Source: James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976), included in Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), p. 479
Text: Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.
I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and which is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath the water.
I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.
I don’t remember the film. A child is far too self-centered to relate to any dilemma which does not, somehow, relate to him – to his own evolving dilemma. The child escapes into what we would like his situation to be, and I certainly did not wish to be a fleeing fugitive on a moving train; and, also, with quite another part of my mind, I was aware that Joan Crawford was a white lady. Yet, I remember being sent to the store sometime later, and a colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly like Joan Crawford, was buying something. She was so incredibly beautiful – she seemed to be wearing the sunlight, rearranging it around her from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement of her head, and with her smile – that, when she paid the man and started out of the store, I started out behind her. The storekeeper, who knew me, and others in the store who knew my mother’s little boy (and who also knew my Miss Crawford!) laughed and called me back. Miss Crawford also laughed and looked down at me with so beautiful a smile that I was not even embarrassed. Which was rare for me.
Comments: James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an African-American essayist, novelist and social commentator. His memories of the film Dance, Fools, Dance (USA 1931) come at the start of his long essay on film and race, The Devil Finds Work (1976). His childhood was spent in Harlem, New York City.
Source: ‘Film Matinees for Children’, The Times (London), 13 May 1920, p. 14
Text: FILM MATINEES FOR CHILDREN.
AN EXCITED AUDIENCE.
At many picture theatres in the outer zone of London it is the custom to set aside one afternoon a week for the benefit of children. The average film, of course, is admirably suited to the intellect of a child, and all that has to be done is to reduce the price of admission to the level of a child’s pocket. The process is wonderfully simple. The price of admission is reduced from 6d. to 3d. and we have what is triumphantly described as a “Children’s Matinée.” The fact remains, however, that although it is unpretentious, a children’s matinée is a remarkable experience. Thoroughly to enjoy it the intruding grown-up must put on the simple faith of a child. He must be both childlike and bland, and, above all, he must forget to be superior. If he will try to forget for a few hours any theories on the film and crime, or the film and education, and just be content to think of the film as an afternoon’s diversion, he may enter into the company of the elect, who regard a film, a dog fight, a revolution, or a Punch and Judy Show, as created for one purpose, and one purpose only-that of their own personal and private entertainment. If he fails to enjoy the experience he must either be very clever or very foolish. He will almost certainly regret that the cinematograph was not invented when he, too, too, was young enough to live in Arcadia.
Mandarin’s Gold was the title of the principal item at one matineé for children this week. The enormous enjoyment they managed to extract from it was a revelation. The ground floor of the hall was thick with ecstatic and squirming children. They squirmed not only with their bodies but with their tongues, and the result resembled the remarks of the chorus in the Frogs of Aristophanes. The clamour was amazing even before the lights went down, and when the title of the film flickered uncertainly on to the screen the noise changed to a roar of the kind that is usually associated with an “infuriated mob.” The Mandarin then made his appearance. It turned out later that he was an extremely unpleasant person, but his gorgeous costume endeared him to his audience at the outset, and he was received with a hurricane of applause. A sophisticated child, who had apparently seen Chu Chin Chow, informed all those around her that she had obtained the autograph of Mr. Oscar Asche, but her remark was treated with such contumely that she had to be led forth in tears.
As the story developed it became obvious, since the scene was laid in New York, that the Mandarin was really an undesirable Alien, and he began to grow very unpopular. He soon attempted to make violent love to an innocent Chinese maiden, and there was not a child in the audience that managed to retain its seat. They arose and denounced him in good but unusual English, and one almost expected to see him tremble under the wrath that was being poured upon him. When, however, he had first played his part, there was no one more hostile about than the producer, and so the Mandarin continued his dastardly deeds with a phlegm that was more British than Oriental. The plot continued to thicken with surprising rapidity, and the uproar began to get quite alarming.
