Silent Magic

Source: Ivan Butler, Silent Magic: Rediscovering the Silent Film Era (London: Columbus Books, 1987), pp. 27-31

Text: During the early part of the 1920s my own cinema-going was restricted by the confinements of boarding-school during term time, and in the holidays (to a lesser extent) by the fact that at least in our neighbourhood ‘the pictures’, though tolerated and even enjoyed, were still regarded as a poor and slightly dubious relative of the live theatre, the picture gallery and the concert hall. Their passage towards respectability was not helped by scandals in Hollywood such as the ‘Fatty Arbuckle Affair’. I can still recollect the atmosphere of something sinister and shuddersome that surrounded the very word ‘Arbuckle’ long after the trials (and complete acquittal) of the unfortunate comedian, even though my innocent ideas of what actually took place in that San Francisco apartment during the lively party on 5 September 1921 were wholly vague and inaccurate – if tantalizing. In his massive history of American cinema, The Movies, Richard Griffith writes, “During the course of the First World War the middle class, by imperceptible degrees, became a part of the movie audience.’ ‘lmperceptible’ might be regarded as the operative word. However, when it comes to paying surreptitious visits a great many obstacles can be overcome by a little guile and ingenuity, and I don’t remember feeling particularly deprived in that respect. I managed to see most of what I wanted to see.

Our ‘local’ was the cosy little Royal in Kensington High Street, London – a bus journey away. The Royal has been gone for half a century, its demise hastened by the erection of a super-cinema at the corner of Earl’s Court Road. To the faithful it was known not as the Royal but as the Little Cinema Under the Big Clock in the High Street. The clock itself is gone now, but on a recent visit I though I could spot its former position by brackets that remain fixed high in the brick wall. The entrance to the cinema was through a passageway between two small shops, discreetly hidden except for two frames of stills and a small poster. A pause at the tiny box-office, a turn to the left, a step through a swing door and a red baize curtain, and one was in the enchanted land – not, however, in sight of the screen, because that was flush with the entrance, so you saw a grossly twisted pulsating picture which gradually formed itself into shape as, glancing backwards so as not to miss anything, you groped your way up to your seat. To the right of the screen was the clock in a dim red glow, an indispensable and friendly feature of nearly all cinemas in those days, and a warning – as one was perhaps watching the continuous programme through for the second run, that time was getting on. Prices were modest: from 8d (3p), to 3s (15p). This was fairly general in the smaller halls; cheaper seats were available in some, particularly in the provinces, others – slightly more imposing demanded slightly more for the back rows, possibly with roomier seats and softer upholstery, but such elitism was not, to my memory, practised at the Royal.

Projection was to our unsophisticated eyes generally good, preserving the often marvellously crisp and well graded black-and-white photography. Programmes were changed twice weekly (but the cinemas were closed on Sundays, at any rate during the early years) and continuous from about 2 o’clock. They consisted as a rule of a newsreel such as the Pathé Gazette with its proudly crowing cockerel (silent, of course), a two-reel comedy (sometimes the best part of the entertainment), Eve’s Film Review, a feminine-angled magazine the high spot of which was the appearance of Felix the Cat walking, and, finally, the feature film. This was before the days when the double-feature programme became general. Somewhere between the items there would be a series of slide advertisements – forerunner of Messrs Pearl and Dean – which always seemed to include a glowing picture of Wincarnis among its local and ‘forthcoming’ attractions. The average moviegoer of those days (much as today, though perhaps to a greater extent) went to see the star of a film rather than the work of its director; Gish rather than Griffith, Bronson more than Brenon, Bow more than Badger, Swanson more than DeMille though as the years went by the names of the directors became more familiar and their importance more fully recognized. Criticism was often surprisingly informed and uncompromising.

Musical accompaniment at the Royal was provided by a piano during the less frequented hours, supplanted by a trio who arrived at a fixed time regardless of what was happening on the screen. I remember well the curious uplift we felt as the three musicians arrived, switched on their desk lights, tuned up and burst into sound, perhaps at a suitable moment in the story, perhaps not. Meanwhile the pianist (always, I recollect, a lady) packed up and left for a well deserved rest and cup of tea. The skill of many of these small cinema groups, even in the most modest conditions, was remarkable; their ability to adapt, week after week, often with two programmes a week and with little or no rehearsal, to events distortedly depicted a few feet before them, was beyond praise. The old joke about William Tell for action, ‘Hearts and Flowers’ for sentiment, the Coriolan overture for suspense and that’s the lot, was an unfair and unfunny gibe.

I have described the old Kensington Royal in some detail as it was fairly typical of modest cinemas everywhere in Britain at that time. Most were at least reasonably comfortable and gave good value for little money, maintaining decent standards of presentation. Very few deserved the derogatory term ‘flea-pit’, though ‘mouse parlour’ might sometimes have been an accurate description. On one occasion the scuttering of mice across the bare boards between the rows of seats rather disturbed my viewing of a W.C. Fields film (Running Wild, I think it was), though the print was so villainously cut and chopped about that the story was difficult to follow in any case. But such cases were infrequent. I have forgotten the name of the cinema, and the town shall remain anonymous.

