The Land of Haunted Castles

Source: Robert J. Casey, The Land of Haunted Castles (New York: The Century Co., 1921), pp. 239-255

Text: They don’t go to the opera.

Luxemburg has no opera.

They go to the cinema!

Luxemburg is by history and environment a cinema in itself,—in the midst of natural grandeur is the omnipresent conspiracy of the story-books.

The larger powers play for a great stake and the existence of this tiny duchy is tolerated for purely strategic reasons. A war is waged and a great army sweeps over it—confident of victory—and back, inglorious in defeat. A charming duchess plays politics and loses. Strangers sit in conference in a strange land and calmly determine the fate of her abandoned throne. The while petty conspirators plan revolutions, installing new governments, reinstating old, vacillating betwixt republic and monarchy, immensely proud of themselves and all unmindful of the exterior forces that work their ruin.

Had the novelists designed this country to suit themselves they could have done no better.

A gendarme—or was it a general?—surveyed all comers with a critical eye from a point of vantage in the shelter of a high battlemented building. There was snow in his cerise plume and frost upon the shoulders of his green overcoat that robbed his silver epaulets of their effect. But in his serene dignity he stood as Ajax might have stood in his celebrated dispute with the lightning.

He was impressive enough to have spoiled the business of many a European moving-picture house and brilliant enough to have attracted great quantities of dimes to the cinema palaces of the United States.

One had only to see the disdainful glance which he bestowed upon the Luxembourgeoise questing the joys of the film to see that he disapproved of such idle pursuits. The grown-ups passed him with haughty antagonism. The children hurried by with sidelong glances as if fearful that this splendid figure might interpose himself between them and the doorway behind which flickered the delectable movies.

Once one had braved the guardian at the gate, the way led up three little stone steps to a door common enough in American cottages of twenty years ago,—three panels of wood, a pane of glass, and a wealth of iron grating.

It didn’t look much like the entrance to a theater, but, for that matter, nothing in Graystork looks like what it’s supposed to be. The house was a narrow, three-story stone affair with slim windows and green shutters. A sign over the door proclaimed it to be a cafe. A second sign, obviously a generation or two younger, conveyed the added information that the cinema might be found here and that English was spoken.

I pushed down on the brass lever—there are no door-knobs in Luxemburg—and stepped in out of the blizzard.

There was an instant impression of bar glass, electric lights, tables, straight-backed chairs, and warmth, with an all-pervading atmosphere of hot rum. Some civilians in velour hats and tight-fitting overcoats looked up from their steaming drinks as we added ourselves to the party.

The Kellner, whose memory of Americans hadn’t been entirely obliterated by the long hiatus in the tourist business, came running over from the cage-like bar to bid us welcome.

But we hadn’t come to study the liquid nourishment of Ettelbruck. A book may be written on that particular subject some day, if some brave soul manages to live through the dangers of personal research. Meerschaart instantly removed Herr Kellner’s doubts concerning the cause of our visit with a question:

Ou est la cinema?

Herr Kellner looked shocked, then turned to me.

“You will find the moving pictures,” he said in a good brand of Minnesota English, “at the end of the hallway through that little door.” He indicated a door behind the bar, and added graciously as we started to follow his directions:

“For ten years I lived in the United States.”

We walked behind the bar, and a narrow squeeze it was between the porcelain counter and the shelf of glass-ware. With the venturesome air that befitted the circumstances, I opened the door and crossed the threshold into a cold corridor.

Here was a foyer unique in the world of theatricals. Meerschaart may have been prepared for it—for, after all, his country and this are half-sisters—but nothing in my experience had given me warning. Women’s clothes, some very intimate articles of wearing-apparel, hung upon a row of hooks along one side of the hall. I hesitated a moment.

“We’re breaking into somebody’s bedroom,” I declared.

“Maybe that’s where they have the cinema,” returned the Belgian, in a matter-of-fact tone. “Either there or in the kitchen.”

The atmosphere of the corridor, redolent of garlic and boiled cabbage, seemed to give assurance that supper was to be served somewhere soon, but as yet we had no right to leap at conclusions. Anything might happen before we came to the exit.

Beyond the clothes-hooks was another door. We passed through it into a big bare room with plain white walls hung with ancient champagne advertisements. On the side opposite the entrance was a double doorway curtained with red chenille hangings, and at one side of it was a table where a woman, probably the owner of the clothes in the hallway, sold tickets.

The entrance fee was three francs apiece. The original cost, however, was the only expense that had to be figured in the afternoon’s entertainment. No tip was expected by the “usherette” inasmuch as there was no “usherette,” and there was no charge for the program, that being salvaged from the floor in the vicinity of one’s seat.

A reel of post-war comedy showing the triumph of President Wilson over a caricature of the kaiser—an animated cartoon of the French school—was just flickering to a close as we entered. The spectators, whom we could not see in the gloom, were dutifully applauding. How much of this frantic enthusiasm was due to inward faith and how much to public policy it would be difficult to say.

National ideas in a country like Luxemburg are bound to change as conditions which affect the national existence are altered. Tastes in moving pictures as in governments are likely to be decided by artillery duels a hundred miles across the frontier.

The lights flashed up and we got a glimpse of what our three francs had brought us to.

We were standing in a sort of low balcony along one side of a rectangular room. The screen was stretched across the corner opposite the door. On the main floor the seating-facilities consisted of two benches and perhaps fifty straight-backed wooden chairs. A bar with china fixtures, similar to the one in the room through which we had passed, occupied one end of the room, leading one to suspect that this place had not always been a temple of the cinema.

It is not altogether correct to infer that all of this was immediately visible. For all the brilliance of perhaps a dozen incandescent lamps, we had been in the place some minutes before the salient features of it began to impress themselves upon us. The atmosphere was a vast, well-nigh impenetrable cloud of tobacco smoke.

We found some seats on a bench at the edge of the balcony and disposed ourselves as best we could. The seats in the pit were occupied mostly by children, little girls about ten years old predominating, with a scattering representation of adults. There was an incessant chattering among the youthful patrons, but no functionary in brass buttons came to interrupt them. There seemed to be any number of little black velvet bonnets in the house, some of them trimmed with pink ribbons, some with blue. A minority of small boys in the round cap of the French-marine type assisted in the manufacture of the din, making one notable contribution in the way of a fist fight before we had been in the place five minutes.

I took advantage of the wait between pictures to look at the red program.

The information conveyed in three assorted languages was little short of astonishing. I learned from the English part of it that there would be:

MOVING PICTURES
at Sunday
In the Afternoon at 3 o’Clock
at night 8 o’clock
at SATURDAY and MONDAY
at Evening at 8 o’clock

ECLAIR JOURNAL
The Kaiser and President Wilson

Sherlock Holmes
the greatest american detektiv in:
ON THE LINE OF THE FOUR
In 2 Parts

Casimir and the Fireman
Humorist in 1 act

THE BLACK CAPTAIN
Far West Drama

and
Flottes Orchester
1 Platz, 3 Fr.; 2 Platz, 2 Fr.; 3 Platz, 1.50 Fr.

And there were further words in German to the effect that children would be admitted to matinee performances at half-price.

It was in the French part of the bill of fare, however, that the true eloquence of the cinema management showed itself. To begin with, the pedigree of the films was presented to the attention of the public. To a stranger in the land, an itinerant who might be interested in the English program, a film would be merely a film. It was in the nature of the tourist to take what one gave him and pay well for the privilege. The native sons, how-ever, must be advised of the quality of the product that they were asked to purchase. Hence they were told with-out preliminary waste of space upon the topics of the pictures that the films were from Paris. To cinema-fanciers who for four long years had gazed upon flickerings from Prussia, the name Paris probably carried a magic appeal.

The kaiser and President Wilson, on this side of the dictionary, were passed over in small type. So was Sherlock Holmes, “the greatest american detektiv.” But Le Capitaine Noir came in for a great deal of publicity of the circus-poster variety.