Then came the peripeteia. The hero and heroine of the film set out to succour the Oriental maiden. There was a glimpse of them in a large motor-car, into the corners of which were crowded what seemed to be half the New York police force. The scene was switched- back to the wicked Mandarin. He was still gloating over his victim, little thinking of the terrible things the producer had in store for him. Here was dramatic irony as the scenario writer loves it. The children in the audience, however, had very little use for irony, and a very diminutive child somewhere in the neighbourhood of the orchestra informed the villain in a very shrill voice that “The coppers were coming.” As it happened the mandarin turned towards the audience at that moment in order to gnash his teeth. The child seemed to think that retribution was swiftly on his track, and he, too, was led out weeping. The remainder of the children paid no attention to these mishaps, for the New York police force had appeared again. They were greeted with an outburst of cheering that would have made them blush if they had been able, and when they burst into the house of the Mandarin the children rose in a body and delivered three hearty cheers. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and one parent in the audience was seen to shake a very large fist at the unfortunate Mandarin, who was by then lying on the floor in an attitude reminiscent of Pecksniff, while the New York police force struck him on his gorgeously decorated head with their batons.
The lights went up, and the children wiped their brows and tried to sit down. Then the babel began again, for the excitement had been so intense that half the audience had left their seats to encourage the protagonists, and taken up positions in rows far in front. They had not sorted themselves out before the next film was being shown. This indicated the habits of the emu, and there was plenty of time to reorganise before the next comic film appeared.
Comments: The film described was Mandarin’s Gold (USA 1919), directed by Oscar Apfel and starring Warner Oland as Li Hsun, the mandarin. Chu Chin Chow was a 1916 musical comedy based on the story of Ali Baba, written by Oscar Asche. Pecksniff is a character in Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit.
Source: Joseph Medill Patterson, ‘The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama’ The Saturday Evening Post, 23 November 1907, pp. 10-11, 38.
Text: Three years ago there was not a nickelodeon, or, five-cent theatre devoted to moving-picture shows, in America. To-day there are between four and five thousand running and solvent, and the number is still increasing rapidly. This is the boom time in the moving-picture business. Everybody is making money- manufacturers, renters, jobbers, exhibitors. Overproduction looms up as a certainty of the near future; but now, as one press-agent said enthusiastically, “this line is a Klondike.”
The nickelodeon in tapping an entirely new stratum of people, is developing into theatregoers a section of population that formerly knew and cared little about the drama as a fact in life. That is why “this line is a Klondike” just at present.
Incredible as it may seem, over two million people on the average attend the nickelodeons every day of the year, and a third of these are children.
Let us prove up this estimate. The agent for the biggest firm of film renters in the country told me that the average expense of running a nickelodeon was from $175 to $200 a week, divided as follows:
Wage of manager $25 Wage of Operator 20 Wage of doorman 15 Wage of porter or musician 12 Rent of film (two reels changed twice a week) 50 Rent of projecting machine 10 Rent of building 40 Music, printing, “campaign contributions,” etc. 18 Total $190
Merely to meet expenses then, the average nickelodeon must have a weekly attendance of 4000. This gives all the nickelodeons 16,000,000 a week, or over 2,000,000 a day. Two million people a day are needed before profits can begin, and the two million are forthcoming. It is a big thing, this new enterprise.
The nickelodeon is usually a tiny theatre, containing 199 seats, giving from twelve to eighteen performances a day, seven days a week. Its walls are painted red. The seats are ordinary kitchen chairs, not fastened. The only break in the red color scheme is made by half a dozen signs, in black and white, NO SMOKING, HATS OFF and sometimes, but not always, STAY AS LONG AS YOU LIKE.
The spectatorium is one story high, twenty-five feet wide and about seventy feet deep. Last year or the year before it was probably a second-hand clothiers, a pawnshop or cigar store. Now, the counter has been ripped out, there is a ticket-seller’s booth where the show-window was, an automatic musical barker somewhere up in the air thunders its noise down on the passersby, and the little store has been converted into a theatrelet. Not a theatre, mind you, for theatres must take out theatrical licenses at $500 a year. Theatres seat two hundred or more people. Nickelodeons seat 199, and take out amusement licenses. This is the general rule.