Sometimes, in early days, films would be shown in old disused churches, and it is supposedly through this that the employment of an organ for accompaniment in larger cinemas became general. The first exponent was probably Thomas L. Talley, who in 1905 built a theatre with organ specifically for the screening of movies in Los Angeles. It was soon discovered that such an organ could be made to do many things an orchestra could not: it could fit music instantaneously to changes of action, and simulate doorbells, whistles, sirens and bird-song, as well as many percussive instruments. On one later make of organ an ingenious device of pre-set keys made available no fewer than thirty-nine effects and even emotions, including Love (three different kinds), Anger, Excitement, Storm, Funeral, Gruesome, ‘Neutral’ (three kinds), and FULL ORGAN. This last effect, with presumably all the above, plus Quietude, Chase, China, Oriental, Children, Happiness, March, Fire, etc. all sounding together, must have been awesome indeed. […] Before long the organ interlude became an important part of any programme, as the grandly ornate and gleaming marvel rose majestically from the depths of the pit in a glowing flood of coloured light.

Nothing, however, could equal the effect of a large orchestra in a major cinema, which could be overwhelming. The accompaniment (of Carl Davis conducting the Thames Silents Orchestra) to the 1983 screening of The Wind, for instance, was a revelation that will never be forgotten by those who had never before ‘heard’ a silent film in all its glory, particularly at the climax of the storm.

Admittedly, at times, particularly from the front seats, the presence of a busy group of players could be distracting; their lights would impinge on the screen, their busy fiddle bows and occasionally bobbing heads would make concentration on what the shadows behind them were up to a little difficult. In general, however, their mere presence, apart from the music, added immeasurably to the sense of occasion and until one got used to it the cold vacancy below the screen in the early days of sound had a chilling effect. Those cinema musicians are surely remembered with warm affection and regard by all of us who were fortunate enough to have heard them.

[…]

In these days of multi-screen conglomerates it is difficult to imagine the awe and excitement that could be aroused by the greatest of the old-style movie palaces; the thick-piled carpets into which our feet sank, the powdered flunkies and scented sirens who took our tickets with a unique mixture of welcoming smile, condescending grace and unwavering dignity, the enormous chandelier-lit entrance halls, the statues, the coloured star portraits, the playing fountains, the rococo kiosks – all leading through cathedral-dim corridors to the dark, perfumed auditorium itself, the holy of holies where we would catch our first glimpse of Larry Semon plastering Fatty Arbuckle with bags of flour.

Prices, of course, were rather grander than in the smaller, humbler houses, roughly (for variations were wide) from about 1s 3d (6p) or 2s 4d (12p) to 8s 6d (43p) or even 11s 6d (57p); but once you had paid your tribute to the box-office every effort was made to see that you felt you were welcome, were getting your money’s worth and were someone of importance – that this whole occasion was especially for you.

Comments: Ivan Butler (1909-1998), after a career as an actor, went on to become a notable writer on the art and history of cinema. His Silent Magic is a particularly evocative memoir of the silent films he could remember when in his eighties. The American comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was accused of the rape and manslaughter minor actress and model Virginia Rappe. Though acquitted, thanks to lurid reporting his career was ruined. The scandal helped lead to the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to self-govern the American motion picture industry. The Eve’s Film Review cinemagazine was produced by Pathé, who also made Pathé Gazette. Thames Silents was the name given to a series of theatrical screenings and broadcasts of restored silent films with orchestral scores by Carl Davis, produced by Photoplay Productions and Thames Television over 1980-1990.

Handling the Visitor

Source: ‘Handling the Visitor’, Moving Picture World, 9 October 1909, pp. 482-483

Text: The first impressions are the most durable. When we enter a moving picture house the impression formed on our minds at the threshold of the theater is the one that lasts. If we meet a polite and courteous usher, who shows us to our seats, we are disposed ab initio to take a favorable view of the entertainment. If there is not too much light in the auditorium but just light enough to enable us to distinguish surrounding objects and persons, then we are disposed to compliment the management upon its adroitness in striking the happy mean between darkness and light. For the proper lighting of a moving picture house is a problem of adjustment. You do not want total darkness; you do not want too much light. You want just enough to be able to see your way about without impairing the brilliancy of the picture.

Sometimes you are allowed to find your seat as best you may ; then you run the risk of treading upon a man’s corns or a lady’s dress, and then are proportionately cursed. As a rule, however, it is to the credit of moving picture theater owners that they have courteous ushers and attendants. The more vigorous these latter are in excluding undesirable visitors, the better for the reputation of the house. We have more than once had to complain of the presence of people under the influence of strong waters or who go to sleep and snore, thus disturbing the enjoyment of their fellow visitors. But moving picture theaters are rising so much in popular esteem that this sort of thing is rapidly becoming a feature of the past. Many picture theater exhibitors are vying with each other in the proper care of their audiences.

Too much attention cannot be erven to the cleanliness of the house; to its proper ventilation, and, then to the preservation of quiet and order amongst the audience. Again the sale of candies, with the noisy vocal accompaniments of the vendors is, we think, generally to be deprecated. Many high class moving picture theater exhibitors refuse to do this on the ground that the better kind of visitor is excluded by these cheap jack methods. Others again have objected to the lantern slide advertisements of candies which are put on the screen. Personallv we object to this sort of thing, as we think it tends to lower the dignity of a moving picture theater.

