Going to the Pictures

(L-R) Thurston Hall, Edward Arnold and Thomas Mitchell
(L-R) Thurston Hall, Edward Arnold and Thomas Mitchell

Source: Alan Bennett, extract from ‘Going to the Pictures’, Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 466-469 (originally published, in shorter form, as ‘I know what I like, but I’m not sure about art’ in The Independent, 24 May 1995, based on a lecture given at the National Gallery on this date)

Text: Floundering through some unreadable work on art history, I’ve sometimes allowed myself the philistine thought that these intricate expositions, gestures echoing other gestures, one picture calling up another and all underpinned with classical myth … that surely contemporaries could not have had all this at their fingertips or grasp by instinct what we can only attain by painstaking study and explication, and that this is pictures being given what’s been called ‘over meaning’. What made me repent, though, was when I started to think about my childhood and going to a different kind of pictures, the cinema.

When I was a boy we went to the pictures at least twice a week, as most families did then, regardless of the merits of the film. To me Citizen Kane was more boring but otherwise no different from a film by George Formby, say, or Will Hay. And going to the pictures like this, taking what was on offer week in week out was, I can see now, a sort of education, an induction into the subtle and complicated and not always conventional moral scheme that prevailed in the world of cinema then, and which persisted with very little change until the early sixties.

I’ve been trying recently to write about some of the stock characters of films of that period and I’ll talk about two in particular in the hope that I can relate one sort of pictures to the other.

A regular figure in films of that time was a middle-aged businessman, a pillar of the community, genial, avuncular, with bright white hair, and the older ones among you will know immediately the kind of character I mean if I should you this actor. His name is Thurston Hall, and this is another actor, Edward Arnold. Their names are unimportant but they were at that time instantly recognisable. I certainly knew at the age of eight that as soon as this character or this type of character put in an appearance he was up to no good.

The character speaks:

I am not an elaborate villain, nor is my spirit particularly tormented; crime in my case is not a substitute for art. It is just that my silver hair and general benevolence, invariably supplemented by a double-breasted suit, give me the appearance of an honest man. In the movies honest men do not look like honest men and suave is just another way of saying suspect. Bad men wear good suits; honest men wear raincoats, and so untiring are they in the pursuit of evil that they sometimes forget to shave.

The converse of this character, though he is seldom in the same film, would be the man who has been respectable in himself once but who has made one big mistake in his life – a gun-fighter, say, who has killed an innocent man, a doctor who bungled an operation – and who by virtue of his misdemeanour (and the drink he takes to forget it) has put himself outside society.

Thomas Mitchell was such a doctor in John Ford’s Stagecoach, and though such lost souls are more often come across in westerns they turn turn up in the tropics too, their frequent location the back of beyond.

The character speaks:

In westerns I will generally team up with the tough wise-cracking no-nonsense lasy who runs the saloon, who in her turn, inhabits the audience’s presuppositions about her character. They know that a life spent in incessant and lucrative sexual activity has not dulled her moral perceptions one bit. They remember Jesus had a soft spot for such women, and so do they.

I am frequently a doctor, in particular a doctor who at a crucial turn of events has to be sobered up to deliver the heroine’s baby or to save a child dying of diptheria. Rusty though my skills are, I find they have not entirely deserted me and I am assisted in the operation by my friend the proprietress of the saloon. She is tough and unsqueamish and together we pull the patient through, and having performed a deft tracheotomy my success is signalled when I come downstairs and say, ‘She is sleeping now.’

He concludes:

But though I rise to the occasion as and when the plot requires it, there is never any suggestion that I am going to mend my ways in any permanent fashion. Delivering the baby, flying the plane, shooting the villain … none of this heralds a return to respectability, still less sobriety. I go on much as ever down the path to self-destruction. I know I cannot change so I do not try. A scoundrel but never a villain, I know redemption is not for me. It is this that redeems me.

Now though this analysis may seem a bit drawn out, the point I am making is that the twentieth-century audience had only to see one of these characters on the screen to know instinctively what moral luggage they were carrying, the past they had had, the future they could expect. And this was after, if one includes the silent films, not more than thirty years of going to the pictures. In the sixteenth century the audience or congregation would have been going to the pictures for 500 years at least, so how much more instinctive and instantaneous would their responses have been, how readily and unthinkingly they would have been able to decode their pictures – just as, as a not very precocious child of eight, I could decode mine.

And while it’s not yet true that the films of the thirties and forties would need decoding for a child of the present day, nevertheless that time may come; the period of settled morality and accepted beliefs which produced such films is as much over now as is the set of beliefs and assumptions that produced a painting as complicated and difficult, for us at any rate, as Bronzino’s Allegory of Venus and Cupid.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Going to the Pictures’, from which this extract comes. The essay was originally a talk given by Bennett in 1995 while he was a Trustee of the National Gallery in London. His childhood was spent in Leeds.

