Out of the Darkness

Source: Allan Morley, ‘Our Cinematographic Cartoons, no. 50 – Out of the Darkness’, Pictures and the Picturegoer, 13 February 1916, p. 475

Comments: Allan Morley is probably the comic artist of that name (1895-1960) who worked for DC Thomson magazines from the 1920s to the 1950s, including work for such children’s comics as The Beano and The Dandy. The legend that accompanies the cartoon reads: “Pictures are often amusing, but the conversations of picturegoers are very often more so. Our cartoonist presents a sample of what he has overheard at sundry cinemas”. The use of speech bubbles to reveal the conversations of a film audience in the dark is also employed in the postcards ‘The Bioscope‘ and ‘In the Cinema‘ previously featured on this site. Pictures and the Picturegoer was a British film trade journal. My thanks to Maria Velez for having first tweeted this image.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

If I Don't Write It, Nobody Will

Source: Eric Sykes, If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 78-80

Text: If the world was not exactly our oyster, it was most definitely our winkle. Our main Saturday night attraction was the Gaumont cinema at the end of Union Street. As for the films, the question we first asked ourselves was, ‘Is it a talkie?’and the second ‘Is it in colour?’ This didn’t bother us a bit; it was Saturday night, hey, lads, hey and the devil take the hindmost.

The Gaumont cinema was a large, luxurious emporium showing the latest films and up-to-date news, not forgetting Arthur Pules at the mighty Wurlitzer. For many Oldhamers the perfect panacea for the end of a stressful working week was a Saturday night at the pictures. Just relaxing into the armchair-like seats was an experience to savour. Uniformed usherettes busily showed patrons to their seats; one usherette stood against the orchestra pit, facing the audience with a smile as she sold crisps, peanuts, chocolates and soft drinks from a tray strapped round her shoulders; another usherette patrolled the aisles, selling various brands of cigarettes and matches from a similar tray. There was a general feeling of content in the audience, excitement slowly rising under subdued babble of conversation. The audience were the same people who had gone off to work during the week in overalls, dustcoats, ragged clothing and slightly better garb for office workers, but at the Gaumont cinema they had all, without exception, dressed up for the occasion. All the man wore collars and ties and the ladies decent frocks and in many cases hats as well. What a turnaround from my dear-old Imperial days; no running up and down the aisles chasing each other and certainly no whistling, booing or throwing orange peel at the screen during the sloppy kissing bits. In all fairness, though, I must add that it was only at the Saturday morning shows and we were children enjoying a few moments not under supervision or parental guidance. In fact when I was old enough to go to the Imperial for the evening films the audience even then dressed up and enjoyed the films in an adult fashion.

Back to the sublime at the Gaumont cinema; as the lights went down, so did the level of conversation. A spotlight hit the centre of the orchestra pit and slowly, like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the balding head of Arthur Pules would appear as he played his signature on the mighty Wurlitzer. He was a portly figure in immaculate white tie and tails, hands fluttering over the keys and shiny black pumps dancing over the pedals as he rose into full view, head swivelling from side to side, smiling and nodding to acknowledge the applause; but for all his splendid sartorial elegance, having his back to the audience was unfortunate as the relentless spotlight picked out the shape of his corsets. Regular patrons awaited this moment with glee, judging by the sniggers and pointing fingers. We were no exception; having all this pomp and circumstance brought down by the shape of a common pair of corsets on a man was always a good start to the evening’s entertainment.

At this point the words of a popular melody would flash on to the screen – for instance, the ‘in’ song of the day, ‘It Happened on the Beach at Bali Bali’ – and, after a frilly arpeggio to give some of the audience time to put their glasses on, a little ball of light settled on the first word of the song. In this case the first word was ‘It’; then it bounced onto ‘Happened’; then it made three quick hops over ‘on the Beach at’; then it slowed down for ‘Bali Bali’. The women sang with gusto and the men just smiled and nodded.

Happily this musical interlude didn’t last too long. Arthur Pules, the organist, was lured back into his pit of darkness and the curtains opened on the big wide screen. The films at the Gaumont were a great improvement on the grainy pictures at the Imperial, and so they should have been: after all, the film industry had made great strides in the eight years since John and I had sat in the pennies, dry mouthed as the shadow moved across the wall to clobber one of the unsuspecting actors.

After two hours of heavy sighs and wet eyes ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the lights in the auditorium came up, bringing us all to our feet as the drum roll eased into the National Anthem … no talking, no fidgeting, simply a mark of respect for our King and Queen.

Comments: Eric Sykes (1923-2012) was a British comic actor and writer, who wrote and performed widely over many years for film, television and radio, including the 1970s sitcom Sykes. He was born and raised in Oldham, Lancashire, and at the time of this recollection was in his mid-teens, having left school aged fourteen. John was his half-brother. The Gaumont cinema in Oldham was at corner the King Street and Union Street, having been re-built as a cinema in 1937 out of an earlier theatre.

If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will

Source: Eric Sykes, If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 78-80

Text: If the world was not exactly our oyster, it was most definitely our winkle. Our main Saturday night attraction was the Gaumont cinema at the end of Union Street. As for the films, the question we first asked ourselves was, ‘Is it a talkie?’and the second ‘Is it in colour?’ This didn’t bother us a bit; it was Saturday night, hey, lads, hey and the devil take the hindmost.

The Gaumont cinema was a large, luxurious emporium showing the latest films and up-to-date news, not forgetting Arthur Pules at the mighty Wurlitzer. For many Oldhamers the perfect panacea for the end of a stressful working week was a Saturday night at the pictures. Just relaxing into the armchair-like seats was an experience to savour. Uniformed usherettes busily showed patrons to their seats; one usherette stood against the orchestra pit, facing the audience with a smile as she sold crisps, peanuts, chocolates and soft drinks from a tray strapped round her shoulders; another usherette patrolled the aisles, selling various brands of cigarettes and matches from a similar tray. There was a general feeling of content in the audience, excitement slowly rising under subdued babble of conversation. The audience were the same people who had gone off to work during the week in overalls, dustcoats, ragged clothing and slightly better garb for office workers, but at the Gaumont cinema they had all, without exception, dressed up for the occasion. All the man wore collars and ties and the ladies decent frocks and in many cases hats as well. What a turnaround from my dear-old Imperial days; no running up and down the aisles chasing each other and certainly no whistling, booing or throwing orange peel at the screen during the sloppy kissing bits. In all fairness, though, I must add that it was only at the Saturday morning shows and we were children enjoying a few moments not under supervision or parental guidance. In fact when I was old enough to go to the Imperial for the evening films the audience even then dressed up and enjoyed the films in an adult fashion.

Back to the sublime at the Gaumont cinema; as the lights went down, so did the level of conversation. A spotlight hit the centre of the orchestra pit and slowly, like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the balding head of Arthur Pules would appear as he played his signature on the mighty Wurlitzer. He was a portly figure in immaculate white tie and tails, hands fluttering over the keys and shiny black pumps dancing over the pedals as he rose into full view, head swivelling from side to side, smiling and nodding to acknowledge the applause; but for all his splendid sartorial elegance, having his back to the audience was unfortunate as the relentless spotlight picked out the shape of his corsets. Regular patrons awaited this moment with glee, judging by the sniggers and pointing fingers. We were no exception; having all this pomp and circumstance brought down by the shape of a common pair of corsets on a man was always a good start to the evening’s entertainment.

At this point the words of a popular melody would flash on to the screen – for instance, the ‘in’ song of the day, ‘It Happened on the Beach at Bali Bali’ – and, after a frilly arpeggio to give some of the audience time to put their glasses on, a little ball of light settled on the first word of the song. In this case the first word was ‘It’; then it bounced onto ‘Happened’; then it made three quick hops over ‘on the Beach at’; then it slowed down for ‘Bali Bali’. The women sang with gusto and the men just smiled and nodded.

Happily this musical interlude didn’t last too long. Arthur Pules, the organist, was lured back into his pit of darkness and the curtains opened on the big wide screen. The films at the Gaumont were a great improvement on the grainy pictures at the Imperial, and so they should have been: after all, the film industry had made great strides in the eight years since John and I had sat in the pennies, dry mouthed as the shadow moved across the wall to clobber one of the unsuspecting actors.

After two hours of heavy sighs and wet eyes ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the lights in the auditorium came up, bringing us all to our feet as the drum roll eased into the National Anthem … no talking, no fidgeting, simply a mark of respect for our King and Queen.

Comments: Eric Sykes (1923-2012) was a British comic actor and writer, who wrote and performed widely over many years for film, television and radio, including the 1970s sitcom Sykes. He was born and raised in Oldham, Lancashire, and at the time of this recollection was in his mid-teens, having left school aged fourteen. John was his half-brother. The Gaumont cinema in Oldham was at corner the King Street and Union Street, having been re-built as a cinema in 1937 out of an earlier theatre.

Mass-Observation at the Movies

Source: John W. Woodhead, quoted in Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (eds.), Mass-Observation at the Movies (London/New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 80

Text: John W. Woodhead, 37 Stanley Rd (aged 18), regular cinema-goer (6 times amonth), preference – American films.

Comments. First of all I should like to thank the Films for the many entertaining hours I have spent watching them. I sincerely hope that the high rate of entertainment which has been raised in present-day Films will be maintained. Also, a word of praise for modern cinemas – their luxurious interiors certainly increase one’s enjoyment of a show. But must we have:-

1 Worn-out film plots?
2 Inane ‘shorts’?
3 Depressing ‘psychological’, films.
4 Lady-patrons in front of us wearing eccentric head-gear?

Comments: Mass-Observation carried out a series of studies in 1930s and 1940s into how people in the UK lived, through a mixture of observation, diaries and invited comments. This comment comes from Mass-Observation’s research programme into cultural life in Bolton, Lancashire. The study began in 1938, and this comment is a response to a questionnaire issued in March 1938 asking Do you go to the cinema regularly? How many times a month do you go? Do you go regularly on the same day, if so which day? Do you think you see people on the screen who live like yourself? Which are the best films, British or American, or do you think both are the same? People were also asked to number the types of films they best, and to list what they would like to see more of in films. This respondee was a regular of the Odeon, Ashburner Street.

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

Maisie at the Movies

Source: Gertrude S. Walton, Maisie at the Movies (Philadelphia: The Penn Publishing Company, 1922)

Text: CHARACTER – A Shop-Girl. She is overdressed, wears her hair in extreme fashion and her nose is powdered white. She is chewing gum vigorously.

(Gropes way down aisle and pauses — addresses companion LILIAN.) S’awful dark in here, ain’t it, Lil? I think I see a coupla seats in here. Pardon me. (Climbs over two or three seats and settles self.) Y’gonna take yer hat off, Lilian? Let’s slink down in the seats and take a chance — our hats is so small anyhow; in fact I thought the very day I bought the hat that it would be so small that I wouldn’t hafta take it off in the movies.

I hope this ain’t a sad picture, Lilian, because I’m sure to cry over it. I’m so sympathetic, Lilian, and I’m worse ever since Joe and I had our falling out — I cry at the least thing — not that I care so much about Joe, y’understand, only it’s made me so sympathetic or somethin’. Ma says I’m a fool but I donno. Joe was a nice fella but it was his fault a’course.

(Looks frantically from left to right in an effort to see the picture.) Good-night, Lilian, that man certainly takes his time taking his coat off. You’d think it was glued to him, in fact you’d think any man with any sense would take his coat off before he gets in front of the whole show and makes you break your neck trying to see the picture, but then, I don’t care so much for these comedy things anyway.

(Turns to person behind her.) Did you speak to me? My hat — it’s in your way? Well, can you beat that, Lilian? Some people are mighty fussy, believe me.

Thank goodness this crazy comedy is over. What didja say the feature picture was ? Oo-o, The Haunted House-Boat! Why, Lilian, I’ve seen this picture. No, we won’t go out — it’s a swell picture — you’ll be crazy about it, Lilian, it has such an original plot — so different from anything you ever saw before. Y’see the fella that takes the part of the crook is the hero but he really isn’t a crook at all. You’ll love this picture, Lilian. Just wait now — look, that’s him. Ain’t he grand though? His eyes is just like Joe’s. In fact he reminds me terribly of Joe. And look there, see the butler? Well, he’s the one who really takes the jewels in the end and he plays so innocent all the time you’d never think it. Why, the first time I seen this picture I was so surprised. Yeh, that’s the heroine. She wears the swellest clothes you ever seen. Wait until you see the dress she wears in the ballroom scene — gee, it’s a dream — no back to it and only one strap to hold it up — I mean what there is of the waist to it — only one strap to hold it up besides her strength of will. The ballroom scene is where she loses the pearls and the diamond bracelet and every one thinks the hero done it, but it’s really the butler after all. The butler is the real crook, Lilian.

Then this House-Boat that’s supposed to be haunted all the time is really the hiding place for all these crooks. See, that’s the House-Boat now. Gee, Lil, I get so excited when I think about the awful fight they have on it at the end of the picture. That’s when you discover that the hero isn’t a crook at all — he’s from the Police Department and the butler is the real crook. Any minute you’d think the butler will kill him but he doesn’t.

See that fella with the black moustache — well, he’s another one of the crooks and he ties the girl to the railroad track just as the train is coming. No — I’m wrong, it isn’t him that ties her to the track, it’s the half-breed. Yeh, that’s who it is. I kinda forgot it. Y’see, the half-breed is really the brother of the butler, who isn’t a half-breed — he’s a whole-breed, or whatever you call it — I mean the half-breed is the whole-breed’s half-brother. I mean the half-breed had an Indian mother, y’see, so that made ’em only half-brothers — if you get what I mean.

The butler is the brains of the jewel-robbing gang and the half-breed’ll do anything he tells him because he hasn’t got so much brains on account of his being a half-breed, y’know.

This is the sad part, Lil — see, the hero’s mother is going to die now. Gee, I hope I don’t cry. (Blinks.) Don’t he look just like Joe now — look, Lil — ain’t he the picture of Joe? Yeh, you said it, why did we have a falling out? I suppose it was my fault a little bit, but you really couldn’t blame me for getting sore. Joe’s an awful nice fella though. Look, Lilian, she’s going to die now just as soon as she falls on the floor. Ain’t it sad? (Fumbles in pocket.) Lil, have you got a handkerchief ? Thanks, I didn’t bring none. (Dabs at eyes.) Gee, I wish I wasn’t so sympathetic.

Good-night, Lil, I dropped my hat. (Gropes about on floor, sits up and accepts hat from neighbor on opposite side.) Oh, thank you ever so (Opens mouth and stares in astonishment.) Joe — you been sitting here all the time? And I never knew it; I never knew you were there at all. Gee, you surprised me so I guess I swallowed my gum. Lilian, look what was sitting right here beside us and me none the wiser. Yeh, I remember I said I’d never speak to you again, Joe, but I’ve forgotten all about that now. I wasn’t really mad, Joe. I just met Lil this afternoon and we thought we would go to the movies but I’ve seen this picture before. Y’see the butler is really the crook and the hero is from the Police Department and this House-Boat is really the hiding place for (Turns to usher in aisle.) Whadja say? We gotta stop talking or leave? Can you beat that! Don’t worry, little Sunshine, we’ll leave all right. I’ve seen the picture anyway. Cmon, Joe. (Slams on hat, climbs out into aisle.) Now I ask you, Lil, have I said two words since we been in here? You said it — I ain’t said a word — not — a — word. Believe me, some nerve!

Comments: The existence of several comic monologues around this time which satirise the talkative member of a cinema audience (generally female) indicates a general perception of certain modes of movie audience behaviour, in particular talking about what you saw on the screen.

Links: Copy on Internet Archive

Words

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Handling the Visitor

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Links: Available from the Internet Archive