The eternal feminine hat is always a source of much irritation to mere man. It is difficult to see how the admonition to the fair creatures to remove their hats can be dispensed with, for in this regard the average woman is quite a savage person. It is a matter of pure indifference to her as to how much inconvenience the person sitting behind her may be put to by the wearing of her hat. She bought it to wear; to be looked at; to be admired and envied on all and any occasion, and if she has to remove it “hell hath no fury like a woman” deprived of her pet hat.

We have sat behind rows of these things in a church, as well as in a moving picture theater, and our profanity has been too deep for vocal expression. Clergymen anathematize them; caricaturists make fun of them; men curse and criticise them. So what are we to do, except suggest that wherever possible before a woman enters a moving picture theater she must be made to understand that she must remove her hat. He will be a brave moving picture exhibitor who always successfully does this.

On general principles, therefore, we put it that the less advertising matter there is thrown on the screen, the less an audience is made to feel that the object of a moving picture theater exhibitor in getting them into his house is to extract something more than the admission money from them, the more likely that house will find public favor and continuous support. It is annoying, to say the least of it, to an average person of refinement to have a considerable part of his time taken up in reading announcement slides about ladies’ hats, candies and the like. What we are insisting upon is the exclusion as far as possible of the mere huckstering element of a moving picture entertainment, and the making for everything possible in the way of orderliness, neatness, good sanitation, plenty of light, but not too much of it, courtesy on the part of the ushers and in short the general atmosphere of comfort, if not luxury, which the public at large always looks for in a place of entertainment and pleasure. There is one little convenience which we think the public would always appreciate, and we are surprised that it is not taken up, namely the circulation amongst the audience of synopses of the stories of the films shown. Of course, these things could not be read in a dark house, but there is no reason why even in a continuous performance there should not be brief intermissions when the programme, if such we may call it, could be read by the audience. Some moving picture houses we know supply programmes, but none that we are aware of print anything about the stories of the films. This is a point we commend to the enterprising moving picture exhibitor. Anything which makes for the comfort of an audience is bound to result in a continuous patronage and the building of the family support which is one of the surest roads to success in conducting places of public entertainment.

Comment: This article in chapter four in a Moving Picture World series, ‘The Modern Moving Picture Theatre’.

Links: Available from the Internet Archive

The King and Kinemacolor

Source: D.L.W., ‘The King and Kinemacolor’, Cinema News and Property Gazette, June 1912, p. 14

Text: THE KING AND KINEMACOLOR

ROYALTY SEES ITSELF UPON THE SCREEN.

The recent visit of the King and Queen to the Scala Theatre to witness the Kinemacolor pictures of the Durbar is a unique event in the annals of Cinematography. No less than eight other Royal personages, including Queen Alexandra and the Dowager Empress of Russia, accompanied Their Majesties. The following impressionist sketch is written by a member of THE CINEMA staff whose privilege it was to be present.

A MOST interesting evening, and one that will live long in the memory.

I had heard so much about the Kinemacolor pictures of the Durbar, but like so many others I had not yet seen them. And now that I have done so words fail altogether to express one’s feelings, as one sat comfortably in a cushioned armhair and witnessed all the grand pageantry of what was, perhaps, the greatest gathering of Indian personalities that has ever been drawn to the presence of their Sovereign. Such a feast of gorgeous colouring has surely never been seen in a London theatre before. It was all very wonderful. A short journey to the Scala Theatre, which stands on the site of the old Prince of Wales’ Theatre, reminiscent of the Bancrofts and their palmy days. The lights are turned down and we are transported to that great Indian Empire which is the envy of every other civilised country in the world. Before our wondering gaze are unfolded all the magnificence, all the splendour, all the beauty of Oriental colouring, which were so remarkable a feature of the crowning of our King and Queen in India. So perfect was the reproduction of the natural colours of the scene upon the screen that it required but little effort of the imagination to see oneself a member of that vast and orderly crowd of dusky sightseers, waiting patiently with the rays of the sun beating mercilessly down upon their heads till the Emperor of all the Indies, and his Consort, appear in the vast arena.

The Royal Party.

One could almost hear the great shout of welcome from hundreds of thousands of the King’s loyal subjects as the Royal procession made its way to the beautiful canopy upon which all eyes were fixed, and Majesty seated itself upon the waiting thrones; and only a few minutes before the self-same ceremony of ushering Royalty to its seats had been enacted here before our eyes. To the Scala Theatre had come the King and Queen, with a large family party, to see once again all the glories of the great ceremony in which they had played the leading parts. In the Royal box, within a few feet of us, sat King George and Queen Mary, Queen Alexandra, the Dowager Empress of Russia, Princess Henry of Battenberg, Princess Victoria, the Grand Duchess Olga, Prince Peter, and the Duke and Duchess of Teck. Seldom, if ever, have so many Royalties been present at an ordinary performance in any theatre. The Queen wore a gown of shell pink brocade with pearl and diamond embroideries, and a diamond and sapphire tiara and necklace. Queen Alexandra was attired in dull black, but her widow’s cap was relieved in front by a small pair of diamond wings, and she wore a diamond dog collar. This, I believe was one of Her Majesty’s first appearances at a theatre since the death of King Edward.