Links: Copy of Bennett’s original talk ‘I know what I like, but I’m not sure about art’ in The Independent

Seeing Stars

Source: Alan Bennett, extract from ‘Seeing Stars’, London Review of Books, vol. 24 no. 1, 3 January 2002, pp. 12-16, reproduced with slight emendations in Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 160-173

Text: In the 1940s within a mile or so of where we lived in Armley in Leeds there were at least half a dozen cinemas. Nearest was the Picturedrome on Wortley Road but others were just a walk or a tramride away – the Lyric down Tong Road, the Clifton at Bramley, the Palace off Stanningley Road and the Western a bit further on. And without ever being a dedicated filmgoer I could have graded them all from fleapit upwards in their degree of comfort and sophistication just as, a little later, I would be able to grade the neighbourhood churches in terms of high and low, many of the churches and cinemas since sharing a common fate, conversion to carpet warehouses, second-hand furniture marts and, nowadays, health clubs.

Programmes changed twice a week and we generally went on a Monday and a Saturday. Comedies were best, particularly George Formby, but we took what was on offer, never knowing whether a film had any special merit. Some came with more of a reputation than others, Mrs Miniver for instance with Greer Garson, Dangerous Moonlight (with the Warsaw Concerto) and Now, Voyager with the famous cigarettes. But I’m sure I must have seen both Citizen Kane and Casablanca on their first time round with no notion that these were films of a different order from the usual twice-weekly fare. It was only towards the end of the war that more of a fuss started to be made over forthcoming films, so that I remember reading in Picture Post (and probably at the barber’s) about The Way to the Stars with the young Jean Simmons, and the making of Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale, and the first Royal Command Performance, another Powell film, A Matter of Life and Death.

Suburban cinemas were often pretty comfortless places. While the entrance could be quite imposing, with the box-office generally at the top of a flight of white marble steps, presumably to accommodate the rake, the auditorium itself was often not much more than a hangar, the aisle carpeted but the seats on lino or even bare concrete. Wartime meant there was no ice-cream but en route to the cinema we would call at a sweet shop and get what Dad called ‘some spice’, provided, of course, we had the points, sweet rationing the most irksome of wartime restrictions and still in force as late as 1952, when I went into the Army.

As a family we always went to the first house, which ended around 8.10, with the second-house queue waiting as we came out, scanning our faces for a clue to the experience we had just had, much as, I imagine, soldiers did when queuing outside a brothel. The second-house crowd seemed to me more loose-living than we were, raffish even. It certainly included more courting couples and folks who liked a drink (and who might even have had one already), none of whom minded rolling home at the to us unheard-of hour of half-past ten.

The waiting (and the Second World War involved a good deal of waiting in every department) was generally done up the side of the cinema in a grim open-sided arcade that today would be drenched in urine but wasn’t then. If the cinema was full and the performance continuous the commissionaire would come down the queue shouting: ‘Two at 1/9;’ ‘A single at 2/3.’ Or (very seldom): ‘Seats in all parts.’

We always called it ‘the pictures’, seldom ‘the cinema’ and never ‘the movies’. To this day I don’t find it easy to say ‘movies’, ‘going to the pictures’ still the phrase that comes to me most naturally, though nowadays I’m not sure that ‘the pictures’, like ‘the wireless’, aren’t among the self-consciously adopted emblems of fogeydom, the verbal equivalent of those smart Covent Garden establishments that do a line in old luggage. But calling the pictures ‘the movies’ went with calling cigarettes ‘fags’, beer ‘booze’ or girls ‘birds’. It signalled a relaxed, unbuttoned approach to things, life led with more of a dash than I was ever going to manage.

Picture-going was generally a family affair, but when we were still quite young, at eight or nine, say, we were allowed to go to U films by ourselves and (with a bit of nagging) to A films too. Since the A signified that a child could only see the film when accompanied by an adult this meant hanging about outside the cinema accosting congenial-looking cinema-goers, preferably women, with ‘Can you take us in, please?’ Warning us often, every time we left the house it almost seemed, against ‘stopping with strange men’, my mother never liked my brother and me to go to the pictures on our own, but only once did I come to any harm and then not really.

In 1944 we had moved, disastrously as it turned out, from Leeds to Guildford, where we stayed for a year, so at that time I would be ten, and had persuaded my mother one afternoon to let me go see Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk, which I’d seen in Armley but was now showing at the Palace in Onslow Street (closed in 1956 to become a bingo hall and currently a nightclub called The Drink). I hung about for a bit until a genial middle-aged man in glasses came along with one boy in tow already. This seemed to indicate respectability and I was about to ask him if he would take me in when he got in first, even taking my hand before shepherding us both past the box-office; he may even have paid.

The film had already started, Errol Flynn flirting with Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth while the usherette showed us down the aisle and before we had even sat down the man was pinching me and remarking on my nice chubby legs. This seemed fairly boring to me as, so far as I was concerned, they were just legs, but I put up with it for the sake of Errol Flynn, who soon after we sat down was away on the Spanish Main. However, the clutching and the pinching was getting more urgent until, innocent though I was, it dawned on me that this must be what Mam’s mysterious warnings had been about.

