The Legion of Decency

Source: Extracts from Mary J. Breen, ‘The Legion of Decency: Running a Movie Theater in the 1950s’, http://the-toast.net/2015/11/10/the-legion-of-decency-running-a-movie-theater-in-the-1950s/, originally published as ‘The Legion of Decency’, The Windsor Review, 48:1, Spring 2015

Text: In 1949, when I was five, my cautious Catholic parents bought a movie theatre in a Lutheran-Mennonite village in southern Ontario. My mother later told me they were trying to give my father a break from teaching high school—a rest from the long hours, the conscientious prep and marking, and the stress of dealing with unruly teenagers. What it doesn’t explain is why he of all people agreed to buy a theatre of all things that depended on movies from, of all places, Hollywood.

But I was much too young to ask any of those questions. All I knew was that The Regent Theatre was a wonderful place. I didn’t care that “our show,” as my parents called it, was a low, dark hall that had once been a hotel livery stable. I didn’t care that it was nothing like the grand movie palaces in Toronto that my mother took me to every summer. I didn’t care that the marquee lights didn’t flash, and the maroon curtains covering the screen were heavy with dust, and the plush seats were half-bald and prickled our bare legs in the summer. I didn’t care that we had no snack bar or velvet ropes or uniformed ushers. Instead of perfumed bathrooms, we had smelly outhouses out the back. Instead of soft carpets, we had concrete floors sticky with gum, candy wrappers, and cigarette butts. I didn’t care. I loved being there. I loved helping my father unfurl the loud, garish posters and tack them into the display boxes out front. I loved helping him sweep up on Saturday afternoons. I loved roller-skating fast down one aisle, across the front, and seeing how far I could coast up the other aisle, knowing all the while that the gunfights and runaway stagecoaches would be back in just a few hours.

All of us kids loved the movies, whether they were tales of cowboys or soldiers, pirates or sultans. We also understood them as they echoed the familiar justice of the playground and the Bible: the bad were always punished, and the good always inherited the earth. As soon as Mighty Mouse or Heckle & Jeckle ended and we heard the opening bars of the newsreel, most of us kids would run out past my mother yelling, “We’ll be back!” We’d race to the corner store where we’d cram little paper bags with gum, jaw breakers, banana marshmallows, red licorice sticks, and black liquorice pipes, and then tear back in time for the double bill. My parents never cared if someone without a quarter slipped in with the rest of us. Back in our seats we’d figure out who the good guys were, and then set about helping them by yelling things like, “Look out!” or “Run!” or “Behind the door!” We’d also clap and holler when help arrived, often the US Cavalry charging over the same hill the silent Indians had lined up on minutes before. The fun of it came back to me years later when I was watching Apollo 13 on TV. I cheered out loud when Tom Hanks’ voice came crackling through the clouds. The heat shields had held! That’s what it felt like at our show, week after week after week.

[…]

Then, in 1953, things changed. One night as my father was getting me ready for bed, I started raving on about how, when I grew up, I was going to be either a real cowgirl or a cowgirl in the movies where I’d get paid to play Maple Leaf with great costumes and real horses. He turned to me, his face dark and sober. “I don’t want to hear about Hollywood. It’s a heathen, godless place where everyone is divorced and has far too much money for their own good!” I was stunned. It was the very first time he’d ever scolded me. Then he went on to say I needed to start adding Three Hail Marys for Purity to my nightly prayers. “Remember,” he said, “God knows your every thought, word, and deed. With Almighty God we have no secrets.” I had no idea what he was talking about except that I had better keep my thoughts about the movies to myself.

Comments: Mary J. Breen is a Canadian author who has written two books on women’s health and has published widely in newspapers, magazines and online. Her father was a member of the Christian Brothers order but married before taking his final vows. Her parents ran a cinema despite the Catholic Church’s strong objections to aspects of the film industry, exemplified by the National Legion of Decency and its blacklisting of films to which it objected on moral grounds. After giving up the cinema her father never saw another film. My thanks to Mary J. Breen for permission to reproduce these extracts from her essay on her parents and their cinema venture.

Links: Full article at The Toast

The German Spy

Source: Anon. [Thomas Lediard?], The German Spy: or, Familiar letters from a gentleman on his travels thro’ Germany, to his friend in England (London: T. Cooper, 1738), pp. 312-318

Text: Letter XXXIV. Hamburg.

SIR,

I was just going to make my Observations on some other Pieces of Painting in my Friend’s Hall, when he told me, we might take another Opportunity for that; but for the present, he would shew me, for the Amusement of an Hour or two, the wonderful Operation of a curious Laterna Magica, the Invention of a very great Artist, and an extraordinary Improvement of that pretty Machine we generally call by that Name. He led me to his Attick Story, into a Gallery over his Library, which I found was set a-part, and prepar’d for that Purpose. It was entirely darkned, excepting two Candles on one Side, near which two Elbow-Chairs were placed, in which we were no sooner seated, than the Candles went out, as if it were of themselves. Immediately, upon a Signal given, a Curtain, at the End of the Gallery, was drawn up, and discover’d the most beautiful Firmament I had ever seen. On one Side, the Sky appear’d diversified with that Variety of beautiful Colors, which we see at the Setting of the Sun, after a fine Day; and, soon after, the Moon, rising in a clear Horizon, and the Stars appearing, bright and twinkling, as on a frosty Night, discover’d new Beauties on the other Side. I had not diverted myself with this beautiful Prospect above two Minutes, before there suddenly appear’d, on the Middle of the Stage, a fine transparent Globe, partly green, and partly blue, which, being in continual Motion round its own Axis, I soon discover’d was design’d to represent the Planet we live on. I observ’d round the Globe a motly colour’d transparent Æther, in which I perceiv’d seven Figures hovering, near the Surface of the Earth, so small, that, with the naked Eye, I could not make any Distinction between them: But upon making Use of a Perspective I had in my Pocket, I perceived that one, which seemed superior to all the rest, was the Figure I had frequently seen painted to represent the Goddess of Riches. I was preparing to take a more exact View of the Figures, with the Help of my Glass, when my Friend told me, I need not give myself that Trouble, I should soon see them distinct and separate.