This feature was billed as “A great drama of adventure in four acts and a prologue,—a number of sensational scenes: Chases on the Plains; the Ambush; The Mark of Fire; The Escape; The Burning Granary.” One would be a sensation-seeker indeed who could wish for more excitement for his three francs.

I suspected from the first that “On the Line of the Four,” however much it might promise as a war picture, was very likely our old friend and neighbor “The Sign of the Four,” and so it was.

The original nationality of the piece was a doubtful matter. There was hardly enough of it left to give one a consecutive idea of the plot, and the French captions were so worn that little was to be gained from them. It may have been an American film of that era when there were no stars. At any rate, no latter-day favorites appeared in it. It may have been English. Certain elements in the “locations” suggested England forcibly. But whatever its pedigree, its days of usefulness were nearly done.

The Anglo Saxons in the house, to whom the name Sherlock Holmes was a sufficient guaranty of story action and plot, could not get very far with the titles in French. Those who had mastered enough of the language to surmount this difficulty were certain to become hopelessly muddled in the aimless mixing of scenes that seemed to be the result of many years of “cut and patch.”

The children, however, enjoyed the piece just as young America used to enjoy pictures of fleeting express-trains and dashing fire-engines. The doings of the “greatest american detektiv” as marvels of mental acrobatics appealed to them not a whit. But the doings of the East Indian murderer with his shiny black hide, his wicked eye, and his deadly poisoned dart, were truly delightful.

Der Schwarze,” as they nicknamed him, could not so much as twist a finger from the moment of his first entrance into the drama until the last ghostly glimmer of Dr. Watson’s romance, without arousing an excited hum throughout the house.

The children wildly applauded his capture and cast upon him any number of maledictions in German and French. They commented volubly upon the flashes supposed to show the theft of the rajah’s jewels in India, and stood up in their seats and yelled when the Black was shown in the act of shooting the fatal dart.

They may have gathered something from the torn film to give them an inkling of the motive of revenge that underlay the murderer’s desire to kill. But from their point of view the motives were immaterial. This Indian person was downright murderous. They had seen him in his deadly but interesting pastime of shooting poisoned arrows,—truly a reprobate. And he was chased and caught and turned over to the gendarmes. Served him right! A very excellent picture!

We learned, too, that the burghers are a romantic people, as befits their surroundings and traditions. They sighed with sympathy when Dr. Watson breathed words of love into the ear of Mary Marston. They murmured approbation when he put his protecting arm about her in that tense moment just before the discovery of the murder; and they howled with startling intensity, adults and infants alike, when the film snapped off short before the climacteric embrace.

The flottes Orchester was the greatest disappointment in the show. It failed to arrive. A small boy with a typical toy harmonica attempted to remedy the deficiency with plaintive notes that filtered unpleasantly through the other noises.

Between films we got another glimpse of our surroundings.

On the wall near the entrance there were yellowing posters of past feature pictures. They were uniformly German and slipshod, the type one used to see before the nickelodeons of a decade ago. One bore the title “Schwer Gepruft” and showed a Prussian villain staring through a brick wall at a blonde girl playing a piano. Another was a sketch in black and white advertising “Der Gestreifte Domino.” The domino was a doleful-looking person whose activities in the film were not described.

In a far corner was a French advertisement for “Deux Ames de Poupée” played by a “notable cast of three” from some theater in Paris. None of these posters looked new, though the theater undoubtedly had been in use during the German occupation. This led us to believe that any films shown in Luxemburg since the autumn of 1914 must have been worn-out stock, hastily salvaged from the waste-heaps to struggle through four years more of life. The conviction remained with us even after the proprietor had assured us that a Copenhagen distributor had given him a choice of first-run productions during the entire period in which the French supply was unavailable.

The adventures of the Black Captain started inauspiciously. The picture was improperly framed during the first few seconds and the lower half appeared on top and the upper half below, as is the universal custom with unframed cinema.

Immediately the ensemble of spectators yelled out, “Hoch!” with a unanimity that shook the ancient rafters.

The film presently slid into its proper groove, and, save for the normal clatter of the children and their parents, quiet was restored. To a visitor the incident was worthy of note as something odd in the system of communication between the house and the management.

It has its points of superiority over the good old American custom of kicking chair backs, whistling, and foot-stamping, as any one will admit. It is no easier on the ears, perhaps, but its effect is quicker. No operator, not even a German operator, can stand the concerted shrieking of half a hundred excited youngsters.

The prologue of this “adventurous picture”—the words are those of the opening caption—extended through about a reel and a half of the total four. Whether out of deference to an artistic color scheme or not we cannot say, but Monsieur Violet, a French actor, was cast in the role of Capitaine Black. The girl in the piece, whose name we have forgotten, and the deep-dyed villain who stole her love, were the only important figures in the story aside from the colorful captain. The lady appeared to be at least as old as the film, which was old enough, and had a sharp nose a trifle too long for her own good. But she suited the spectators in the seventy-five centime seats, and from that time forward we knew that the picture was going to be well received.

Monsieur Violet, as the Duke of Chablis, is in love with Miss Arabella, a circus rider. He marries her, much to the grief of his best friend,—another duke whom, for the purpose of identification, we shall call the Duke of Ornans.

After the inevitable elopement of Lady Arabella with the Duke of Ornans, Monsieur Violet meets the wrecker of his home and kills him in a duel. The two former friends become reconciled in the death scene and the wrecker, after the fashion of wreckers, warns the wronged husband to beware of the woman who is “the cause of it all.”

The husband encounters the faithless wife as he is carrying the body of the betrayer into the chateau whither the erring couple have fled. It is a strong scene in many ways, about as well acted as it is original, with many flashes of raised fists and kneeling supplication. Here the prologue ends in a hysterical burst of recrimination and anathema.

None of this was in keeping with the moral code of Luxemburg, where marriages are pretty sure to be permanent. But it was romantic, passionate, bombastic, and was applauded with shouts.

The next scene showed the arrival in America of the Lady Arabella, who had journeyed into the Far West to claim an estate left her by the traitorous friend.

And it was truly a wonderful America in which she found herself.

An official with a uniform like that of a milkman carried her suit-cases from an unfamiliar railway platform to a stage-coach. The coach was a long, slim thing like the French army’s “Fourgon, Mile. 1887.” It was drawn by three horses and greatly resembled the American vehicle it was supposed to represent in that both of them had wheels.

In the meantime the Duke of Chablis had become the chief of a band of Mexican outlaws, and, under the name of the Black Captain, was spreading terror along the borders of the United States,—a splendid revenge for a husband whose home had been wrecked, but a bit hard on Texas or New Mexico.

The Luxemburgers could not understand this idea of vengeance. But theirs not to question why. It was action they wanted and action they got.

The bandits attacked the stage-coach.

Artful bandits they were. They kept themselves informed of the movements of the coach by a clever system of espionage. If the girl had only noted the dark figure at the corner of the station platform, what excitement she might have saved herself! She would have recognized him at once for a foe. For he was attired in a fedora hat with a feather in it, and even a timid European knows that the Indians who have for their tribal insignia the fedora hat are the most bloodthirsty of all.

Of course there was a battle. It wasn’t a very good battle at first, because both sides failed to show any marksmanship until they warmed up to their work. But after about a kilometer of chase things were different. Nearly everybody on both sides dropped dead at once. It was a thrilling climax.

The few passengers left alive clambered out of the coach to permit themselves to be robbed, the Lady Arabella confronting the mysterious Black Captain. And the house actually approached silence. One could have heard an anvil drop, so quiet was that tense moment when he lifted his mask and showed the once trusted but treacherous love, his sneering lips and hate-filled eyes.

He was very deliberate about it,—always the gentleman, the duke, outlaw or not. He was so deliberate that he turned his back upon her momentarily and she escaped.

The outlaws held a brief conference and leaped to horse in pursuit as she sped down the glistening road.

The house had a wild time about it.