The sight of Errol Flynn now chained to an oar in the Spanish galleys seemed to bring these claspings to a new pitch of urgency and I decided, as they moved higher up my legs, that I ought to make a break for it. So I got up and, foolishly, headed not up the aisle to the foyer but down the aisle to the Gents where, not surprisingly, my admirer followed. Once there, I didn’t hide in a cubicle but just stood waiting, not knowing what to do.

I see myself standing in that cinema lavatory and hearing the bang of the swing-door as this kindly, bespectacled man, now suddenly sinister, comes through the door in pursuit. The entrance to the Gents was also the back door to the Exit and my admirer stood there for a second, obviously wondering if I had fled the cinema altogether. There was a moment, which in a film would hardly seem credible, when he stood with his back to me trying to decide if I’d gone. Had he turned and looked down the steps to the lavatory he would have seen me. But he didn’t turn, and obviously deciding it would be prudent to leave, he pushed the bar and went out through the exit door.

I wish I could record that I went back and watched the finish of the film but I just hung about for a few minutes until the coast was clear, then (though nothing had happened to me) ran home in mild distress. I told my mother, who became satisfyingly hysterical, but Dad, a shy and fastidious man who I knew regarded me as a liar and a show-off, was just made angry, refusing even to believe anything had happened and, if it had, ‘It was all nowt.’ Certainly I hadn’t been damaged, and if damage was done at all it was only in Dad’s refusal to acknowledge the situation. As it was, the only lasting effect of the incident was to put paid to any further lone visits to the cinema and to teach me to keep quiet. One’s legs often got felt up as a child. Dad’s old headmaster, Mr Alexander, used to give us lessons in algebra and he was a great stroker and clutcher, though only of the legs and not the parts appertaining. Vicars did it too, without seeming to want to take it further. It was something I came to expect, and just another of the ways in which grown-ups were boring.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Seeing Stars’, on his memories of cinemagoing, from which this extract comes. The films mentioned are Mrs Miniver (USA 1942), Dangerous Moonlight (UK 1941), Now Voyager (USA 1942), Citizen Kane (USA 1941), Casablanca (USA 1942), The Way to the Stars (UK 1945), A Canterbury Tale (UK 1944), A Matter of Life and Death (UK 1946) and The Sea Hawk (USA 1940).

Links: Full article at London Review of Books

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 112-113

Text: AGE: 21 SEX: M
OCCUPATION: CLERK
NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: BACON CURER

I shall always remember my first important visit to the cinema. The Local Gaumont was being opened by the Mayor and many other important townsfolk yet out of that impressive ceremony way back at the beginning of the thirties, the only part that stands out vividly to me today was the film. It was a musical starring Jack Buchanan and entitled Goodnight Vienna.

Why this particular incident should have aroused my first profound interest in the cinema remains a mystery, yet I am convinced that before that date, the thought of ‘Going to the flicks’ never meant much to me.

I was of course quite young at the time about 10 years of age. For some years, I simply doted on musicals and the thought of seeing another Astaire-Rogers extravaganza provided plenty of excitement for little me. I found myself wanting to tapdance, although I was careful not to disclose any of these ambitions to my parents. Sometimes I wonder whether ‘careful’ was the word. The back-yard shows my pals and I used to put on were always received with wild enthusiasm. I might add that as the price for admission consisted of 3 ‘conkers’ or (when such things were out of season) perhaps a pen-nibs, audiences did jolly well under the circumstances.

My enthusiasm for musicals continued for quite a while until I reached the age when more serious aspects of films began to make themselves felt. It all started with my seeing Bette Davies in Dark Victory. Never shall I forget her terrific performance in this film. It stands out as one of the most enthralling episodes in my movie experience. That really started the ball rolling and from that day to this I have been an ardent dramatic fan. In fact, I am hoping to study drama upon my demobilisation. I love great acting, for the emotional benefit I myself get out of it is greatly satisfying. That is why I am such an admirer of Bette Davis, Ingrid Bergman and Paul Muni.

As for films influencing my daily life, until I discovered that drama was my ideal, I must admit that my life was not unduly affected. I enjoyed helping to stage our so-called concerts with my neighbours and that was all. Today however, it is a different story. I discover that if I should miss a dramatic film that I had been bent on seeing, nothing would stop me until I cought [sic] up with it at last.

Films have made me want to visit the U.S.A. in rather an unusual way. By reading rather a lot of authentic literature on that country I have realised now hopelessly incompetent a large precentage [sic] of films have been in portraying life in the U.S.A. I have come to believe in the books I have read and the fact that they do not tie up with what I have seen on the screen, has made me even more eager to go there and see for myself. I am referring to modern life in the States of course.

Since my joining the Forces in 1942 , 1 have also become interested in the technical side of films not with the interest of a technician but artistically. I can now appreciate photography and lighting and I realise that the cinema is most definitely an art. That is why I uphold Orson Well’s [sic] work and get annoyed when such masterpieces as Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons get snuffed at by the general public.

