Out of Place

Source: Edward W. Said, Out of Place: A Memoir (London: Granta Books, 1999), pp. 34-34

Text: There were two main sources of stories whose boundaries I could expand: books and films.

[…]

The second source was films, particularly those like the Arabian Nights adventures that regularly featured Jon Hall, Maria Montez, Turhan Bey, and Sabu, and the Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan series. When I was in good favor with my parents, the pleasures of Saturday included an afternoon cinema performance, fastidiously chosen for me by my mother. French and Italian films were taboo. Hollywood films were suitable only if declared “for children” by my mother. These were Laurel and Hardy, lots of Abbott and Costello, Betty Grable, Gene Kelly, Loretta Young, many, many musicals and family comedies with Clifton Webb, Claudette Colbert, and Jennifer Jones (acceptable in Song of Bernadette, forbidden in Duel in the Sun), Walt Disney fantasies and Arabian Nights preferably with only Jon Hall and Sabu (Maria Montez was frowned on), war films, some Westerns. Sitting in the plush cinema seats, much more than in viewing the Hollywood films themselves – which struck me as a weird form of science fiction corresponding to nothing at all in my life – I luxuriated in the sanctioned freedom to see and not be seen. Later I developed an irrecusable attachment to Johnny Weissmuller’s whole Tarzan world, especially to the uxorial and, in Tarzan and His Mate at least, virginally sensual Jane cavorting in their cosy tree house, whose clever Wemmicklike comforts seemed like a pure, uncomplicated distillation of our life as a family alone in Egypt. Once “The End” appeared on the screen in Tarzan Finds a Son or Tarzan’s Secret Treasure, I began my ruminations on what happened afterward, on what the little family did in the tree house, on the “natives” they cultivated and befriended, on members of Jane’s family who might have visited, on the tricks that Tarzan taught Boy, and on and on. It was very odd, but it did not occur to me that the cinematic Aladdin, Ali Baba, and Sinbad, whose genies, Baghdad cronies, and sultans I completely possessed in the fantasies I counterpointed with my lessons, all had American accents, spoke no Arabic, and ate mysterious foods – perhaps “sweetmeats,” or was it more like stew, rice, lamb cutlets? – that I could never quite make out.

Comments: Edward Wadie Said (1935-2003) was a Palestinian-American intellectual and cultural critic, best know for his 1978 book Orientalism. He was born in Jerusalem and his childhood was spent between that city and Cairo. At the time of this memoir he was aged around ten and going to school in Cairo. The films mentioned are The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943), Duel in the Sun (USA 1946), Tarzan and His Mate (USA 1934), Tarzan Finds a Son! (USA 1939) and Tarzan’s Secret Treasure (USA 1941).

Little Wilson and Big God

Source: Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God (London: Heinemann, 1987), p. 55

Text: Still, social mobility is built into women and may be an aspect of their biology. Madge remained refined, though ill-informed, and she dressed elegantly in the bosomless style of the day, going off to her stenography in a cloche hat and with exposed pretty knees. She was well informed only about the cinema, in which she had a professional stake. She fed me for a time with a dream of Hollywood, of which we were all learning more, not only from film magazines but from the screen itself. I had seen at Jakie Innerfield’s cinema a movie with the title Hollywood, which memory confuses with another movie called Sodom and Gomorrah. The film capital was already cannibalising itself, and there was one expressionist scene in which this happened literally: a huge human head with HOLLYWOOD burnt into its brow swallowed pigmy aspirants to film fame. This did not impair our fascination with the place, which was more magical silent than talking. The first squawk on the Vitaphone disc was a great disillusionment. In 1925 Rudolph Valentino still had a year of life ahead of him, and he was lucky to die voiceless. There was nobody like Valentino, so Madge thought, and she was right. I remember a party of friends of hers, all knees and cigarettes and no bosoms, in the upstairs drawing-room, and they were discussing a film in which Valentino appeared in white wig with a beauty spot. I said knowledgeably: ‘It’s called Monsewer Bewcare.’ I was corrected and left the room in humiliation, hearing Madge says: ‘Poor kid.’