American moving-picture men used to hold long news-paper debates concerning the propriety of applauding the silent drama. But I have never yet seen a decision relative to the etiquette of starting a riot at a thrilling moment. The young Luxemburgers stood up in their chairs and howled.

The people of the grand duchy are not so volatile as those of France. Superficially they bear a closer resemblance to their German neighbors. But they stand proved a race apart to one who has ever seen them at the cinema. They feel deeply and express themselves energetically regardless of time or place. They leap from stolidity to intense animation with the quickness of a flash of light.

The girl outdistanced all the bandits save the Black Captain, and this relentless pursuer chased her through a few Italian villas and other little-known parts of Mexico. Just as he caught up with her the film broke and the cheering spectators subsided with a deep sigh.

That gave us a chance to escape without being trampled upon and we made the best of our opportunity.

It was snowing when we reached the street. The braided gendarme stood as we had left him, his silver epaulets glistening like diamonds with the frost.

Comments: Robert Joseph Casey (1890-1962) was an American journalist and soldier, who served during the First World War and went on to write several books on his travels around the world. The Land of Haunted Castles documents a tour of Luxembourg not long after the war, with this visit to a film show taking place in the town of Ettleburck. The Sherlock Holmes film referred to is unclear but it may have been the American film Sherlock Holmes Solves The Sign of Four (1913), produced by Thanhouser and featuring Harry Benham as Holmes. The French film may be Le capitaine noire (1917), though this did not feature a M. Violet in the cast. However it was produced by the French Éclair company, as was the Éclair Journal newsreel and the ‘Casimir’ series of comedies listed on the programme. There was an Éclair series of Sherlock Holmes films, but none was based on ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Mexican Touch

Source: Edwa Moser, The Mexican Touch (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940), pp. 110-114

Text: If one was to patronize the movies, Monday was the day to choose, preferably Monday afternoon. Every Monday morning, the Cine Morelos was cleaned and disinfected. The Cine Morelos, once known as the Teatro Diaz, had been built on the colonial plan, with a pit that scarcely sloped at all, surrounded by tier upon tier of boxes. Hänsel had what he called his own box, though he let us sit in it. It was his because he always managed to arrive twenty minutes before the calliope announced the opening, and as soon as he got into his box, he put his booted foot against the door so that no one else could come in. His box faced the center of the screen and was situated on the first and most desirable tier. There were six hard, stiff chairs in it. We were rather crowded as none of us could risk sitting too close to the rail for fear someone above might become excited and absent-mindedly spit. On our hard chairs, we huddled together, the fumes of iodoform writhing, I could have sworn visibly, about us. Hänsel sat straight as a ramrod, his monocle gleaming above a thick handkerchief tied about his nose. Gretel ignored the smell, saying placidly, “Better it should stink a bit than swarm with fleas.” Above us, tier upon tier, the seats would fill, until sometimes … as when Jungle Jim was showing in serial … the whole place became a solid mass of dark, intent faces. The theater was always packed.

It was a good theater. The sound effects carried well and the screen was in good condition. It is true that the electricity sometimes failed, but that was not the fault of the management. At such times, we bought peanuts from the venders [sic] and smoked and chatted pleasantly together until the lights came on again. I recollect only one occasion when the film broke, just at its most thrilling moment, of course, and I remember when the lights were turned on how startled I was that most of the men in the audience had, in the excitement of the story, drawn their revolvers. I remember how unconcerned they looked as they stood up or squirmed about in their seats to put their revolvers away again.

The pictures shown were of all kinds and from all countries. Indeed, at the little Cinema Palace of Cuernavaca, the children and I saw more French and British and German, not to mention Argentinian, films than we had ever seen at home. There were also Mexican movies.

Usually the Mexican movies were clumsy and hard to follow. But I found, after I considered the matter a bit, that the difference was owing not to inferior production, but to their unique technique. The focal point of the action seemed to be, not conveniently in front of me along the “footlights,” but somewhere else, farther off. Then I recollected the Abbey Players from Dublin, who maintain that the center of interest should be the center of the stage itself, as if the audience were included with the actors. And after that, I saw, too, that there was yet another resemblance to the Irish theater: the plots of the Mexican movies need not come to any definite conclusion. After that I enjoyed the good films immensely.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the Mexicans could create drama without the glamourizing that Hollywood thinks essential. The houses were houses, ineptly furnished but adequate. On the screen they looked somehow innocent and appealing. They might have been any of the houses we passed every day. The heroines were seldom beautiful. Their clothes would not set a fashion. None of them had had their teeth straightened, much less filed and capped. But when they could act, they could act; and without “glamour,” they became urgent and important because they were human beings appealing to human beings in terms of mutual humanity. Some of the heroes were cross-eyed. (Crossed eyes are still considered a mark of beauty by those who appreciate Aztec art.) They behaved … as men behave. They spat, they got drunk, they left their shirttails out or tucked them in in public, they cried on their mothers’ shoulders, they cut off an unfaithful sweetheart’s pigtail. And they continued with apparent satisfaction to everyone the life that went on everywhere, every day.

This method was immensely satisfactory to me, for as there.was no attempt at “build-up,” I could believe that the films represented Mexican life, which we foreigners might otherwise never know. Ken liked the Mexican films. He would go again and again to roar with laughter over El Chaflan and Don Catarino, who were so funny, so naturally funny, it was hard to know if they knew themselves that they were funny. Don the films left cold. He preferred swapping yarns with Alberto or Pedro. Molly would, to Hansel’s delight, emit a succession of disgusted “Ooo’s” every time Rafael Falcón had occasion to weep, as he often had — for he wept beautifully, the tears streaming across his pale, shapely cheeks — while all the girls in the audience could be heard sniffing in sympathy. And Conchita, when we had got home, would sigh at mention of his name, and wiggle her hand inside her dress above her heart to show what palpitations she suffered on his account. But not my Molly. …

There was one picture that impressed us all — as successful a piece of work as we ever saw anywhere. Its name was La Mujer de Nadia (Nobody’s Wife) and it was produced by a woman. It was the story of three young students, none of them particularly attractive, who lived together in a one-room house amid the agreeable harmony of music, painting, and poetry, and who, returning one night from a comradely spree, found a woman unconscious by heir door. They took her in, feeling sorry for anyone who was unhappy and alone while they were so gay, so secure in their fellowship. She, poor drab! could hardly be distracting to that. But with food, and a home and friendship, the girl changed. She became young and beautiful. They all fell in love with her. The painter’s best picture was her portrait. The musician’s best composition had love of her for its theme. The poet’s best verses wooed her. But with love came jealousy. They began hating. It was a tragic moment when the little waif determined she must not destroy the structure on which her happiness was built. Silently, she told the little house good-by and went away, knowing her absence would unite again the spirit that had let her live.

We still remember that picture as one of the merriest, as well as saddest, we ever saw. There was about it the quality of a Strauss waltz that echoes after the party’s over and the guests have gone, and the sky grows gray. It was the only movie I have ever seen that I should like to have for my own.

Comments: Edwa Moser was an American magazine writer and novelist, who wrote this book on a 1930s visit to Mexico. Ken and Molly were her children. Hänsel and Gretel were names she gave to their German neighbours. El Chaflan was a character played by Mexican actor Carlos López; Don Catarino may be a reference to a comic strip character who was filmed. Rafael Falcón was a Mexican film actor. La Mujer de Nadia (La mujer de nadie) was directed by Adela Sequeyro in 1937. Iodoform is a disinfectant.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Cheap Amusements

Source: John Collier, ‘Cheap Amusements’, Charities and the Commons, 11 April 1908, pp. 73-76

Text: For four months a joint-committee of the Woman’s Municipal League and the People’s Institute has been engaged in an investigation of the cheap amusements of Manhattan Island. The committee has been composed as follows: Michael M. Davis, Jr., secretary of the People’s Institute, chairman; Mrs. Josephine Redding, secretary of the Woman’s Municipal League, secretary; Mrs. R. H. McKelvey, Miss Henrietta B. Rodman, Miss Alice Lewisohn, Mrs. F.R. Swift, Michael H. Cardoza, Charles H. Ayres, Jr., John Collier, and W. Frank Persons. The investigation has been made financially possible through the Spuyten Duyvil branch of the Woman’s Municipal League. The writer has acted as field investigator.

