
at SATURDAY and MONDAY
at Evening at 8 o’clock

ECLAIR JOURNAL
The Kaiser and President Wilson

Sherlock Holmes
the greatest american detektiv in:
ON THE LINE OF THE FOUR
In 2 Parts

Casimir and the Fireman
Humorist in 1 act

THE BLACK CAPTAIN
Far West Drama

and
Flottes Orchester
1 Platz, 3 Fr.; 2 Platz, 2 Fr.; 3 Platz, 1.50 Fr.

And there were further words in German to the effect that children would be admitted to matinee performances at half-price.

It was in the French part of the bill of fare, however, that the true eloquence of the cinema management showed itself. To begin with, the pedigree of the films was presented to the attention of the public. To a stranger in the land, an itinerant who might be interested in the English program, a film would be merely a film. It was in the nature of the tourist to take what one gave him and pay well for the privilege. The native sons, how-ever, must be advised of the quality of the product that they were asked to purchase. Hence they were told with-out preliminary waste of space upon the topics of the pictures that the films were from Paris. To cinema-fanciers who for four long years had gazed upon flickerings from Prussia, the name Paris probably carried a magic appeal.

The kaiser and President Wilson, on this side of the dictionary, were passed over in small type. So was Sherlock Holmes, “the greatest american detektiv.” But Le Capitaine Noir came in for a great deal of publicity of the circus-poster variety.

This feature was billed as “A great drama of adventure in four acts and a prologue,—a number of sensational scenes: Chases on the Plains; the Ambush; The Mark of Fire; The Escape; The Burning Granary.” One would be a sensation-seeker indeed who could wish for more excitement for his three francs.

I suspected from the first that “On the Line of the Four,” however much it might promise as a war picture, was very likely our old friend and neighbor “The Sign of the Four,” and so it was.

The original nationality of the piece was a doubtful matter. There was hardly enough of it left to give one a consecutive idea of the plot, and the French captions were so worn that little was to be gained from them. It may have been an American film of that era when there were no stars. At any rate, no latter-day favorites appeared in it. It may have been English. Certain elements in the “locations” suggested England forcibly. But whatever its pedigree, its days of usefulness were nearly done.

The Anglo Saxons in the house, to whom the name Sherlock Holmes was a sufficient guaranty of story action and plot, could not get very far with the titles in French. Those who had mastered enough of the language to surmount this difficulty were certain to become hopelessly muddled in the aimless mixing of scenes that seemed to be the result of many years of “cut and patch.”

The children, however, enjoyed the piece just as young America used to enjoy pictures of fleeting express-trains and dashing fire-engines. The doings of the “greatest american detektiv” as marvels of mental acrobatics appealed to them not a whit. But the doings of the East Indian murderer with his shiny black hide, his wicked eye, and his deadly poisoned dart, were truly delightful.

Der Schwarze,” as they nicknamed him, could not so much as twist a finger from the moment of his first entrance into the drama until the last ghostly glimmer of Dr. Watson’s romance, without arousing an excited hum throughout the house.

The children wildly applauded his capture and cast upon him any number of maledictions in German and French. They commented volubly upon the flashes supposed to show the theft of the rajah’s jewels in India, and stood up in their seats and yelled when the Black was shown in the act of shooting the fatal dart.

They may have gathered something from the torn film to give them an inkling of the motive of revenge that underlay the murderer’s desire to kill. But from their point of view the motives were immaterial. This Indian person was downright murderous. They had seen him in his deadly but interesting pastime of shooting poisoned arrows,—truly a reprobate. And he was chased and caught and turned over to the gendarmes. Served him right! A very excellent picture!

We learned, too, that the burghers are a romantic people, as befits their surroundings and traditions. They sighed with sympathy when Dr. Watson breathed words of love into the ear of Mary Marston. They murmured approbation when he put his protecting arm about her in that tense moment just before the discovery of the murder; and they howled with startling intensity, adults and infants alike, when the film snapped off short before the climacteric embrace.

The flottes Orchester was the greatest disappointment in the show. It failed to arrive. A small boy with a typical toy harmonica attempted to remedy the deficiency with plaintive notes that filtered unpleasantly through the other noises.

Between films we got another glimpse of our surroundings.

On the wall near the entrance there were yellowing posters of past feature pictures. They were uniformly German and slipshod, the type one used to see before the nickelodeons of a decade ago. One bore the title “Schwer Gepruft” and showed a Prussian villain staring through a brick wall at a blonde girl playing a piano. Another was a sketch in black and white advertising “Der Gestreifte Domino.” The domino was a doleful-looking person whose activities in the film were not described.

In a far corner was a French advertisement for “Deux Ames de Poupée” played by a “notable cast of three” from some theater in Paris. None of these posters looked new, though the theater undoubtedly had been in use during the German occupation. This led us to believe that any films shown in Luxemburg since the autumn of 1914 must have been worn-out stock, hastily salvaged from the waste-heaps to struggle through four years more of life. The conviction remained with us even after the proprietor had assured us that a Copenhagen distributor had given him a choice of first-run productions during the entire period in which the French supply was unavailable.

The adventures of the Black Captain started inauspiciously. The picture was improperly framed during the first few seconds and the lower half appeared on top and the upper half below, as is the universal custom with unframed cinema.

Immediately the ensemble of spectators yelled out, “Hoch!” with a unanimity that shook the ancient rafters.

The film presently slid into its proper groove, and, save for the normal clatter of the children and their parents, quiet was restored. To a visitor the incident was worthy of note as something odd in the system of communication between the house and the management.