Comments: Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was a British novelist and literary critic, whose book A Clockwork Orange was filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. His childhood was spent in Manchester. His 1986 novel The Pianoplayers features a pianist who plays for silent films, based on Burgess’ father who played the piano in pubs and cinemas. Madge was his step-sister. The films he refers to are Hollywood (USA 1923), Sodom und Gomorrha (Germany/Austria 1922) and Monsieur Beaucaire (USA 1924). The Vitaphone sound-on-disc film, used for many short subjects before supplying sound for some of the first talkies, was introduced in 1926. Jakie Innerfield’s cinema was on Princess Road, in the Moss Side of Manchester, close to the family’s tobacconist shop.

British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 68-72

Text: AGE: 19 SEX: F. OCCUPATION: CLERK NATIONALITY: BRITISH FATHER: ELECTRICAL ENGINEER MOTHER: HOUSEWIFE

Since I am only nineteen this film autobiography is necessarily limited. However, I have been a constant film-goer as long as I can remember, commencing at a very early age when I was taken by my parents once or twice every week. From the age of about seven to thirteen the cinema was a passion with me – I could not go too frequently to satisfy me and when thwarted in my desire I created scenes as some children do over toys, sweets etcetera. I realize now that the films were to me an escape from a dull, uneventful, very ordinary childhood. They represented excitement, adventure, romance and new ideas which I had never met before.

One of my earliest recollections is hearing my mother saying that she would have to cease taking me to the cinema if I continued to have violent dreams about them. Concerning the dreams I remember nothing, but I know that I resolved then never again to mention my reactions to a film, or opinion of one, otherwise I should be forbidden to go to what was rapidly becoming to me a veritable fairy-land. This resolve, by the way, undoubtedly made me secretive and I rarely told my parents what I thought about anything.

But the films were merely an escape. In those days, the idea never occurred to me that the places and the men and women characterised in films had any connection to reality. The life which the film heroes and heroines lived, in no matter what type of film I saw, ‘high society* or ‘slum’, was too utterly alien from the world in which I lived.

From the age of seven to fourteen I do not think that I had any preference as to which type of film I most desired to see. Any film was acceptable. Although I think that I was most impressed by any film, be it a lavish Hollywood musical of an historical impossibility, which contained beautiful extravagant costumes, rich in colour and spectacle. But I was never seized by a desire to possess such lovely clothes, nor did I sigh with envy at the synthetic beauty of ‘stars’, or their magnificent houses and trains of servants, – simply, I think, because I did not connect these things with reality. The cinema was merely a form of fairy tales and as such I do not think that it did me any harm.

In my opinion it is only when children try to apply movie-life to actual life that juvenile delinquency results, otherwise if it is impressed upon them that it is merely an imaginary world at which they are gazing they will only be the happier for a few hours entertainment. But, naturally, I realize that this applies only to a child of limited intelligence and imagination as I was at the time. I accepted my parents’ explanation that ‘it was all made up’ whereas a more sensitive and imaginative child would not have done so. But such a child should not be allowed to go to the cinema at an early age.

After I had reached the age of fourteen however, I began to accept the cinema merely as a method of entertainment. I attached no importance to it, I merely went if I was in the right mood and if I thought there was a good film showing. I no longer went to satisfy a passion for escape, other interests filled my time more satisfactorily. My school-life broadened my horizon literature and the theatre brought more content than the bizarre, unreal cinema could ever do.

My tastes in films had definitely crystallised. I still like historical films but now for their history, not their costumes, although my interest in history had often made me wonder why film-makers must always introduce inaccuracies nearly in every case, unnecessarily. Why make Queen Elizabeth a sloppy, emotional woman when the quality for which she was noted was that her supreme love was England and she was a Queen more than a woman. But in Elizabeth and Essex she was pictured as deeply in love with Essex the one love of her life – and finally she made the supreme sacrifice for England with great emotion – nonsense! Elizabeth loved only herself, she may have liked lovers to satisfy her vanity but she would have sacrificed everything she loved without a second’s thought for the throne and power.

This love of inaccuracy in historical films is the more puzzling as the truth would invariably make better films. In the Prime Minister if Hollywood simply must ignore all the political side of Disraeli’s life except the sensational moments of victory and defeat, and concentrate on his romantic life, why misrepresent it? The beauty of the fact that Disraeli could say that Mary Anne was the perfect wife lay not in the fact that she was a frivolous, flirtatious, romantic young girl but that she was almost fifty and twelve years older than he was.