But sometimes nickelodeon proprietors in favorable locations take out theatrical licenses and put in 800 or 1000 seats. In Philadelphia, there is, perhaps, the largest nickelodeon in America. It is said to pay not only the theatrical license, but also $30,000 a year ground rent and a handsome profit.
To-day there is cutthroat competition between the little nickelodeon owners, and they are beginning to compete each other out of existence. Already consolidation has set in. Film-renting firms are quietly beginning to pick up, here and there, a few nickelodeons of their own; presumably they will make better rates and give prompter service to their own theatrelets than to those belonging to outsiders. The tendency is early toward fewer, bigger, cleaner five-cent theatres and more expensive shows. Hard as this may be on the little showman who is forced out, it is good for the public, who will, in consequence, get more for their money.
Who the Patrons Are
The character of the attendance varies with the locality, but, whatever the locality, children make up about thirty-three per cent. of the crowds. For some reason, young women from sixteen to thirty years old are rarely in evidence, but many middle-aged and old women are steady patrons, who never, when a new film is to be shown, miss the opening.
In cosmopolitan city districts the foreigners attend in larger proportion than the English speakers. This is doubtless because the foreigners, shut out as they are by their alien tongues from much of the life about them can yet perfectly understand the pantomime of the moving pictures.
As might be expected, the Latin races patronize the shows more consistently than Jews, Irish or Americans. Sailors of all races are devotees.
Most of the shows have musical accompaniments. The enterprising manager usually engages a human pianist with instructions to play Eliza-crossing-the-ice when the scene is shuddery, and fast ragtime in a comic kid chase. Where there is little competition, however, the manager merely presses the button and starts the automatic going, which is as apt as not to bellow out, I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill, just as the angel rises from the brave little hero-cripple’s corpse.
The moving pictures were used as chasers in vaudeville houses for several years before the advent of the nickelodeon. The cinemetograph or vitagraph or biograph or kinetoscope (there are seventy-odd names for the same machine) was invented in 1888-1889. Mr. Edison is said to have contributed most toward it, though several other inventors claim part of the credit.
The first very successful pictures were those of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight at Carson City, Nevada, in 1897. These films were shown all over the country to immense crowds and an enormous sum of money was made by the exhibitors.
The Jeffries-Sharkey fight of twenty-five rounds at Coney Island, in November, 1899, was another popular success. The contest being at night, artificial light was necessary, and 500 arc lamps were placed above the ring. Four cameras were used. While one was snapping the fighters, a second was being focused at them, a third was being reloaded, and a fourth was held in reserve in case of breakdown. Over seven miles of film were exposed, and 198,000 pictures, each 2 by 3 inches, were taken. This fight was taken at the rate of thirty pictures to the second.
The 500 arc lamps above the ring generated a temperature of about 115 degrees for the gladiators to fight in. When the event was concluded, Mr. Jeffries was overheard to remark that for no amount of money would he ever again in his life fight in such heat, pictures or no pictures. And he never has.
Since that mighty fight, manufacturers have learned a good deal about cheapening their process. Pictures instead of being 2 by 3 inches are now 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches, and are taken sixteen instead of thirty to the second, for the illusion to the eye of continuous motion is as perfect at one rate as the other.
By means of a ratchet each separate picture is made to pause a twentieth of a second before the magic-lantern lens, throwing an enlargement to life size upon the screen. Then, while the revolving shutter obscures the lens, one picture is dropped and another substituted, to make in turn its twentieth of a second display.
The films are, as a rule, exhibited at the rate at which they are taken, though chase scenes are usually thrown faster, and horse races, fire-engines and hot-moving automobiles slower, than the life-speed.
