Why We Go to the Pictures

Source: ‘Why We Go to the Pictures’, Cinema News and Property Gazette, 5 March 1913, p. 23

Text: Is it because of the price? Anybody can reflect upon the quality of a product by denouncing it in terms of shillings and pence, but that is not satisfying to those who study and marvel at the constantly increasing popularity of moving pictures. Such an illuminating argument is not at all complimentary to the millions upon millions of our men, women, and children who enjoy this form of entertainment, the total sum of those attending each day in the week amounting to more than one-tenth of our entire population. The millions who go each day are largely composed of occasional patrons, and this brings the total of those who enjoy presentations on the screen up to a figure of national interest and importance.

Money does not offer much of a reason for going or staying away, except among those who wouldn’t spend threepence on mere amusement if they could, or couldn’t if they would. An unfortunate proportion of our people cannot afford to lay out a penny on recreation of that kind, and another, equally unfortunate, proportion cannot enjoy anything that is inexpensive. Between these extremes may be found the sane and sound mass constituting the brain and muscle of the country, and many of them are hopeful, if not enthusiastic, about moving pictures.

As the politicians say, “We are facing a condition, not a theory,” and whatever gives so many people bliss, contentment, or relief inside of the motion-picture exhibitions pertains to a condition so extraordinary that it defies not only rational conclusion, but intelligent investigation as well. We have been going for many years, have seen all the inside workings of studios, have met the principal producers, directors, playwrights, and actors, have been thoroughly disillusioned, have sat through screen presentations that seemed to have been created for the express purpose of destroying all the charm and variety of the new art, and we are simply more deeply interested than ever.

Perhaps our interest is that of many others — we find in the crudities what one might expect in an imperfectly developed art, one in process of evolution, and in the more finished photo-dramas we gather promise of great things to come. Notwithstanding all the pains bestowed upon production and exhibition, we are fully aware of imperfections and deficiencies, yet regard them as bound to be overcome like our present political and social errors.

We love to watch or participate in growth. If we are not building a business, or a home, or a family, or a government, or a nation, we breed animals, or raise plants, or improve ourselves. Now, here is an art which is like any other art in one respect, it cannot reach perfection except through long and continued practice. Most of us have what might be called dramatic imagination, an ability to identify ourselves with the personality, fortunes, and mishaps of people in the pictured story. We have enjoyed the stage versions for many years, but the stage is mocking us to-day with shams that are not worth our time and money. Along comes a new medium of expression, one admirably suited to the swift delineation of character and narrative, and we take it up with sympathetic interest, though it may not lend itself to all recognisable shades and modifications of the drama.

Even while this New Art was groping its way men of intelligence and imagination foresaw its tremendous possibilities, and now that it is rising like a morning sun, touching here and there bits of exquisite landscape, illumining and adorning many phases of human existence, promising to give new life and spirit to what is gradually unfolding before our eyes, we feel that we are at the dawn of a new enlightenment.

There has come into existence an impressive interpreter of human emotion as well as an attractive agent for propagating knowledge. We are in at its birth, and are watching its development as an instrument of thought. Occasionally there are brilliant presentations that flash scenes upon our minds that abide with us for our betterment. Because of these and because of those which diversify our sentiments or stimulate us with new vigour we go again and again, always hoping to get in touch with minds that help solve our problems

We are not among those who believe that the legitimate stage is in its dotage, but it is every bit as difficult to sit out a round of performances in all the theatres as to tolerate the better-class of picture shows, those exhibiting new releases to appropriate music. In the former there is an affectation that is very repulsive all along the line from producers to ushers, whereas the little places of amusement are delightfully democratic. The actors in the pictured stories make no egotistical bid for plaudits, every one engaged in the entertainment seems anxious to please, and patrons are usually given to understand that they are welcome. In the better-class of exhibitions we are made to feel thoroughly “at home.”

One weakness in legitimate production is the painful lack of modern dramatists, and this is not altogether the fault of managers and theatre-owners, though they afford slender encouragement to the coming writers of plays. This is a progressive era, and an author must not only be alive to requirements of the time, but possess a rare literary knowledge in addition to a constructive grasp, a versatile imagination, and the power of taking infinite pains. When such a playwright appears, he is apt to shatter traditions, and the producer draws into his shell of conservatism.

The motion-picture producer dares all things, and those who write his plays are not expected to flourish on disappointment. However small the returns of the photo-playwright, he is often given a chance to show what he can do, and thus grow up in the work he has undertaken. On this account it is not unreasonable to look for our future dramatists among those now engaged in writing photo-play scenarios. They are fast getting at the importance of the visual appeal, and many of them are acquiring a constructive ability of high value in case they should ever turn to the more lucrative field of action.

The audiences are being educated. The universal appreciation of what is really meritorious is being raised by moving pictures to such an extent that the business men who own or run the big theatres need not long regard art as purely experimental. That keenness of perception which has always been a national characteristic is now being applied to the art of the stage so closely that moving pictures may some day be regarded as the school alike for playwrights and
audiences.

Why should we not go?

Comments: Cinema News and Property Gazette was a British film trade journal, particularly aimed at cinema managers.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Focussing the Universe

Source: Montagu A. Pyke, Focussing the Universe: A Defence of the Cinematograph (London: Waterlow Bros. & Layton, 1910)

Text: What would we not now give for reliable representations, veritable re-productions of epoch-marking events in the history of our own country, faithful portraits of those who took part in them? The signing of Magna Charta [sic], the execution of Charles I, the beheading of Mary Queen of Scots, these and a thousand other historical occurrences, if they could be brought before our eyes today precisely and actually as they happened, how easy and interesting it would be at once to teach and to learn history; what a clearer and more accurate idea we should have respecting the great events and the people of the past, not only in our own country but in other countries.

Posterity will surely be better served in this respect. The Cinematograph renders that certain, every great event in the history of the world, every striking occurrence, every upheaval, whether of men or of nature, by means of it will be recorded for all time. The recent Revolution in Portugal is an object lesson in regard to this. The many rapid and dramatic occurrences in that Revolution, as likewise the portraits of the leaders of the revolt against Monarchical Government, are now faithfully recorded for all time. Let the mind wander back 120 years or so and contemplate the interest with which we of to-day would, were it possible, gaze on the execution of Louis XVI and Marie Antoinette, and all the other awful events of the French Revolution precisely as they took place, or on the great Napoleon himself, then a citizen of the Republic, urged on by his insatiable ambition to wade through a sea of blood and glory to a throne, and subsequently to an exile on a lonely South Atlantic Island. As I have said, posterity will be better served in such historic matters than we are. It will be able to read history not in books but in pictures.

The Cinematograph is the indelible, the faithful, the unbiased recorder of history. We of this generation may make history, but we shall not be privileged to read it in Pictures. That remains for our descendants. For us, however, the Cinematograph has abundant functions. To me, the more I think over it, the more lost I am in amazement at the complete revolution in our conceptions, our ideas, our knowledge, this modern invention is quietly accomplishing. Let me refer to a few of its phases.

It has annihilated space. Most of the wars, much of the racial feeling and national prejudices of the past have been due to narrowness of ideas and ideals, to a failure to understand, through lack of imagination, other people, their feelings and idiosyncracies. The people of the United Kingdom were long insular in more than one sense of that word. They regarded other nations with suspicion, and knew very little about them, while most of what was known was inaccurate to a degree. The Cinematograph is altering all this, it may be gradually and imperceptibly, but a distinct change is being effected all the same. By means of the Cinematograph Theatre all the world is now brought before the eyes of the visitors thereto – floods in Paris, an earthquake in South America, a typhoon and its consequences in China or Japan, a hundred and one occurrences here, there and everywhere are visually represented to the eyes of the audience with the result that sympathy is excited, different races begin to understand one another and to feel that though the colour of their skin, or the articulate sounds by which they convey their thoughts, may differ, they are, nevertheless, bound together by the firm cords of humanity.