He, thereupon, gave a Signal, and the Curtain fell; but it soon rose again, and discover’d the Goddess of Riches alone, as big as Life. One Part of the Stage represented a noble Palace, and the other a beautiful Garden, with pleasant Walks, fine Statues and Fountains. The Goddess herself sat in the Middle of the Garden, on a triumphal Char, cover’d with Purple, richly embroider’d. She was clad in a Vestment of Cloth of Gold, with a Mantle of Silver Moor, embellish’d with precious Stones. In one Hand, she held a rich Jewel, and a costly String of Pearls, and in the other, a large Bag of Gold Coin. Round about her were several open Chests of Money, and great Heaps of Gold and Silver Plate. The Horses of her Char, which were led by a Figure representing Subtlety, were adorn’d with Trappings, cover’d over with Masks, which seem’d to be so many Tokens of Deceit, Usury in the Figure of a Moor, having Bags of Mony in both Hands; Lust, almost naked; Treachery, with two Faces, and Fire in both Hands, were her Retinue; and in the Char sat forwards a little Person, in costly Apparel, but of a bold arrogant Aspect.

While I was viewing this little Figure more narrowly, the Scene chang’d, and discover’d the same Figure, as large as Life. She held a Looking-glass in her Hand, was adorn’d with Peacocks Feathers, and a Mantle embroider’d with Pearls and Rubies; which, together with her haughty Looks and Carriage, plainly discover’d her to be Image of Pride. The Stage represented a noble Square, in which were several Obelisks, triumphal Arches, Pyramids, and the like costly Vanities. The Goddess herself was seated on a Char, in the Form of a Throne, the Canopy of which was supported by a Golden Peacock. One of the Horses, which drew this Char, was decked with Trappings full of Eyes, as an Emblem of Curiosity, and the other was a lively Representation of Stubborness. They were led by the Figure of Scorn, and follow’d by three others, which to me seem’d to be the Images of Slander, Self-Conceit, and Disobedience.

I had hardly taken a distinct View of these Things, before there was again a sudden Change of the Scene; and, instead of those Beauties which had before offer’d to my View, appear’d a melancholy and disagreable Prospect. I discover’d a Figure, sitting in a despicable Carriage on a Chair which seem’d to be compos’d of Snakes, Salamanders, and Adders, interwoven into that Form, and this Person I plainly perceiv’d to be the Figure of Envy. In her Hand she held a bloody Heart, in which were visibly the Prints of her venomous Teeth. The Stage represented nothing but Ruins and Desolation, and the very Air seem’d to be tempestuous, and fill’d with black, heavy Clouds. The Furniture of her Horses were covered with Tongues, probably, to represent Detraction, and they were drove, by Revengeful Spite with a Scourge of Serpents, and Discontent with a Rod of Thorns. On each Side of this miserable Vehicle, march’d Restlessness, with a Larom on his Head, and Sedition with a Pair of Bellows in his Hand.

This melancholy Scene was soon succeeded by another as terrifying. Here the principal Figure represented War, seated in his Chariot, branding: a naked Scymiter in his right Hand, and a burning Torch in his Left, in a wild, discompos’d Posture. At his Feet lay Muskets, Pistols, Battle-Axes, Balls and Bombs, and behind him was raised a Pile of Cannons, Mortars, Colors, Standards and Pikes. The whole Stage seem’d to be cover’d with dead Carcasses and, at a Distance, I discover’d a City in Flames. The Horses of his Chariot were lead by Rage, whose Head had the Appearance of a fiery Coal, and in his Hand he held a burning Link, almost consumed. Contention, with the Head of a Dog, Blasphemy, with the Tongue of a Serpent; Famine, gnawing a Bone, and Cruelty, loaded with Instruments of Torture, march’d on each Side of the Chariot, as the Attendants of War.

While my Thoughts were busied in reflecting on this Scene of Misery, it, on a sudden, disappeared, and the furious God of War was followed, at the very Heels, by the miserable Figure of a Woman, almost naked, which, I soon found, represented Poverty. She was seated on a paultry Cart, on which I could discover nothing but broken earthen Ware, some Pieces of mouldy Bread, and other the like Signs of Penury and Want. The whole Prospect, round about her, was waste and desolate, and discover’d only a few thatch’d Cottages, which seem’d to be the poor Remains of a general Ravage. This miserable Carriage mov’d very slowly, being drawn by two Animals, that had hardly the Appearance of Horses; but represented, in a more lively Manner, Debility and Sickness. Care, almost stiff and motionless, supplied the Place of a Driver; and Patience, bearing an Anvil, with a Heart upon it, which seem’d to be torn with Hooks of Iron, together with Servitude in Chains, were the wretched Companions of this doleful Figure.

This melancholy Scene was no sooner at an End, than a more agreable one appear’d, in which I discover’d a Woman of a staid, serene Countenance, sitting on a very low but decent Vehicle, which moved but just above the Surface of the Earth. In one Hand, she held a broken Heart, and, in the other, a Shepherd’s Crook. Every Circumstance gave me to understand, that this Figure could be no other than that of Humility; especially as she was accompanied by Faith, Hope and Charity, the latter having a Child at her Breast, and leading two more by the Hand. This humble Vehicle was drawn by Meekness and Sobriety, led by Timorousness. The Landscape, as I have before observ’d, was more agreable, than that of the preceeding Scene; but with what Satisfaction did I see it, in an Instant, changed into one of the most beautiful and noble Views, I had ever seen; upon the Appearance of a lovely Nymph, seated in a costly Char, which, as well as her Person, was embellish’d with every Thing that could please the Eye and the Imagination. I concluded, without any Hesitation, that this pleasing Figure must be the Goddess of Peace, and with that amiable Denomination it was my Friend distinguished her. Concord and Public Good, guided by Love, drove the Char; and Truth, Justice, Diligence and Liberty accompanied it. At the Goddess’s Feet lay all Manner of Mathematical, Mechanical and Musical Instruments, together with a Cornucopia; and looking more narrowly, I observed, in the Char with her, the little Figure, which, at the Beginning, I had discovered, with the Help of my Glass, to be the Goddess of Riches. I was just going to make some Reflections, on these Things, when, upon a Signal given, the Curtain drop’d, the Candles burn’d again, of their own Accord, and my Friend ask’d me, how I liked this Representation of the Instability and Vicissitude of the Transactions of this World, which were in a continual Rotation, and succeeded each other, much in the same Manner, as I had observed in this little Theater. I told him I could not enough admire, as well the Invention as the Execution of it; but this I would venture to affirm, that, the excellent Moral, which was hidden under it, far exceeded either. I added that there wanted nothing more to make it an inimitable Copy, but the Invention of a perpetuum Mobile, to keep that Rotation in a continued Revolution; which I did not doubt, but he, or some one or other of his learned Correspondents, would, soon or late, bring to bear. As I express’d a Satisfaction in what I had seen, my Friend gave me a Paper with about a Dozen German Verses upon it, in which he told me I should find the Content of the whole briefly express’d, and would serve me as a Memorandum of these Representations. I did not look upon them then; but upon perusing them, after I was retir’d to my Chamber, they put me in Mind of some homely, but expressive Lines, which I have seen at the Top of some of our Sheet-Almanacks, and, if my Memory does not fail me, are as follows;

War begets Poverty,
Poverty Peace:
Peace maketh Riches flow,
(Fate ne’er does cease!)
Riches produces Pride,
Pride is War‘s Ground;
War begets Poverty, &c.
The World goes round.
Omnium Rerum Vicissitudo.