How the Drama Is Made
Within the past year an automatic process to color films has been discovered by a French firm. The pigments are applied by means of a four-color machine stencil. Beyond this bare fact the process remains a secret of the inventors. The stencil must do its work with extraordinary accuracy, for any minute error in the application of color to outline made upon the 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches print is magnified 200 times when thrown upon the screen by the magnifying lens. The remarkable thing about this automatic colorer is that it applies the pigment in slightly different outline to each successive print of a film 700 feet long. Colored films sell for about fifty per cent. more than black and whites. Tinted films – browns, blues, oranges, violets, greens and so forth – are made by washing, and sell at but one per cent. over the straight price.
The films are obtained in various ways. “Straight” shows, where the interest depends on the dramatist’s imagination and the setting, are merely playlets acted out before the rapid-fire camera. Each manufacturing firm owns a studio with property-room, dressing rooms and a completely-equipped stage. The actors are experienced professionals of just below the first rank, who are content to make from $18 to $25 a week. In France a class of moving-picture specialists has grown up who work only for the cameras, but in this country most of the artists who play in the film studios in the daytime play also behind the footlights at night.
The studio manager orders rehearsals continued until his people have their parts “face-perfect,” then he gives the word, the lens is focused, the cast works rapidly for twenty minutes while the long strip of celluloid whirs through the camera, and the performance is preserved in living, dynamic embalmment (if the phrase may be permitted) for decades to come.
Eccentric scenes, such as a chalk marking the outlines of a coat upon a piece of cloth, the scissors cutting to the lines, the needle sewing, all automatically without human help, often require a week to take. The process is ingenious. First the scissors and chalk are laid upon the edge of the cloth. The picture is taken. The camera is stopped, the scissors are moved a quarter of an inch into the cloth, the chalk is drawn a quarter of an inch over the cloth. The camera is opened again and another picture is taken showing the quarter-inch cut and quarter-inch mark. The camera is closed, another quarter inch is cut and chalked; another exposure is made. When these pictures so slowly obtained we run off rapidly, the illusion of fast self-action on the part of the scissors, chalk and needle is produced.
Sometimes in a nickelodeon you can see on the screen a building completely wrecked in five minutes. Such a film was obtained by focusing a camera at the building, and taking every salient move of the wreckers for the space, perhaps, of a fortnight. When these separate prints, obtained at varying intervals, some of them perhaps a whole day apart, are run together continuously, the appearance is of a mighty stone building being pulled to pieces like a house of blocks.
Such eccentric pictures were in high demand a couple of years ago, but now the straight-story show is running them out. The plots are improving every year in dramatic technique. Manufacturing firms pay from $5 to $25 for good stories suitable for film presentation, and it is astonishes how many sound dramatic ideas are submitted by people of insufficient education to render their thoughts into English suitable for the legitimate stage.
The moving-picture actors are becoming excellent pantomimists, which is natural, for they cannot rely on the playwright’s lines to make their meanings. I remember particularly a performance I saw near Spring Street on the Bowery, where the pantomime seemed to me in nowise inferior to that of Mademoiselle Pilar-Morin, the French pantomimist.
The nickelodeon spectators readily distinguish between good and bad acting, though they do not mark their pleasure or displeasure audibly, except very rarely, in a comedy scenes by a suppressed giggle. During the excellent show of which I have spoken, the men, woman and children maintained steady stare of fascination at the changing figures on the scene, and toward the climax, when forgiveness was cruelly denied, lips were parted and eyes filled with tears. It was as much a tribute to the actors as the loudest bravos ever shouted in the Metropolitan Opera House.
To-day a consistent plot is demanded. There must be, as in the drama, exposition, development, climax and denouement. The most popular films run from fifteen to twenty minutes and are from five hundred to eight hundred feet long. One studio manager said: “The people want a story. We run to comics generally; they seem to take best. So-and-so, however, lean more to melodrama. When we started we used to give just flashes- an engine chasing to a fire, a base-runner sliding home, a charge of cavalry. Now, for instance, if we want to work in a horse race it has to be as a scene in the life of the jockey, who is the hero of the piece – we’ve got to give them a story; they won’t take anything else – a story with plenty of action. You can’t show large conversation, you know, on the screen. More story, larger story, better story with plenty of action- that is our tendency.”