A Memorable Occasion.

To witness the Durbar pictures in the actual presence of the King was the next best thing to seeing it in reality. Only those who were present on this memorable occasion can appreciate to the full how absolutely real the whole scene seemed. It almost lived with all its marvellous movement and sense of expansiveness, its perfect atmosphere, and its blaze of Oriental colouring, as one saw it in the company of those who had been the chief actors upon this beautiful stage. I am quite sure that everyone must have felt the same.

Silencing the King.

We were near enough to the Royal box to see how thoroughly the King and Queen and their party enjoyed the novel experience of seeing themselves as others saw them. One could also clearly hear the remarks passing between the King and Queen Alexandra, who sat next to him. Owing to the Queen Mother’s sad affliction, the King had to raise his voice somewhat in order that she might hear what he said. This led to a somewhat disconcerting — although amusing — incident. Sounds of “Ssh! Ssh!” arose from different parts of the house, and it was some little time before the audience realised that it had been endeavouring to silence the King! Such remarks as floated down to us in the stalls were full of interest, and show how thoroughly human Royalty is.

“Is that me?”

“Is that me?” — with the accent on the me. We heard the Queen distinctly ask the question of her Royal spouse. Then Queen Alexandra’s voice — soft and sweet — “Did you have to read something?” as the pictures on the screen showed Lord Hardinge handing a scroll to the King at the Durbar Shamiana, when the high officials and ruling chiefs did homage to their Sovereign. The scene which, however, seemed to impress the Royal visitors most was the review of 50,000 troops, and they applauded frequently as the wonderful picture of probably the most wonderful review which the world has ever seen unfolded itself. It is something stupendous, and the effect left upon the mind was one of inexpressible wonderment as to how it could all be reproduced so faithfully.

Mr. Charles Urban’s Greatest Film.

Of all the many pictures which Mr. Charles Urban secured in India, this is certainly the greatest and the one of which he has reason to feel most proud, for it shows more than all the others put together — fine as many of them are — how great are the possibilities of the Kinemacolor process. And mention of the inventor calls to mind the feeling of regret which was felt by all who knew the reason which prevented Mr. Charles Urban being present to share in the triumph of which this memorable evening was a fitting termination. May he soon be himself again, renewed in health and strength, to go on developing the wonderful process which he has made his own.

A Word in Conclusion.

A word in conclusion. The Royal Party came and went without ceremony. At the Scala Theatre they were received by Dr. E. Distin Maddick, and the Royal box, designed by Mr. Frank Verity, F.R.I.B.A., the architect of the theatre, was so arranged as to create the impression that the visitors were seated under the same canopy as at the Durbar. The colour scheme of the interior was pale biscuit; the roof was supported by bronze columns, and the whole was draped with a crimson valance, and decked with a profusion cf flowers and plants. As the Royal party left at the close of the performance and one made one’s way out again into the drab surroundings of Tottenham Court Road, the beautiful scenes of the Durbar floated away — away — away! But the memory of the evening with the King at the Pictures remains.

Comment: Kinemacolor was a ‘natural’ colour process, managed by producer Charles Urban, which enjoyed great commercial and social success 1909-1914, in part by targeting high society audiences. The Scala Theatre in London was used as a showcase theatre for Kinemacolor. The Delhi Durbar was a spectacular ceremony held in Delhi on 12 December 1912 to mark the coronation of King George V, and was attended by the King and Queen. The royal couple went to see themselves on the screen at the Scala on 11 May 1912. Charles Urban had fallen ill with a perforated gastric ulcer and so missed the occasion. Edmund Distin Maddick was the owner of the Scala. The film was entitled With Our King and Queen Through India.

Links: Available on the Internet Archive

Mass-Observation at the Movies

Source: Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (eds.), Mass-Observation at the Movies (London/New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 229.

Text: Commercial traveller, aged 35, Leamington Spa.

Once per month I go to the films. This is when my car is greased at a neighbouring garage, and I find it convenient to sit in the warmth and comfort of a cinema until the operation is complete. I cannot remember 6 films I have seen, I saw Dear Octopus this week. I liked it. I had not one damned Yankee accent in the whole film. The usual strident idiocies of Hollywood were absent. I did not, as usual, feel like vomiting. And even the news short did not as usual give the impression that Americans only were fighting the Germans. If you want an opinion about films you will have to go to others. My opinions are perhaps illinformed [sic], but they are definite, if given vent to, they make me swear.

Comment: Mass-Observation carried out a series of studies in 1930s and 1940s into how people in the UK lived, through a mixture of observation, diaries and invited comments. This comment comes from a directive issued in November 1943 asking the question ‘What films have you liked best during the past year? Please list six films in order of liking and give your reasons for liking them.’ Dear Octopus was a British film, made in 1943, based on the play by Dodie Smith.

Cinematographs – Truth and Fiction

Source: ‘Cinematographs – Truth and Fiction’, The Times [London], 9 April 1913, p. 11

Text: At the present moment the popularity of picture palaces and the reason for it are directing a good deal of attention to the state of the public mind. But these sudden crazes are not new: 30 years ago it was croquet, 15 years ago it was cycling, ten years ago it was roller-skating. It seems that from time to time, like a person lying long in bed, we turn over and try a new position. Nevertheless, whenever it happens, the more thoughtful part of the race becomes alarmed, collects statistics, and wonders what this development, which it chooses to call backsliding, is caused by. We have lately been told that picture palaces are preventing us from going to church, from going to the theatre, from going to public houses, and from reading novels. On the other hand, we may find encouragement in the fact that the number of people who use works of reference is increasing.