As it is a double Satisfaction to me, to see any Thing curious, that seems to have had its Rise from our Country, I could not but please myself with the Imagination, that my Friend’s Verses, as well as the Invention of his Laterna Magica were originally taken from these Lines of one of our Philomaths: Tho’ I must confess he has beautifully augmented the Genealogy, with two very proper Characters; Envy and Humility; and not improperly made some Alteration in the Order: For, according to my Friend, Riches begets Pride; Pride, Envy; Envy, War; War, Poverty; Poverty, Humility; (tho’ this is not always the Case, because Pride is often the Daughter of Poverty, tho’ illegitimate) Humility begets Peace; and Peace; with the Assistance of Arts and Sciences, Liberty and Trade, begets Riches again. However, all these Changes are not capable of making any Alteration in the Esteem with which I profess to be, &c.

Comments: Thomas Lediard (1685–1743) was a British historian, diplomat and surveyor. He edited and introduced a collection of letters from a traveller in Germany to a friend, entitled The German Spy, and is possibly – though not for certain – the author of the letters. Its eyewitness account of a magic lantern show is the most extensive such report known to survive from the eighteenth century. My grateful thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing the text to my attention, and for supplying an accurate transcription (with some modernisation for clarity’s sake) and background information.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Scandinavians

Source: Robert Ferguson, Scandinavians: In Search of the Soul of the North (London: Head of Zeus, 2016), pp. 327-329

Text: Fast-foward, as they say, to 1967 and a Swedish film called Hugs and Kisses. It was at a time when the British Board of Film Censors was still largely preoccupied with censoring naked bodies out of existence, and every visit to a cinema would be preceded by a sombre moment in which the curtains drew back to reveal a statement in white print on a black background announcing which of three audiences the film was considered appropriate for: an ‘X’ certificate for over-sixteens only; an ‘A’ for under sixteens accompanied by an adult; and a ‘U’, which meant anybody could see it. Getting into X-rated films was a kind of holy grail for kids under sixteen, and in Blackpool there were two cinemas in particular that were known to be easier to get into than others. One was the New Ritz on the Promenade, and the other the Tivoli, a little further back from the seafront, not far from the Talbot Road Bus Station. Both were flea-pits, scruffy, rundown and cheap. As far as I can recall, they only ever showed X- or A-rated films. At fourteen I hadn’t even started shaving, so visits to the Tivoli and the New Ritz were things I used to hear about from my older brother William. The word had got out that there was a film showing at the New Ritz with a naked woman standing in front of a mirror where you could see her pubic hair, her breasts, her arse – everything, as we boys used to gasp in disbelief in the playground.

My brother usually went to the cinema on Friday nights with two friends from school. This Friday, for some reason, they couldn’t make it and he reluctantly ordered me to go along with him. We caught the 11A from St Annes Square, got out and began walking towards the cinema entrance. It wasn’t raining but he had given me his white shortie mac to wear, saying it would make me look older. Right outside Louis Tussaud’s waxworks, next door to the cinema, just before we reached the neon glow of the foyer, he stopped, scrutinized me, turned up the collar of the shortie, took a packet of Embassy tipped from an inside pocket, lit one from the one he was smoking and stuck it in my mouth, telling me quite unnecessarily to remember to say to the ticket-seller that I was sixteen if he asked how old I was. As it turned out the ticket-booth was manned by a tired old pensioner who hardly even bothered to look up from his newspaper to sell us our tickets, which is how I got in to see Hugs and Kisses and for the first time in my life saw female pubic hair. It turns out the hair belonged to an actress named Agneta Ekmanner, now seventy-nine years old and to this day still working, according to the IMDb website. I am fascinated to note that she had a part in Suzanne Osten’s Bröderna Mozart (The Mozart Brothers), the 1986 film Olof Palme went to see on the night of his murder. Hugs and Kisses was Swedish, and with this film I had my first experience of that legendary frankness about sexuality that has been such an important part of how the rest of the world thinks about Scandinavians; or to be more precise how the rest of the world thinks about Swedes and Danes. Norwegians and Norwegian cinema were never a part of the sexual revolution exported throughout the last decades of the twentieth century by its neighbours, and which was still being exported in the twenty-first century by the Danish director Lars von Trier in films such as The Idiots and Nymphomaniac. In the 1980s, in the days before the internet, a striking sight when crossing the border by road from Norway into Sweden was all the caravans parked up on spare farm land on the Swedish side advertising ‘PORNO’ for sale in huge hand-lettered writing.

Comments: Robert Ferguson is a British translator, biographer (Henrik Ibsen, Knut Hamsun), author and authority on Scandinavian life and culture. His book Scandinavians is a study of nature of Scandinavian society. Hugs and Kisses (Swedish title Puss & kram) was directed by Jonas Cornell and was released in the UK in 1968 with a X certificate, after some cuts. Olaf Palme was prime minister of Sweden. He was shot in a Stockholm street by an unknown assailant.

Summer

Source: Edith Wharton, Summer: A Novel (New York: D. Appleton, 1917), pp. 138-139

Text: They had made no plans for the rest of the day, and when Harney asked her what she wanted to do next she was too bewildered by rich possibilities to find an answer. Finally she confessed that she longed to go to the Lake, where she had not been taken on her former visit, and when he answered, “Oh, there’s time for that — it will be pleasanter later,” she suggested seeing some pictures like the ones Mr. Miles had taken her to. She thought Harney looked a little disconcerted; but he passed his fine handkerchief over his warm brow, said gaily, “Come along, then,” and rose with a last pat for the pink-eyed dog.

Mr. Miles’s pictures had been shown in an austere Y.M.C.A. hall, with white walls and an organ; but Harney led Charity to a glittering place — everything she saw seemed to glitter — where they passed, between immense pictures of yellow-haired beauties stabbing villains in evening dress, into a velvet-curtained auditorium packed with spectators to the last limit of compression. After that, for a while, everything was merged in her brain in swimming circles of heat and blinding alternations of light and darkness. All the world has to show seemed to pass before her in a chaos of palms and minarets, charging cavalry regiments, roaring lions, comic policemen and scowling murderers; and the crowd around her, the hundreds of hot sallow candy-munching faces, young, old, middle-aged, but all kindled with the same contagious excitement, became part of the spectacle, and danced on the screen with the rest.