Civilization, all through the history of mankind, has been chiefly the property of the upper classes, but during the past century civilization has been permeating steadily downward. The leaders of this democratic movement have been general education, universal suffrage, cheap periodicals and cheap travel. To-day the moving-picture machine cannot be overlooked as an effective protagonist of democracy. For through it the drama, always a big fact in the lives of the people at the top, is now becoming a big fact in the lives of the people at the bottom. Two million of them a day have so found a new interest in life.
The prosperous Westerners, who take their week or fortnight, fall and spring, in New York, pay two dollars and a half for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Broadway theatre. The stokers who have driven the Deutschland or the Lusitania from Europe pay five cents for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Bowery nickelodeon. What in the difference?
The stokers, sitting on the hard, wooden chairs of the nickelodeon, experience the same emotional flux and counter-flux (more intense is their experience, for they are not as blase) as the prosperous Westerners in their red plush orchestra chairs, uptown.
The sentient life of the half-civilized beings at the bottom has been enlarged and altered, by the introduction of the dramatic motif, to resemble more closely the sentient life of the civilized beings at the top.
Take an analogous case. Is aimless travel “beneficial” or not? It is amusing, certainly; and, therefore, the aristocrats who could afford it have always traveled aimlessly. But now, says the Democratic Movement, the grand tour shall no longer be restricted to the aristocracy. Jump on the rural trolley-car, Mr. Workingman, and make a grand tour yourself. Don’t care, Mr. Workingman, whether it is “beneficial” or not. Do it because it is amusing; just as the aristocrats do.
The film makers cover the whole gamut of dramatic attractions. The extremes in the film world are as far apart as the extremes in the theatrical world- as far apart, let us say, as The Master Builder and The Gay White Way.
If you look up the moving-picture advertisements in any vaudeville trade paper you cannot help being struck with this fact. For instance, in a current number, one firm offers the following variety of attractions:
Romany’s Revenge (very dramatic) 300 feet Johnny’s Run (comic kid chase) 300 ” Roof to Cellar (absorbing comedy) 782 ” Wizard’s World (fantastic comedy) 350 ” Sailor’s Return (highly dramatic) 535 ” A Mother’s Sin (beautiful, dramatic and moral) 392 ” Knight Errant (old historical drama) 421 ” Village Fire Brigade (big laugh) 325 ” Catch the Kid (a scream) 270 ” The Coroner’s Mistake (comic ghost story) 430 ” Fatal Hand (dramatic) 432 “
Another firm advertises in huge type, in the trade papers:
LIFE AND PASSION OF CHRIST Five Parts, Thirty-nine Pictures, 3114 feet Price, $373.78 Extra for coloring $125.10
The presentation by the picture machine of the Passion Play in this country was undertaken with considerable hesitation. The films had been shown in France to huge crowds, but here, so little were even professional students of American lower-class taste able to gauge it in advance, that the presenters feared the Passion Play might be boycotted, if not, indeed, indeed, in some places, mobbed. On the contrary, it has been the biggest success ever known to the business.
Last year incidents leading up to the murder of Stanford White were shown, succeeded enormously for a very few weeks, then flattened out completely and were withdrawn. Film people are as much at sea about what their crowds will like as the managers in the “legitimate.”
Although the gourdlike growth of the nickelodeon business as a factor in the conscious life of Americans is not yet appreciated, already a good many people are disturbed by what they do know of the thing.
Those who are “interested in the poor” are wondering whether the five-cent theatre is a good influence, and asking themselves gravely whether it should be encouraged or checked (with the help of the police).