Catherine the Great, however, was the supreme example of twaddle. Anyone who knew but the bare facts of Catherine’s life and her marriage with Peter must either have blushed or giggled hysterically at such a ridiculous film.

In my judgement of films too, I deplore the fact that ninety-nine per cent of every film issued can be typed. Thus it became my ambition to pick out the other one per cent of films to see – the film that did not fall into a definite category. I was tired of typed movies – Westerns; snobbishness in high society; the depths of degradation; country life – local boy makes good; detective story – police baffled – dapper amateur triumphant; love story – impossible situations – misunderstandings which two minutes sensible conversation could have cleared up – naturally with a happy ending; and so on, many other so familiar types.

By now of course I had linked up films with reality, and I despised the futile attempts to portray life, so showily, gaudily, and synthetically. But in the last few wartime years I have encountered with delight good British films, with solid British humour, no gags or cracks as the Americans put it, but definite British wit. Their portrayal of village life, where everyone knows his neighbour’s affairs as well as his own, are truly delightful and they get the right
atmosphere. British films about Britain are now, in my opinion, the best films to see.

In my search for an original film I eventually found Citizen Kane. I was intensely interested. It was the first time I had seen a film which did not tell the audience what to think but made them think for themselves. One of the many reasons why I think the theatre is superior to the cinema is that one can use one’s brains occasionally at the theatre but never at the cinema. The uniqueness of Citizen Kane delighted me. Except for clumsy surprise endings which annoy one because they are obviously there for no other reason but to surprise the audience, one can really always foretell the ending of the film and indeed the whole story from its type. But in Citizen Kane the whole story was original, it was not a type, it possessed atmosphere, a good plot, (which is often considered unimportant by film-makers), unusual photography and excellent acting by unknowns and not stars who depend on a good pair of legs to see them through every film.

I am painfully aware that my opinion in this matter is not shared by many. Citizen Kane was not a popular box-office success, audiences prefer not to think, they like types.

I was not influenced by the films at an early age because I felt they had no bearing on this life and later when I saw that they were supposed to represent sections of people’s lives their failure produced only an amused contempt. I was never frightened by the conventional thrillers, grotesque make-up or the villain about to kill the hero because I knew that there would be a happy ending – films were not related to life and crime did not pay. One film however which I saw when I was about eight did have a frightening effect upon me because it presented a new idea to me – mental torture. I now cannot remember the title or what it was about clearly. I think that Sara Haden and Basil Rathbone were in it and that the latter had forced himself into this lady’s house and was trying to drive her insane in order to procure her money. The acting was very good and I was haunted for weeks and still now, I retain the impression of fear at seeing this lady becoming more frightened and convinced that she was insane. The film was not Gaslight or Thornton Square versions which, considering they had the same theme I thought amateurish in comparison. I vividly remember Sara Haden’s large expressive eyes dilated with fear as Basil Rathbone bent over her with a jewelled cigarette-case in his hand. I do not remember anything else about it – I suppose it ended according to type.

With true femininity I enjoy a good love-story and if it is the sorrowful type which ostentatiously does not end happily ever after, such as Now Voyager, I can give myself up entirely to the luxury of the moment and indulge my emotions, weeping at the touching scene before me. It never lasts however and immediately the film ends, sometimes before, I can analyse the ridiculous and unlikely situations quite coldly as if I had not been moved at all.

I have never imitated films in anything. I go to the cinema for entertainment – not example. At about fifteen I fell in love with Conrad Veidt. At the time he representated [sic] my idea of a perfect man handsome, distinguished, cultured, intelligent, an attractive foreign accent, a perfect lover – all the most desirable qualities. Moreover he was nearly always the villain who I think is usually much more attractive than the insipid hero. This infatuation died with him, although I still like to see re-issues of his films – that is when I can persuade myself to forget that the type he represented the rather dated, courtly perfect lover is exaggerated and rather trying.

The question ‘Have films made you more receptive to love-making’ I cannot answer since I like the intellectual company of men only, much prefer women friends and contrary to many girls of my own age I cling to the old-fashioned belief that nineteen is too young for boy-friends and love-making in which, anyway, I have no interest.

How can I answer the questions concerning temptations, ambitions, dissatisfactions arising from films since I have never let any film influence my life. The films I have seen are always too much interested in the hero’s and heroine’s private affairs to make me interested in the vocation in which they are engaged – but only, it seems to me, as a background, a nurse, an actress, member of the services or other professions.

Books and the theatre have influenced me but not films and I think this is because it is largely a question of one’s own will how one is influenced and I never believed that the films were a good influence. Undoubtedly they make some children dissatisfied with their life, they drive some to crime in imitations of ‘gangsters’, they cause unhappy marriages because boys and girls especially the latter, conceive a too romantic idea of love and marriage from the screen. I think a Children’s Cinema is most desirable; specially made films could influence children in the right direction.

As to adults of the present generation most of them go to the cinema from habit and lack of any other occupation, and they delight in nudging their neighbour and pointing to a Hollywood lovely and saying ‘She’s just been divorced for the fourth time’, and people will doubtless go on seeing films for precisely the same reasons.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘Films and the Pattern of Life’. Contributors were asked to trace the history of their interest in films, the influence films had on them (including if they were ever frightened by films), what they imitated from films, if films made them more receptive to love-making, if films made them want to travel or to be dissatisfied with their way of life or neighbourhood, and if films gave them vocational ambitions. The films mentioned are The Private Lives of Elizabeth and Essex (USA 1939), The Prime Minister (UK 1941 – a British, not a Hollywood film), Catherine the Great (UK 1934 – or possibly The Scarlet Empress, USA 1934), Citizen Kane (USA 1941), Gaslight (UK 1940), The Murder in Thornton Square (UK release title for Gaslight, USA 1944) and Now Voyager (USA 1942). The only film in which Basil Rathbone and Sarah Haden both appeared, Above Suspicion (1943) does not match the description above.

So Laugh a Little

Source: Molly Picon, So Laugh a Little (New York: Julian Messner, 1962), pp. 136-142

Text: If someone were to write a history of the movies from the fan’s point of view, he would have to include my grandmother. From the day she walked in to see her first nickelodeon, she was completely captivated by Hollywood. She might not have gone to the nickelodeon if my grandfather hadn’t used every argument he could muster to get her there – what did she need it for, she cried, the first time the subject came up, she had a million things to to around the house, she didn’t feel like getting all dressed up, if he wanted to go, she wouldn’t stand in his way. My grandfather patiently outwaited all her cogent reasons for not leaving the house and eventually bore her off triumphantly to witness the marvel of moving pictures. Afterwards he used to complain that a man didn’t know when he was well off, why hadn’t he left well enough alone, if he had known how she would react he would have had his head examined before he talked her into it. My grandmother would smile and wave her hand at him and tell him not to get excited, at least she wasn’t a gambler or a drinker. My grandmother didn’t need alcoholic stimulation; she was intoxicated by the silver screen. Although she loved the theatre, she never responded to it the way she did to the movies. I have often thought that the plays she saw on the Yiddish stage hit too close to home; the situations were exaggerated, perhaps, but always contained nuggets of reality; the people were too easily identified with. They were, after all, her own people. But up there on the screen, magnified out of all contact with her world, scenes would unfold before her that would transport her into a never-never land. Even when she didn’t understand what was happening – and this occurred more often than not – she still loved every minute of it.

When I would ask her what she had seen, she would shrug her shoulders and say, “Do I know? They were hitting and fighting, and the girl didn’t like the good-looking one, and then she did like him, and then she changed her mind again. I don’t know what’s the matter with the girls today. In my time nobody asked you. You got married and that finished it.”

“Then you didn’t care for the picture?” I asked.

“Didn’t care for it?” she repeated incredulously. “With all that fighting and hitting and that poor boy up there eating his heart out for her? Why didn’t I like it?”

She became such an avid movie fan that Helen and I had to sit and read every little bit of gossip we could find in the papers to her, up to and including the blurbs of coming attractions. To my grandmother this wasn’t gossip, but gospel. She never for a moment doubted that every word was true. After all, it was printed, right there, in black and white. In those days, we lost my grandmother regularly once a week. For this was the era of the weekly serial, and Pearl White was its human sacrifice in fifteen installments. In spite of my grandmother’s shrieking warnings, Pearl White always managed to get herself into utterly hopeless situations. She would be huddling in some dank cellar while up above the villain would be peering down at her through a convenient hole in the floor, threatening to flood the cellar and drown poor Pearl unless she immediately and forthwith yielded what my grandmother always called her “good name.” Both Pearl White and my grandmother rejected these advances haughtily, no matter what the consequences. And the villain, of course, would then promptly turn on the waterworks.