Attempt has been made to cover all phases of the cheap amusement problem, excluding from the detailed investigation dance-halls and skating-rinks on the one hand and high-priced theaters on the other. Legal and business aspects have been studied as well as educational and sanitary. The subject-matter has been fourfold: melodrama, vaudeville and burlesque; nickelodeons, or moving picture variety shows; penny arcades; and miscellany. The miscellany are anatomical museums, fake beauty-shows, etc., which are confined to a limited area of the city where they maintain a difficult existence. They can be passed over in the present brief report. What follows sums up the results of the investigation.

The whole topography of the cheap-amusement problem has changed within the last six years. To illustrate: the old-time crass melodrama has been in large measure dethroned, crowded out by the cheap vaudeville and the nickelodeon. The cheap vaudeville has spread widely and has become a problem in itself; it plays a fairly constructive role in a few instances, and in several is about the vilest and most brutalizing form of entertainment in New York. Withal, it generally keeps within the bounds of the laws protecting public decency, which are largely matters of interpretation, but only through agitation, hard fighting and a constantly aroused public sentiment can it be kept within bounds. But even the cheap vaudeville has been eclipsed by the tremendously expansive nickelodeon, the number of which in Greater New York, has grown in a few years from nothing to more than six hundred. The nickelodeon is now the core of the cheap amusement problem. Considered numerically it is four times more important than all the standard theaters of the city combined. It entertains from three to four hundred thousand people daily, and between seventy-five and a hundred thousand children. And finally, the penny arcade has sprung into mushroom existence, has proved itself to be irredeemable on the educational side and without the elements of permanent growth in popular favor and has worn out its public. It is now being driven from the field by the nickelodeon.

Not only the superficial aspect, but the essential nature of the cheap amusement problem has changed and changed for the better. Constructive elements have entered and triumphantly made good with the public, so that now the cheap-amusement situation offers an immediate opportunity and a rousing challenge to the social worker. The nickelodeon’s the thing, and the story of its development is instructive.

Five years ago the nickelodeon was neither better nor worse than many other cheap amusements are at present. It was often a carnival of vulgarity, suggestiveness and violence, the fit subject for police regulation. It gained a deservedly bad name, and although no longer deserved, that name still clings to it. During the present investigation a visit to more than two hundred nickelodeons has not detected one immoral or indecent picture, or one indecent feature of any sort, much as there has been in other respects to call for improvement. But more than this: in the nickelodeon one sees history, travel, the reproduction of industries. He sees farce-comedy which at worst is relaxing, innocuous, rather monotonously confined to horseplay, and at its best is distinctly humanizing, laughing with and not at the subject. Some real drama: delightful curtain-raisers, in perfect pantomime, from France, and in the judgment of most people rather an excess of mere melodrama, and in rare cases even of sheer murderous violence. At one show or another a growing number of classic legends, like Jack and the Beanstalk or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, can be seen any night. The moving picture repertoire amounts to tens of thousands, and is amazingly varied. One firm alone in the city has two million feet of “film” stored away until it can be used again as fresh material, after the public has forgotten it. In addition to the moving-picture, the nickelodeon as a rule has singing, and almost invariably the audience joins in the chorus with a good will. Thus has the moving-picture-show elevated itself. But the penny arcade has not elevated itself, and the cheap vaudeville, if anything, has grown worse.

The nickelodeon is a family theater, and is almost the creation of the child, and it has discovered a new and healthy cheap-amusement public. The penny arcade is a selfish and costly form of amusement, a penny buying only a half-minute’s excitement for one person. Its shooting-gallery and similar features are likewise costly. In the short-lived pictures there is no time for the development of human interest, but the gist of a murder or of a salacious situation can be conveyed. So the penny arcade has resembled the saloon, from which the family has stayed away; and everything artificial has been mustered in to draw the floating crowd. As for the cheap theater, it has had a false tradition behind it, and managers have taken for granted that a low-priced performance could be given only by an inferior cast. So when the cheap theater has departed from the crudest melodrama it has gone over into inferior vaudeville and has depended on illegitimate methods for its success. This is the rule, although there are exceptions, and vaudeville at best has only a limited interest for the great, basic, public of the working and immigrant classes in New York.

But the nickelodeon started with a free field and a marvelous labor-saving device in the moving-picture, and it began above all as a neighborhood institution, offering an evening of the most varied interest to the entire family for a quarter. Thus the nickelodeon grew as solidly as it grew swiftly, and developed a new amusement seeking public, the public that has made the nickelodeon what it is. Right here is found the most significant aspect of the present amusement situation. All the settlements and churches combined do not reach daily a tithe of the simple and impressionable folk that the nickelodeons reach and vitally impress every day. Here is a new social force, perhaps the beginning of a true theater of the people, and an instrument whose power can only be realized when social workers begin to use it.

The investigation led almost immediately to constructive opportunities. On the legal side, an anomalous situation was found. In no existing law, state or municipal, was penny arcade or moving picture mentioned. These theaters were grouped by construction as common shows, along with ferris wheels and bicycle carrousels, and were put under the authority of the license bureau. But where the standard theater is regulated in the minutest detail as regards its building requirements, by written law, there is no law and no printed specification for the moving picture show, which plays with fire. The theaters are controlled by the police, in whom responsibility is centered, and who co-operate with the proper departments. But the nickelodeon is controlled by the license bureau, a clerical department, and up to ten months ago it went to all intents and purposes unsupervised. Then popular agitation and the initiative of a hard working official in the fire department, set the city’s machinery at work, and a good deal has been done. The moving picture show is reasonably safe from fire now; it is not yet safe from contagious disease, and the air is often very bad.

As a first step toward adjusting the legal situation, the investigation committee framed a bill, which has been introduced by Assemblyman Samuel A. Gluck at Albany, and which has passed the Assembly by a large majority. Barring unforeseen obstacles it will pass the Senate at the present session. This bill provides for the raising of license fees on nickelodeons from $25 to $150 a year, for the placing of this license under the direct control of the police, along with the license for standard theaters, and for the exclusion of school children from nickelodeons during school hours and after eight o’clock at night, except when accompanied by guardians. This bill went to Albany with the endorsement of various civic organizations, the Board of Education, and the Moving Picture Association itself which has shown every desire to co-operate in the improvement of moving picture standards.

On the side of co-operation with the moving-picture business looking toward more elevated performances, and even the improvement of the artistic and educational quality and of sanitary conditions through direct competition on a commercial basis, the opportunity is immediate and large. In this field it is probable that the drama machinery of the People’s Institute will be turned to use in some co-operative plan, giving endorsement to the best of the shows and receiving in return the right to regulate their programs. Settlements on their own initiative could do valuable work in this way. The investigation committee, which is to be perpetuated as a sub-committee of the drama committee of the People’s Institute, will in all probability start one or more model nickelodeons, with the object of forcing up the standard through direct competition, of proving that an unprecedentedly high class of performance can be made to pay, and perhaps, in the event of success, of founding a people’s theater of the future.

Comments: John Collier was an American social worker working for the New York People’s Institute. Michael M. Davis of the same organisation later produced an important study of commercial entertainments, including cinema, The Exploitation of Pleasure: A Study of Commercial Recreations in New York City (1911). Charities and the Commons was a weekly journal dedicated to social and charitable themes. Penny arcades would often include moving pictures, usually of the peepshow variety.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

The Sense of Touch

senseoftouch

Source: ‘Ole Luke-Oie’ [Ernest Dunlop Swinton], extract from ‘The Sense of Touch’, The Strand Magazine, December 1912, pp. 620-631. Illustrations by John Cameron.