Is the theatre a “good” or a “bad” influence? The adjectives don’t fit the case. Neither do they fit the case of the nickelodeon, which is merely the theatre demociatized.
Take the case of the Passion Play, for instance. Is it irreverent to portray the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension in a vaudeville theatre over a darkened stage where half an hour before a couple of painted, short-skirted girls were doing a “sister-act”? What is the motive which draws crowds poor people to nickelodeons to see the Birth in the Manger flashed magic-lanternwise upon a white cloth? Curiosity? Mere mocking curiosity, perhaps? I cannot answer.
Neither could I say what it is that, every fifth year, draws our plutocrats to Oberammergau, where at the cost, from first to last, of thousands of dollars and days of time, they view a similar spectacle presented in a sunny Bavarian setting.
It is reasonable, however, to believe that the same feelings, whatever they are, which drew our rich to Oberammergau, draw our poor to the nickelodeons. Whether the powerful emotional reactions produced in the spectator by the Passion Play are “beneficial” or not is as far beyond decision as the question whether a man or an oyster is happier. The man is more, feels more, than the oyster. The beholder of the Passion Play is more, feels more, than the non-beholder.
Whether for weal or woe, humanity has ceaselessly striven to complicate life, to diversify and make subtle the emotions, to create and gratify the new and artificial spiritual wants, to know more and feel more both of good and evil, to attain a greater degree of self-consciousness; just as the one fundamental instinct of the youth, which most systems of education have been vainly organized to eradicate, is to find out what the man knows.
In this eternal struggle for more self-consciousness, the moving-picture machine, uncouth instrument though it be, has enlisted itself on especial behalf of the least enlightened, those who are below the reach even of the yellow journals. For although in the prosperous vaudeville houses the machine is but a toy, a “chaser,” in the nickelodeons it is the central, absorbing fact, which strengthens, widens, vivifies subjective life; which teaches living other than living through the senses alone. Already, perhaps, touching him at the psychological moment, it has awakened to his first, groping, necessary discontent the spirit of an artist of the future, who otherwise would have remained mute and motionless.
The nickelodeons are merely an extension course in civilization, teaching both its “badness” and its “goodness.” They have come in obedience to the law of supply and demand; and they will stay as long as the slums stay, for in the slums they are the fittest and must survive.
Comments: Joseph Medill Patterson (1879-1946) was an American journalist and newspaper publisher, founder of the New York Daily News. Nickelodeons (a nickname given in America to the shop-conversions that preceded purpose-built cinemas) came to the interest on general newspapers and magazines in 1907. The illustrations come from the original publication.
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.
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).
Source: Charles Forman, Industrial Town: Self Portrait of St Helens in the 1920s (London: Paladin Books, 1979 [orig. pub. 1978]), pp. 120-121
Text: THE JOINER, BORN c. 1905
My brother and I used to get 1½d every Saturday to go to the picture palace. There was one film and lantern slides. It used to be a gymnasium. You climbed on the bars to get a better spec. There was a cinema at the top of Helena House, the Co-op building. It was 1d to go in and ½d for two ounces of toffee. We used to give one of the halfpennies to a friend. He had no money, there were too many of them, seven in the family. If we gave the two halfpennies to him, the three of us could go in. The children’s idol was a fellow called ‘Pimple’ – in the same year as Flora Finch. He was a fellow like a clown. He came on in a series each week – ‘Pimple at the North Pole’. Then there wasn’t enough film to go round all afternoon. The lantern slides used to come on – pictures of plants, flowers and birds, the drawing-room scenes. Sometimes they told a story.
Comments: Charles Forman’s Industrial Town is a collection of eye-witness accounts of life in the Lancashire town of St Helens in 1920s (and earlier, as with this account). ‘Pimple’ was a character played by British comedian Fred Evans, who plays the character in a long series of short films in the 1910s. The film referred to was Lieutenant Pimple’s Dash for the Pole (UK 1914). Flora Finch was a British comic actress popular in American films.