The Cinematograph is a vast, enlightening and instructive force. The use of Pictures to convey knowledge and information is no new thing. Indeed in this respect we are simply going back to the primeval days of the human race. All alphabets were originally pictures, and the Chinese characters remain so still. In Mexico and Peru, prior to the arrival of the Spaniards, the written language was expressed in pictures.

The Cinematograph Theatre is teaching daily thousands of men and women by means of the eye. It keeps them au courant with public events at home and abroad in a much more striking manner than any newspaper can effect. The latter can only record in type a fact, not as it happened, but as it seemed to happen to the recorder. The visitor to the Picture Theatre can see the occurrence precisely as if he had been on the spot and witnessed it. And so, if he visits a Cinematograph Theatre once or twice a week, he is practically a traveller over the earth’s surface. He can take “the grand tour,” which our forefather considered a daring event once in a life-time, once or twice a week under comfortable conditions, visiting the five Continents, being, as it were, present at all the great occurrences therein, and seeing men and women making that history which not he but his descendants will read. He can survey all mankind from China to Peru and obtain observation with extensive view.

The Cinematograph provides innocent amusement, evokes wholesome laughter, tends to take people out of themselves, if only for a moment, and to forget those wearisome worries which frequently appal so many people faced with the continual struggle for existence. It forms in fact – I like the word – a diversion. It is in some respects what old Izaak Walton claimed angling to be: An employment for idle time which is then not idly spent, a rest to the mind, a cheerer of the spirits, a diverter of sadness, a calmer of unquiet thoughts, a moderator of passions, a procurer of contentedness. Amusement, relaxation of some kind is necessary for men and women, and it is especially necessary in these strenuous days when nearly all work is at high pressure. That the Picture Theatre provides a greatly felt want is made clear by the popularity it had already achieved despite the opposition and sneers of either prejudiced or interested persons.

The Picture Theatre properly conducted is a clean and healthy entertainment, entirely free not only from the actually indecent, but the suggestive in any form. It seems to me largely a revolt against the decadent condition of the modern stage and the banalities and vulgarities of the modern music-hall. It combines in due proportion amusement and interesting information respecting the happenings of humanity everywhere. Its potentialities seem to be illimitable, and I am not inclined to put any bounds to them. That it has come to stay is not now an arguable proposition. The problem rather is to meet the immense demand springing up in every part of the country for this form of entertainment. Those who have seen it once and, perhaps, visited it hesitatingly, or for the purpose of jeering at it, have left it converted missionaries to sound its praises and voice its attractions in the remotest country districts.

Not least of the charms of the Picture Theatre for me is the fact that it is, in the real sense of the word, catholic, appealing not only to men and women of every class and degree, but to men, women and children of all ages. Before its advent, the process of amusing or interesting the child at a public entertainment was a somewhat difficult one, while the possibility of instructing him or her thereat, was never considered at all. For the child the music-hall was, and rightly, deemed utterly unsuitable, so too, was the theatre; it was either above the child’s head, or the play, musical or otherwise, was not deemed proper for it to see. And so the child in a great city like London, had usually the choice of a visit to the Zoo, or to the pantomime at Christmas. Now that is all changed. The Picture Theatre, if it has done nothing else, has brought delight to the minds and souls of thousands upon thousands of mites in this great Metropolis, some of whom look upon it as the one oasis in the desert of their dull and sordid lives. I confess that nothing gives me so much pleasure as a contemplation of the fact that I have had some part in bringing a little happiness into the lives of these young ones. Nothing is more delightful to me when I visit one of my Theatres than to hear the hearty laughter of the boys and girls who have come “to see the pictures,” and in the process to get a little happiness infused into their lives, some interest in the world that lies beyond their narrow outlook. Of the value of the Picture Theatre as an educational force for the young, opening up to them, as it can, vast realms of knowledge in an attractive and easily assimilated form, or of its achievement, and still greater possibilities in the future, in respect of the extension and spread of scientific knowledge generally, I have not space to relate. The prospect is vast, almost overwhelming in its greatness, its possible results.

When I made up my mind to open my first Picture Theatre, I did so convinced that the class of entertainment which could be put forward at such a place would be one which, from its infinite variety and the conditions under which it was given, would appeal to the great mass of the public. There were then, as there always have been when anything novel is suggested, doubting Thomases who deemed the idea impracticable and bound to fail. These men had not so much faith in humanity as I had, in its desire for an entertainment free from ribaldry, vulgarity, profanity, combining in due proportion knowledge and amusement, the charge for admission to which should be moderate, and entertainment which should be given among enjoyable surroundings to people sitting in comfort, instead of craning their necks from elevated benches in the vicinity of the ceiling. My faith was justified, and the Picture Theatre is now well established in our midst. It will always be a source of pride and delight to me that I was privileged to be the pioneer of the Picture Theatre in this country, and, as such, that I have done something to brighten the lives of great masses of the people, to bring a little sunshine and happiness to them when weary and worn after a day’s toil. I feel, however, that my work in this direction is not yet completed. I shall not rest satisfied until I have erected a Picture Theatre in every London suburb and provincial town in which it seems to me that one is needed. When I have succeeded in doing that I shall feel that sense of satisfaction which comes from the thought of “something attempted, something done” to elevate, to enlighten, to instruct, and to amuse humanity.

Comments: Montagu Pyke (1874-1935) was a British exhibitor whose ‘Pyke circuit’ boasted fourteen cinemas in central London at its pre-World War One height. He became perhaps the most famous person in the British film business of his day, but his methods of raising capital were dubious, and he had been made bankrupt by 1915. Focussing the Universe was a promotional pamphlet for Pyke’s Cinematograph Theatres. Though much of it makes conventional claims for cinema as an educational force and means to capture important events, it has some thoughtful observations on the special appeal of cinema for its audiences.

The Photoplay

Source: Hugo Münsterberg, The Photoplay: A Psychological Study (New York/London: D. Appleton and Company, 1916), pp. 215-220

Text: Enthusiasts claim that in the United States ten million people daily are attending picture houses. Sceptics believe that “only” two or three millions form the daily attendance. But in any case “the movies” have become the most popular entertainment of the country, nay, of the world, and their influence is one of the strongest social energies of our time. Signs indicate that this popularity and this influence are increasing from day to day. What are the causes, and what are the effects of this movement which was undreamed of only a short time ago?

The economists are certainly right when they see the chief reason for this crowding of picture houses in the low price of admission. For five or ten cents long hours of thrilling entertainment in the best seats of the house: this is the magnet which must be more powerful than any theater or concert. Yet the rush to the moving pictures is steadily increasing, while the prices climb up. The dime became a quarter, and in the last two seasons ambitious plays were given before audiences who paid the full theater rates. The character of the audiences, too, suggests that inexpensiveness alone cannot be decisive. Six years ago a keen sociological observer characterized the patrons of the picture palaces as “the lower middle class and the massive public, youths and shopgirls between adolescence and maturity, small dealers, pedlars, laborers, charwomen, besides the small quota of children.” This would be hardly a correct description today. This “lower middle class” has long been joined by the upper middle class. To be sure, our observer of that long forgotten past added meekly: “Then there emerges a superior person or two like yourself attracted by mere curiosity and kept in his seat by interest until the very end of the performance; this type sneers aloud to proclaim its superiority and preserve its self-respect, but it never leaves the theater until it must.” Today you and I are seen there quite often, and we find that our friends have been there, that they have given up the sneering pose and talk about the new photoplay as a matter of course.