Text: ‘Pon my word, I really don’t know what made me go into the place. I’ve never been keen on cinemas. The ones I went to when they first came out quite choked me off. The jiggling of the pictures pulled my eyes out till they felt like a crab’s, and the potted atmosphere made my head ache. I was strolling along, rather bored with things in general and more than a bit tired, and happened to stop as I passed the doors. It seemed just the ordinary picture palace or electric theatre show – ivory-enamelled portico, neuralgic blaze of flame arc-lights above, and underneath, in coloured incandescents, the words, “Mountains of Fun.”

Fun! Good Lord!

An out-sized and over-uniformed tout, in dirty white gloves and a swagger stick, was strolling backwards and forwards, alternately shouting invitations to see the “continuous performance” and chasing away the recurring clusters of eager-eyed children, whose outward appearance was not suggestive of the possession of the necessary entrance fee. There were highly-coloured posters on every available foot of wall-space – sensational scenes, in which cowboys, revolvers, and assorted deaths predominated – and across them were pasted strips of paper bearing the legend, ” LIFE-REPRO Novelty This Evening.”

I confess that, old as I am, it was that expression which caught me – ” LIFE-REPRO.” It sounded like a new metal polish or an ointment for “swellings on the leg,” but it had the true showman’s ring. I asked the janitor what it meant. Of course he did not know – poor devil! – and only repeated his stock piece: “Splendid new novelty. Now showing. No waiting. Continuous performance. Walk right in.”

I was curious; it was just beginning to rain; and I decided to waste half an hour. No sooner had the metal disc – shot out at me in exchange for sixpence – rattled on to the zinc counter of the ticket-window than the uniformed scoundrel thrust a handbill on me and almost shoved me through a curtained doorway. Quite suddenly I found myself in a dark room, the gloom of which was only accentuated by the picture quivering on a screen about fifty feet away. The change from the glare outside was confusing and the atmosphere smote me, and as I heard the door bang and the curtain being redrawn I felt half inclined to turn round and go out. But while I hesitated, not daring to move until my eyes got acclimatized, someone flashed an electric torch in my eyes, grabbed my ticket, and squeaked, ” Straight along, please,” then switched off the light.

Useful, wasn’t it? I couldn’t see an inch. You know, I’m not very touchy as a rule, but I was getting a bit nettled, and a good deal of my boredom had vanished. I groped my way carefully down what felt like an inclined gangway, now in total darkness, for there was at the moment no picture on the screen, and at once stumbled down a step. A step, mind you, in the centre of a gangway, in a place of entertainment which is usually dark! I naturally threw out my hands to save myself and grabbed what I could. There was a scream, and the film then starting again, I discovered that I was clutching a lady by the hair. The whole thing gave me a jar and threw me into a perspiration – you must remember I was still shaky after my illness. When, as I was apologizing, the same, or another, fool with the torchlight flashed it at my waistcoat and said, “Mind the step,” I’m afraid I told him, as man to man, what I thought of him and the whole beastly show. I was now really annoyed, and showed it. I had no notion there were so many people in the hall until I heard the cries of “Ssshh! ” “Turn him out! ” from all directions.

When I was finally led to a flap-up seat – which I nearly missed, by the way, in the dark – I discovered the reason for the impatience evinced by the audience. I had butted in with my clatter and winged words at the critical moment of a touching scene. To the sound of soft, sad music, all on the black notes, the little incurable cripple child in the tenement house was just being restored to health by watching the remarkably quick growth of the cowslips given to her by the kind-hearted scavenger. Completely as boredom had been banished by the manner of my entrée it quickly returned while I suffered the long-drawn convalescence of ” Little Emmeline.” As soon as this harrowing film was over and the lights were raised I took my chance of looking round.

The hall was very much the usual sort of place – perhaps a bit smaller than most – long and narrow, with a floor sloping down from the back. In front of the screen, which was a very large one, was an enclosed pit containing some artificial palms and tin hydrangeas, a piano and a harmonium, and in the end wall at its right was a small door marked ” Private.” In the side wall on the left near the proscenium place was an exit. The only other means of egress, as far as I could see, was the doorway through which I had entered. Both of these were marked by illuminated glass signs, and on the walls were notices of “No smoking,” “The management beg to thank, those ladies who have so kindly removed their hats,” and advertisement placards – mostly of chocolate. The decorations were too garish for the place to be exactly homely, but it was distinctly commonplace, a contrast to the shambles it became later on. What?

Yes! I daresay you know all about these picture palaces, but I’ve got to give you the points as they appealed to me. I’m not telling you a story, man. I’m simply trying to give you an exact account of what happened. It’s the only way I can do it.

The ventilation was execrable, in spite of the couple of exhaust fans buzzing round overhead, and the air hung stagnant and heavy with traces of stale scent, while wafts of peppermint, aniseed, and eucalyptus occasionally reached me from the seats in front. Tobacco smoke might have increased the density of the atmosphere, but it would have been a welcome cloak to some of the other odours. The place was fairly well filled, the audience consisting largely of women and children of the poorer classes – even babies in arms – just the sort of innocent holiday crowd that awful things always happen to.

By the time I had noticed this much the lights were lowered, and we were treated to a scene of war which converted my boredom into absolute depression. I must describe it to you, because you always will maintain that we are a military nation at heart. By Jove, we are! Even the attendants at this one-horse gaff were wearing uniforms. And the applause with which the jumble of sheer military impossibility and misplaced sentiment presented to us was greeted proves it. The story was called “Only a Bugler Boy.” The first scene represented a small detachment of British soldiers ” At the Front” on ” Active Service” in a savage country. News came in of the “foe.” This was the occasion for a perfect orgy of mouthing, gesticulation, and salutation. How they saluted each other, usually with the wrong hand, without head-covering, and at what speed ! The actors were so keen to convey the military atmosphere that the officers, as often as not, acknowledged a salute before it was given.

Alter much consultation, deep breathing exercise, and making of goo-goo eyes, the long-haired rabbit who was in command selected a position for “defence to the death” so obviously unsuitable and suicidal that he should have been ham-strung at once by his round-shouldered gang of supers. But, no! In striking attitudes they waited to be attacked at immense and quite unnecessary disadvantage by the savage horde. Then, amid noise and smoke, the commander endeavoured to atone for the hopeless situation in which he had placed his luckless men by waving his sword and exposing himself to the enemy’s bullets. I say “atone,” for it would have been the only chance for his detachment if he had been killed, and killed quickly. Well, after some time and many casualties, it occurred to him that it would be as well to do something he should have done at first, and let the nearest friendly force know of his predicament. The diminutive bugler with the clean face and nicely-brushed hair was naturally chosen for this very dangerous mission, which even a grown man would have had a poor chance of carrying out, and after shaking hands all round, well in the open, the little hero started off with his written message.

Then followed a prolonged nightmare of crawling through the bush-studded desert.

Bugler stalled savage foe, and shot several with his revolver. Savage foe stalked bugler and wounded him in both arms and one leg. Finally, after squirming in accentuated and obvious agony for miles, bugler reached the nearest friendly force, staggered up to its commander, thrust his despatch upon him, and swooned in his arms. Occasion for more saluting, deep breathing, and gesticulation, and much keen gazing through field-glasses – notwithstanding the fact that if the beleaguered garrison were in sight the sound of the firing must have been heard long before ! Then a trumpet-call on the harmonium, and away dashed the relief force of mounted men.

Meanwhile we were given a chance of seeing how badly things had been going with the devoted garrison at bay. It was only when they were at their last gasp and cartridge that the relief reached them. With waving of helmets and cheers from the defenders, the first two men of the relieving force hurled themselves over the improvised stockade. You know what they were? I knew what they must be long before they appeared. And it is hardly necessary to specify to which branches of His Majesty’s United Services they belonged. The sorely-wounded but miraculously tough bugler took the stockade in his stride a very good third. He had apparently recovered sufficiently to gallop all the way back with the rescuers – only to faint again, this time in the arms of his own commanding officer. Curtain! “They all love Jack,” an imitation of bagpipes on the harmonium, and “Rule Britannia” from the combined orchestra. As I say, this effort of realism was received with great applause, even by the men present.