To-day I am an ardent film fan making sure I read all the reviews of the films as they reach the West End. I even keep a record of the date of arrival of each film and any other particulars that I think arc worth recording.

Yes, indeed my life is well wrapped in the cinema and I sincerely hope it won’t be long before I can have a go at entering the industry myself. I shall always be grateful to Miss Davis for revealing an ambition that had previously slept within me.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘Films and the Pattern of Life’. Contributors were asked to trace the history of their interest in films, the influence films had on them (including if they were ever frightened by films), what they imitated from films, if films made them more receptive to love-making, if films made them want to travel or to be dissatisfied with their way of life or neighbourhood, and if films gave them vocational ambitions. It is interesting to see in the book the number of respondents who praise Citizen Kane (USA 1941) and The Magnificent Ambersons (USA 1942), films which were supposed to have been rejected by most audiences. The other films mentioned are Goodnight Vienna (UK 1932) and Dark Victory (USA 1939).

Seeing Stars

Source: Alan Bennett, extract from Alan Bennett, extract from ‘Seeing Stars’, London Review of Books, vol. 24 no. 1, 3 January 2002, pp. 12-16, reproduced in Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 170-171

Text: I had no notion as a child that going to the pictures was a kind of education, or that I was absorbing a twice-weekly lesson in morality. The first film I remember being thought of as ‘improving’ was Henry V, which, during our brief sojourn at Guildford, was playing permanently at Studio I at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. I saw it, though, with my primary school at the local Odeon in Guildford, and that it was meant to be educational did not stop it being, for me, magical, particularly the transformation from the confines and painted scenery to the realities of the siege and battlefield in France. The reverse process had the same effect so that the final cut back to the Globe and the actors lining up for their call still gives me a thrill.

Seeing films one also saw – always saw – the newsreels, though only one remains in my memory. It would have been some time in 1945 and it was at the Playhouse, a cinema down Guildford High Street. Before the newsreel began there was an announcement that scenes in it were unsuitable for children and that they should be taken out. None were; having already waited long enough in the queue nobody was prepared to give up their hard-won seat. It was, of course, the discovery of Belsen with the living corpses, the mass graves and the line-up of sullen guards. There were cries of horror in the cinema, though my recollection is that Mam and Dad were much more upset than my brother and me. Still, Belsen was not a name one ever forgot and became a place of horror long before Auschwitz.

The moral instruction to be had at the cinema was seldom as shocking as this: just a slow absorption of assumptions not so much about life as about lives, all of them far removed from one’s own. There were cowboys’ lives, for instance, where the dilemmas could be quite complex and moralities might compete: small-town morality v. the morality of the gunfighter with the latter more perilous and demanding of heroism, High Noon perhaps its ultimate representation. There was the lesson of standing up to the bully, a tale told in lots of guises: in westerns, obviously, but also in historical films – Fire Over England, A Tale of Two Cities and The Young Mr Pitt all told the same story of gallant little England squaring up to the might of France or Spain, for which, of course, read Germany.

Then there were the unofficial heroes: dedicated doctors, single-minded schoolteachers, or saints convinced of their vision (I am thinking particularly of The Song of Bernadette, a film that had me utterly terrified). Always in such films it was the official wisdom v. the lone voice and one knew five minutes into the film what the hero or heroine (star anyway) was going to be up against. I suppose one of the reasons Casablanca and Citizen Kane stand out above the rest is that their morality was less straightforward. William Empson, I think, never wrote about film but there are many the plot of which this describes:

The web of European civilization seems to have been strung between the ideas of Christianity and those of a half-secret rival, centring perhaps (if you made it a system) round honour: one that stresses pride rather than humility, self-realisation rather than self-denial, caste rather than either the communion of saints or the individual soul.

It was a dilemma I was familiar with because it was always cropping up at the Picturedrome.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Seeing Stars’, on his memories of cinemagoing, from which this selection comes. The films mentioned are Henry V (UK 1944), High Noon (USA 1952), Fire over England (UK 1937), A Tale of Two Cities (UK 1958 or USA 1935 – there was no film of Dickens’ novel made during the Second World War), The Young Mr Pitt (UK 1942), The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943), Casablanca (USA 1942) and Citizen Kane (USA 1941). Newsreels of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945.

Links: Full article at London Review of Books

British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 68-72

Text: AGE: 19 SEX: F. OCCUPATION: CLERK NATIONALITY: BRITISH FATHER: ELECTRICAL ENGINEER MOTHER: HOUSEWIFE

Since I am only nineteen this film autobiography is necessarily limited. However, I have been a constant film-goer as long as I can remember, commencing at a very early age when I was taken by my parents once or twice every week. From the age of about seven to thirteen the cinema was a passion with me – I could not go too frequently to satisfy me and when thwarted in my desire I created scenes as some children do over toys, sweets etcetera. I realize now that the films were to me an escape from a dull, uneventful, very ordinary childhood. They represented excitement, adventure, romance and new ideas which I had never met before.