Comments: Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was an American novelist. Summer is a novel about small town librarian Charity Royall and her affair with architect Lucius Harney. The confusion she feels in the cinema reflects her confused state in the early stages of her relationship with Harney. Wharton was antagonistic towards the cinema, but makes numerous references to filmgoing and film culture in her work.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Dialogue in Dixie

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance: Dialogue in Dixie’, Close Up vol. V no. 3, September 1929, pp. 211-218

Text: Meekly punctual, clasping our prejudices in what might just possibly prove to be a last embrace, we entered the familiar twilight: the softly-gilded interior twilight, the shared, living quietude, still fresh and morning-new in their strange power. We could not be cheated altogether. We might be about to enter a new kingdom. Curiosity joined battle with fear and was winning when upon the dark screen appeared the silent signal: the oblong of rosy light, net-curtained. In a moment we were holding back our laughter, rueful laughter that told us how much, unawares, we had been hoping. For here was fear to match our own: the steady octopus eye, the absurdly waving tentacles of good salesmanship. The show was condemning itself in advance. We breathed freely, we grew magnanimous. We would make allowances. We were about to see the crude, the newly-born. We grew willing to abandon our demand for the frozen window-sill in favour of a subscription for a comfortable cradle. Ages seemed to have passed since we sat facing that netted oblong, ages since the small curtains had slid apart to the sound of a distressingly animated conversation. We had wandered, moralising; recalled the birth of gramophone and pianola, remember that a medium is a medium, and that just as those are justified who attempt to teach us how to appreciate Music, and the Royal Academy, and Selfridge’s so most certainly, how certainly we had not until later any conception, must those be justified who attempt to teach us how to hear Talkies. We remembered also Miss Rebecca West’s noble confession of willingness to grow accustomed to listening to speakers all of whom suffer from cleft-palate …

Cleft-palate is a fresher coin of the descriptive currency than the ‘adenoid’ worn almost to transparency by the realists. Nevertheless adenoids, large and powerful, at once mufflers and sounding-boards, were the most immediate obstacle to communication between ourselves and the semi-circle of young persons on the screen, stars, seated ostensibly in council over speech-films. Their respective mouths opened upon their words widely, like those of fish, like those of ventriloquists’ dummies, those of people giving lessons in lip-reading. And the normal pace of speech was slowed to match the effort. The total impression was strong enough to drive into the background, for clear emergence later, our sense of what happened to film upon its breaking into speech, into no matter what imagined perfection of clear speech. For the moment we could be aware only of effort.

The introductory lesson over, the alphabet presumably mastered and our confidence presumably gained by the bevy of bright young people with the manners of those who ruinously gossip to children of a treat in store, we were confronted by a soloist, the simulacrum of a tall sad gentleman who, with voice well-pitched — conquest of medium? — but necessarily (?) slow and laboriously precise in enunciation, and with pauses between each brief phrase after the manner of one dictating to a shorthand-typist, gave us, on behalf of the Negro race, a verbose paraphrase of Shylock’s specification of the claims of the Jew to be considered human. He vanished, and here were the cotton-fields: sambos and mammies at work, piccaninnies at play — film, restored to its senses by music. Not, this time, the musical accompaniment possessing, as we have remarked before, the power, be it never so inappropriate provided it is not obtrusively ill-executed, to unify seer and seen and give to what is portrayed both colour and sound — but music utterly lovely, that emerged from the screen as naturally as a flower from its stalk: the voices of the cotton-gatherers in song. Film opera flowed through our imagination. Song, partly no doubt by reason of the difference between spoken word and sustained sound, got through the adenoidal obstruction and, because the sound was distributed rather than localised upon a single form, kept the medium intact. Here was foreshadowed the noble acceptable twin of the silent film.

The singing ceased, giving place to a dead silence and the photograph of a cotton-field. The gap, suddenly yawning between ourselves — flung back into such a seat of such a cinema on such a date — and the instantly flattened, colourless moving photograph, featured the subdued hissing of the projector. Apparatus rampant: the theatre, ourselves, the screen, the mechanisms, all fallen apart into competitive singleness. Now for it, we thought. Now for dialogue. Now for careful listening to careful enunciation and indistinctness in hideous partnership. A mighty bass voice leapt from the screen, the mellowest, deepest, tenderest bass in the world, Negro-bass richly booming against adenoidal barrier and reverberating: perfectly unintelligible. A huge cotton-gatherer had made a joke. Four jokes in succession made he, each smothered in sound, each followed by lush chorus of Negro-laughter, film laughter, film-opera again, noble partner of silent film.

And so it was all through: rich Negro-laughter, Negro-dancing, of bodies whose disforming western garb could not conceal the tiger-like flow of muscles. Pure film alternating with the emergence of one after another of the persons of the drama into annihilating speech. Scenes in which only the natural dramatic power of the actors gave meaning to what was said and said, except by a shrill-voiced woman or so and here and there the piercing voice of a child, in a way fatal to any sustained reaction: slow, enunciatory, monstrous. Perhaps only a temporary necessity, as the fixed expressionless eyes of the actors — result of concentration on microphone — may be temporary?

But the hold-up, the funeral march of words, more distracting than the worst achievements of declamatory, fustian drama, was not the most destructive factor. This was supplied by the diminution of the faculty of seeing — cinematography is a visual art reaching the mind through the eyes alone — by means of the necessity for concentrating upon hearing the spoken word. Music and song demand only a distributed hearing which works directly as enhancement rather than diminution of the faculty of seeing. But concentrated listening is immediately fatal to cinematography. Imagine, to take the crudest of examples, — the loss of power suffered by representations of passionate volubility — the virago, the girl with a grievance, the puzzled foreigner — if these inimitable floods of verbiage could be heard … In all its modes, pure-film talk is more moving than heard speech. Concentration upon spoken words reveals more clearly than anything else the hiatus between screen and stage. In becoming suddenly vocal, locally vocal amidst a surrounding silence, photograph reveals its photographicality. In demanding for the films the peculiar attention necessary to spoken drama all, cinematographically, is lost; for no gain.

The play featured the pathos and humour of Negro life in the southern States and was, whenever the film had a chance, deeply moving; whenever these people were acting, moving, walking, singing, dancing, living in hope and love and joy and fear. But the certainty of intermittent dialogue ruined the whole. When it was over the brightness of our certainty as to the ultimate fate of the speech-film was the brighter for our sense of having found more in a silent film — seen on the pot-luck system the day before — that happened to be in every way the awful irreducible minimum, than in this ambitious pudding of incompatible ingredients.

The photography was good to excellent. Actors all black and therefore all more than good. A satisfying, sentimental genre picture — genuinely sentimental, quite free from sentimentality — might be made of it by cutting out the speeches which served only to blur what was already abundantly clear, and substituting continuous obligato of musical sound.