All week long, my grandmother would worry and fret and strain for the days to pass so she could see how Pearl was doing. Pearl would escape from drowning only to wind up, at the end of that particular installment, in an even more precarious position, maybe tied to the railroad tracks, or about to be evenly distributed in a sawmill, or hanging by her fingertips from a cliff whilst the villain carefully and painstakingly lifted her fingers, one by one. I remember one time my grandmother was ill and unable to attend the next showing. She went into an absolute frenzy. I couldn’t go, because I was involved in a rehearsal. Helen was out of town. My mother had to stay home and take care of my grandmother. That left only my grandfather, who regarded the whole thing as bordering on simple insanity. “I should spend a beautiful day in the dark to watch a girl make a fool of herself,” he scoffed. “This week she’ll hang by the neck, and next week she’ll hang by the toes, and after the fifteen weeks is up, she’ll only start all in again with the foolishness. You would think with all the trouble she gets into that she would learn something.”

“Aaron, I beg you,” my grandmother pleaded. “I left her last week the house was burning down, and she was choking … such choking she was purple in the face. Like this she was, Aaron …” And my grandmother went into a graphic illustration that almost purpled her own face, but my grandfather remained unmoved.

“So what are you so worried?” he replied indifferently. “You think they’ll let anything happen to her? And for her I should miss my checkers?”

Even my grandmother couldn’t expect my grandfather to give up a checker game for Pearl White. All week she brooded. A whole episode missed and gone forever. When she would return to the theatre, Pearl would be facing a completely new peril. It was too much for flesh and blood to stand, my grandmother complained. As soon as she was well, she hurried off to the theatre and cornered the manager.

“Mr. Brody,” she panted. “From you I can have an answer. Tell me what happened last week. One foot I don’t put outside this office till I hear what happened.”

“God love you, Mrs. Ostrow,” said Mr. Brody, who had come to know my grandmother very well, in weekly installments, “how would I be knowing that? I’ve more adventures of my own keeping an eye on the little devils that come to watch her than she’ll ever be having.”

My grandmother couldn’t believe it. She herself would sit through both showings of the serial, just in the hope that it might come out differently at the end the second time, and here was Mr. Brody, with such a golden opportunity, who didn’t even care!

“Do you have any idea what the little monsters do here of an afternoon?” Mr. Brody warmed up to his subject as one who had had much practice. “I won’t mention the condition of the floors, with the boxes and papers and bags filled with banana peels and apple cores,” he said, waving an angry finger under my grandmother’s nose. “Nor do I care to mention the state of the bathrooms in front of a lady. But do you have any idea what happens to the seats?” He clutched his head. “The black plague on him that invented chewing gum!”

“I ask him about last week and he gives me chewing gum. Mr. Brody. A whole week I’m dying …”

“It’s the back of my hand to the next whippersnapper I see with a mouthful of the stuff.” Mr. Brody, my grandmother could understand, was too full of his own woes to be concerned with hers. She left his office, muttering to herself angrily. Fortunately she ran into an usher who was as much enraptured with Pearl White as my grandmother.

“Ya dint see ut?” he whispered, aghast.

“I was sick. Please. I’m dying. How did she get out of the fire?”

“It was the cat’s pajamas,” the usher said. “Ya know how she dint see no way outa there, an thuh fire gettin’ closer alla time, and she was kinda chokin’ up from the smoke …?”

“Yeh, yeh, I know the fire and the smoke … what did she do?”

“Well, just when it looked like she was a goner, she noticed a little door she never seen before and …”

And turned the knob and escaped into the clean, outside world to start running from the villain in Chapter Ten, to be seen at this theatre next week, don’t miss this exciting episode.

When talking pictures came in, my grandmother became an even more ardent fan. She would come home beaming and repeat the story to us whether we wanted to hear it or not. Since the plot suffered considerably in the retelling, it was like trying to solve a puzzle with half the pieces missing. For some reason or other, my grandmother would identify the actor or actress with the role he was playing, so that if John Gilbert’s name in the story was Henry, he would remain Henry to her.