One of my earliest recollections is hearing my mother saying that she would have to cease taking me to the cinema if I continued to have violent dreams about them. Concerning the dreams I remember nothing, but I know that I resolved then never again to mention my reactions to a film, or opinion of one, otherwise I should be forbidden to go to what was rapidly becoming to me a veritable fairy-land. This resolve, by the way, undoubtedly made me secretive and I rarely told my parents what I thought about anything.

But the films were merely an escape. In those days, the idea never occurred to me that the places and the men and women characterised in films had any connection to reality. The life which the film heroes and heroines lived, in no matter what type of film I saw, ‘high society* or ‘slum’, was too utterly alien from the world in which I lived.

From the age of seven to fourteen I do not think that I had any preference as to which type of film I most desired to see. Any film was acceptable. Although I think that I was most impressed by any film, be it a lavish Hollywood musical of an historical impossibility, which contained beautiful extravagant costumes, rich in colour and spectacle. But I was never seized by a desire to possess such lovely clothes, nor did I sigh with envy at the synthetic beauty of ‘stars’, or their magnificent houses and trains of servants, – simply, I think, because I did not connect these things with reality. The cinema was merely a form of fairy tales and as such I do not think that it did me any harm.

In my opinion it is only when children try to apply movie-life to actual life that juvenile delinquency results, otherwise if it is impressed upon them that it is merely an imaginary world at which they are gazing they will only be the happier for a few hours entertainment. But, naturally, I realize that this applies only to a child of limited intelligence and imagination as I was at the time. I accepted my parents’ explanation that ‘it was all made up’ whereas a more sensitive and imaginative child would not have done so. But such a child should not be allowed to go to the cinema at an early age.

After I had reached the age of fourteen however, I began to accept the cinema merely as a method of entertainment. I attached no importance to it, I merely went if I was in the right mood and if I thought there was a good film showing. I no longer went to satisfy a passion for escape, other interests filled my time more satisfactorily. My school-life broadened my horizon literature and the theatre brought more content than the bizarre, unreal cinema could ever do.

My tastes in films had definitely crystallised. I still like historical films but now for their history, not their costumes, although my interest in history had often made me wonder why film-makers must always introduce inaccuracies nearly in every case, unnecessarily. Why make Queen Elizabeth a sloppy, emotional woman when the quality for which she was noted was that her supreme love was England and she was a Queen more than a woman. But in Elizabeth and Essex she was pictured as deeply in love with Essex the one love of her life – and finally she made the supreme sacrifice for England with great emotion – nonsense! Elizabeth loved only herself, she may have liked lovers to satisfy her vanity but she would have sacrificed everything she loved without a second’s thought for the throne and power.

This love of inaccuracy in historical films is the more puzzling as the truth would invariably make better films. In the Prime Minister if Hollywood simply must ignore all the political side of Disraeli’s life except the sensational moments of victory and defeat, and concentrate on his romantic life, why misrepresent it? The beauty of the fact that Disraeli could say that Mary Anne was the perfect wife lay not in the fact that she was a frivolous, flirtatious, romantic young girl but that she was almost fifty and twelve years older than he was.

Catherine the Great, however, was the supreme example of twaddle. Anyone who knew but the bare facts of Catherine’s life and her marriage with Peter must either have blushed or giggled hysterically at such a ridiculous film.

In my judgement of films too, I deplore the fact that ninety-nine per cent of every film issued can be typed. Thus it became my ambition to pick out the other one per cent of films to see – the film that did not fall into a definite category. I was tired of typed movies – Westerns; snobbishness in high society; the depths of degradation; country life – local boy makes good; detective story – police baffled – dapper amateur triumphant; love story – impossible situations – misunderstandings which two minutes sensible conversation could have cleared up – naturally with a happy ending; and so on, many other so familiar types.

By now of course I had linked up films with reality, and I despised the futile attempts to portray life, so showily, gaudily, and synthetically. But in the last few wartime years I have encountered with delight good British films, with solid British humour, no gags or cracks as the Americans put it, but definite British wit. Their portrayal of village life, where everyone knows his neighbour’s affairs as well as his own, are truly delightful and they get the right
atmosphere. British films about Britain are now, in my opinion, the best films to see.

In my search for an original film I eventually found Citizen Kane. I was intensely interested. It was the first time I had seen a film which did not tell the audience what to think but made them think for themselves. One of the many reasons why I think the theatre is superior to the cinema is that one can use one’s brains occasionally at the theatre but never at the cinema. The uniqueness of Citizen Kane delighted me. Except for clumsy surprise endings which annoy one because they are obviously there for no other reason but to surprise the audience, one can really always foretell the ending of the film and indeed the whole story from its type. But in Citizen Kane the whole story was original, it was not a type, it possessed atmosphere, a good plot, (which is often considered unimportant by film-makers), unusual photography and excellent acting by unknowns and not stars who depend on a good pair of legs to see them through every film.