Above all, even those who are drawn by the cheapness of the performance would hardly push their dimes under the little window so often if they did not really enjoy the plays and were not stirred by a pleasure which holds them for hours. After all, it must be the content of the performances which is decisive of the incomparable triumph. We have no right to conclude from this that only the merits and excellences are the true causes of their success. A caustic critic would probably suggest that just the opposite traits are responsible. He would say that the average American is a mixture of business, ragtime, and sentimentality. He satisfies his business instinct by getting so much for his nickel, he enjoys his ragtime in the slapstick humor, and gratifies his sentimentality with the preposterous melodramas which fill the program. This is quite true, and yet it is not true at all. Success has crowned every effort to improve the photostage; the better the plays are the more the audience approves them. The most ambitious companies are the most flourishing ones. There must be inner values which make the photoplay so extremely attractive and even fascinating.

To a certain degree the mere technical cleverness of the pictures even today holds the interest spellbound as in those early days when nothing but this technical skill could claim the attention. We are still startled by every original effect, even if the mere showing of movement has today lost its impressiveness. Moreover we are captivated by the undeniable beauty of many settings. The melodrama may be cheap; yet it does not disturb the cultured mind as grossly as a similar tragic vulgarity would on the real stage, because it may have the snowfields of Alaska or the palm trees of Florida as radiant background. An intellectual interest, too, finds its satisfaction. We get an insight into spheres which were strange to us. Where outlying regions of human interest are shown on the theater stage, we must usually be satisfied with some standardized suggestion. Here in the moving pictures the play may really bring us to mills and factories, to farms and mines, to courtrooms and hospitals, to castles and palaces in any land on earth.

Yet a stronger power of the photoplay probably lies in its own dramatic qualities. The rhythm of the play is marked by unnatural rapidity. As the words are absent which, in the drama as in life, fill the gaps between the actions, the gestures and deeds themselves can follow one another much more quickly. Happenings which would fill an hour on the stage can hardly fill more than twenty minutes on the screen. This heightens the feeling of vitality in the spectator. He feels as if he were passing through life with a sharper accent which stirs his personal energies. The usual make-up of the photoplay must strengthen this effect inasmuch as the wordlessness of the picture drama favors a certain simplification of the social conflicts. The subtler shades of the motives naturally demand speech. The later plays of Ibsen could hardly be transformed into photoplays. Where words are missing the characters tend to become stereotyped and the motives to be deprived of their complexity. The plot of the photoplay is usually based on the fundamental emotions which are common to all and which are understood by everybody. Love and hate, gratitude and envy, hope and fear, pity and jealousy, repentance and sinfulness, and all the similar crude emotions have been sufficient for the construction of most scenarios. The more mature development of the photoplay will certainly overcome this primitive character, as, while such an effort to reduce human life to simple instincts is very convenient for the photoplay, it is not at all necessary. In any case where this tendency prevails it must help greatly to excite and to intensify the personal feeling of life and to stir the depths of the human mind.

But the richest source of the unique satisfaction in the photoplay is probably that esthetic feeling which is significant for the new art and which we have understood from its psychological conditions. The massive outer world has lost its weight, it has been freed from space, time, and causality, and it has been clothed in the forms of our own consciousness. The mind has triumphed over matter and the pictures roll on with the ease of musical tones. It is a superb enjoyment which no other art can furnish us. No wonder that temples for the new goddess are built in every little hamlet.

Comments: Hugo Münsterberg (1863-1916) was a German psychologist who was a professor of experimental psychology at Harvard University. His book The Photoplay is considered as the first serious work of film theory and is still highly regarded. The selection above comes from the chapter ‘The Function of the Photoplay’.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

The Movies Take to the Pastures

Source: John Durrant, extract from ‘The Movies Take to the Pastures’, Saturday Evening Post, 14 October 1950. pp. 25, 85, 89

Text: For the fifth year in a row now movie attendance has been going down, down, down like Alice’s plunge to the bottom of the rabbit hole in her Wonderland adventure. The cinema dive, though, is no dream. It is real, and the industry is chewing its nails, wondering whether to blame its favorite whipping boy, television; the 20 per cent Federal tax on tickets; strikes and war fears; Hollywood’s pinkish tint, or too-good weather, which is supposed to keep the customers away from the movies. Whatever the causes, attendance has been slipping away steadily, although recent figures indicate that the decline may now be slowing up. Tbere is, however, one phase of the industry which has been running contrary to the general trend and bringing smiles to an increasing number of exhibitors.

It is the drive-in business, which has expanded phenomenally since the end of World War I. At the time of Pearl Harbor, for instance, there were less than 100 “ozoners” in the country. None was built during the war, but by 1947 there were 400, double that number the following year and now there are a probable 2200 in the United States and forty in Canada.

As one movie mogul famous for his malapropisms said, “They are sweeping the country like wildflowers.” And Bob Hope recently commented, “There will soon be so many drive-ins in California that you’ll be able to get married, have a honeymoon and get a divorce without ever getting out of your car.”

Hope is not exaggerating too wildly. Here, for instance, are some of the things you can do at various ozoners without taking your eyes off the screen or missing a word of dialogue: You can eat a complete meal, get your car washed and serviced, including a change of tires, have the week’s laundry done, your shopping list filled and the baby’s bottle warmed. All this while the show is on.

It’s a cinch to attend a drive-in. You buy a ticket without getting out of your car, drive to one of the rows and take a position on a ramp which causes the car to tilt slightly upward at the front end. Alongside there’s a speaker, attached to a post, which you unhook and fasten to the inside of your car window. Volume can be controlled by turning a switch, and although at first it may seem odd to be hearing sounds from a speaker next to your ear, with the action on the screen a couple of hundred yards away, the illusion is acceptable. If you want to leave in the middle of the show you replace the speaker in the post and drive forward over the ramp and make for the exit. Thus, there is no climbing over the laps of annoyed spectators as there is in the conventional theaters.

If Hope thinks that California is becoming overcrowded with drive-ins, be should visit Ohio and North Carolina, where every cow pasture is crowned by a screen. North Carolina, about one third the size of California in both population and area, boasts 125 ozoners to California’s ninety-five. Ohio has 135. While Califomia’s theaters are larger and hold more cars, the concentration of so many ozoners in the two other states is way out of proportion to their size. Why, no one knows. But the business is full of oddities. Texas, as you might expect, leads the country with some 200 theaters. Then come Ohio, North Carolina and Pennsylvania in that order, followed by California, where the drive-ins operate the year round and everybody owns a car.

Due to the rapidity of construction – and closings, in some regions – the business is in a constant state of flux, and figures are changing daily. One thing is apparent, however, and that is that the trend is up and the saturation point has not yet been reached. When it comes – movie people put it at 3500 drive-ins – it is anybody’s guess whether there will be like the miniature-golf-course fiasco in the 30s, or a gradual leveling off, with the best-run theaters surviving.

Most conventional theater owners, who despise the ozoners and battle them at every turn, say the thing is a fad, that it’s going too fast and, anyway, the places are no more than parking lots for petters. Variety, the bible of show business calls them “passion pits with pix.” Needless to there are no figures on petting frequency in drive-ins, but I can offer the result of a one-man nonsnooping survey made by myself. I talked with dozens of exhibitors, and all firmly stated that no more went on in the cars than in the rear seats of the conventional theaters. All were quite touchy on the subject, by the way. Only one said he had ever had a complaint in that direction from a patron.