As soon as the light went up I had a look at my neighbours. The seats on each side of me were empty, and in the row in front, about a couple of seats to my right, there was one occupant. He was a young fellow of the type of which one sees only too many in our large towns – one of the products of an overdone industrialism. He was round-shouldered and narrow-chested, and his pale thin face suggested hard work carried out in insanitary surroundings and on unwholesome food. His expression was precocious, but the loose mouth showed that its owner was far too unintelligent to be more than feebly and unsuccessfully vicious. He wore a yachting cap well on the back of his head, and on it he sported a plush swallow or eagle – or some other bird – of that virulent but non-committal blue which is neither Oxford nor Cambridge. It was Boat-Race week. He was evidently out for pleasure – poor devil! – and from his incidental remarks, which were all of a quasi-sporting nature, I gathered that he was getting it. I felt sorry for him and sympathized in his entire absorption in the strange scenes passing before his eyes – scenes of excitement and adventure far removed from the monotonous round of his squalid life. How much better an hour of such innocent amusement than time and money wasted in some boozing-ken – eh?

Well, I’m not quite sure what it means myself – some sort of a low drinking-den. But, anyway, that’s what I felt about it. After all, he was a harmless sort of chap, and his unsophisticated enjoyment made me envious. I took an interest in him – thought of giving him a bob or two when I went out. I want you to realize that I had nothing but kindly feelings towards the fellow. He comes in later on – wasn’t so unsuccessful after all.

Then we had one of those interminable scenes of chase in which a horseman flies for life towards you over endless stretches of plain and down the perspective of long vistas of forest, pursued at a discreet distance by other riders, who follow in his exact tracks, even to avoiding the same tree-stumps, all mounted on a breed of horse which does forty-five miles an hour across country and fifty along the hard high road. I forget the cause of the pursuit and its ending, but I know revolvers were used.

The next film was French, and of the snowball type. A man runs down a street. He is at once chased by two policemen, one long and thin and the other fat and bow-legged with an obviously false stomach. The followers very rapidly increase in number to a mixed mob of fifty or more, including nurses with children in perambulators. They go round many corners, and round every corner there happens to be a carefully arranged obstacle which they all fall over in a kicking heap. I remember that soot and whitewash played an important part, also that the wheels of the passing vehicles went round the wrong way.

Owing to the interruption of light, was it? I daresay. Anyway, it was very annoying. Then we had a bit of the supernatural. I’m afraid I didn’t notice what took place, so I’ll spare you a description. I was entirely engrossed with the efforts of the wretched pianist to play tremolo for ten solid minutes. I think it was the ghost melody from “The Corsican Brothers ” that she was struggling with, and the harmonium did not help one bit. The execution got slower and slower and more staccato as her hands grew tired, and at the end I am sure she was jabbing the notes with her aching fingers straight and stiff. Poor girl! What a life!

At about this moment, as far as I remember, a lady came in and took the seat in front of mine. She was a small woman, and was wearing a microscopic bonnet composed of two strings and a sort of crepe muffin. The expression of her face was the most perfect crystallization of peevishness I’ve ever seen, and her hair was screwed up into a tight knob about the size and shape of a large snail-shell. Evidently not well off – probably a charwoman. I caught a glimpse of her gloves as she loosened her bonnet-strings, and the fingertips were like the split buds of a black fuchsia just about to bloom. Shortly after she had taken her seat my friend with the Boat-Race favour suddenly felt hungry, cracked a nut between his teeth, spat out the shell noisily, and ate the kernel with undisguised relish. The lady gathered her mantle round her and sniffed. I was not surprised. The brute continued to crack nuts, eject shells, and chew till he killed all my sympathy for him, till I began to loathe his unhealthy face, and longed for something to strike him dead. This was absolutely the limit, and I should have cleared out had not the words LIFE-REPRO” on the handbill caught my eye. After all it must come to that soon, and I determined to sit the thing out. After one or two more films of a banal nature there was a special interval – called “Intermission” on the screen – and signs were not wanting of the approach of the main event of the show.

Two of the youths had exchanged their electric torches for trays, and perambulated the gangways with cries of “Chuglit— milk chuglit.” A third produced a large garden syringe and proceeded to squirt a fine spray into the air. This hung about in a cloud, and made the room smell like a soap factory. When the curtain bell sounded the curtain was not drawn nor were the lights lowered. A man stepped out of the small door and climbed up on to the narrow ledge in front of the screen, which served as a kind of stage or platform, and much to my disgust made obvious preparation to address the audience. He was a bulky fellow, and his apparent solidity was increased by the cut of his coat. His square chin added to the sense of power conveyed by his build, while a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles gave him an air of seriousness and wisdom. I at once sized him up as a mountebank, and thought I knew what sort of showman’s patter to expect. He did not waste much time before he got busy. Looking slowly all round the room, he fixed my sporting friend with a baleful glare until the latter stopped eating, then cleared his throat and began …

Comments: Ernest Dunlop Swinton (1868-1951) was a British military officer (influential in the development of tanks in the First World War) and a writer, producing fiction under the pseudonym O’le Luk-Oie. The story continues with an announcer promising a natural history film of unsurpassed life-like realism. The film shows a praying mantis and a scorpion which come out of the screen giant-sized and attack the audience, killing those that the narrator disliked before turning on him (see illustration below). In the end it turns out to have been a dream. The description of a cinema show, though sardonic, is filled with useful documentary detail. The garden syringe is a reference to the disinfectant sprays commonly used on cinema audiences at this time.

Links: Copy of the complete story on the Internet Archive

scorpion

Diaries and Letters 1930-39

Source: Harold Nicolson (ed. Nigel Nicolson), Diaries and Letters 1930-39 (London: Collins, 1971), p. 72

Text: 4th May, 1931
Go with Leonard and Virginia Woolf to see the French talking-film, Le Million. The theatre is crowded with intellectuals, from which it is evident that this form of intelligent talkie has a great future before it. The French talent for amusing dialogue finds an enormous scope in this rapid motion and will render American films completely old-fashioned.

Comments: Harold Nicolson (1886-1968) was a British diplomat, politician and diarist. His wife Vita Sackville-West had an affair with Virginia Woolf. The musical comedy Le Million (France 1931) was directed by René Clair and starred Annabella and René Lefèvre.

Rod: The Autobiography

Source: Rod Stewart, Rod: The Autobiography (London: Arrow Books, 2012), p. 10

Text: Mary and Peggy, my sisters, would take me to watch speedway at Harringay, which was hugely popular then. And Mum and Dad sometimes treated me to a trip to the cinema – the Rex, in East Finchley, where the stalls took a big dip in the centre: the front rows were higher than the rows in the middle, and the back rows were higher still. Maybe it was war damage. One day, where I was eight, my mum said, ‘We’re going to see Monsieur Hulot’s Holiday. This will be the funniest thing you’ve ever seen’ – a big build-up to give a film. But she was absolutely right. It was slapstick, but so subtle in the way it went about it. We sat there in the Rex’s battered stalls, and I had never laughed as hard as I laughed at Jacques Tati, haplessly creating havoc. Even today Ronnie Wood and I remain huge Tati fans.

Comments: Rod Stewart (born 1945) is a British rock singer. Ronnie Wood was guitarist with Stewart in the band The Faces before joining The Rolling Stones. Les Vacances de M. Hulot (France 1953) starred and was directed by Jacques Tati. It was a considerable international hit. The Rex was established in 1910 as the Picturedrome and continues today as the Phoenix. The slope in the floor was an original feature, caused by the lie of the land. Acknowledgments to Lisa Kerrigan for spotting this reference and tweeting about it.

Links: Phoenix Cinema, East Finchley

La Grande Illusion

Source: Extract from Mike Newell, ‘La Grande Illusion’, in Geoffrey Macnab, Screen Epiphanies: Film-makers on the Films that Inspired Them (London: BFI/Palgrave Macmillan, 2009), pp. 207-208

Text: My father took me when I was fifteen or sixteen to the Academy on Oxford Street – the old Academy, the one with the flock wallpaper in the main house. We went to a performance of La Grande Illusion. With it, I saw a cartoon called The Little Island. I can’t remember who made it but it was some famous and modish cartoon-maker of the time. I also saw a newsreel in which the very first Aldermaston march was featured. There was this extraordinary shot of a man with a sandwich board round his neck walking along some terribly rainy, Scottish highland road on his way to Aldermaston. All three of these things made an enormous impression on me but the main movie [La Grande Illusion] hit a very particular kind of nerve. I’ve always remembered it in great detail and it set all sorts of things going in me. I would not have gone down the road I did without that, I think. It was very clear to me and very precise. It wasn’t the anti-war message. I was generally aware of that because I was born during the Second World War and so all my uncles had gone through the war. Nobody wanted to talk about it and nobody ever really did talk about it. I don’t think they suffered in any great way. They were in Burma mostly. The war that I had focused on and was beginning to be much more aware of was the First War. It was the great literary war. I was beginning to be aware of the collision between Victorian sensibility and a modern factory method of [destruction]. I was aware of the First World War having been some colossal upheaval which wasn’t just a matter of a great many people being killed in all sorts of dreadful ways. It was bigger than that.

There are some scenes in La Grande Illusion that I particularly remember. One was the scene between the two aristocrats – the french aristocrat Captain de Boeldieu [played by Pierre Fresnay] and the German aristocrat Captain von Rauffenstein [Erich von Stroheim] who is wearing the neck brace. They were from the same class. Their shared assumptions and lives and friends brought them together. They all knew the same people. They talks about the same horse race, the Liverpool Cup. They talk in three languages. They talk in French, they talk in German and they talk in English and they swap, absolutely smoothly, from one to the other. You see that class for them is way beyond national conflicts. You also see that they are dying – that their type is not going to survive. Whereas Lieutenant Marechal, the character played by Jean Gabin, is going to survive because he is full of a vigour that they don’t quite have.

I couldn’t possibly have rationalised the film like that at the time I saw it [as a teenager] but it was very exciting to see that was clearly what was going on. I had never come across a film in which apparently inconsequential dialogue like that had such a ringing energy and juice in it. I didn’t know why it was. The neck brace that Von Stroheim is in, the way you have two apparent enemies who are not enemies at all. All those extraordinary opposites was something that I remembered very clearly and do to this day.

No, I wasn’t aware that Renoir directed it – but I sure as hell became so. I don’t think I said I will try to be a film director from that moment on. But what I did think was that this was better than most things I had seen.

Comment: Mike Newell (born 1942) is a British film director. La Grande Illusion (France 1937) was directed by Jean Renoir. The Little Island (UK 1958) was made by Richard Williams. The first Aldermaston march against nuclear weapons was in April 1958. The Academy cinema was located in London’s Oxford Street and was renowned for its art house fare. Screen Epiphanies is a collection of reminiscences by film directors of seeing films which had a transformative effect on them. Words in square brackets are given so in the original text.

A Life in Movies

Source: Michael Powell, A Life in Movies: An Autobiography (London: William Heinemann, 1986), pp. 90-91

Text: There was a cinema at Chantilly. There were local cinemas everywhere in those days. Chantilly was not a large town, but I think it had two. The one near us was down a side street and advertised that it was open for business by an electric buzzer which rang until the show started. I can hear that remorseless bell shattering the calm under the plane trees whenever I think of Chantilly. It is curious how the French, most sensitive of nations, are insensitive to noise, particularly if it is a new and splendid noise that stands for Progress.

The films were mostly serials, like the French films I had seen at the Palais de Luxe in Canterbury. One of my earliest movie images is of Fantomas, the Master Crook of Paris. When he wasn’t wearing white tie and tails, a can, a top hat, and an opera-cloak, he was in black tights with a black mask, performing incredible feats of hide-and-seek with the police. The image that stays with me is of an open cistern of water in the attic of some house. The police dash in, in pursuit of Fantomas, and find nobody. Baffled, they withdraw, but the Chief takes one last look at the cistern, sees a straw floating on the surface of the water, gives it an idle flush. Aha! we all think. And sure enough! As the last policeman goes, the water stirs and bubbles and the black form of Fantomas appears from the depths, between his lips the straw through which he has been breathing! I can see now his black figure, glistening like a seal’s, smiling triumphantly at the camera. For, in silent films, one learnt to “register” to the camera.

Candy and the movies have always gone together, and in the intervals at Chantilly girls moved up and down the aisle chanting “pochettes surprises!esqimaubriques!” There were frequent intervals. In 1919 most films were short comedies. In addition they were playing an interminable serial in fifteen episodes of The Three Musketeers, and there was another serial staring the famous French boxer Georges Carpentier. I believe that d’Artagnan was Aimé Simon-Girard, and as a movie historian I ought to check it with the dates, but I really don’t think it matters. Aimé Simon-Girard was in practically every romantic French costume film of that decade and the Musketeers serial may have been a year later. The Carpentier film I remember well. He was not an actor of any kind, but he was charming, and his flattened nose on his pretty face gave him a different look. The film was full of stunts, of course. All serials had to be full of stunts: jumping on and off moving trains. onto moving automobiles, flights on the edge of high buildings, all the tricks of the trade, from Georges Méliès to Superman. Carpentier moved obligingly (he had a pleasant smile) through the scenes, and we all thought he was splendid. Films were tinted then: the predominant colour of the Carpentier serial seemed to be green. The Musketeers did their stuff in a sort of Old Master yellowish-brown, suitable for cloak and rapier adventures. Night scenes, of course, were blue.

Comment: Michael Powell (1905-1990) was a British film director. His family stayed for a time immediately after the First World War at Chantilly in France, where his father had a share in a hotel. Les Trois Mosquetaires with Aimé Simon-Girard was made in 1921; the Georges Carpentier serial is probably Le trésor de Kériolet (France 1920).

This City has over 500 Moving Picture Shows; Do YOU Know WHY?

someofthethings

Illustration that accompanies the original article

Source: Charles Darnton, ‘This City has over 500 Moving Picture Shows: Do YOU Know WHY?’ The Evening World [New York], 16 January 1909, p. 9

Text: “I like to see a story.”

A long tramp bad led to a short answer. And the woman with a shawl about her head and a wide-eyed child clutching her hand was probably right about the appeal of the moving picture.

How wide this appeal has become may be judged from the fact that there are more than 500 moving picture shows in New York. From one end of the town to the other the “manager,” with little more than a lantern to his name, is holding the screen up to nature and occasionally turning a trick that goes nature one better. Although vaudeville audiences take the moving picture as their cue to move toward home, true lovers of art in action take all they can get for five or ten cents and then come back for more next day.

They like to see a story.

That’s the explanation – thanks to the woman with a shawl over her head. They feed upon mechanical fiction. They read as they look. Sensational melodrama, with the villain doing his worst in a plug hat, is an old story to them. They know it by heart. And so, theatres in which virtue used to take a back seat until the last act have felt the power of moving pictures. Only one remains to tell the blood-and-thunder tale in all Manhattan and it was obliged to get down to “workingmen’s prices” before it could compete with its noiseless rivals. From the start the moving picture show had a double advantage – lower prices and a daily change of bill. Then it went further and produced “talking pictures,” but in most cases this feature has been done away with audiences preferring to take their plays in peace and not be disturbed by the man behind the megaphone. What they want is action. Their attitude goes to show that it is always well to leave something to the imagination. They like to see a story from their own point of view.

In New York nearly every neighborhood has its “show,” and the craze has spread throughout the country until no town is too small to do the moving picture honor. Here, according to the word of a Sixth avenue showman, “picture fiends,” who keep a record of what they have seen and protest against “repeaters,” are an outgrowth of the craze. Their criticism of the Sunday exhibitions at which only educational pictures may be shown, in accordance with the stupid law, is often expressed in the simple term “Rotten!” They insist upon getting action for their money. The pictures must get “a move on” to win success. Patrons of the picture-drama want to see a story with plenty of action in it. From the Bowery to the Bronx tastes and pictures are much the same.

Bowery Wants Bank Robberies

But hero and there of course individual taste asserts itself. The proprietor of a little hall on the Bowery confessed that while his clientele showed a due appreciation of comedy and tragedy they had from time to time expressed a deep yearning for bank robberies. Unfortunately safe-cracking is not included in the picture-maker’s repertoire, and so the regretful “manager” has not been able to supply the demand for that particular form of art. However his audience made the best of things on a recent afternoon and seemed rather pleased with “A Corsican Revenge.”

The Corsican who caused all the trouble by killing a fellow fisherman and then got knifed by his victim’s wife, a husky lady with a fine stroke, looked like Caruso in “Cavalleria Rusticana.” According to the hospitable custom of the country, she was obliged to entertain her husband’s slayer when he sought refuge in her home. But once she got him outside she made short work of him. The lively little tragedy was worked out with neatness and dispatch. Five or six Chinamen who could qualify as Broadway first-nighters without putting on boiled shirts watched “A Corsican Revenge” without the slightest change of expression. In fact, the audience made no sign until two energetic gentlemen were flashed upon the scene and began kicking each other in the stomach. This light comedy was received with roars of laughter. The drummer emphasized each kick with a thump and the “professor” came down hard on the piano. “Comedy” won the occasions.

A placard on the wall warned the visitor to “Beware of Pickpockets.” Another made this polite request: Gentlemen Will Please Refrain from using Profane Language. The gentlemen did.

Accordion Breathes Hard.

In front of another temple of art across the street was the sign: “Positively No Free List During This Engagement.” You had to have a nickel to get inside. Down in front sat a Bowery artist with an accordion that was drawing its breath with great difficulty. During the overture he addressed facetious remarks to the audience.

“Hey, there!” yelled one of the crowd. “Cut out that comedy and give us some music.”

“Anyt’ing doin’?” inquired the performer, holding out his hat. “Come on, now,” he urged, ” trow in a little sumt’in fer de dear ones wot are dead and gone.”

“Ferget it!” yelled the unsympathetic mob.

“The Gallant Guardsman” presently drew attention from the accordion artist. At the first appearance of a Spanish soldier on the screen the accordion began wheezing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” When the guardsman rescued a dancing girl from the embraces of a low-browed citizen the tune changed to “Marching Through Georgia.” A dash of “Trovatore” cheered the guardsman on his way. The low-browed citizen waited behind a wall and killed the first soldier that came along. But he got the wrong man and the hero was about to be shot when the barefooted dancing girl ran to the rescue and explained the situation in a few hand-made gestures.

The audience followed the story with intense interest, and only the accordion was heard until a picture showing a young man who was carried off in a wardrobe appealed to the Bowery sense of humor. The hero of this adventure found himself in the bedroom of a loving couple who finally accepted his explanation and then had him sit down to supper with them.

French but Chaste.

All of the pictures seen on the lower east and west sides were French but chaste. Nothing more shocking than a murder occurred in any of them.

At a place in Grand street “The Peasant’s Love” was the chief feature of the bill. All went well until the peasant’s sweetheart promised to meet a newly arrived sailor “down by the pond.” His note to her was revealed on the screen. But the jealous peasant got to the pond first and when the girl came along he sneaked up behind her and threw her into the pond. The inevitable gendarmes first arrested the sailor, of course, but after a long chase they nabbed the guilty peasant.

Nearly all of the pictures showed gendarmes in pursuit of somebody. The principal figure was usually obliged to “run for it,” and suspense was kept up until the capture of the fugitive. The “story” was kept on the jump.

In “The Magic Boots” a happy individual was seen eluding his pursuers by walking on water, telegraph wires – wherever his fancy led him. His wonderful boots defied the French and all other laws. But down in Grand street it was the serious pictures that gripped the spectators.

“Dremma,” answered one manager when asked what appealed to his patrons most of all. And a woman whom he described as one of his best customers said: “I like to see a story. The funny pictures – they are funny, yes, but you don’t remember them. I like to remember what I see. You don’t forget a story – it goes home with you.”

Take Them Seriously.

This serious interest in story-pictures was apparent in other halls along Grand street. But a desire to be cheerful under all circumstances was suggested by this announcement over the door of one place: “The Bride of Lammermoor – A Tragedy of Bonnie Scotland.”

In a Mulberry street “theatre,” conducted under Italian auspices, the pictures were similar to those in Grand street. A coal stove filled the place with gas but no one seemed to notice it. Another Italian place in West Houston street sported this sign: “Caruso Moving Pictures.” But Caruso wasn’t among those present on the screen. The name, apparently, was merely a delicate tribute to the Metropolitan’s sobbing tenor.

Bessie Wynn’s name was prominently displayed in front of an imposing theatre in Fourteenth street. But Bessie was there only in voice and picture. You could recognize her picture but her voice had to be taken for granted. When they canned Bessie’s voice they evidently forgot to screw down the lid, and so it had soured and curdled and lost its flavor.

“The Wild Horse” filled up on oats at the Manhattan Theatre and developed from a weak skinny nag into a fat and fearful animal that kicked everything to pieces. It was the “big laugh.”

Harlem Likes to Laugh.

But here as elsewhere serious pictures with now and then a shooting or stabbing incident for excitement outnumbered the comic subjects. Harlem showed the greatest fondness for funny pictures. The Bronx appeared to be more serious minded.

Some of the places open their doors as early as 9 in the morning and keep going until after 11 at night. The shows are continuous and so are the privileges that go with a ticket. Only the pictures are compelled to move.

Comment: Among the films described are Âmes corses [The Corsican’s Revenge] (France 1908 p.c. Eclair) and Le galant garde français [The Gallant Guardsman] (France 1908 p.c. Pathé Frères). Bessie Wynn was an American singer and stage comedienne. The mention of ‘talking pictures’ presumably refers to a short vogue in a few theatres for having actors speak behind the screen rather than synchronised sound films (i.e. films, usually of singers, synchronised to a gramophone recording).

Links: Available online at Chronicling America

The Movies in the Age of Innocence

Source: Edward Wagenknecht, The Movies in the Age of Innocence (New York: Limelight Editions, 1997 [orig. 1962]), pp. 12-13

Text: I saw my first motion picture, somewhere along about 1905 0r 1906, in a little barn-like theater at “The Chutes,” a small amusement park, at Kedzie Avenue and Van Buren Street, Chicago, where the West Side carbarns now stand. It was all about the adventures of the devil and a beautiful girl whom he had lured to his picturesque domains. From its general resemblance to the French Pathé films which I was soon to see at my first neighborhood theater, I judge it to have been of French manufacture. The devil was a prominent character in many of these early films. He was essentially the Faust operatic devil – with horns and a very realistic tail – and he usually appeared and disappeared in a puff of smoke, which, to us who were new to the movies, was in itself a very wonderful photographic effect. Indeed I have often said that the devil was the first movie star and that if we had known some of the things that the future had in store for us, we might have appreciated him more than we did.

Hell, it appeared in this old French film, was a very beautiful place, full of couches and bowers and drapes and hangings. Indeed it might be described as a kind of Frenchified version of the notion Bernard Shaw was almost contemporaneously presenting in Man and Superman. I remember very well that I, who had been taught to fear hell, and was doing my best – intermittently at least – to keep out of it, at once began to wonder if it was not possible that the place might have been maligned. I can personally testify, therefore, that the very first time I approached the movies, they proved themselves the insidiously corrupting influence which their critics have always declared them to be.

Comment: Edward Wagenknecht (1900-2004) was an American literary critic.