I am painfully aware that my opinion in this matter is not shared by many. Citizen Kane was not a popular box-office success, audiences prefer not to think, they like types.

I was not influenced by the films at an early age because I felt they had no bearing on this life and later when I saw that they were supposed to represent sections of people’s lives their failure produced only an amused contempt. I was never frightened by the conventional thrillers, grotesque make-up or the villain about to kill the hero because I knew that there would be a happy ending – films were not related to life and crime did not pay. One film however which I saw when I was about eight did have a frightening effect upon me because it presented a new idea to me – mental torture. I now cannot remember the title or what it was about clearly. I think that Sara Haden and Basil Rathbone were in it and that the latter had forced himself into this lady’s house and was trying to drive her insane in order to procure her money. The acting was very good and I was haunted for weeks and still now, I retain the impression of fear at seeing this lady becoming more frightened and convinced that she was insane. The film was not Gaslight or Thornton Square versions which, considering they had the same theme I thought amateurish in comparison. I vividly remember Sara Haden’s large expressive eyes dilated with fear as Basil Rathbone bent over her with a jewelled cigarette-case in his hand. I do not remember anything else about it – I suppose it ended according to type.

With true femininity I enjoy a good love-story and if it is the sorrowful type which ostentatiously does not end happily ever after, such as Now Voyager, I can give myself up entirely to the luxury of the moment and indulge my emotions, weeping at the touching scene before me. It never lasts however and immediately the film ends, sometimes before, I can analyse the ridiculous and unlikely situations quite coldly as if I had not been moved at all.

I have never imitated films in anything. I go to the cinema for entertainment – not example. At about fifteen I fell in love with Conrad Veidt. At the time he representated [sic] my idea of a perfect man handsome, distinguished, cultured, intelligent, an attractive foreign accent, a perfect lover – all the most desirable qualities. Moreover he was nearly always the villain who I think is usually much more attractive than the insipid hero. This infatuation died with him, although I still like to see re-issues of his films – that is when I can persuade myself to forget that the type he represented the rather dated, courtly perfect lover is exaggerated and rather trying.

The question ‘Have films made you more receptive to love-making’ I cannot answer since I like the intellectual company of men only, much prefer women friends and contrary to many girls of my own age I cling to the old-fashioned belief that nineteen is too young for boy-friends and love-making in which, anyway, I have no interest.

How can I answer the questions concerning temptations, ambitions, dissatisfactions arising from films since I have never let any film influence my life. The films I have seen are always too much interested in the hero’s and heroine’s private affairs to make me interested in the vocation in which they are engaged – but only, it seems to me, as a background, a nurse, an actress, member of the services or other professions.

Books and the theatre have influenced me but not films and I think this is because it is largely a question of one’s own will how one is influenced and I never believed that the films were a good influence. Undoubtedly they make some children dissatisfied with their life, they drive some to crime in imitations of ‘gangsters’, they cause unhappy marriages because boys and girls especially the latter, conceive a too romantic idea of love and marriage from the screen. I think a Children’s Cinema is most desirable; specially made films could influence children in the right direction.

As to adults of the present generation most of them go to the cinema from habit and lack of any other occupation, and they delight in nudging their neighbour and pointing to a Hollywood lovely and saying ‘She’s just been divorced for the fourth time’, and people will doubtless go on seeing films for precisely the same reasons.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘Films and the Pattern of Life’. Contributors were asked to trace the history of their interest in films, the influence films had on them (including if they were ever frightened by films), what they imitated from films, if films made them more receptive to love-making, if films made them want to travel or to be dissatisfied with their way of life or neighbourhood, and if films gave them vocational ambitions. The films mentioned are The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (USA 1939), The Prime Minister (UK 1941 – a British, not a Hollywood film), Catherine the Great (UK 1934 – or possibly The Scarlet Empress, USA 1934), Citizen Kane (USA 1941), Gaslight (UK 1940), The Murder in Thornton Square (UK release title for Gaslight, USA 1944) and Now Voyager (USA 1942). The only film in which Basil Rathbone and Sarah Haden both appeared, Above Suspicion (1943) does not match the description above.

Sociology of Film

Source: J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 205-208

Text: 22. Mr. …

An ardent filmgoer since the early days of Cinema I can recall no instance of a film encouraging me to make any important personal decision. I was, however, inspired during adolescence by the antics of the late Douglas Fairbanks, snr. I tried to imitate his personal mannerisms and emulate his athletic prowess in the mistaken belief that I could, so achieve an extra strength and self reliance — (at the time I suffered from exaggerated feelings of inferiority).

Since those days, I have never consciously desired to imitate anything admired in others, on the screen.

Whereas my early cinegoing was largely a matter of ‘escapism’, to-day choice has supplanted habit. What concerns me now is enjoyment through interest, not escape through fantasy. I now seek interest through appraisement and analysis. The appreciation of good acting, imaginative lighting, interestingly authentic decor and wardrobe, evocative ‘cutting’, the expressive use of sound and dialogue — in short, seeing films ‘whole’ motivates my present day picturegoing. It is the content and manipulation of a film that now interests me and not merely that a film can provide a temporary escape from a reality which is, in nine cases out of ten, largely self-created.