If the technical difficulties of speech are ultimately overcome, the results, like the results of the addition to silent film of any kind of realistic sound, will always be disastrous. No spoken film will ever be able to hold a candle to silent drama, will ever be so ‘speaking.’

‘As we were going to press,’ the August Close Up came in and we read Mr. Herring’s notes on Hearts in Dixie. Mr. Herring bears a lamp, a torch, electric torch kindly directed backwards, as boldly he advances amongst the shadows of what is yet to be, for the benefit of those who follow rallentando. We respect his pronouncements and are filled, therefore, with an unholy joy in believing that for once-in-a-way we may blow a statement of his down the wind, down a north-easter, sans façon. One does not need to temper winds to lambs with all their wool in place. Therefore: As a fair-minded young Englishman, Mr. Herring is for giving the Talkies their chance and their due even though his conscience refuses to allow any claim they may make for a place in the same universe as the sound-film proper. He has taken the trouble to consider their possibilities. One of these he finds realised in Hearts in Dixie at the moment when the white doctor, having drawn the sheet from the body of the mother who has been treated by a Voodoo woman, and bent for a moment, scrutinising, stands up with his declaration: “All the time,” says Mr. Herring, “we see his face. Then his words cut across, ‘she’s been dead three days’. Now, in a silent film, the visual thing would have been broken” and he concludes his remarks on the incident by describing it as “the odd spectacle of talkies assisting visual continuity.”

We do not deny the possibility here suggested, but if this incident is to stand for realisation then the possibility is not worth pursuing. For though not quite the stentorian announcement of the guest-ushering butler, the doctor’s statement inevitably had to be announcement, clear announcement in the first place to us, the audience, and incidentally to the sorrowing relatives to whom, in actuality let us hope, he would have spoken rather differently. The shock got home, not because its vehicle was the word spoken with the tragic picture still there before our eyes, but by virtue of its unexpectedness. It would have lost nothing and, relatively
to the method of carefully-featured vocal announcement, have gained much by being put across in sub-title. But since Mr. Herring objects that sub-title would have interfered with visual continuity, we must remind him that the right caption at the right moment is invisible. It flows unnoticed into visual continuity. It is, moreover, audible, more intimately audible than the spoken word. It is the swift voice within the mind. “She’s been dead three days” was dramatic, not cinematographic, and the incident would have gained enormously if the white doctor had acted his knowledge of the unknown death, if he had reverently replaced those sheets and shown his inability to help. To be sure we should not have known about the three days. What matter?

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves. Hearts in Dixie (USA 1929) was an all-talking musical film with a largely African-American cast, led by Stepin Fetchit. It had been championed previously in Close Up by the critic Robert Herring.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Die Illusion im kinematographischen Theater

Source: Fred Hood [Friedrich Huth], extract from ‘Die Illusion im kinematographischen Theater,’ Der Kinematograph, 17 March 1907, quoted in Gabriele Pedullà (trans. Patricia Gaborik), In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema (London/New York: Verso, 2012, originally published in Italian in 2008), p. 51

Text: When we enter into a movie house, we immediately see the screen on the wall, which is nothing other than a large cloth framed with wood or velvet. We know that on this cloth nothing can really happen, as it were; it is as if it lacks the stage to put a good number of people in the scene. We would like to fall under the illusion, but this ought not to be made so difficult for us. Entering the auditorium, for example, we expect to see a stage. It is incredible how our emotions rise when, taking our place, we find the familiar old stage and curtain; certainly, the curtain should cover only the screen, hiding its edges. But our fancy enchants us, and we imagine a complete set design with wings, dressing rooms, trapdoors, machines that put actors in flight, etc. If one does not want to construct an artificial stage, there is still another possibility for intensifying the illusion. An architectural frame can be placed on the wall to make the screen seem to emerge from a big opening. In this way we would see the events, as it were, from the balcony of a salon, from a castle loggia. This seems like an even better solution because we get something like the impression that everything is happening far away. Anyone who keeps these elements in mind will manage greatly to increase the public’s interest in movies.

Comments: Fred Hood was the pseudonym of Friedrich Huth (1866-c1935), a German secondary school teacher. He wrote several commentaries on film and cinemagoing in German journals at this period.

Seats in All Parts

Source: Leslie Halliwell, Seats in All Parts (London: Granada, 1985), pp. 59-60

Text: When at last the Odeon was ready, the family in its various ways prepared for the excitement of another premiere performance. We were all there, but I went with Mum and Dad and my sisters with their boyfriends. Report had it that, over in Ashburner Street, there was a dogged determination to outshine the Lido, which we thought could hardly be difficult. Again a Saturday night was chosen, and half our acquaintance dutifully put on best clothes and trooped proudly into that vast auditorium, having first made our choice of seats at sixpence, ninepence or one shilling, and no half price. Memory suggests that, despite arriving more than an hour early, we had to pay ninepence, which must have been unique for us; at any rate we sat a long way back, and although I couldn’t see very well I was prepared to put up with the handicap because this was an occasion. But at the interval Mum miraculously found three seats on the aisle, from which I had an uninterrupted view not only of the giant proscenium arch but of several less fortunately placed friends near the front, to whom I waved in an unforgivably superior manner. The décor was undeniably sumptuous. My first impression, after I got my breath back, was of rounded corners everywhere, without a right-angle in sight. The immensity of the red velour curtains; the cunningly concealed lighting; the great golden honeycomb grills on each side of the screen; the green octagonal clocks in which the letters THE ODEON took the place of numerals; all these played their part in the magnificence oft hat massive decorated space. It was more overwhelming than being in St Mark’s Church, or even Manchester Cathedral. But as I later discovered to be the case with all Odeons, the design was in fact simple to the point of austerity. There was nothing that could catch dust. The foyers and corridors were laid with rubber tiling in green and black abstract designs, with just a touch of red; and even the toilets had a smooth severity which counterpointed the general grandeur. Henceforth, Bolton’s older halls with their plaster cupids and decorated pillars would seem tawdry indeed.

Each seat on opening night had a gilt-edged programme waiting upon it, and no sooner had we absorbed this dazzling piece of showmanship than a mammoth all-glass Compton organ rose from the orchestra pit, changing colour as it came and radiating ‘The Entry of the Gladiators’ through a dozen strategically placed loudspeakers. Where was the Lido now? The premiere attraction, following a Mickey Mouse and the news, Dark Journey, a moderately adult spy melodrama with Conrad Veidt and a new young star called Vivien Leigh. There were absolutely no complaints about it, except that we would have preferred a happier ending, but some of us wondered why it had been chosen in preference to the great backlog of spectaculars which the Odeon was known to have held in reserve. But after this comparatively mild start, the spectaculars came at us in legions, with a colour film at least once a month. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, The Garden of Allah, Her Jungle Love, Vogues of 1938, The Goldwyn Follies, ]esse James, Hollywood Cavalcade, these were some of the items which brightened our lives by their sheer splendour, even though Technicolor seemed oddly to drain their drama of vitality. However, we felt we had achieved a great bargain in getting full colour at no extra price.

Comments: Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) was a film historian and programme buyer for ITV and Channel 4. Seats in All Parts is his memoir of cinemagoing, including his Bolton childhood. The cinema described is the Odeon in Ashburner Street, Bolton, which seated 2,534 and which opened on 21 August 1937.

An Entertaining Life

Source: Harry Secombe, An Entertaining Life (London: Robson Books, 2001), pp. 37-38

Text: Another influence on me was the local cinema, which went through various transformations in my boyhood. At first it was called the Pictorium, or the ‘Pic’, and then it was refurbished and became the Scala, a name we kids could never pronounce properly. It was a dream factory for the neighbourhood and stood at the confluence of two roads, Foxhole and Morris Lane, a very steep hill which led to the council estate. We would come roaring down the lane on a Saturday afternoon, Ronnie Jones and I, to join the queue for the ‘twopenny rush’. The first task was to buy sweets to take in with us from the little sweet shop at the bottom of Morris Lane. There we were faced with an agonizing choice. A sherbert dab? A lucky packet? (This usually contained fibrous twigs of raw licorice and tiger nuts.) Or a pennorth of unshelled peanuts? I usually plumped for a bullseye, which would at least last most of the main feature, although there were would not be the satisfaction of watching it change colour when the lights went out.

Inside the cinema the smell of wet knickers, orange peel and carbolic flowed over us like a warm, sticky bath and the ravaged plush seats held all sorts of perils – old chewing gum underneath, and the odd stain from a previous tenant’s over-excitement. The din before the lights went out was indescribable, and sometimes the manager in his boiled shirt and dickie bow would come out in front of the curtains and threaten us with mass explusion if we didn’t calm down. This normally did the trick, and the curtains would eventually jerk back and the projectors would clatter into life, and a collective sigh would go up as the titles appeared on the screen.

Cowboy films and African jungle epics were may favourites when I was very small, and then I progressed to a fondness for ‘Andy Hardy’ and gangster films. When the exit doors were flung open – always before the end of the serial, so that the screen became blank – I would emerge from the cinema as James Cagney or Mickey Rooney. All the way back up the hill I’d be reliving the film, firing imaginary bullets at unheeding old ladies behind their lace curtains in Morris Lane, or swinging precariously from the lower limb of the dead tree at the end of Grenfell Park Road. My parents never knew who would come home from the pictures on a Saturday afternoon.

Sometimes at the evening performance children were allowed in with an adult, because in those days there were no ‘X’ rated films. Mam and Dad rarely went to the ‘Pic’: Dad because he;d have to leave half-way through the performance with an attack of hyperventilation, and Mam because she preferred going to the Plaza on a Wednesday afternoon with her friend, Mrs Beynon, who live[d] opposite us in Pen-ys-acoed Avenue.

However, there was one person who was always good-natured enough to take other people’s children with her on these occasions. Her name was Mrs Bayless, and she lived a couple of doors up from our house at the top of St Leger Crescent. She came from the Midlands and had about six children of her own. Thus, when we all trooped up the step behind her, she would demand one ticket for herself and sometimes as many as twelve half-price tickets would spew out of the machine in the booth for the rest of us. The manager, unable to do anything about it, would tear the stubs in half with controlled fury and pass us through into the cinema. In the evenings it was a completely different place from the scene of the ‘twopenny rush’ – discreet organ music would be playing and an overpowering perfumed disinfectant concealed the unspeakable odours of the matinée.

Comments: Harry Secombe (1921-2001) was a Welsh singer, actor and comedian, best known for being one of the Goon Show radio comedy team. His childhood was spent in Swansea, Wales. The Andy Hardy series of MGM feature films starred Mickey Rooney.

A Cinema-Goer's Autobiography

Source: Extracts from Italo Calvino (trans. Tim Parks), ‘A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography’, in The Road to San Giovanni (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993), pp. 37-41, 43-45

Text: There were years when I went to the cinema almost every day and maybe even twice a day, and those were the days between ’36 and the war, the years of my adolescence. It was a time when the cinema became the world for me. A different world from the one around me, but my feeling was that only what I saw on the screen possessed the properties required of a world, the fullness, the necessity, the coherence, while away from the screen were only heterogeneous elements lumped together at random, the materials of a life, mine, which seemed to me utterly formless.

The cinema as evasion, it’s been said so many times, with the intention of writing the medium off – and certainly evasion was what I got out of the cinema in those years, it satisfied a need for disorientation, for the projection of my attention into a different space, a need which I believe corresponds to a primary function of our assuming our place in the world, an indispensable stage in any character formation. Of course there are other more profitable and personal ways of creating a different space for oneself: the cinema was the easiest and most readily available, and then it was also the one that instantaneously took me further away than any other. Every day, walking up and down the main street of my small town, I’d only have eyes for the cinemas, three that showed new films and changed programmes every Monday and Thursday, and a couple of fleapits with older or trashier films that changed three times a week. I would already know in advance what films were showing in all five theatres, but my eye would be looking for the posters they put up to announce the next film, because that was where the surprise was, the promise, the anticipation that would keep me excited through the days to come.

I would go to the cinema in the afternoon, slipping out of the house on the sly, or with the excuse that I was going to study with some friend or other, since during the school term my parents allowed me very little freedom. The proof of my passion was my determination to get into the theatre as soon as it opened, at two. Seeing the first showing had a number of advantages: the half-empty theatre, apparently entirely reserved for me, which meant I could lie back in the middle of the third-class seats with my legs stretched out on the back of the seat in front; the hope of getting back home without anybody realizing I’d left, so as then to get permission to go out again (and maybe even see another film); and the slight daze I would be in for the rest of the afternoon, bad for studying but good for daydreaming. Then apart from these motives, none of them things one would really want to confess to, there was a more serious one: getting into the cinema when it opened meant I was sure to enjoy the rare good fortune of seeing the film from the beginning and not from some arbitrary moment near the middle or the end as usually happened when I arrived at the cinema mid-afternoon or early evening.