Leon Rosen, who has managed both types of theaters for the Fabian Theaters, a chain of eighty conventionals and seven drive-ins in the Middle Atlantic states, told me that more than 3,000,000 people have attended the ozoners he’s managed and he has never received a single complaint. He could not say the same for his indoor theaters. “Sure, a fellow slips his arm around his girl in the drive-ins,” he said. “The same as in the regular theaters or on a park bench. No more than that. And there’s one thing you don’t get in the drive-ins that you get inside. That’s the guy on the prowl, the seat changer who molests lone women. There’s none of that in the drive-ins.”

Still, the bad name persists and is kept alive by gents’-room gags which probably stem from the prewar days, when drive-ins were completely blacked out and circulating food venders and ushers were a rarity. But what disproves the cheap gags more than anything else is the type of audience that fills the drive-ins today. It is by far a family audience, with a probable 75 per cent of the cars containing children who, incidentally, are let in free by most drive-ins if they are under twelve. This is the main reason the ozoners have been so successful – their appeal to the
family group. They are the answer to parents who want to take in the movies, but can’t leave their children alone at home. No baby sitters are needed. And the kids are no bother to anyone in the audience. There’s no vaulting of theater seats, running up and down the aisles or drowning out the dialogue by yapping.

A workingman told me that the drive-ins had saved his family from a near split-up. He didn’t like the movies, he said, and his wife did. The result was a battle every Saturday night, when she wanted to see a movie and he refused to go. Saturday night was his beer night, and no movies were going to interfere with it. His wife went anyway, and he stayed home sipping beer and keeping an eye on Junior. But this didn’t work out. The weekly argument went on, and the breach between them got wider. Then, one Saturday night, he agreed to take in a drive-in with her, provided he could take a long a couple of bottles of beer. After that everything was solved. They now go every Saturday night. She sits in the front seat with Junior and watches the flickers. He sits in back alone, with his beer in a bucket of ice, and pays little attention to the movie as he sips the brew and smokes cigars with his legs crossed. Now everybody is happy and there’s no more talk of a split-up.

After the war, the drive-ins began to go all out for the family trade. The so-called “moonlight” flooding of the parking area and aisle lighting came in, and exhibitors built children’s play areas, with swings, slides, merry-go-rounds and pony rides. Some installed miniature railroads which hauled kids over several hundred yards of track. Picnic grounds, swimming pools and monkey villages appeared in the larger theaters. While the youngsters disport themselves at these elaborate plants, their parents can have a go at miniature golf courses and driving ranges or they can play shuffleboard, pitch horse-shoes and dance before live bands.

That is the trend now in the de luxe drive-ins, ones with a capacity of, say, 800 cars or more. They are becoming community recreation centers, and the idea is to attract people two or three hours before show time. It gives the receipts a boost and the family a whole evening’s outing, not just three hour sat the movies, according to the new school of exhibitors. Many old-time managers disagree.

“This carnival stuff cheapens the business,” one told me. “And the biggest mistake the drive-ins made was to let kids in free. They can’t go to the indoor houses for nothing, so a lot of people think we show only rotten pictures and they stay away.”

The manager touched a sore point here. The films shown in the ozoners are in the main pretty frightful. Most are third-run pictures, rusty with age. Drive-in exhibitors are not entirely to blame for this. Film distributors point out that their first loyalty is to their regular customers, the all-year conventional houses, and the ozoners must wait in line or pay through the nose.

It doesn’t seem to make much difference what kind of pictures are shown, because drive-in fans are far less choosy than the indoor variety. A large part of them never have been regular indoor movie-goers, and almost any picture is new to them. The ozoners have struck a rich vein of new fans. Leading the list are the moderate-income families who bring the kids to save money on baby-sitters. Furthermore, they don’t have to dress up, find a parking place, walk a few blocks to a ticket booth and then stand in line. The drive-ins make it easy for them and for workers and farmers, who can come in their working clothes straight from the evening’s chores, and for the aged and physically handicapped. They are a boon to the hard of hearing and to invalids, many of whom never saw a movie before the drive-ins. They draw fat men who have trouble wedging themselves between the arms of theater seats, and tall men sensitive about blocking off the screen from those behind. Add the teen-agers to these people, and you have a weekly attendance of about 7,000,000, an impressive share of the country’s 60,000,000 weekly ticket buyers …

Comments: Drive-ins were introduced in the United States in 1933.

Links: Complete article on Saturday Evening Post site

Bioscope & Cinematograph Shows

Source: Report from Police Sergeant George Jordan, Arbour Square station, H Division, The National Archives, MEPO 2/9172 file 590446/5, ‘Bioscope & Cinematograph Shows’, March 11th, 1909

Text: No 12 High Street, Whitechapel has been recently erected. The front has been constructed with a pay box in the centre and a pair of doors each side.

The price of admission is: – Adults 2, Children 1 penny.

The room is about 45 ft deep and 20 ft wide. The machine and films are placed in a fireproof box just inside the entrance and immediately behind the paybox. The sheet on which the pictures are shown being at the far end. The machine is worked by one of the three adult attendants who relieve each other.

There are several rows of “tip-up” seats near the curtain, with ordinary chairs behind occupying two-thirds of the floor space; the remaining portion being for standing room only.

A five foot gangway is arranged at one side of the seats, with an exit door opening outwards half-way down. An electric piano placed near the screen plays continuously. About 250 English and Jewish people were present, including about 100 children.

No 63 Whitechapel Road was formerly a small shop; it has only one ordinary door opening into a room 30 feet deep by 15 feet wide.

Adults are charged one penny and children one halfpenny for admission.

The machine and films are placed in an asbestos box at the far end of the room and worked by an adult operator employed for that purpose. The pictures are shown on a screen attached to the window.

Chairs are provided in rows with a four foot passage way at the side. There was a mixed audience of about 100 persons present, half of whom were children.

An ordinary piano was placed near the window with a notice displayed inviting members of the audience to play; a young girl was playing when I entered. The proprietor’s wife, son age about 20, and a boy were acting as attendants.

No 97 Commercial Road was formerly a small shop with window and side door leading to a passage and to the room in question, which is about 30 feet deep and 15 feet wide.

Adults pay one penny; children one halfpenny for admission.

Forms are placed across the room rising in height at the back to about four feet. There is one central passage between the forms not more than three feet wide.

The audience numbered about 150; about 100 being children from four years upwards; the remainder were young Jews – male and female.

The machine and films are placed in a separate room at the rear. This room is about six feet above the shop level, with a rough “Jacobs” ladder leading to it from the side passage. The machine stands on an iron base about 12 inches above the wooden floor. It has no protecting box and there is a bedstead and table near.

An adult operator is employed at 30/- per week.

A hole has been made in the parting wall and the pictures are exhibited on a screen attached to the shop window …

In all these places of entertainment the audience is mixed together irrespective of age or sex. A series of five or six sets of pictures are shown in quick succession lasting from 30 to 45 minutes. During that time the room is in darkness. The rays from the lantern slightly illuminate the benches near the curtain, but at the opposite end where some of the spectators stand up in order to get a better view, it would be quite easy for acts of misconduct or indecency to take place without fear of detection.

In several cases the only means of exit is by one door, and the gangways are so narrow and inadequate that if an alarm of fire was raised it would be impossible for the younger members of the audience to escape in the rush that would ensue, and there might be loss of life.

Comments: This police report is part of a series of reports from the various Metropolitan Police Divisions conducted in March 1909, driven by concerns of crime, indecency and fire hazards in the small shop-conversions cinemas, or bioscopes, that existed in London at this time. The report covers the Whitechapel district of East London. The Whitechapel Picture Theatre was located as 12 Whitechapel Street and was managed by Charles Robinson. The name of the entertainment at 63 Whitechapel Road is not known but the proprietor was Barnard Cohen. Happy Land was located at 97 Commercial Road, run by Lewis Klein.

Links: National Archives file reference

Bioscope & Cinematograph Shows

Source: Report from Police Sergeant George Jordan, Arbour Square station, H Division, The National Archives, MEPO 2/9172 file 590446/5, ‘Bioscope & Cinematograph Shows’, March 11th, 1909

Text: No 12 High Street, Whitechapel has been recently erected. The front has been constructed with a pay box in the centre and a pair of doors each side.

The price of admission is: – Adults 2, Children 1 penny.

The room is about 45 ft deep and 20 ft wide. The machine and films are placed in a fireproof box just inside the entrance and immediately behind the paybox. The sheet on which the pictures are shown being at the far end. The machine is worked by one of the three adult attendants who relieve each other.

There are several rows of “tip-up” seats near the curtain, with ordinary chairs behind occupying two-thirds of the floor space; the remaining portion being for standing room only.

A five foot gangway is arranged at one side of the seats, with an exit door opening outwards half-way down. An electric piano placed near the screen plays continuously. About 250 English and Jewish people were present, including about 100 children.

No 63 Whitechapel Road was formerly a small shop; it has only one ordinary door opening into a room 30 feet deep by 15 feet wide.

Adults are charged one penny and children one halfpenny for admission.

The machine and films are placed in an asbestos box at the far end of the room and worked by an adult operator employed for that purpose. The pictures are shown on a screen attached to the window.

Chairs are provided in rows with a four foot passage way at the side. There was a mixed audience of about 100 persons present, half of whom were children.

An ordinary piano was placed near the window with a notice displayed inviting members of the audience to play; a young girl was playing when I entered. The proprietor’s wife, son age about 20, and a boy were acting as attendants.

No 97 Commercial Road was formerly a small shop with window and side door leading to a passage and to the room in question, which is about 30 feet deep and 15 feet wide.

Adults pay one penny; children one halfpenny for admission.

Forms are placed across the room rising in height at the back to about four feet. There is one central passage between the forms not more than three feet wide.

The audience numbered about 150; about 100 being children from four years upwards; the remainder were young Jews – male and female.

The machine and films are placed in a separate room at the rear. This room is about six feet above the shop level, with a rough “Jacobs” ladder leading to it from the side passage. The machine stands on an iron base about 12 inches above the wooden floor. It has no protecting box and there is a bedstead and table near.

An adult operator is employed at 30/- per week.

A hole has been made in the parting wall and the pictures are exhibited on a screen attached to the shop window …

In all these places of entertainment the audience is mixed together irrespective of age or sex. A series of five or six sets of pictures are shown in quick succession lasting from 30 to 45 minutes. During that time the room is in darkness. The rays from the lantern slightly illuminate the benches near the curtain, but at the opposite end where some of the spectators stand up in order to get a better view, it would be quite easy for acts of misconduct or indecency to take place without fear of detection.

In several cases the only means of exit is by one door, and the gangways are so narrow and inadequate that if an alarm of fire was raised it would be impossible for the younger members of the audience to escape in the rush that would ensue, and there might be loss of life.

Comments: This police report is part of a series of reports from the various Metropolitan Police Divisions conducted in March 1909, driven by concerns of crime, indecency and fire hazards in the small shop-conversions cinemas, or bioscopes, that existed in London at this time. The report covers the Whitechapel district of East London. The Whitechapel Picture Theatre was located as 12 Whitechapel Street and was managed by Charles Robinson. The name of the entertainment at 63 Whitechapel Road is not known but the proprietor was Barnard Cohen. Happy Land was located at 97 Commercial Road, run by Lewis Klein.

Links: National Archives file reference

Words

Source: Jean-Paul Sartre, Words [Le Mots] (London: Penguin, 2000 – orig. pub. 1964), translated by Irene Clephane, pp. 75-79

Text: I challenge my contemporaries to tell me the date of their first experience of the cinema. We entered blindly into a traditionless century which was to contrast sharply with the others by its bad manners, and the new plebeian art anticipated our barbarism. Born in a robber’s cave, classified by the authorities along with travelling entertainers, it had certain vulgar qualities which shocked serious people; it was an amusement for women and children. My mother and I adored it, but we hardly ever thought about it and we never mentioned it: do you mention bread if there is plenty of it? When we became aware of its existence, it had long since become our major need.

On rainy days, Anne-Marie would ask me what I wanted to do, and we would hesitate a long while between the circus, the Châtelet, the Maison Électrique, and the Musée Grévin; at the last moment, with deliberate casualness, we would decide to go to a picture theatre. My grandfather would appear at the door of his study when we opened the door of the flat; he would ask: ‘Where are you children off to?’ ‘To the cinema,’ my mother would say. He would frown and she would add hastily: ‘To the Panthéon cinema, it’s very near; we only have to cross the rue Soufflot.’ He would let us go with a shrug; the following Thursday, he would say to Monsieur Simonnot: ‘Look here, Simonnot, you’re a sensible fellow, can you understand this? My daughter takes my grandson to the cinema!’ and Monsieur Simonnot would say in a conciliatory tone: ‘I’ve never been but my wife sometimes goes.’

The show would have begun. As we stumbled along behind the attendant, I felt I was there surreptitiously; above our heads, a beam of light would be shining across the hall, and dust and smoke would be dancing in it; a piano would be tinkling, violet light-bulbs would be glowing on the wall, and I would catch my breath at the varnish-like smell of a disinfectant. The smell and the fruits of that inhabited night mingled within me: I was eating the exit lights, filling myself with their acid taste. I would scrape my back against people’s knees, sit on a creaking seat. My mother slipped a folded rug under my buttocks to raise me up; finally I would look at the screen and would see fluorescent chalk, and shimmering landscapes streaked with rain; it was always raining, even in bright sunshine, even inside a flat; sometimes a fiery planet would cross a baroness’s drawing-room without her appearing to be surprised. I used to love that rain, that restless disquiet which tormented the wall. The pianist would strike up the overture to Fingal’s Cave and everyone would know that the villain was about to appear: the baroness would be crazed with terror. But her handsome, dusky face would be replaced by a mauve notice: ‘End of first part.’ Then would come the abrupt sobering-up and the lights. Where was I? At school? In a government office? No ornaments of any kind: rows of tip-up seats, which revealed their springs when pushed up, walls smeared with ochre, and a wooden floor littered with cigarette ends and spittle. Muffled voices would fill the hall, words would exist once more; the attendant would offer boiled sweets for sale and my mother would buy me some; I would out them in my mouth and I was sucking the exit lights. People would rub their eyes and everyone would realize he had neighbours. Soldiers, local servants; a bony old man would be chewing, hatless working-women would be laughing out loud: all these people were not of our world. Fortunately, dotted here and there, large bobbing hats brought reassurance.

The social hierarchy of the theatre had given my late father and my grandfather, who used to sit in the upper circle, a taste for ceremony: when a lot of men get together, they have to be separated by rituals or else they slaughter each other. The cinema proved the opposite: the very mixed audience seemed to have been united by a disaster rather than by a show; once dead, etiquette finally unmasked the true link between men, their adhesion. I came to loathe ceremonies but I adored crowds; I have seen all kinds, but I never recovered that naked awareness without recoil of each individual towards all the others, that waking dream, that obscure awareness of being a man until 1940, in Stalag XII D.