It has its points of superiority over the good old American custom of kicking chair backs, whistling, and foot-stamping, as any one will admit. It is no easier on the ears, perhaps, but its effect is quicker. No operator, not even a German operator, can stand the concerted shrieking of half a hundred excited youngsters.

The prologue of this “adventurous picture”—the words are those of the opening caption—extended through about a reel and a half of the total four. Whether out of deference to an artistic color scheme or not we cannot say, but Monsieur Violet, a French actor, was cast in the role of Capitaine Black. The girl in the piece, whose name we have forgotten, and the deep-dyed villain who stole her love, were the only important figures in the story aside from the colorful captain. The lady appeared to be at least as old as the film, which was old enough, and had a sharp nose a trifle too long for her own good. But she suited the spectators in the seventy-five centime seats, and from that time forward we knew that the picture was going to be well received.

Monsieur Violet, as the Duke of Chablis, is in love with Miss Arabella, a circus rider. He marries her, much to the grief of his best friend,—another duke whom, for the purpose of identification, we shall call the Duke of Ornans.

After the inevitable elopement of Lady Arabella with the Duke of Ornans, Monsieur Violet meets the wrecker of his home and kills him in a duel. The two former friends become reconciled in the death scene and the wrecker, after the fashion of wreckers, warns the wronged husband to beware of the woman who is “the cause of it all.”

The husband encounters the faithless wife as he is carrying the body of the betrayer into the chateau whither the erring couple have fled. It is a strong scene in many ways, about as well acted as it is original, with many flashes of raised fists and kneeling supplication. Here the prologue ends in a hysterical burst of recrimination and anathema.

None of this was in keeping with the moral code of Luxemburg, where marriages are pretty sure to be permanent. But it was romantic, passionate, bombastic, and was applauded with shouts.

The next scene showed the arrival in America of the Lady Arabella, who had journeyed into the Far West to claim an estate left her by the traitorous friend.

And it was truly a wonderful America in which she found herself.

An official with a uniform like that of a milkman carried her suit-cases from an unfamiliar railway platform to a stage-coach. The coach was a long, slim thing like the French army’s “Fourgon, Mile. 1887.” It was drawn by three horses and greatly resembled the American vehicle it was supposed to represent in that both of them had wheels.

In the meantime the Duke of Chablis had become the chief of a band of Mexican outlaws, and, under the name of the Black Captain, was spreading terror along the borders of the United States,—a splendid revenge for a husband whose home had been wrecked, but a bit hard on Texas or New Mexico.

The Luxemburgers could not understand this idea of vengeance. But theirs not to question why. It was action they wanted and action they got.

The bandits attacked the stage-coach.

Artful bandits they were. They kept themselves informed of the movements of the coach by a clever system of espionage. If the girl had only noted the dark figure at the corner of the station platform, what excitement she might have saved herself! She would have recognized him at once for a foe. For he was attired in a fedora hat with a feather in it, and even a timid European knows that the Indians who have for their tribal insignia the fedora hat are the most bloodthirsty of all.

Of course there was a battle. It wasn’t a very good battle at first, because both sides failed to show any marksmanship until they warmed up to their work. But after about a kilometer of chase things were different. Nearly everybody on both sides dropped dead at once. It was a thrilling climax.

The few passengers left alive clambered out of the coach to permit themselves to be robbed, the Lady Arabella confronting the mysterious Black Captain. And the house actually approached silence. One could have heard an anvil drop, so quiet was that tense moment when he lifted his mask and showed the once trusted but treacherous love, his sneering lips and hate-filled eyes.

He was very deliberate about it,—always the gentleman, the duke, outlaw or not. He was so deliberate that he turned his back upon her momentarily and she escaped.

The outlaws held a brief conference and leaped to horse in pursuit as she sped down the glistening road.

The house had a wild time about it.

American moving-picture men used to hold long news-paper debates concerning the propriety of applauding the silent drama. But I have never yet seen a decision relative to the etiquette of starting a riot at a thrilling moment. The young Luxemburgers stood up in their chairs and howled.

The people of the grand duchy are not so volatile as those of France. Superficially they bear a closer resemblance to their German neighbors. But they stand proved a race apart to one who has ever seen them at the cinema. They feel deeply and express themselves energetically regardless of time or place. They leap from stolidity to intense animation with the quickness of a flash of light.

The girl outdistanced all the bandits save the Black Captain, and this relentless pursuer chased her through a few Italian villas and other little-known parts of Mexico. Just as he caught up with her the film broke and the cheering spectators subsided with a deep sigh.

That gave us a chance to escape without being trampled upon and we made the best of our opportunity.

It was snowing when we reached the street. The braided gendarme stood as we had left him, his silver epaulets glistening like diamonds with the frost.

Comments: Robert Joseph Casey (1890-1962) was an American journalist and soldier, who served during the First World War and went on to write several books on his travels around the world. The Land of Haunted Castles documents a tour of Luxembourg not long after the war, with this visit to a film show taking place in the town of Ettleburck. The Sherlock Holmes film referred to is unclear but it may have been the American film Sherlock Holmes Solves The Sign of Four (1913), produced by Thanhouser and featuring Harry Benham as Holmes. The French film may be Le capitaine noire (1917), though this did not feature a M. Violet in the cast. However it was produced by the French Éclair company, as was the Éclair Journal newsreel and the ‘Casimir’ series of comedies listed on the programme. There was an Éclair series of Sherlock Holmes films, but none was based on ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust