Still in the Dark

Source: Jessie Lee, extract from audiotape interviewee recorded 5 July 1994, quoted in Gregg Bachmann, ‘Still in the Dark – Silent Film Audiences’, Film History, Vol. 9, No. 1 (1997), pp. 23-48.

Text: We always looked forward to going there and all the kids in the neighborhood and at school, that’s what we would talk about. All week. Especially on The Perils of Pauline. Oh, is she going to get out, or is she going to fall off of the cliff, or will the train hit her, you know. She was so real. She was part of us. It was … I don’t know, movie stars nowadays are away from it, they’re up there some place. These people were right down here where they were just everyday people like we were. I don’t know what we would have done without the Saturday movie. And of course any punishment that was needed … the worst they could give to us was when you can’t go to the movie on Saturday. Anything but that, we’d promise anything just as long as we got to go to that movie. Very seldom did we get that punishment, I’m glad to say that.

We looked forward to Saturday, that was the highlight of the whole week. Everybody wanted to go down to the picture show. So we had to walk to the picture show – it was a small town, that was no big deal at all. So, we’d go to the movie, we’d get there early and of course we’d always go down in the front row.

It was one of the fondest memories of my childhood. Going to the movies, earning the money and then talking about it. We talked about it all next week. And, of course, we children, and I think older people are the same way, nobody ever sees the same thing in a movie. Some are interested in this, some are interested in that. Like a Western, the boys are interested in the guy with the gun shooting and we’re interested in the heroine what she’s going to do and how she’s going to get out of it. It just made something to talk about for a whole week.

I don’t know, there was a difference about it, you lived through the movies in those days. There wasn’t just something you were looking at that was a way off, it was real to you. That’s as near as I can describe it.

Comments: Jessie Lee (1906-?), from Marion, Indiana, was one of sixty-five interviewees recorded over a period of four years in the 1990s and quoted by American film historian Gregg Bachman for his article ‘Still in the Dark – Silent Film Audiences’.

Reg. v Alfred Jones and Samuel Gold

Source: Prosecution of Offences Acts, 1879 and 1884. Return to an address of the Honourable the House of Commons, dated 29 June 1900, 19th Century House of Commons Sessional Papers, vol. LXIX p. 247, no. 389 – Reg. v Alfred Jones and Samuel Gold

Text: These prisoners were “street showmen” and they were originally arrested for using bad language and causing a crowd to assemble in a public thoroughfare. On being brought before the magistrate, the police officer stated that her found the prisoners in the Southwark Bridge Road, a busy shopping thoroughfare, with a cinematograph machine, around which a large crowd had assembled, and that in consequence of the description they gave of the pictures to be exhibited therein her arrested them.

The magistrate, in view of the increasing number of cinematographs to be seen in the streets and at places of amusement, and of the danger which might arise if pictures such as those described by the officer were allowed to be exhibited, felt that his powers to deal summarily with the prisoners were insufficient, and he remanded the case in order that the Director might consider whether or not the prisoners should be indicted at the sessions for wilfully exposing to public view an obscene print or picture.

The Director caused inquiries to be made, and had the pictures in the cinematograph examined, when it appeared that the language used by the prisoners by no means exaggerated the obscene nature of the “film.” It also appeared that when inviting people to pay their pence and look into the machine one of the prisoners said that women and girls were not allowed to see it, as it was only for males. The Director thereupon took charge of the prosecution, and the prisoners were committed for trial at the quarter sessions. It was contended on their behalf that the exhibition was not an indecent one, and that similar pictures had been exhibited at a London music hall, and it was proposed to call the photographer who took them. In the end, however, defendants elected to reserve their defence. Subsequently they pleaded guilty at the South London Sessions in October 1899, and were sentenced, Jones to two, and Gold to three calendar months’ imprisonment with hard labour.

At the conclusion of the case the judge directed that inquiry should be made respecting the previous relationship between the prisoners, and as to when, how, and where they procured the films. These inquiries were made, and upon it being ascertained that no similar films existed, and that the photographers, in view of the conviction, did not propose to take any more of them the matter was allowed to drop.

Comments: The Street Cinematograph, which is possibly what was being used by Jones and Gold, was the invention of British manufacturer W.C. Hughes. It was a large peepshow comprising a film projector attached to nine-foot-long cabinet placed on trestles, with multiple viewing apertures so that several people could gather round and view the films on a screen at the far end of the cabinet. As the name indicates, it was exhibited in the open air and enjoyed a brief vogue 1898-99.

Continuous Performance

Source: Extracts from Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance VIII’, Close Up vol. II no. 3, March 1928, reproduced in James Donald, Anne Friedberg and Laura Marcus (eds.), Close Up 1927-1933: Cinema and Modernism (London: Cassell, 1998), pp. 174-176

Text: Amongst the gifts showered upon humanity by the screen and already too numerous to be counted, none has been more eagerly welcomed than the one bestowed upon the young woman who is allowed to shine from its surface just as she is. In silent, stellar radiance, for the speech that betrayeth is not demanded of her and is this she is more fortunate than her fellows upon the stage …

… But it is not only upon the screen that this young woman has been released in full power. She is to be found also facing it, and by no means silent, in her tends of thousands. A human phenomenon, herself in excelsis; affording rich pasture for the spiritual descendants of Messrs Juvenal and Co. And thus far the lady is beneficient. But there are others together with her in the audience. There are for example those illogical creatures, who, while they respectfully regard woman as life’s supreme achievement, capping even the starfish and the stars, are still found impotently raging when in the presence of the wonders of art she remains self-centred and serenely self-expressive. Such, meeting her at her uttermost, here where so far there is not even a convention of silence to keep her within bounds, must sometimes need more than all their chivalry to stop short of moral homicide.

I must confess to having at least one foot in their camp. I evade the lady whenever it is possible and, in the cinema, as far as it gloom allows, choose a seat to the accompaniment of an apprehensive consideration of its surrounding, lest any of her legion should be near at hand. Nevertheless I have learned to cherish her. For it’s she at her most flagrant that has placed the frail edifice of my faith in woman at last upon a secure foundation. For this boon I thank her, and am glad there has been time for her fullest demonstrations before the day when the cinema audience shall have established a code of manners.

That day is surely not far off. One of the things, perhaps so far, the only thing, to be said for the film that can be heard as well as seen is that it puts the audience in its place, reduces it to the condition of being neither seen nor heard. But it may be that before the standard film becomes and audible entertainment it will occur to some enterprising producer, possibly to one of those transatlantic producers who possess so perfectly the genial art of taking the onlookers into their confidence and not only securing but conducting their collaboration, to prelude his performance by a homily on the elements of the technique of film-seeing: a manual of etiquette for the cinema in a single caption, an inclusive courteous elegant paraphrase of the repressed curses of the minority:

Don’t stand arguing in the gangway, we are not deaf.
Crouch on your way to your seat, you are not transparent.
Sit down the second you reach it.
Don’t deliver public lectures on the film as it unfolds.
Or on anything else.
Don’t be audible in any way unless the films brings you laughter.
Ceases, in fact, to exist except as a contributing part of the film, critical or otherwise, and if critical, silently so.
If this minimum of decent consideration for your neighbours is beyond you, go home.

An excellent alternative would be a film that might be called A Mirror of Audiences, with many close-ups.

Meanwhile here we are, and there she is. In she comes and the screen obediently ceases to exist. If when she finally attends to it – for there is first her toilet to think of, and then her companion, perhaps not seen since yesterday – she is disappointed, we all hear of it. If she is pleased we learn how and why. If her casual glance discovers stock characters engrossed in a typical incident of an average film, well known to her for she has served her enthralled apprenticeship and is a little blasé, her conversation proceeds uninterrupted …

… Let us attend to her, for she can lead her victim through anger to cynicism and on at last to a discovery that makes it passing strange that no male voice has been raised save in condemnation, than no man, film-lover and therefore for years past helplessly at her mercy, has risen up and cried Eureka. For she is right. For all her bad manners that will doubtless be pruned when the film becomes high art and its temple a temple of stillness save for the music that at present inspires her to do her worst, she is innocently, directly, albeit unconsciously, upon the path that men have reached through long centuries of effort and of thought. She does not need, this type of woman clearly does not need, the illusions of art to come to the assistance of her own sense of existing. Instinctively she maintains a balance, the thing perceived and herself perceiving. She must therefore insist that she is not unduly moved, or if she be moved must assert herself as part of that which moves her. She takes all things currently …

… Down through the centuries men and some women have pathetically contemplated art as a wonder outside themselves. It is only in recent years that man has known beauty to emanate from himself, to be his gift to what he sees. And the dreadful woman asserting herself in the presence of no matter what grandeurs unconsciously testifies that life goes on, art or no art and that the onlooker is a part of the spectacle.

Comment: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves.

The Cinema

Source: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (London: Williams and Norgate, 1917), pp. 198-201

Text: [Three South London schoolgirls were examined together].

22. THE CHAIRMAN. How often do you go to the cinema? — I don’t go very often, as it is very injurious to my eyes when I go.
23. Do you sit right in the front? — Well, if they put you there you have to go there.
24. What do you pay generally? — Fourpence.
25. Do you go only for entertainments which are for children? — Not always.
26. Are you a great cinema-goer? — Yes.
27. How often do you go? — Once a week. Sometimes I go once a week for six months and then have a rest, and then start all over again.
28. What seats do you go in; what do you pay? — Sevenpence.
29. You sit right in the front? — No, it is all according to how much you pay. If you pay a low price you go into the front.
30. With your sevenpence, is that not a first-rate seat? — Just about in the middle of the cinema, and I can see all right there.
31. And you don’t find your eyes hurt? — When I go out it generally gives me a headache.
32. How long do you sit in the cinema? — Two and a half or three hours.
33. Do you go very much ? — About once every three weeks.
34. What do you like best? Comic things? — I like pretty pictures about dancing and horses.
35. Do you like seeing people breaking into rooms and taking things? — Not very much.
36. It never gives any of you an idea that what you see you want to go and do yourself? — No.
37. How about your eyes? Do you get a headache? — No.
38. Where do you sit? — I pay fourpence and sit about two or three seats away from the front.
39. What part of London do you come from? — We are all from the middle of South London.
40. Have you any particular picture palace which appeals to you? — I used to go to the Oval Cinema, but now I go to the Queen’s Hall, Newington Butts.
41. Where do you go? — To the Palladium, Brixton, and the Arcadia, Brixton.
42. What kind of things do you have at the Arcadia? — They generally have very good pictures, and I went once and saw “___ ______ __ __ .” It is not a very good picture to go to.
43. Why, what was the matter? — Because I do not like the way they used the crucifix. They used the crucifix to hit one another with, and it might make children think less of religion.
44. That was the principal thing, and you did not notice anything else? — No.
45. Where do you go? — I go to the Queen’s Hall, Newington Butts.
46. Did you see “___ _______ __ __ ” ? — No.
47. Do the girls sit amongst the boys? — Yes, all mixed up, and the attendant comes round, and if the boys start whistling about and do that again he turns them out.
48. I suppose girls never do that sort of thing? — That all depends.
49. Do you go to the late entertainment? — No, mother won’t let me.
50. Do you go late? — I get out about 9 or 9.30. Very often it is 9.30. If I go to Brixton by myself and my sisters are that way they meet me, otherwise I come home by myself.
51. Do you feel the influence next day? — I do not feel any bad effects.
52. SIR JOHN KIRK. Is the place very dark? — Yes, very dark. You can see over it while the performance goes on.
53. What would happen if the boys started fighting? — They would not start fighting, because they are always too anxious to see the pictures.
54. MR. LAMERT. Have you any other amusement to go to beside the cinema? — Sometimes a theatre.
55. Do you pay to go to the theatre ? — Sometimes mother lets us go into the pit, as she doesn’t like us to go up the stairs to the gallery. The price is one shilling and twopence tax.
56. When you go to the theatre what do you see? — Pantomimes, and if there is a revue mother thinks we will understand she will take us to it.
57. At the picture palaces do you take any steps to find out what is on? — No, we take our chance.
58. MONSIGNOR BROWN. What sort of picture do the children like best? — When the cowboys and Indians come on they clap very loudly.
59. Do you like flowers? — No, not very much.
60. Birds’ nests? — No, they don’t like those.
61. Charlie Chaplin? — They like those.
62. Do you get tired when they begin to show views and landscapes? — Sometimes some of them do.
63. Are they short films? — Yes, and sometimes they are the topical budget, and then a lot of them go out.
64. Do they like a long drama? — Yes.
65. How many minutes do the dramas last? — Sometimes one and a half hours.
66. Do they like dramas with a lot of love mixed up? — We don’t care for them very much; some like them and some don’t.
67. Would many like them ? — I should not think many of them would like them. I think they would prefer other pictures.
68. How many different picture houses have you been to? — Sixteen.
69. How many have you been to? — Eight.
70. How many you? — Six in London and Manchester.
71. DR. MARIE STOPES. Have you seen any picture which you thought at the time was bad to see? — No, but I saw a picture once which I thought was vulgar. It was called “_____”
72. Supposing you went into a picture house and you met a fairy at the door who told you you could see any picture you
liked, what kind would you like to see? — I should like to see a picture about a circus.
73. What sort of picture would you like best? — I should like a good drama, but not a love drama. A drama like “Little Miss Nobody,” which I thought was very nice.
74. Why don’t you like love dramas? — There is too much fooling about in them, and there is always a hatred between two men and two women.
75. You don’t like to see two men hating each other? — Well, it is a lot of silliness. I do not think it would happen in real life.
76. You never got any disease at the cinema? — No, but once I got scarlet fever, but not in a cinema.
77. Did you ever get anything? — No, I did not catch my disease there.
78. DR. KIMMINS. What is the, nicest picture you have seen in the cinema? — I think it was “Cleopatra.”
79. And you? — “Little Miss Nobody.”
80. And you? — “The Prisoner of Zenda” and “Rupert of Hentzau.”
MR. NEWBOULD. These three were of British manufacture.
81. Do you like serials? — I have seen “The Broken Coin,” but I did not like that, although I liked the acting.
82. COMMISSIONER ADELAIDE COX. Did you see anything that frightened you? — I saw one picture where a man was in the cell, and he was supposed to have an apparition, which breaks through the wall, and the wall falls over. It was in “Monte Cristo.”
83. And when you went to bed, did you think about these things ? — No, I went to sleep.
84. What do you like the least? — I do not like the topical budget.
85. And you? — Love stories.
86. And you ? — I think the same — love stories.
87. Mr. Graves. Have you seen any pictures which help you at school? — I have seen the picture about Nero.
88. Would you like some singing in between? — I should like to have some singing.
89. MR. NEWBOULD. Are you quite sure it was a crucifix you saw in “___ ______ __ __”? — Yes.
90. Have you any idea why she hit the man with the crucifix? — She was a servant in his father’s house, and he wanted to be in love with her, and he started cuddling and kissing her, and she gets up the crucifix quite unconsciously and hits him with it.
91. Have you ever seen films you do not understand? — Yes, I can never understand pictures on general plays.
92. MR. CROOK. Have you ever had a man who wanted to pay for you at night? — No.
93. PRINCIPAL GARVIE. Have the boys ever been rude to you in the cinema? — No, but they have pulled our hair and taken our hats off.
94. THE CHAIRMAN. Do they only do that in the cinema? — No, and if the attendant is about he puts them outside.

Comment: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917) is a report and summary of evidence taken by the Cinema Commission Inquiry, instituted by the National Council of Public Morals. It includes several passages taken from interviews with children where commission members asked them questions about their cinema-going habits. Here three girls (ages not given) from South London are interview. A.E. Newbould, who speaks up for British films, was one of the British cinema industry representatives on the Commission; one of its members was the birth control campaigner Marie Stopes. Topical Budget was the name of a British newsreel, though ‘topical budget’ is here being used as a generic name for newsreels. Filmed mentioned are The Count of Monte Cristo (USA 1913), The Prisoner of Zenda (UK 1915), Rupert of Hentzau (UK 1915) and Little Miss Nobody (USA 1916), all features. ‘Cleopatra’ is possibly Marcantonio e Cleopatra (Italy 1913) (it is not the Theda Bara film Cleopatra, which was released after these interviews took place). The film with a crucifix has not been identified. The Broken Coin (USA 1915) was a popular serial, mentioned by other interviewees.

The Cinema

Source: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (London: Williams and Norgate, 1917), pp. 209-201

Text:
23. THE CHAIRMAN. What do you like best at the cinema? — All about thieves.
24. The next best? — Charlie Chaplin.
25. And you? — Mysteries; and then Charlie Chaplin.
26. And you? — Mysteries, and Charlie Chaplin.
27. What do you mean by mysteries? — Where stolen goods are hidden away in vaults so that the police can’t get them.
28. And you? — Cowboys; and then Charlie Chaplin second.
29. When you have seen these pieces showing thieving and people catching the thief, has it ever made you wish to go and do the same thing? — Yes.
30. Do you think the fellow who steals, then, a fine man? — No.
31. But you would like to do it yourself? — Yes.
32. Do you like the adventure or what? — I like the adventure.
33. You have no desire, then, to steal in order to get things for yourself, but you like the dashing about and getting up drain-pipes and that sort of thing? Yes.
34. And you? — No, I don’t like that, I should not like to do that.
35. Do you like pictures where you see flowers growing? — No.
36. Do you like ships coming in and bringing things from distant lands? — (One boy replied “No,” and the other three “Yes.”)
37. You like to have a consistent programme of detective stories and Charlie Chaplin, and you don’t want any more? — Yes.
38. Do you sit amongst the girls ? — Sometimes.
39. What do you pay? — 1d. and 2d.
40. Do you ever have to sit on the ground? — No, we always have a seat.
41. Have you ever seen the boys behave roughly to the girls? — Yes.
42. What do they do? — Aim orange peel at them.
43. Do they pull the girls about? — Yes, their hair.
44. And do the girls pull back again? — No; they seem to enjoy it.
45. Do your sisters go? — I take baby every night; it is four and a half years old.
46. Does baby like it and laugh? — Yes.
47. She likes Charlie Chaplin best? — Yes.
48. Is your father at the war? — (One boy here stated his father was on the Midland Railway; another one on war work; the third, a sailor; and the fourth, working at Woolwich Arsenal.)
49. Then your fathers are away a great deal, and you don’t see much of them? — No.
50. And mother? — Mother looks after us at home.
51. I suppose mother is very busy on Saturday night, and she gives you the baby to take to the pictures? — Yes.
52. Do you pay for the baby? — Yes, a penny.
53. Do you go to Sunday School? — (One boy stated he went to Sunday School, but the other three said they did not.)
54. Are you able to sleep long on Sunday morning after going to the pictures? — I do not feel tired.
55. PRINCIPAL GARVIE. Can you tell me the film you like best? — (One boy liked “The Broken Coin,” and three boys preferred “Red Circle.”)
56. Can you tell us the story of the “Red Circle”? — A man has a red circle on his hand and it forces him to do crime.
57. MR. KING. If there were no picture palaces what would you do? — Stop at home; but sometimes we go out and play football.
58. Why do you like the cowboy films? — Because they are exciting.
59. DR. KIMMINS. What other films do you like besides the “Red Circle” and “The Broken Coin”? — Tragedy.
60. What is the nicest one you have ever seen? — A picture about the death of a boy’s mother and he revenges her.
61. Do you care about love stories at all? — No.
62. MONSIGNOR BROWN. If there were two picture houses together, and one was showing flowers and geography films, and
the other one Charlie Chaplin films, which would you go to? — The one showing Charlie Chaplin.
63. Supposing they put on some of the films you do not like, what would the boys do? — They would grumble and shout “Chuck it off.”
64. MR. LAMERT. Did you ever on a film see a man do anything with any apparatus or things which you could get hold
of? — No.
65. Would you know how to get any of these things? — No.

Comment: The Cinema: Its Present Position and Future Possibilities (1917) is a report and summary of evidence taken by the Cinema Commission Inquiry, instituted by the National Council of Public Morals. It includes several passages taken from interviews with children where commission members asked them questions about their cinema-going habits. Here four schoolboys from Bethnal Green, London were questioned. Two were aged eleven, two thirteen. Two attended cinemas on Saturday night and two on Saturday afternoon, each going once a week. The Red Circle (USA 1915) was a serial starring Ruth Roland as a woman with a birthmark which compelled her to steal in times of stress. The Broken Coin (USA 1915) was another serial, directed by Francis Ford.

The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh

Source: Michael Davie (ed.), The Diaries of Evelyn Waugh (London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1976)

Text: Saturday 31 January 1931
Went to Indian cinema with commercial traveller. Old Charlie in transition stage Keystone – Goldrush. Polishes his nails before meals. Food stolen. Eats grass with salt and pepper and delicacy, rinses fingers. In the end handsome lover turns up and Charlie goes off. Followed Indian film; fairy story; very ornamental. Beautiful girl greeted with shouts (no women in building) and is led from her bed to a precipice and thrown over. ‘That is her dream.’ Supposedly beautiful youth gazes at her. ‘He wants to take her into the bushes.’ Later elephant with drunken attendant. ‘That is an elephant.’ Elephant escapes, wicked robber attempts entrap heroine. Her father dies saying he has never kept promise to irrigate desert, etc.

Comment: The writer Evelyn Waugh was a regular cinemagoer (as noted in his diaries), particularly in the 1920s when he also experimented with producing amateur dramatic films. This screening took place in Tabora, then in Tanganyika (now Tanzania) during Waugh’s expedition to Abyssinia to cover the coronation of Emperor Haile Selassie. There was a small Indian population in Tanganyika. The quoted comments in the diary entry are made by Waugh’s Indian companion. The Chaplin film shown is The Gold Rush (USA 1925), but I have not been able to identify the Indian film.

Movies and Conduct

Source: Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), pp. 105-106

Text: In the gloom of the Fox Theater, I sat with my gang, and I gasped in pleasurable anticipation as the tense moment approached. The hero placed his hands about the heroine’s divinely small waist and pulled her half-fiercely toward him. Her beautiful lips parted slightly; he looked into her heavenly eyes with infinite adoration and their kiss was perfect. My response was inevitable. My hand clutched Vera’s; we thrilled in ecstasy.

Short-lived this bliss which passed all understanding. From behind, where a group of boys sat there came a rude burst of laughter, of smacks and kisses. A furious wave of anger engulfed me. How revolting and vulgar they were! I wanted to knock their heads together, to destroy them, to tramp upon them for they had hurt my sensitive soul without a thought. They had ruined the sacred beauty of that moment with their vulgarity. I had experienced that moment because I had put myself in the heroine’s place; I had felt the sweeping silk of her garment against me; I had been as beautiful as she, in surroundings as glamorous; and the hero had been replaced by a certain boy a few rows away who, I felt, was watching me at that moment. It was a personal insult to me that they had laughed. I turned, haughty scorn in my glance, to look at those insufferable creatures,- and I caught his eye. He smiled – a warmth suffused me, in that moment I knew –

The minutes hurried by. There came the close-up, the flare of lights, the noise of stamping crowds, anxious to gain the exit. I walked in a dream, feeling a spell and a magic touch upon me. I had scarcely left my friends at the corner when the well-known lines of his roadster loomed before me, and the headlights cut gaudy streaks across the pavement. Came the creaking of brakes, a subdued question, my mute assent, the opening of the car-door, and the purr of the engine as we slid into the mystery of a vaguely fragrant night.

I had known it all along, from the moment I had seen that perfect embrace in the movies; I had felt that this would happen. He had parked in lover’s lane, his arms were about me, persuading. To my bewildered mind there came two thoughts; one, “Mama said, ‘ Don’t kiss the boys'”; the other, “What harm can it be? It is beautiful.” So I struggled no longer; and I learned the charm which before I had only dreamed of.

Comment:American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. Most of the evidence relates to picturegoing in the 1920s. This extract, from a college girl aged nineteen, is given in the chapter ‘Emotional Possession: Love and Passion’. The full autobiographical essay is reproduced as ‘Case 5: My Movie Autobiography’ in Garth Jowett, Ian C. Jarvie, Kathryn H. Fuller, Children and the Movies: Media Influence and the Payne Fund Controversy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1996), pp. 255-260.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

Tell Me Grandpa

Source: Josef Morrell, Tell Me Grandpa (Easthill Brauton, Devon: Merlin Books, 1981), pp. 99-101

Text: However low were the family’s finances, most parents tried to afford one penny for each of their children to visit the local cinema on Saturday mornings. I think there was method in this sacrificial attitude, and mothers could be forgiven for an innocent piece of blackmail. What better reason for withholding the entrance money, if certain jobs weren’t accomplished, before being allowed to see the latest episode of the exciting thriller that had been eagerly discussed since last week’s instalment. Also, most mothers thought that to be rid of her offspring for two or three hours was no bad thing, and at least they knew where their children were.

There were two picture palaces in the district, each competing with the other to show films that would fill their halls with screaming children each Saturday morning at ten o’clock. The proprietors no doubt were pleased to see a long queue of waiting customers, but whether the manager and his brave staff were as enthusiastic, is open to doubt.

However, the preparation of the showings were arranged with considerable thought. While each cinema had to provide a lengthy and attractive programme to ensure everybody had their money’s worth, the manager had to allow his staff sufficient time after the children had gone, to prepare for the adult programme starting early in the afternoon. It must have been a daunting task each week to clear the floor of sweet bags, orange peel and apple cores, thrown down by anything up to three hundred children.

The doors were opened and we filed in dropping our pennies into a box on the table, under the eagle eyes of two large gentlemen whose principal job was to see that no one disappeared through the curtains before their hot little hands had released their pennies. Once inside we scrambled to a seat, often resulting in skirmishes reminiscent of the action we were about to see in the films. There were another two attendants inside supervising the seating arrangements, but as I remember, they quickly lost heart when they saw the unruly and unorthodox manner the children chose their seats.

Miraculously, as soon as the curtains parted to reveal the screen, everyone was settled and cheered the announcement that the first film was to commence shortly. It was now that my praise of the management’s timing showed itself. Just as we were becoming restless, the lights went out and the beam from the projector showed on the screen.

Usually the first film was short and lasted about five minutes, and was probably a testing exercise to see that the apparatus was working correctly; it also allowed the lady pianist, seated below the screen, to be ready for her marathon performance. I still wonder at her marvellous concentration and ability to keep her eyes on the events of those silent screens and the synchronization of her hands to fit the action.

Immediately the introductory film finished, the title and captions of the main feature appeared. No time for the boy behind to be tempted to stuff orange peel down your collar, or to crawl under your seat and tie the laces of your boot together!

There was silence until the film got underway, then the piano gave the clues of the story. The pianist thumped the keys fortissimo when the hero was hurrying to rescue the heroine from all sorts of terrible fates, and we gave him every encouragement by raising our voices to a deafening pitch. It was when the leading lady’s baby was desperately ill, that the pianist gave her best. Soul stirring melodies were played in unbelievable silence, and the boys had to be on their guard not to be caught crying with the girls. Of course justice was seen to be done, and had we been able to reach him, we would have assisted the hero to throw the villain off the cliff. The end came with most of us standing on our seats cheering the epic drawing to a close.

With little or no time, in order to prevent private wars breaking out between children in the audience, the weekly serial appeared, and we had a few seconds flash-back to recount to the unfortunates who hadn’t been able to attend the previous week, what has so far taken place. ‘Pearl White’ and ‘Elmo the Mighty’ are names which only the very elderly will recall, but it is possible those not so old will remember their parents tell of those pioneers of the screen.

The makers of those serial films really knew their business and their audience. Our hearts beat fast when the train carrying the heroine approached the damaged railway viaduct, and the gallant hero tried to bring his galloping horse alongside to warn the train driver of the peril.

It had come to an end, and we were left with feelings nearly as emotional as the film, realizing it would be a whole week before we knew for certain whether our favourite would be in time to save his sweetheart.

As we jostled our way out, the relief of the watching attendants can only be guessed. Then they made a systematic check by turning up the seats and examining the toilets, in case someone had secreted themselves away in order to see the adult programme without paying.

Arguments took place on the way home, trying to guess what would happen the following week, and our parents were of little help; when relating the exciting finish to the serial and asking whether everything would turn out the way we wished, they smiled and irritatingly said we would just have to wait and see.

Very rarely, perhaps on my birthday, I was taken to the cinema by my parents. These visits were in complete contrast to the Saturday morning adventure, principally because we went in the evenings, and coming home in the dark was part of the grown-up world which I didn’t experience very often.

Mother and my sisters were always eager to go, but Father had to be coaxed. There were two feature films, and provided one of them was a western, he would be agreeable to come with us. I approved his taste, and hoped that if the other film was a love story, it would be shown first, so although having to endure it, I could sit and anticipate the fight between the cowboys and Indians later on.

Of course the quiet and peaceful atmosphere of the hall although nearly full, was in sharp contrast to the morning’s performance. For instance, with everyone orderly, there was no need for attendants to be waiting to throw out anyone misbehaving, and was therefore an early glimpse into the future and what was expected of me when I grew up.

Comment: Josef Morrell was born in 1906, the son of a tailor living in Fulham. His evocatively-written memoirs cover the pre-war, war, and 1920s period. This section on his cinemagoing habits is especially eloquent, covering most of the key themes as they relate to children, including the different modes of behaviour for different kinds of audience. Pearl White was the star of the hugely popular Perils of Pauline serial. American actor Elmo Lincoln was cinema’s first Tarzan.