One need not be thoughtful, or specially anxious about the future of the race, or a great believer in the value of statistics, and yet one may wonder as one walks down the Strand or Oxford Street or Tottenham Court Road why these excessively brilliant doorways which star the pavement at such short distances apart prove so irresistibly attractive. It is true that the management often provide tea for nothing, and the carpets are very thick, and the attendants as finely grown as Royal footmen, and all these things are good; but without such attractions, when the door is unlit and down a back street, and the seats are hard and the attendants meagre and peremptory, we go – we pay our sixpence, we sit there until the first picture begins to come over again, and directly the programme is changed, which is not as often as it should be, we pay our sixpence and go once more.

But what is the reason of it? Why do we invariably find the hall full of men and women, old, elderly and young, paying their sixpences, listening intently, going away and coming again? No doubt we are all feeling much the same thing, and we are driven to drop in by some such experience as this.

After trudging for an hour and a half in and out of tubes, shops, omnibuses, hard pavement for the feet, grey sky between the houses, wind blown, with uncharitable people to confront, there comes a moment when it is no longer to be borne. Whoever you are, whatever your tastes, you stop at some street corner and declare that you must immediately escape. The only question is whether it shall be to a church or to a picture gallery or to a publichouse [sic] or to a library. Each of these offers some kind of relief from the stony superficiality, the inhospitality, the impersonality of the street. Each offers some kind of resting room where you may recollect your human soul. At the same time each demands a certain effort, a certain chafing and stamping if one may so call it, before one is comfortably aglow. It is now that the lighted doorway presents itself. The picture palace offers immediate escape with the least possible expenditure of energy. You have only to lean back in a well-wadded chair, and you are floated upon some ambling dance tune down southern streets, or to the dusty jungle where the lion crouches, or to the centre of some public pageant, where merely to trace the expressions of the faces is to be in at the making of history. The street is only a few yards away, and five minutes ago you were cold and wind blown like the rest; but now that is nothing, or is a dream. You are now in the position most comfortable to man – sitting at ease, observing, speculating, ruminating, imagining, with hardly any trouble to yourself. All the work seems to be done for you. The marvellous way in which an illusion, strong enough to defeat circumstances, is created at once, without any effort of imagination, must be attributed chiefly to the fact that the picture moves. You never have time to be bored by one picture before it changes, becomes another picture, becomes not only a picture but a story, something which has a separate life of its own. Meanwhile you are being worked upon, as indifferent music that goes straight to the obvious emotion does work upon one, and made to feel without willing it rather more than is reasonable.

But this is only part of the secret, for the stream of traffic outside has no such power to please. A great part of the enchantment must lie in the fact that the most trivial scene – let us say a meet of coaches in Hyde Park – when cut off from its surroundings becomes for some queer reason significant, even emotional, as it seldom does in reality. Looking up from an arm-chair in a darkened room you see as you have never seen before. The horses and the women and the trees appear on the sheet as if they had nothing to do with the future or with the past, as if the whips would never descend, or the grooms swing up behind, or the horses trot off down the road to Richmond. Let alone the strange way in which isolating something from its context heightens the meaning, there is the sheer excitement and curiosity of the sights themselves. For the first time we see wild beasts creeping down to the pools to drink, or ice-fields grinding each other in the Polar sea. We might almost say that for the first time we see flowers unfolding and waves breaking on the beach.

Indeed the only grudge we have against the management of picture palaces is that they will go to any amount of trouble and expense in dramatizing romantic stories which take place, we believe, in cardboard castles in the outskirts of Paris, when the streets are full of pictures at once more comic, more tragic, and possessed of the incomparable recommendation that they are true. Suppose that, instead of inventing an improbable love story complicated by a couple of fierce brown bears in the Rocky Mountains, which has to be conveyed by trained actors carefully made up and craggy steeps that fail to convince, we had simply 12 o’clock yesterday in London, Paris, Moscow, Madrid, New York, Rome. The effect would be far more striking, and we must suppose a tenth part as expensive. Those half-dozen pictures of real people going about their businesses in real streets on different sides of the world, with all the little oddities and incidents that one would delight in detecting, would set up an image of the earth and mankind that would surpass all the lovers and all the bears in America.

The versions of famous novels and imaginary adventures which fill three-fourths of the programme appeal, of course, to our love of story-telling, and if they tend to be a little monotonous they have the advantage that moving pictures are simpler, quicker, more direct than the best printed prose can ever hope to be. Whether in this extraordinary greed of the eye we are to see reason for alarm or not, we do not know. We are inclined to expect that the eye in England has been rather cruelly starved. At the present moment, at any rate, it will take anything you choose to give it, as long as it moves quickly and is exactly like life. We are ready to look at places, people, animals, plants, waves, things that never happened, things that were written about, things that could no possibly happen anywhere. What the brain does with all this material it is difficult to say. Judging from personal experience, we should be inclined to believe that it remains quiescent during the greater part of the time, amused but not stimulated; that there are scattered moments of pure revelation; and, that, for the rest, a marvellous confusion reigns, a welter of music, of facts, of fiction, of forms. It is not life, it is not art, it is not music, it is not literature. Whether, all the same, we are fumbling towards some new form of art which is to have movement and shape, to be like life and yet to be selected and arranged as a work of art, who can say? In the meantime we have a fury for seeing and remain happy, greedy and terribly indiscriminate.