Source: C.W. Kimmins, ‘The Child and the Cinema’ in The Child’s Attitude to Life; a study of children’s stories (London: Methuen, 1926), pp. 101-102
Text: The moving picture I liked best was a gentleman advertised in a paper for a lady friend, and in a class of young ladies, one read it in the paper and ran out of the room, another also read the article, and also left the room; one by one they all dis appeared and went to the gentleman’s house. When they all came, he did not want every one and he then started to run away. During different pictures it is shown that he runs into woods and hides behind trees, all of them trying to catch him, but not one succeeding. He continues to run up hills, over ragged rocks, sometimes falling over, but always picking himself up and continuing. The women also stumble over many large boulders, but they never seem to mind. It shows him running along a pier, and unable to escape, he dives into the sea, all the women following him. There was quite a band of bobbing heads, all trying to get to him, but as he had a start none succeeded. He swims to land and races across open country, all the others following him. He is then seen climbing on the top of railway carriages with the others behind him. At last tired out he reaches home again, to find that his wife, who had run away, had come back again. The others leave very sorrowful at their disappointment.
Comments: Dr Charles William Kimmins, Chief Inspector under the Education Committee of the London County Council (his son Anthony Kimmins became an actor and film director) supplied evidence to the Cinema Commission Inquiry, instituted by the National Council of Public Morals, whose report on children and cinema was published as The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917). He had 6,701 children of different ages from 25 London schools each write an account of ‘the moving picture they liked most of all those they had seen in the cinema’. They had 15 minutes in which to do so, with no preparatory discussion. The 1917 report includes extracts from the children’s accounts, reproduced on this site, but Kimmins included further examples in his 1926 book The Child’s Attitude to Life, from which the above account comes. The unnamed child, aged 10-12, is recalling, in vivid detail, a chase film close in theme to the much-imitated Biograph film Personal (USA 1904), but which would have been a later production.
Source: Tony Harrison, ‘Flicks and This Fleeting Life’, in Edith Hall (ed.), Tony Harrison: The Inky Digit of Defiance – Selected Prose 1966-2016 (London: Faber & Faber, 2017), pp. 430-431, orig. pub. as introduction to Tony Harrison, Collected Film Poetry (London: Faber & Faber, 2007)
Text: A tram ride into town took me to the big cinemas: the Odeon and the Majestic, where the blockbuster Hollywood films were shown. There was also a small cinema, the News Theatre, now the Bondi Beach Bar, next to the city station and the Queen’s Hotel in City Square. It was there, just after the Second World War ended, that I saw the newsreel footage of the Nazi concentration camps. I don’t remember who took me – I think maybe my grandfather, the retired Hunslet signalman who lived with us – but there was something overwhelming in seeing such terrible images on a large screen, much bigger than life-size. I think my reaction was almost on the sale of those early viewers of the Lumière brothers’ film of the train arriving in a station in 1895. It wasn’t that I tried to escape from the heaped corpses moving towards me, but I felt that jumbling cascade of bulldozed, emaciated Belsen bodies were being dumped onto the art deco carpet of the cinema and into my consciousness for ever. It almost blighted my life, it had such a powerful effect on me, and made me draw a line between what I knew in my heart was ‘pretend’, the films that entertained me and made me laugh, and what was news: real dead bodies bulldozed into pits at Bergen-Belsen. I have never forgotten that introduction to the filming of real life, or in this case, real and terrifying death. Nor how jarring the voice-over narrations were! What narrator could find the right tone for such terror? This newsreel changed my attitude to life and film for ever.
Comments: Tony Harrison (1937 – ) is a British poet and playwright, known for his film and television verse collaborations. His childhood was spent in Leeds. Newsreels of the liberation of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945. There was much controversy at the time as to whether children should be prevented from seeing the Belsen newsreels.
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.