My mother even went so far as to take me to the Boulevard cinemas: the Kinérama, the Folies Dramatiques, the Vaudeville and the Gaumont Palace, then called the Hippodrome. I saw Zigomar and Fantômas, Les Exploits de Maciste and Les Mystères de New York: the gilding spoilt my pleasure. The vaudeville, formerly a theatre, refused to yield up its old grandeur: up to the last minute, a red curtain with gold tassels hid the screen; three knocks would announce the beginning of the performance, the orchestra would play an overture, the curtain would go up and the lights out. I was annoyed by this incongruous ceremony, by the dusty pomp which achieved nothing except to remove the characters to a distance; in the circle, in the gods, impressed by the chandeliers and by the paintings on the ceiling, our fathers could not or would not believe that the theatre belonged to them: they were received there. I wanted to see the film as close as possible. In the egalitarian discomfort of the local halls, I had realized that this new art was mine, was everyone’s. We had the same mental age: I was seven and could read; it was twelve and could not speak. They said that it was just starting and that it would improve; I thought that we would grow up together. I have not forgotten our mutual childhood: when I am offered a boiled sweet, when a woman near me varnishes her nails, when I breathe a certain smell of disinfectant in the lavatories of provincial hotels or when I star at the small violet night-light on the ceiling of a night-train, I recapture in my eyes, in my nose and on my tongue, the scents and the lights of those vanished halls; four years ago, at sea off Fingal’s Cave, in heavy weather, I could hear a piano in the wind.

Inaccessible to the sacred, I adored magic: the cinema was a dubious phenomenon which I loved perversely for what it still lacked. That stream of light was everything, nothing, and everything reduced to nothing: I was present at the frenzies of a wall; solid objects had been robbed of a massiveness which bore down even on my body, and the young idealist in me delighted at this endless contraction; later on, the lateral and the circular movements of triangles reminded me of those shapes gliding across the screen. I loved the cinema even for its two-dimensional quality. I made primary colours of its white and black, comprising all the others and revealing themselves only to the initiate; I loved seeing the invisible. Above all, I loved the immutable dumbness of my heroes. But no; they were not mute because they knew how to make themselves understood. We communicated through music; it was the sound of what was going on inside them. Persecuted innocence did better than to speak of or show its woe: it stole its way into me through the tune which issued from it; I would read the conversations, but I understood the hope and the bitterness, and caught a whisper of the proud suffering that did not proclaim itself. I was committed; that was not me, that young widow crying on the screen, and yet she and I had but one soul. Chopin’s Funeral March; that was all it needed for her tears to moisten my eyes. I felt that I was a prophet unable to foretell anything: even before the traitor was betrayed, his crime would steal its way into me; when all seemed quiet in the château, sinister chords would betray the presence of the murderer. How lucky those cowboys, musketeers and policemen were: their future was there, in that foreboding music, and it determined the present. An unbroken song mingled with their lives and led them on towards victory or death, as it moved towards its own end. They were expected, these men: by the young girl in peril, by the general, by the traitor ambushed in the forest and by the friend tethered near a battle of powder as he sadly watched the flame run along the fuse. The course of that flame, the virgin’s desperate struggle against her ravisher, the hero galloping across the steppes, the interweaving of all these images, of all these speeds and, underneath them, the hell-bent movement of the ‘Race to the Abyss’, an orchestral selection from The Damnation of Faust adapted for the piano, all meant one thing to me: Destiny. The hero would jump down, put out the fuse, the traitor would go for him, and a duel with knives would begin; but the hazards of this duel would themselves become part of the strict musical development: they were false hazards which poorly concealed the universal order. What joy when the last knife-stab coincided with the last chord! I was satisfied, I had found the world in which I wanted to live – I was in touch with the absolute. What uneasiness, too, when the lights went on again: I was torn with love for these characters and they had disappeared, taking their world with them. I had felt their victory in my bones, yet it was theirs and not mine: out in the street, I was a supernumerary once more.

Comment: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French philosopher, novelist, playwright and public intellectual. He also wrote or co-wrote a number of screenplays. Le Mots is his autobiography. Anne-Marie is his mother. He was imprisoned in Stalag 12D during the Second World War. Zigomar was a 1911 French adventure film series. It was adapted from a serial novel, as was Fantômas (France 1913-14). The character of Maciste first appeared in the 1914 Italian film Cabiria, played by Bartolomeo Pagano, with numerous follow-up films featuring the character appearing from 1915 onwards. Les Mystères de New York was the French title of the American serial The Exploits of Elaine (1914). My thanks to Guido Convents for recommending this extract.

The Picture-Palaces of London

picturepalace

Illustration accompanying the original article

Source: ‘The Picture-Palaces of London’, The Daily Chronicle, 9 April 1910

Text: The Picture-Palaces of London. Have They Comes to Stay?

Pricked out in electric lights, on an imposing brand new structure of white stucco, you read the words “Cinematograph Theatre.” You wonder where the thing has come from. Like Aladdin’s Palace, it seems to have sprung up in a single night. On yesterday there was a block of old houses on that very spot. You remember looking in a the greengrocer’s window as you sauntered home to dinner, wondering what kind of fruit the children would like.

Well, no, it could not have been yesterday, but it was certainly the week before last!

A few weeks later the white stucco erection appears to have budded. There are two of the now, side by side. The matter is worth further enquiry, so you cross over, and read the “bill of fare” at either door. The rival attendants, gorgeously arrayed, glance at you with enticing eyes, but you regard not their mute entreaties. Then you are probably taken by surprise. The charm of the things catches you. Perhaps it is best set down as a free-and-easiness. Go when you will, after the door is opened, you are never late; never in anxiety over a seat. The show goes on continuously. There is a set of pictures for the day – six perhaps, or eight – and if you miss numbers one and two, why, you will see them for certain after number eight.

Entertainment Ad Lib.

The set may last an hour, to an hour and a half, but you need not go out at that time unless you have a mind to. You may sit still, if you choose, and see the whole set over again. I dare say you won’t, unless it is pouring wet outside, and you have forgotten your umbrella, but it is something to know that you can.

The cinematograph theatre fills a gap in our scheme of amusement. It may be a small gap, but still it was there, and now it is filled. It catches the leakage from the theatres and halls, the unfortunately who are sent sorrowfully away by the unwelcome announcement of “House full.”

It gives the tired sightseer an hour’s respite from the noise and fatigue of the streets, and in some cases it dangles the tempting bait of “afternoon tea[“] gratis before this type of prospective patron. To the regular theatre it stands in the same relationship as a “snack” does to a formal luncheon. It is the resource of the man with only an hour to spare, the lady who doesn’t like to be out late, the girl whose papa doesn’t approve of theatres, the little boy who must be in bed at six, the hospital nurse who only has two hours off duty, and the family party from the provinces, whose train starts at ten sharp.

Oh, and one must not forget the lovers! Humble lovers, perhaps, with a few shillings to spare. one sees them often in the sixpenny seats, holding hands in the friendly dark. They watch the films go spinning on, with absent eyes and beatific smiles. They haven’t come there for the show, but to find a corner to sit in, out of the wet. One can’t always go round and round the Inner Circle with a penny ticket without catching the eye of the cute conductor!

The Aristocratic Sixpence.