Of course arriving when the film had already started was to conform with what is a barbarously common habit among Italian cinemagoers, and one that still persists today. You might say that even in those early days we Italians were looking forward to the more sophisticated narrative techniques of contemporary cinema, breaking up the temporal thread of the narrative and transforming it into a puzzle to be put back piece by piece or accepted in the form of a fragmentary body. To console ourselves further, I might add that watching the beginning of the film after one had already seen the end offered additional pleasures: that of discovering not the resolution of the film’s mysteries and dramas, but their genesis; and that of a confused sense of premonition vis-à-vis the characters. Confused: in precisely the way a clairvoyant’s must be, since the reconstruction of the mangled plot was not always easy, and would be even less so if it happened to be a detective story, where the identification first of the murderer and then of the crime left an even murkier area of mystery in the middle. What’s more, there would sometimes be a bit missing between the beginning and the end, since suddenly looking at my watch I’d realize I was late and that if I didn’t want to incur my parents’ wrath I’d have to leave before the sequence I’d come in at reappeared on the screen. So that many films were left with a hole in the middle, and even today, after thirty years – what am I saying? – almost forty, when I find myself watching one of those films – on television for example – I’ll recognize the moment I walked into the cinema, the scenes I watched without understanding, and I’ll retrieve the lost pieces and complete the puzzle as if I’d left it unfinished only the day before.

[…]

When, on the other hand, I went into the cinema at four o’clock or five, what hit me on coming out was the sense of time having passed, the contrast between two different temporal dimensions, inside and outside the film. I had gone in in broad daylight and came out to find it dark, the lamp-lit streets prolonging the black-and-white of the screen. The darkness softened the contrast between the two worlds a little, and sharpened it a little too, because it drew attention to the passing of those two hours that I hadn’t really lived, swallowed up as I was in a suspension of time, or in the duration of an imaginary life, or in a leap backwards to centuries before. Especially exciting was finding that the days had got shorter or longer: the sense of the passing seasons (always bland in the temperate clime we lived in) caught up with me as I came out of the cinema. When it rained in the film, I would listen hard to hear whether it had started raining outside too, whether I had been surprised by a downpour, having left home without an umbrella: it was the only moment when, while still immersed in that other world, I remembered the world outside; and it made me anxious. Even today, rain in film triggers the same reaction, a sense of anxiety.

If it wasn’t time for dinner yet, I’d join my friends trooping up and down the pavements of the main street. I’d go back past the cinema I’d just come out of and hear lines of dialogue echoing out of the projection room onto the street, and rather than the indentification [sic] I’d felt earlier, hearing them now would instill a feeling of unreality, because by now I was firmly in the outside world, and a feeling akin to nostalgia too, as one one who turns back at a frontier.

I’m thinking of one cinema in particular, the oldest one in the town and connected with my earliest memories of the days of silent films, a cinema that had preserved from those days (and did so right up until a few years ago) both its liberty-style street sign decorated with medals and the structure of the theatre itself, a long hall sloping downwards flanked by a corridor with columns. The projectionist’s room had a small window that opened onto the main street and would blare out the absurd voices of the film, metallically distorted by the technology of the period, and all the more absurd thank to the affectations of the Italian dubbing which bore no relation to any language ever spoken, past or future. And yet the very falseness of those voices must have possessed a communicative power all its own, like the sirens’ song, and every time I passed that little window I would sense the call of that other world that was the world.

The side doors of the theatre opened onto an alleyway; in the intervals the usher with the braiding on her jacket would open the red velvet curtains so that the colour of the air outside appeared discreetly at the threshold, and the passersby and the people sitting in the cinema would look at each other a little uneasily, as though facing an intrusion equally inconvenient to both. The interval between the first and second reel in particular (another strange custom practised only in Italy and inexplicably current even today) would come as a reminder that I was still in this town, on this day at this time: and depending on how I felt, my satisfaction at knowing that in just a moment I’d be plunging back into the China Sea or the San Francisco Earthquake would grow; or alternatively I would be oppressed by this warning not to forget that I was still here, not to lose myself in far-off lands.

Comments: Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was an Italian journalist and novelist, author of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Invisible Cities. He was born in Havana, Cuba, but his childhood years were spent in Sam Remo, Liguria, on Italy’s north-western coast. The above extracts are from a long piece on his memories of cinemagoing, included in a posthumously-published volume of autobiographical essays.

Adventures with D.W. Griffith

Source: Extracts from Karl Brown, Adventures with D.W. Griffith (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973), pp. 86-95

Text: It was a packed house, with swarms of people standing around outside, hoping for cancellations so they could get in anywhere at all, even in the top gallery. I never saw or felt such eager anticipation in any crowd as there was at that opening night. We three, my father, my mother, and I, had been given choice seats saved for us by Frank Woods. My parents, old-stagers at the business of opening nights, were all keyed up to a state of high tension, while I – well, I was feeling a little sick because I knew what the picture really was, just another Biograph, our four times as long. I simply couldn’t help feeling that it had been a tragic mistake to build up such a fever pitch of eager anticipation, only to let them down by showing them what was bound to be just another movie. Only longer, much longer, three hours longer. What audience, however friendly, could possibly sit through that much of nothing but one long, one very long movie of the kind they had seen a hundred times before?

My first inkling that this was not to be just another movie came when I heard, over the babble of the crowd, the familiar sound of a great orchestra tuning up. First the oboe sounding A, then the others joining to produce an ever-changing medley of unrelated sounds, with each instrument testing its own strength and capability through this warming-up preliminary. Then the orchestra came creeping in through that little doorway under the proscenium apron and I tried to count them. Impossible. Too many. But there were at least seventy, for that’s where I lost count, so most if not all of the Los Angeles Symphony orchestra had been hired to “play” the picture.

[…]

The house lights dimmed. The audience became tensely silent. I felt once again, as always before, that strange all-over chill that comes with the magic moment of hushed anticipation when the curtain is about to rise.

The title came on, apparently by mistake, because the curtain had not yet risen and all I could see was the faint flicker of the lettering against the dark fabric of the main curtain. But it was not a mistake at all, because the big curtain rose slowly to disclose the title, full and clear upon the picture screen, while at the same time [Joseph Carl] Briel’s baton rose, held for an instant, and then swept down, releasing the full impact of the orchestra in a mighty fanfare that was all but out-roared by the massive blast of the organ in an overwhelming burst of earth-shaking sound that shocked the audience first into a stunned silence and then roused them to a pitch of enthusiasm such as I had never seen or heard before.

Then, of course, came those damned explanatory titles that I had shot time and time again as Griffith and Woods kept changing and rechanging them, all with the object of having them make as much sense as possible in the fewest possible words. Somehow, the audience didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps they were hardened to it. They should have been, by now, because whenever anybody made any kind of historical picture, it always had to be preceded by a lot of titles telling all about it, not to mention a long and flowery dedication thanking everyone from the Holy Trinity to the night watchman for their invaluable cooperation, without which this picture would not have been possible.