Comment: I write about the significance of this fascinating, anonymous article in ‘A Fury for Seeing: Cinema, Audience and Leisure in London in 1913′, Early Popular Visual Culture, vol. 6 no. 3 (November 2008) [available online through restricted academic services only]

Yesterday’s Sunshine

Source: Verne Morgan, Yesterday’s Sunshine: Reminiscences of an Edwardian Childhood (Folkestone: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen, 1974), pp. 122-126

Text: The Moving Pictures, as we called them, first came to Bromley when I was about seven. They made their début at the Central Hall, and the performances took place on Friday nights. There were two houses, one at five o’clock for the children and one at seven for the grown-ups. The programmes lasted approximately one hour, and consisted of a succession of short films. Indeed some of them would last no longer than three or four minutes and there would be an appreciable wait in between while the man in the box got busy threading the next reel.

The Central Hall was a vast place with a huge gallery encircling it. It was used mostly for political meetings and the like, and quite often a band concert would be held there too. But it also had a pronounced ecclesiastical leaning and the man who owned it belonged in some way to the church and was avidly religious. He was an elderly man and wore pince-nez spectacles to which were attached a long black cord. He was a man of extremely good intentions and loved to stand upon the platform making long speeches spouting about them. Unfortunately, he had the most dreadful impediment and it was quite impossible to understand a word he said. But I well remember the enthusiastic claps he got when he eventually sat down, not because we had appreciated what he said so much as the fact that he had at last finished. The film programme could then begin.

The operating box was a temporary affair, and was perched up at the rear of the gallery. I used to get a seat as close to it as possible so that I could see how it was all done. The lighting was effected by a stick of black carbon, about the size of a piece of chalk, which lit up the small box with a brilliant blueish-white light and had a blinding effect if you looked right at it. Occasionally it would burn low and the operator would push it up a bit; this would be reflected by the density of light on the screen. The screen itself was also of a temporary nature, it was in fact little more than a large white sheet weighted at the bottom to keep it taut. Any movement close to it would cause it to wobble, and the picture would go a little peculiar. We were not critical of such minor details. The very fact that the picture moved was enough to satisfy us.

As each small reel was finished the operator would place it outside for re-winding, his box being of limited dimensions. On account of this I was able to study the technique as to how the pictures appeared to move. It was so simple I could hardly believe it. I told my Brother about it; I told my Mother about it; I told lots of people about it. But no one believed me. So, to prove myself right, I set about editing a film on my own account. I drew a succession of pictures in pencil on the bottom of a hymn book in church. Each one was just that little bit different, so that when the pages were flicked over the overall picture appeared to move. This technique, in ‘flicker’ form, has, of course, been used in many ways since then, but at the time it was entirely my own idea, and I was middling proud of it. I can’t say that anybody was particularly impressed, but at the time it thrilled me beyond description. In due course I pictorialised all the hymn books I could lay my hands on, during the sermon and other breaks in the church service. They consisted mostly of football matches with someone scoring a goal. Or it might be a boxing match with someone getting knocked out. Or an exciting race with a hectically close finish. Anything that inspired my sporting instincts was in course of time recorded in the hymn books of St. Luke’s Church, Bromley. I have often wondered since what the effect must have been on the boy who eventually took my seat in the choir pew when he found what he had inherited. I can only hope that he had as much enjoyment out of watching animated pictures as I had got out of drawing them.

The Central Hall was situated close to the top of Bromley Hill, nearly three miles from where we lived. It was a long walk for small legs, and there was no public transport at that time. Yet, whatever the weather, we never missed. Every Friday, shortly after school hours, a swarm of happy-faced youngsters were to be seen all heading in the same direction. The Central Hall had become the centre of a new culture. But, as yet, only the school kids had caught on to it.

Then quite suddenly, the Grand Theatre in Bromley High Street, which up till then had housed nothing more spectacular than stage dramas of the “Maria Marten” and “Sweeney Todd” kind, put up the shutters and announced that in future Moving Pictures would take over. They would be put on once nightly with a full programme of films. A new firm moved in calling itself Jury’s. The old Grand was given a face-lift and transformed into a picture house.

This was revolutionary indeed.

The grown-ups were sceptical. But the programmes were of a higher standard than those at the Central Hall, and would sometimes have a two-reeler as the star attraction. The films began to take on a more realistic angle, with interesting stories, love scenes, cowboys and Indians, exciting battles and lots of gooey pathos.

People began to go.

When they announced a showing of the famous story “Quo Vadis” in seven reels, all Bromley turned out to see it. Even my father condescended, and grumbled volubly because he had to “line up” to get it (the word “queue” had not yet come into circulation).