Having grown up with the Cinema my understanding and appreciation of it has matured just as the Cinema has, in many ways, itself matured. It was during the pre-talkie period of the so-called ‘Golden Era’ of German and Swedish production, that I first became aware of the real possibilities inherent in the film as an art, and a mental and cultural stimulus. The notorious Cabinet of Doctor Caligari, for instance, excited my imagination because, for me it opened up new vistas of a fascinating and undreamed of significance.

‘Caligari’ is said to have changed the whole outlook of cinema, and I believe that it did.

I will admit that my first impressions here were largely bound up with childhood wonder and excitation experienced through Grimm’s fairy tales. I think ‘Caligari’ re-created for me those perhaps rather unhealthy delights, connected somehow with fear, i.e. the fascination of weirdness, dark forests, witches, hobgoblins, magic, sinister castles, and, in fact, the frighteningly suggestive in general.

And yet it was through such films as Caligari, Waxworks, The Student of Prague, The Golem, Nosferatu (Dracula), etc., etc. that I was subsequently to acquire a more objective understanding of what artistic and constructive film entertainment could mean. They gave me my first insight into the true potentialities of Cinema.

To-day, I visit films less often, and when rare and culturally valuable ones such as Citizen Kane, Earth, The Grapes of Wrath, etc. do become available I try to see them as often as possible before they disappear — possibly for ever.

In answer to your question regarding fashions and manners, it is obvious, and especially with regard to women, how greatly the screen has influenced and encouraged consciousness of and interest in personal appearance and behaviour. Women have learned the value of attractive clothing and make-up in the development of poise and self confidence, or at least a sense of it, for I notice that people influenced by such things frequently fail to adopt them with any real degree of success.

Misapplication, resulting in artificiality rather than attractiveness seems all too often the inevitable result. Finger nails and hair ‘do’s’ are not necessarily indicative of character or self reliance, or even of good taste.

Personally, I cannot say that I have been influenced in any way here. I believe that real poise and self confidence result from an objective rather than a subjective attitude to life. I would far rather be my natural self (at least as far as I am capable of being), than a second rate edition of some movie idol I admired, or might happen, faintly to resemble.

Love and divorce do not apply to me. For one thing I have never really been in love, and for another I do not believe that the screen exercises so much influence with morals as seems generally to be supposed.

So now to dreams. I believe that few people dream about the films they see, but I can recall (though of necessity, only partially) dream experiences the content of which included the Cinema in one form or another, although I have never dreamed of any particular film. When I have dreamed about Cinema, the building itself seems always to have been included. Sometimes it has been curved in shape, (which is when I have been inside), and sometimes square, and rather aggressively strong looking, (and then I have been outside). Recognising, in my limited understanding of Freudian psychology, that ‘shape’ has significance in dreams, I draw, or imagine I draw, the obvious conclusion here. I have also dreamt of meeting ‘stars’ personally, and having them regard my criticisms of their work and of Cinema in general as something to marvel at.

I certainly do feel that the Cinema can and does exercise considerable, and probably far reaching influence on individual psychology, and mainly in the sense that many filmgoers tend unconsciously to identify themselves with pictured characters and emotional situations. More briefly, many of us see ourselves in the movies we like.

I think, for example that it is possible to read into films the things we would really like to do and be. But are the things we enjoy really projections of the hidden truths about us? I cannot arrive at a decision about this.

I do think about it, but I really do not know. I would very much like to determine just why I believe my initial reactions to say Caligari, or Warning Shadows, or perhaps The Street or The Last Laugh, would not be repeated were I able to see them again to-day.

I might still enjoy them as museum pieces, and in a nostalgic sort of way, but would, somehow be unable to ‘recapture the first fine careless rapture’. This overlong letter must now end.

I hope you will gather at least something from it that is worthwhile to you. I expect there are many things I have failed to remember, and probably from your own point of view the most important ones of all, but, on the spur of the moment, it is the best I can do in the time at my disposal. I have tried to be truthful about it, but how often can one be satisfied that one has succeeded in being really truthful? As a psychologist, you will probably arrive at a much truer solution to this problem than I myself am at all capable of achieving.

Age — 44. Sex — Male. Nationality — British. Profession — Shopkeeper — (now in costing office of war factory).
Profession of Father — Builder. Mother — originally a court dressmaker.

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 response comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’. People were asked to answer two questions: Have films ever influenced you with regard to personal decisions or behaviour? and Have films ever appeared in your dreams? The films referred to here are Das Cabinet des Dr. Caligari (Germany 1920), Das Wachsfigurenkabinett (Waxworks) (Germany 1924), Der Student von Prag (Germany 1926), Der Golem, wie er in die Welt kam (Germany 1920), Nosferatu, eine Symphonie des Grauens (Germany 1922), Citizen Kane (USA 1941), Zemlya (Earth) (USSR 1930), The Grapes of Wrath (USA 1940), Schatten (Warning Shadows) (Germany 1923), Die Straße (Germany 1923) and Der letzte Mann (The Last Laugh) (Germany 1924).