The orchestra sort of murmured to itself during the titles, as though to reassure the audience that they couldn’t last forever. And then … the picture, gliding along through its opening sequences on a flow of music that seemed to speak for the screen and to interpret every mood. The audience was held entranced, but I was not. I was worried in the same way that young fathers, waiting to learn whether it’s a boy or a girl, are worried. I was worried, badly worried, about the battle scenes, and I wished they’d get through fiddle-faddling with that dance and all that mushy stuff and get down to cases. For it was a simple, open-and-shut matter of make or break as far as I could see; and I could not see how that mixed-up jumble of unrelated bits and pieces of action could ever be made into anything but a mixed-up jumble of bits and pieces.

Well, I was wrong. What unfolded on that screen was magic itself. I knew there were cuts from this to that, but try as I would, I could not see them. A shot of the extreme far end of the Confederate line flowed into another but nearer shot of the same line, to be followed by another and another, until I could have sworn that the camera had been carried back by some sort of impossible carrier that made it seem to be all one unbroken scene. Perhaps the smoke helped blind out the jumps, I don’t know. All I knew was that between the ebb and flow of a broad canvas of a great battle, now far and now near, and the roaring of that gorgeous orchestra banging and blaring battle songs to stir the coldest blood, I was hot and cold and feeling waves of tingling electric shocks racing all over me.

[…]

Somewhere during my self-castigation a title came on reading INTERMISSION. So soon? I asked my father the time. He pulled out his watch, snapped open the case, and said it was nine thirty. Preposterous. Somehow during the past fifteen minutes, or not more than twenty, an hour and a half had sneaked away.

We went out with the rest of the crowd to stretch our legs and, in true backstage fashion, to eavesdrop on the comments of the others. There was enthusiasm, yes; lots of it. It had been exactly as grandpa had described it was the consensus, only more real. There were also a few professionals who were wisely sure that Griffith was riding for all fall. “You can;t shoot all your marbles in the first half and have anything left for your finish” was the loudly expressed opinion of a very portly, richly dressed gentleman. “That battle was a lulu, best I’ve seen, and that assassination bit was a knockout, I ain’t kidding you. But what’s he going to do for a topper, that’s what I want to know. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. This thing is going to fizzle out like a wet firecracker, that’s what it’s going to do. Don’t tell me, I know! I’ve seen it happen too many times. They shoot the works right off the bat and they got nothing left for their finish. You wait and see. You just wait and see.”

[…]

And yet it wasn’t the finish that worried me so much as the long, dull, do-nothing stuff that I knew was slated for the bulk of the second half. Stuff like the hospital scenes, where Lillian Gish comes to visit Henry Walthall, she in demurest of dove grey, he in bed with a bandage neatly and evenly wrapped around his head. Now what in the world can anyone possibly do to make a hospital visit seem other than routine? He’ll be grateful, and she’ll be sweetly sympathetic, but what else? How can you or Griffith or the Man in the Moon possibly get anything out of such a scene? Answer: you can’t. But he did, by reaching outside the cur-and-dried formula and coming up with something so unexpected, and yet so utterly natural, that it lifted the entire thing right out of the rut and made it ring absolutely true.

Since this was an army hospital there had to be a sentry on guard. So Griffith looked around, saw a sloppy, futile sort of character loitering about, and ran him in to play the sentry, a fellow named Freeman, not an actor, just another extra. Well, Lillian passed before him and he looked after her and sighed. In the theater and on the screen, that sigh became a monumental, standout scene, because it was so deep, so heartfelt, and so loaded with longing for the unattainable that it simply delighted the audience. But not without help. Breil may not have been the greatest composer the world has ever known but he did know how to make an orchestra talk, and that sigh, uttered by the cellos and the muted trombones softly sliding down in a discordant glissando, drove the audience into gales of laughter.

[…]

I endured the “drama” – all that stuff with Ralph Lewis being shown up as a fake when he wouldn’t let his daughter marry George Siegmann because he was a mulatto – all because I was itching to get to the part where Walter Long chased Mae Marsh all over Big Bear Valley, running low and dripping with peroxide. What came on the screen wasn’t Walter Long at all. It was some sort of inhuman monster, an ungainly, misshapen creature out of a nightmare, not running as a human being would run but shambling like a gorilla. And Mae Marsh was not fluttering, either. She was a poor little lost girl frightened out of her wits, not knowing which way to turn, but searching, searching for safety, and too bewildered to know what she was doing. So she ran to the peak of that rock, and when the monster came lumbering straight at her, she … well, all I can say is that it was right, absolutely, perfectly, incontestably right.

And did the audience hate Griffith for letting them down? Not a bit of it. When the clansmen began to rise,the cheers began to rise from all over that packed house. This was not a ride to save Little Sister but to avenge her death, and every soul in that audience was in the saddle with the clansmen and pounding hell-for-leather on an errand of stern justice, lighted on their way by the holy flames of a burning cross.

[…]

So everyone was rescued and everyone was happy and everyone was noble in victory and the audience didn’t just sit there and applaud, but they stood up and cheered and yelled and stamped feet until Griffith finally made an appearance.

If you could call it an appearance. Now I, personally, in such a situation would have bounded out to the center of the stage with both hands aloft in a gesture of triumph, and I would probably have shaken my hands over my head, as Tom Wilson had told me was the proper thing for any world’s champion to do at the end of a hard-fought but victorious fight.

Griffith did nothing of the sort. He stepped out a few feet from stage left, a small, almost frail figure lost in the enormousness of that great proscenium arch. He did not bow or raise his hands or do anything but just stand there and let wave after wave of cheers and applause wash over him like great waves breaking over a rock.

Then he left. The show was over. There was an exit march from the orchestra, but nobody could hear it. People were far too busy telling one another how wonderful, how great, how tremendous it had all been.

Comments: Karl Brown (1896-1990) was an American cinematographer and director. He served as assistant to cinematographer Billy Bitzer on D.W. Griffith’s feature film The Birth of a Nation. His memoir Adventures with D.W. Griffith is one of the best first-hand accounts of silent era film. The event recalled here is the premiere at Clune’s Auditorium, Los Angeles, on 8 February 1915, when the film was still known as The Clansman. The composer Joseph Carol Breil did not conduct at the premiere – it was Carli Elinor, conducting his own score. Brown’s memory sometimes places film sequences in the wrong order, though Griffith did re-edit the film after initial screenings and in response to requests by censorship boards. Frank Woods was co-scriptwriter on the with with Griffith. Walter Long was a white actor playing a black character, Gus.