It was the beginning of a new era. Very soon a place was built in the High Street, calling itself a cinema. Moving pictures were firmly on the map, and shortly to be called films. We watched with astonishment as the new building reached completion and gave itself the high-flown title of “The Palaise [sic] de luxe”.

Most of us pronounced it as it was spelt, “The Palace de lux”, but my cousin Daisy, who was seventeen and having French lessons twice a week, pronounced it the “Palyay dee Loo”. And she twisted her mouth into all sorts of shapes when she said it.

That being as it may, the Palaise de Luxe put on programmes that pulled in the crowds from far and near, and it wasn’t long before they engaged a pianist to play the piano while the films were in progress. I remember him well. A portly gentleman who hitherto had earned a precarious living playing in local pubs. He soon got into his stride and began to adapt his choice of music to the particular film that was being shown. If it was a comedy he would play something like “The Irish Washerwoman”; if it was something sad, he would rattle off a popular number of the day like, “If your heart should ache awhile never mind”, and if it was a military scene, he would strike up a well-known march. The classic example came when a religious film was presented and we saw Christ walking on the water. He immediately struck up a few bards of “A life on the ocean wave”.

Later on, all cinemas worthy of the name included a small orchestra to accompany the films, and in due course, a complete score of suitable music would be sent with the main feature film so as to give the right effect at the right moment.

The Palaise de Luxe was indeed a palace as far as we were concerned. We sat in plush tip-up seats and there were two programmes a night. Further, you could walk in any old time and leave when you felt like it. Which meant, of course, that you could, if you so desired, be in at the start and watch the programme twice through (which many of us did and suffered a tanning for getting home late). It was warm and cosy, and there was a small upper circle for those who didn’t wish to mix!

The projector was discreetly hidden away behind the back wall up in the circle, and no longer could you see the man turning the handle. We became conscious for the first time of the strong beam of light that extended from the operating box to the screen. It was all so fascinating and mysterious. The screen, too, was no longer a piece of white material hanging from the ceiling, it was built into the wall, or so it appeared, and it was solid, so that no amount of movement could make it wobble.

It quickly became the custom to visit the cinema once a week. It was the “in” thing, or as we said in those days, it was “all the rage”.

We learnt to discriminate. My Brother and I became infatuated with a funny little man who was just that bit different from the others. His tomfoolery had a “soul” we decided, and whereas we smiled and tittered at the others comics, we roared our heads off with laughter whenever this one came on the screen. We went to a great deal of trouble to find out who he was, for names were not very often given in the early days.

“He’s called Charlie Chaplin”, the manager of the cinema told us, a little surprised no doubt that one so young could be all that interested.

Comment: Verne Morgan lived in Kent, and became a writer of pantomimes and theatre sketches. Palais de Luxe cinemas were a chain, run by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. Jury’s Imperial Pictures was a producer and distributor, must did not manage cinemas. The period described is the early to mid-1910s: the Italian film Quo Vadis was made in 1913 and Chaplin’s first films were released in 1914. The mention of a piano player being introduced suggests that the earlier screenings had been watched without musical accompaniment.

Yesterday's Sunshine

Source: Verne Morgan, Yesterday’s Sunshine: Reminiscences of an Edwardian Childhood (Folkestone: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen, 1974), pp. 122-126

Text: The Moving Pictures, as we called them, first came to Bromley when I was about seven. They made their début at the Central Hall, and the performances took place on Friday nights. There were two houses, one at five o’clock for the children and one at seven for the grown-ups. The programmes lasted approximately one hour, and consisted of a succession of short films. Indeed some of them would last no longer than three or four minutes and there would be an appreciable wait in between while the man in the box got busy threading the next reel.

The Central Hall was a vast place with a huge gallery encircling it. It was used mostly for political meetings and the like, and quite often a band concert would be held there too. But it also had a pronounced ecclesiastical leaning and the man who owned it belonged in some way to the church and was avidly religious. He was an elderly man and wore pince-nez spectacles to which were attached a long black cord. He was a man of extremely good intentions and loved to stand upon the platform making long speeches spouting about them. Unfortunately, he had the most dreadful impediment and it was quite impossible to understand a word he said. But I well remember the enthusiastic claps he got when he eventually sat down, not because we had appreciated what he said so much as the fact that he had at last finished. The film programme could then begin.

The operating box was a temporary affair, and was perched up at the rear of the gallery. I used to get a seat as close to it as possible so that I could see how it was all done. The lighting was effected by a stick of black carbon, about the size of a piece of chalk, which lit up the small box with a brilliant blueish-white light and had a blinding effect if you looked right at it. Occasionally it would burn low and the operator would push it up a bit; this would be reflected by the density of light on the screen. The screen itself was also of a temporary nature, it was in fact little more than a large white sheet weighted at the bottom to keep it taut. Any movement close to it would cause it to wobble, and the picture would go a little peculiar. We were not critical of such minor details. The very fact that the picture moved was enough to satisfy us.