There are differences in the quality of these as of all other types of amusement. There are the second-raters in the outlying streets, just beyond the radius of West-end style. The modest sum of threepence will gain you admittance here, and if you indulge yourself to the tune of sixpence you are “a swell.” The pictures are usually quite up to the average, but the environment is not. The dark is not friendly, but apprehensive. One is suspicious of one’s neighbour, and keeps a tight clutch on one’s belongings. There is every prospect of carrying away with you less than you ought, and more than you bargained for. Reminiscences of the place are forced upon you next day by the odour of stale and indifferent tobacco that clings to your clothes. As you near the vicinity of Oxford-street there is a decided attempt at luxury in the internal appointments of the “Palaces.” The goods are not all in the shop window. Decidedly, too, the “orchestra” plays better. It consists usually of a girl with a piano, the latter very much at her mercy. In some of the theatres visited by the writer, it would be only charitable to suppose that the lady pianist had fallen a victim to the prevalent disease newly christened by a London daily as “The Hump.” She played in spasms, with a reckless disregard of time and tune, and an obvious idea that her function was merely to drown out the silence.

In the West they have changed all that, and, incidentally, the prices have gone up. We may now pay two shillings for a “fauteuil” (which is a horrid, awkward word to spell, and means exactly the same as seat, anyway!). Along with the fauteuil we have the advantage of being shone upon by rose-shaded electric lights, vastly improving to the complexion, and of feasting our eyes on the artistic decorations of the walls when we tire of the pictures.

People do not laugh so boisterously here as they do in the north and east. At most they chuckle. On the whole, there is a remarkable absence of all kinds of noise in these cinematograph theatres. Applause seems to be a thing unknown. It is a relief to hear the voice of a child imperiously demanding, as the name of the film appears, “Read it, mother. Read it quick!”

Child’s Living Picture Book.

The little folks are mostly to be found at the afternoon performances. It must all seem a kind of glorified picture book to them. How they roar over the man who knocks down everything, or the fat old lady pursued by some strange fatality, who is knocked down by everybody! They have a wonderful aptitude, too, for following the “story” in some of the more ambitious pictures. The kidnapped child is one of their favourites. “Did they find him, mother? Are you sure?” a little lad asks in a tearful voice, to the kindly amusement of all who sit near by. The tragic subjects find favour with young ladies, one fancies, and indeed they are sometimes admirably conceived – real dramas, in which the words are hardly missed. The marvellous power of facial expression to convey an emotion in all its subtle shades is brought home to the mind with striking force by the intense interest one feels in these “mimed” plays. Of course it is hard to forget that the pictures are “faked.” One could never for a moment admit the possibility of pictorial drama affecting the taste for the drama of the regular stage. Too much talk may be bad, as was instanced in a recent much-criticised production, but no talk at all is the worse evil of the two.

Perhaps most successful of all are the travel pictures, where the scenery is absolutely realistic, and the sense of motion admirably conveyed. No “book of views,” however beautiful, can fascinate as this moving panorama does. It is as good as a holiday – and somewhat cheaper!

Have the pictures come to stay? Yes, they have filled a gap. It will be long before anything more novel or more entertaining appears to fit that precise niche in the House of Pleasure.

Comment: The inner Circle refers to a London underground train line.

Middletown

Source: Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture (Orlando: Harcourt, Crace & Co., 1929), pp. 263-269

Text: Like the automobile, the motion picture is more to Middletown than simply a new way of doing an old thing; it has added new dimensions to the city’s leisure. To be sure, the spectacle-watching habit was strong upon Middletown in the nineties. Whenever they had a chance people turned out to a “show,” but chances were relatively fewer. Fourteen times during January, 1890, for instance, the Opera House was opened for performances ranging from Uncle Tom’s Cabin to The Black Crook, before the paper announced that “there will not be any more attractions at the Opera House for nearly two weeks.” In July there were no “attractions”; a half dozen were scattered through August and September; there were twelve in October.[17]

Today nine motion picture theaters operate from 1 to 11 P.M. seven days a week summer and winter; four of the nine give three different programs a week, the other five having two a week; thus twenty-two different programs with a total of over 300 performances are available to Middletown every week in the year. In addition, during January, 1923, there were three plays in Middletown and four motion pictures in other places than the regular, theaters, in July three plays and one additional movie, in October two plays and one movie.

About two and three-fourths times the city’s entire population attended the nine motion picture theaters during the month of July, 1923, the “valley” month of the year, and four and one-half times the total population in the “peak” month of December.[18] Of 395 boys and 457 girls in the three upper years of the high school who stated how many times they had attended the movies in “the last seven days,” a characteristic week in mid-November, 30 per cent, of the boys and 39 per cent of the girls had not attended, 31 and 29 per cent, respectively had been only once, 22 and 21 per cent, respectively two times, 10 and 7 per cent, three times, and 7 and 4 per cent, four or more times. According to the housewives interviewed regarding the custom in their own families, in three of the forty business class families interviewed and in thirty-eight of the 122 working class families no member “goes at all” to the movies.[19] One family in ten in each group goes as an entire family once a week or oftener; the two parents go together without their children once a week or oftener in four business class families (one in ten), and in two working class families (one in sixty); in fifteen business class families and in thirty-eight working class families the children were said by their mothers to go without their parents one or more times weekly.

In short, the frequency of movie attendance of high school boys and girls is about equal, business class families tend to go more often than do working class families, and children of both groups attend more often without their parents than do all the individuals or other combinations of family members put together. The decentralizing tendency of the movies upon the family, suggested by this last, is further indicated by the fact that only 21 per cent, of 337 boys and 33 per cent of 423 girls in the three upper years of the high school go to the movies more often with their parents than without them. On the other hand, the comment is frequently heard in Middletown that movies have cut into lodge attendance, and it is probable that time formerly spent in lodges, saloons, and unions is now being spent in part at the movies, at least occasionally with other members of the family. [20] Like the automobile and radio, the movies, by breaking up leisure time into an individual, family, or small group affair, represent a counter movement to the trend toward organization so marked in clubs and other leisure-time pursuits.

How is life being quickened by the movies for the youngsters who bulk so large in the audiences, for the punch press operator at the end of his working day, for the wife who goes to a “picture” every week or so “while he stays home with the children,” for those business class families who habitually attend?

“Go to a motion picture … and let yourself go,” Middletown reads in a Saturday Evening Post advertisement. “Before you know it you are living the story laughing, loving, hating, struggling, winning! All the adventure, all the romance, all the excitement you lack in your daily life are in Pictures. They take you completely out of yourself into a wonderful new world … Out of the cage of everyday existence! If only for an afternoon or an evening escape!”

The program of the five cheaper houses is usually a “Wild West” feature, and a comedy; of the four better houses, one feature film, usually a “society” film but frequently Wild West or comedy, one short comedy, or if the feature is a comedy, an educational film (e.g., Laying an Ocean Cable or Making a Telephone), and a news film. In general, people do not go to the movies to be instructed; the Yale Press series of historical films, as noted earlier, were a flat failure and the local exhibitor discontinued them after the second picture. As in the case of the books it reads, comedy, heart interest, and adventure compose the great bulk of what Middletown enjoys in the movies. Its heroes, according to the manager of the leading theater, are, in the order named, Harold Lloyd, comedian; Gloria Swanson, heroine in modern society films; Thomas Meighan, hero in modern society films; Colleen Moore, ingenue; Douglas Fairbanks, comedian and adventurer; Mary Pickford, ingenue; and Norma Talmadge, heroine in modern society films. Harold Lloyd comedies draw the largest crowds. “Middletown is amusement hungry,” says the opening sentence in a local editorial; at the comedies Middletown lives for an hour in a happy sophisticated make-believe world that leaves it, according to the advertisement of one film, “happily convinced that Life is very well worth living.”