Source: Extract from interview with Mrs Winifred Sturgeon, C707/363/1-6, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1
Text: A. And then – a great thing in the church was the conversazione, it was a shilling and the ladies – the ladies all at the tables and there was a great – they – they brought their teapots and things. This was a – the conversazione, it was a great thing, I’d go just once.
Q. Did they have any entertainment at that or did you just go for a cup of tea?
A. Yes – oh – there would be singing and that and speechifying at the conversazione. And the Sunday school then, the party – Sunday school party was a cinematograph – a cinema – a magic lantern. It wasnae – a magic lantern, did you ever see a magic lantern? Aye well, it was a magic lantern. And – they would have a set of slides and then they had some comic slides that we knew, we’d see it there every time that they – would see this – this comic, and it was a card thing and they – they could manipulate it that the – the – a chinaman that was dancing or doing something. And you went – and – your – when you came out you got a parkin and an orange and an apple. That – that was your entertainment. That was the entertainment you got for the Sunday school party.
Q. Was that at Christmas?
A. Round about – round about the Christmastirne. But that was all the entertainment you got.
Comments: Mrs Winifred Sturgeon was born in 1885 in Dumfries, the eldest child of a master slater. She is describing what childhood entertainments there were in the 1890s. She was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).
Source: Rev. H.A. Jump, The Social Influence of the Moving Picture (New York: Playground and Recreation of America, 1911), pp. 3-4. Reprinted from The Playground, June 1911; originally given as a talk to the People’s Institute, Cooper Union, March 12, 1911, New York City
Text: Recently I was conversing with a group of Persians who are employed in my city. Desirous of ascertaining how American life had impressed them, I put this question: “What was the most amazing experience that came to you after your arrival in the United States?” One man answered, “the subway,” another replied, “a black woman,” a third confessed that it was “the moving picture.” And I observed by the nodding of heads among other members of the company that they were saying amen to his verdict. Further inquiries brought out the fact that practically every one of these foreigners had the habit of going to moving picture shows. One man declared, “I like them because they make me forget that I am tired.” Another said, “I like them because I learn so much from them without knowing the English language.” Evidently the motion picture looms large in the experience of the immigrant.
A few weeks ago I visited the public library and had a chat with some three dozen children in the Children’s Room. “How many of you visit the moving picture shows?” I asked, and every hand went up. “What kind of pictures do you like best?” was my second inquiry. “I like the sad pictures,” answered one pale-faced little girl. “I like the kind where they get married,” replied a jolly miss. “I like the pictures of American soldiers marching down the street with the flags going on before,” came from a dark skinned lad. I asked him his name. He answered, “Guiseppi Calderoni.” The librarian of the Children’s Room told of a Hebrew boy who had recently inquired for a story called “The Bride of Lammermoor.” When asked where he had ever heard of that story, he replied, “I saw it in a moving picture show” Before he was through patronizing the library he had read every novel of Sir Walter Scott and much other good fiction besides. Evidently the motion picture occupies a large place in the experience of the school child.
College professors sometimes surprise us by their humanity. One of them told me not long ago that he patronized the moving picture show as often as he could find the time to do so. I expressed surprise, and asked him why he followed up the practice. He answered, “I always find something human in moving pictures; they seem to bring me close to the life of humanity.” Evidently there are educated men who are not above enjoying this marvelous invention.
In short, a new form of entertainment for the people has grown up without our realizing its extent. It appeals to all races, all ages, all stages of culture. In fact, it is one of the most democratic things in modern American life, belonging in a class with the voting booth and the trolley car.
Comments: The Reverend H.A. Jump, of the South Congregational Church, New Britain, Connecticut published the text of a talk he gave in New York City on the new phenomenon of the motion picture show, of which the above are the opening paragraphs. It is a markedly more positive assessment of the effect of motion pictures on audiences, especially the young, than was common from similar social guardians at this time. There had been four film adaptations of Walter Scott’s novel The Bride of Lammermoor, some by way of Donizetti’s opera version, by 1911.