As each small reel was finished the operator would place it outside for re-winding, his box being of limited dimensions. On account of this I was able to study the technique as to how the pictures appeared to move. It was so simple I could hardly believe it. I told my Brother about it; I told my Mother about it; I told lots of people about it. But no one believed me. So, to prove myself right, I set about editing a film on my own account. I drew a succession of pictures in pencil on the bottom of a hymn book in church. Each one was just that little bit different, so that when the pages were flicked over the overall picture appeared to move. This technique, in ‘flicker’ form, has, of course, been used in many ways since then, but at the time it was entirely my own idea, and I was middling proud of it. I can’t say that anybody was particularly impressed, but at the time it thrilled me beyond description. In due course I pictorialised all the hymn books I could lay my hands on, during the sermon and other breaks in the church service. They consisted mostly of football matches with someone scoring a goal. Or it might be a boxing match with someone getting knocked out. Or an exciting race with a hectically close finish. Anything that inspired my sporting instincts was in course of time recorded in the hymn books of St. Luke’s Church, Bromley. I have often wondered since what the effect must have been on the boy who eventually took my seat in the choir pew when he found what he had inherited. I can only hope that he had as much enjoyment out of watching animated pictures as I had got out of drawing them.

The Central Hall was situated close to the top of Bromley Hill, nearly three miles from where we lived. It was a long walk for small legs, and there was no public transport at that time. Yet, whatever the weather, we never missed. Every Friday, shortly after school hours, a swarm of happy-faced youngsters were to be seen all heading in the same direction. The Central Hall had become the centre of a new culture. But, as yet, only the school kids had caught on to it.

Then quite suddenly, the Grand Theatre in Bromley High Street, which up till then had housed nothing more spectacular than stage dramas of the “Maria Marten” and “Sweeney Todd” kind, put up the shutters and announced that in future Moving Pictures would take over. They would be put on once nightly with a full programme of films. A new firm moved in calling itself Jury’s. The old Grand was given a face-lift and transformed into a picture house.

This was revolutionary indeed.

The grown-ups were sceptical. But the programmes were of a higher standard than those at the Central Hall, and would sometimes have a two-reeler as the star attraction. The films began to take on a more realistic angle, with interesting stories, love scenes, cowboys and Indians, exciting battles and lots of gooey pathos.

People began to go.

When they announced a showing of the famous story “Quo Vadis” in seven reels, all Bromley turned out to see it. Even my father condescended, and grumbled volubly because he had to “line up” to get it (the word “queue” had not yet come into circulation).

It was the beginning of a new era. Very soon a place was built in the High Street, calling itself a cinema. Moving pictures were firmly on the map, and shortly to be called films. We watched with astonishment as the new building reached completion and gave itself the high-flown title of “The Palaise [sic] de luxe”.

Most of us pronounced it as it was spelt, “The Palace de lux”, but my cousin Daisy, who was seventeen and having French lessons twice a week, pronounced it the “Palyay dee Loo”. And she twisted her mouth into all sorts of shapes when she said it.

That being as it may, the Palaise de Luxe put on programmes that pulled in the crowds from far and near, and it wasn’t long before they engaged a pianist to play the piano while the films were in progress. I remember him well. A portly gentleman who hitherto had earned a precarious living playing in local pubs. He soon got into his stride and began to adapt his choice of music to the particular film that was being shown. If it was a comedy he would play something like “The Irish Washerwoman”; if it was something sad, he would rattle off a popular number of the day like, “If your heart should ache awhile never mind”, and if it was a military scene, he would strike up a well-known march. The classic example came when a religious film was presented and we saw Christ walking on the water. He immediately struck up a few bards of “A life on the ocean wave”.

Later on, all cinemas worthy of the name included a small orchestra to accompany the films, and in due course, a complete score of suitable music would be sent with the main feature film so as to give the right effect at the right moment.

The Palaise de Luxe was indeed a palace as far as we were concerned. We sat in plush tip-up seats and there were two programmes a night. Further, you could walk in any old time and leave when you felt like it. Which meant, of course, that you could, if you so desired, be in at the start and watch the programme twice through (which many of us did and suffered a tanning for getting home late). It was warm and cosy, and there was a small upper circle for those who didn’t wish to mix!

The projector was discreetly hidden away behind the back wall up in the circle, and no longer could you see the man turning the handle. We became conscious for the first time of the strong beam of light that extended from the operating box to the screen. It was all so fascinating and mysterious. The screen, too, was no longer a piece of white material hanging from the ceiling, it was built into the wall, or so it appeared, and it was solid, so that no amount of movement could make it wobble.

It quickly became the custom to visit the cinema once a week. It was the “in” thing, or as we said in those days, it was “all the rage”.

We learnt to discriminate. My Brother and I became infatuated with a funny little man who was just that bit different from the others. His tomfoolery had a “soul” we decided, and whereas we smiled and tittered at the others comics, we roared our heads off with laughter whenever this one came on the screen. We went to a great deal of trouble to find out who he was, for names were not very often given in the early days.

“He’s called Charlie Chaplin”, the manager of the cinema told us, a little surprised no doubt that one so young could be all that interested.

Comment: Verne Morgan lived in Kent, and became a writer of pantomimes and theatre sketches. Palais de Luxe cinemas were a chain, run by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. Jury’s Imperial Pictures was a producer and distributor, but did not manage cinemas. The period described is the early to mid-1910s: the Italian film Quo Vadis was made in 1913 and Chaplin’s first films were released in 1914. The mention of a piano player being introduced suggests that the earlier screenings had been watched without musical accompaniment.