A Better Class of Person

Source: John Osborne, A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography, 1929-1956 (London: Faber & Faber, 1981), pp. 86-88

Text: The cinema was my church and academy. From about the age of four I went at least twice a week. In those days of double features I must have seen over two hundred films a year. It was the kind of thriftlessness that made Grandma Osborne and her tribe swear as indignantly as she did about the Welsh miners at home throwing legs of mutton to their whippets. When the insurance man, the clothing-club man or the milkman called and my mother was hiding in the bedroom, I would often as not be sent to the front door to mumble, ‘Mum’s out’; but she could always lay hands on Money for the Pictures – the mainstay cultural benefit of a generation of children from similar backgrounds to my own. Pictures Places, and Grandma Grove still called them, were aptly named. The warm luxury of Eastern or Egyptian Art Deco, the ascension of the cinema’s organist like a matey angel, were preferable to a cold room with a mantelshelf lined with unpaid bills from doctors, coalmen and the Gas Light and Coke Company. To the profligate poor or near-poor, the priority of the Picture Palace was an unanswerable case.

Hollywood bit-players, now known by name only to cineastes, the elevator boys, gangsters, cab-drivers, bar-tenders, cops, butlers, Italian chefs and foreign counts were, I suppose, as real to us then as the characters of Coronation Street today. The difference lay in the kind of familiarity. For one thing, it was unmistakably foreign and beyond our reach. We had to learn to translate intuitively what Confederate money was, a sawbuck or even a hundred bucks, converts a dime or a nickel into something comparable, or the meaning of being behind the eight-ball, taking a rain-check or over and easy. These were elementary steps but they had to be mastered at an age when the grasp on your own language and birthplace was meagre enough.

But foreign, and specifically American, their very strangeness made the dreams of Hollywood accessible and open to identification and fantasy in a way that home-grown films were not. Surely few Coronation Street diehards could want to live there. The luxury and privilege of, say, living in Manhattan held more promise of imaginative fulfilment than the more familiar but remote English equivalents. The American model was unreal but attainable. A world of large gardens, tennis parties, housemaids, college scouts and Inns of Court might seem pleasant and comfortable enough but there was little impulse or point of dreaming yourself into it. You would watch it from without but never enter it even if you were inclined. What was not unimaginable or close to you was Eric Blore opening the door, having William Powell recover your wife’s jewellery for you, being made vice-president of a corporation by your father-in-law, Edward Arnold or Eugene Palette, handing your topper to the hat-check girl at the Stork Club as you escorted Carole Lombard or even, at a pinch, Gail Patrick into dinner, wearing a black shirt and white tie and black pin-stripe with a white carnation like Dan Duryea, or maybe taking a cab driven by Frank Jenkins to Penn Station. There was no need to have passed your Common Entrance, let alone have been to Eton or Oxford. It was available, to be admired, envied and even coveted, and most of all to those of us in the front seats who had sneaked in through a carelessly unbarred exit door.

Madeleine Carroll was my earliest favourite star, but then there were scores, year after year, only enriching each other. Robert Donat reminded me of my father, although they were unalike. I saw Thirty-Nine Steps whenever I could and there was a time when I knew the dialogue of The Four Feathers and The Prisoner of Zenda by heart. The Rembrandt Cinema in Ewell was almost always full every evening during the war. On Fridays and Saturdays there was certain to be a queue. A Bette Davis film was almost impossible to get into all the week. even Grandma Osborne was known to leave the Warwick Deeping for the afternoon and walk a hundred unaided yards to the Rembrandt to see Now Voyager or Mr Skeffington.

I can only remember one occasion when the Rembrandt was almost empty the whole week – apart from Mondays, which were unpopular. The word of mouth about the film showing around Ewell and Stoneleigh was resentful and indignant. In the Parades and saloon bars, there was talk of Speaking to the Manager, even of Writing to the Film People themselves. Later in the week, undeterred by those who said we were wasting our pocket money, Mickey and I went to see Citizen Kane. We came out afterwards from looming Gothic darkness into the bright Kingston Road, silent, uncomprehending and deeply depressed. At tea the Walls asked if we had tummy ache. It had been nothing, even for two such eleven-year-olds as we were, to giggle about.

Comments: John Osborne (1929-1994) was a British playwright and screenwriter. His childhood was spent at Stoneleigh in the borough of Epsom and Ewell in Surrey. The films he mentions are The 39 Steps (UK 1935), The Four Feathers (UK 1939), The Prisoner of Zenda (SA 1937), Now Voyager (USA 1942), Mr Skeffington (USA 1944) and Citizen Kane (USA 1941). Coronation Street is a British television soap opera set in working class Salford. The Rembrandt Cinema in Ewell opened in 1938 and closed in 1998.