Next largest are the crowds which come to see the sensational society films. The kind of vicarious living brought to Middletown by these films may be inferred from such titles as: “Alimony – brilliant men, beautiful jazz babies, champagne baths, midnight revels, petting parties in the purple dawn, all ending in one terrific smashing climax that makes you gasp”; “Married FlirtsHusbands: Do you flirt? Does your wife always know where you are? Are you faithful to your vows? Wives: What’s your hubby doing? Do you know? Do you worry? Watch out for Married Flirts.” So fast do these flow across the silver screen that, e.g., at one time The Daring Years, Sinners in Silk, Women Who Give, and The Price She Paid were all running synchronously, and at another “Name the Man – a story of betrayed womanhood,” Rouged Lips, and The Queen of Sin. [21] While Western “action” films and a million-dollar spectacle like The Covered Wagon or The Hunchback of Notre Dame draw heavy houses, and while managers lament that there are too few of the popular comedy films, it is the film with burning “heart interest,” that packs Middletown’s motion picture houses week after week. Young Middletown enters eagerly into the vivid experience of Flaming Youth: “neckers, petters, white kisses, red kisses, pleasure-mad daughters, sensation-craving mothers, by an author who didn’t dare sign his name; the truth bold, naked, sensational” – so ran the press advertisement under the spell of the powerful conditioning medium of pictures presented with music and all possible heightening of the emotional content, and the added factor of sharing this experience with a “date” in a darkened room. Meanwhile, Down to the Sea in Ships, a costly spectacle of whaling adventure, failed at the leading theater “because,” the exhibitor explained, “the whale is really the hero in the film and there wasn’t enough ‘heart interest’ for the women,”

Over against these spectacles which Middletown watches today stand the pale “sensations” of the nineties, when Sappho was the apogee of daring at the Opera House: “The Telephone Girl – Hurricane hits, breezy dialogue, gorgeous stage setting, dazzling dancing, spirited repartee, superb music, opulent costumes.” Over the Garden Wall, Edith’s Burglar, East Lynne, La Belle Maria, or Women’s Revenge, The Convict’s Daughter, Joe, a Mountain Fairy, The Vagabond Heroine, Guilty Without Crime, The World Against Her (which the baker pronounced in his diary, “good, but too solemn”), Love Will Find a Way, Si. Plankard. These, it must be recalled, were the great days when Uncle Tom’s Cabin, with “fifty men, women, and children, a pack of genuine bloodhounds, grandest street parade ever given, and two bands,” packed the Opera House to capacity.

Actual changes of habits resulting from the week-after-week witnessing of these films can only be inferred. Young Middletown is finding discussion of problems of mating in this new agency that boasts in large illustrated advertisements, “Girls! You will learn how to handle ‘em!” and “Is it true that marriage kills love? If you want to know what love really means, its exquisite torture, its overwhelming raptures, see — .”

“Sheiks and their ‘shebas,’” according to the press account of the Sunday opening of one film,” … sat without a movement or a whisper through the presentation … It was a real exhibition of love-making and the youths and maidens of [Middletown] who thought that they knew something about the art found that they still had a great deal to learn.”

Some high school teachers are convinced that the movies are a powerful factor in bringing about the “early sophistication” of the young and the relaxing of social taboos. One workingclass mother frankly welcomes the movies as an aid in child-rearing, saying, “I send my daughter because a girl has to learn the ways of the world somehow and the movies are a good safe way.” The judge of the juvenile court lists the movies as one of the “big four” causes of local juvenile delinquency, [22] believing that the disregard of group mores by the young is definitely related to the witnessing week after week of fictitious behavior sequences that habitually link the taking of long chances and the happy ending. While the community attempts to safeguard its schools from commercially intent private hands, this powerful new educational instrument, which has taken Middletown unawares, remains in the hands of a group of men – AN ex-peanut-stand proprietor, an ex-bicycle racer and race promoter, and so on – Whose primary concern is making money.[23]

Middletown in 1890 was not hesitant in criticizing poor shows at the Opera House. The “morning after” reviews of 1890 bristle with frank adjectives: “Their version of the play is incomplete. Their scenery is limited to one drop. The women are ancient, the costumes dingy and old. Outside of a few specialties, the show was very ‘bum.’ When Sappho struck town in 1900, the press roasted it roundly, concluding, “[Middletown] has had enough of naughtiness of the stage … Manager W – will do well to fumigate his pretty playhouse before one of the dean, instructive, entertaining plays he has billed comes before the footlights.” The newspapers of today keep their hands off the movies, save for running free publicity stories and cuts furnished by the exhibitors who advertise. Save for some efforts among certain of the women’s clubs to “clean up the movies” and the opposition of the Ministerial Association to “Sunday movies,” Middletown appears content in the main to take the movies at their face value “a darned good show” and largely disregard their educational or habit-forming aspects.

Footnotes

17. Exact counts were made for only January, July, and October. There were less than 125 performances, including: matinees, for the entire year.

18. These figures are rough estimates based upon the following data: The total Federal amusement tax paid by Middletown theaters in July was $3002.04 and in December $4,781.47. The average tax paid per admission is about $0.0325, and the population in 1923 about 38,000. Attendance estimates secured in this way were raised by one-sixth to account for children under twelve who are tax-free. The proprietor of three representative houses said that he had seven admissions over twelve years to one aged twelve or less, and the proprietor of another house drawing many children has four over twelve to one aged twelve or less.

These attendance figures include, however, farmers and others from outlying districts.

19. The question was asked in terms of frequency of attendance “in an average month” and was checked in each case by attendance during the month just past.

Lack of money and young children needing care in the home are probably two factors influencing these families that do not attend at all; of the forty-one working class families in which all the children are twelve years or under, eighteen never go to the movies, while of the eighty-one working class families in which one or more of the children is twelve or older, only twenty reported that no member of the family ever attends.

“I haven’t been anywhere in two years,” said a working class wife of thirty-three, the mother of six children, the youngest twenty months. “I went to the movies once two years ago. I was over to see Mrs. — and she says, ‘Come on, let’s go to the movies.’ I didn’t believe her. She is always
ragging the men and I thought she was joking. ‘Come on,’ she says, ‘put your things on and we’ll see a show.’ I thought, well, if she wanted to rag the men, I’d help her, so I got up and put my things on. And, you know, she really meant it. She paid my carfare uptown and paid my way into the movies. I was never so surprised in my life. I haven’t been anywhere since.”

20. Cf . N. 10 above. The ex-proprietor of one of the largest saloons in the city said, “The movies killed the saloon. They cut our business in half overnight.”

21. It happens frequently that the title overplays the element of “sex adventure” in a picture. On the other hand, films less luridly advertised frequently portray more “raw situations.”

22. cf. Ch. XI.

Miriam Van Waters, referee of the juvenile court of Los Angeles and author of Youth in Conflict, says in a review of Cyril Burt’s The Young Delinquent: “The cinema is recognized for what it is, the main source of excitement and of moral education for city children. Burt finds that only mental defectives take the movies seriously enough Jo imitate the criminal exploits portrayed therein, and only a small proportion of thefts can be traced to stealing to gain money for admittance. In no such direct way does the moving picture commonly demoralize youth. It is in the subtle way of picturing the standards of adult life, action and emotion, cheapening, debasing, distorting adults until they appear in the eyes of the young people perpetually bathed in a moral atmosphere of intrigue, jealousy, wild emotionalism, and cheap sentimentality. Burt realizes that these exhibitions stimulate children prematurely.” (The Survey, April 15, 1926.)

23. One exhibitor in Middletown is a college-trained man interested in bringing “good films” to the city. He, like the others, however, is caught in fthe competitive game and matches his competitors’ sensational advertisements.

Comment: This is an extract (with its original footnotes) from a classic and still influential sociological study, set in the archetypal small American city – the actual city used by the Lynds was Muncie, Indiana, population 38,000. The study began in 1924 and was published in 1924, with a follow-up, Middletown in Transition, published in 1937.