I’ll never forget the day she saw Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. She sobbed so hard through this performance that even after the curtain swished across the screen and the house fights were put on, she sat in her seat and cried vigorously. She came home with a bagful of sodden handkerchiefs, convinced that Al Jolson had sustained a terrible loss. In the picture, he sang a tearjerker called Sonny Boy to an angelic-faced child who subsequently died. Nothing could persuade my grandmother that this boy was not Al Jolson’s child. For weeks she would walk around the house, heaving racking sighs and wiping tears from her eyes.

“Bubba. For heaven’s sake,” I said, annoyed. “It was only a picture! That boy will be in a dozen new pictures before the year is over.”

“What do you know how a father’s heart can break? Wait. When you’re a mother, you’ll understand what it is to have love for a child.”

“But, Bubba. That child did not die. It was just a story.”

“Malkele,” she replied sorrowfully. “I know you mean well and you’re trying to make me feel better. But you’re young yet. You don’t know what real suffering is.”

From that time on, she became especially interested in Al Jolson’s career. If she heard gossip that was good, she felt considerably cheered. If she heard comments that were unfavorable, she would shake her head gravely and say, “That poor man hasn’t been the same since he lost his little boy.”

As she became older, she preferred stories with modern settings. When we took her to see a picture depicting early days in man’s history, she would turn to me or to Yonkel and say disapprovingly, “Why do you take me to see a picture made in olden days?”

“Bubba,” I would answer. “The picture wasn’t made in those days. The movies are practically brand new. That is a picture that just came out this year from Hollywood.”

“Go on,” she denied unbelievingly, “don’t I see with my own eyes what they’re wearing and how they are living?”

We discovered, after a while, that my grandmother would go to the movies for still another reason than to see what was playing. It was so dark and cozy and relaxing, my grandmother found it ideal for sleeping. The music would crash through the theatre; sirens would wail; heroines would shriek. My grandmother would doze blissfully through it all, awaken refreshed, and remark that she didn’t remember when she had enjoyed a picture more.

Finally my grandmother took to going to see foreign films. This was somewhat of a puzzle to me, since she had rough going with American films. One day I spoke to her as she was busily preparing to go to a Spanish movie.

“Bubba,” I protested. “A Spanish movie you want to see? Do you understand Spanish?”

She looked at me, and her eyes crinkled with amusement as she answered, “And who understands English?”

My grandmother was constantly amazed at the new innovations in the motion picture field, but I think there was never a time to equal, for her, the Pearl White days. Once, when I took her to see some mystery film, remembering how she loved the suspense in the old-time serials, she turned to me and said, “You think she is suffering?” – pointing scornfully to the quaking heroine on the screen – “you should have seen little Pearlie White. She was a real wreck.”

Comments: Molly Picon (1898-1992) was a renowned American star of Yiddish theatre and film. The above is a chapter from her memoir (‘as told Eth Clifford Rosenberg’) of her family and upbringing. Her Ostrovsky (later Ostrow) grandparents came from Rizshishtchov in Russia, where Picon’s mother was born. Molly Picon herself was born in New York. Al Jolson’s song ‘Sonny Boy’ comes from the film The Singing Fool (USA 1928), not The Jazz Singer (USA 1927). Pearl White starred in the serial The Perils of Pauline (USA 1914).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

A Better Class of Person

Source: John Osborne, A Better Class of Person: An Autobiography, 1929-1956 (London: Faber & Faber, 1981), pp. 86-88

Text: The cinema was my church and academy. From about the age of four I went at least twice a week. In those days of double features I must have seen over two hundred films a year. It was the kind of thriftlessness that made Grandma Osborne and her tribe swear as indignantly as she did about the Welsh miners at home throwing legs of mutton to their whippets. When the insurance man, the clothing-club man or the milkman called and my mother was hiding in the bedroom, I would often as not be sent to the front door to mumble, ‘Mum’s out’; but she could always lay hands on Money for the Pictures – the mainstay cultural benefit of a generation of children from similar backgrounds to my own. Pictures Places, and Grandma Grove still called them, were aptly named. The warm luxury of Eastern or Egyptian Art Deco, the ascension of the cinema’s organist like a matey angel, were preferable to a cold room with a mantelshelf lined with unpaid bills from doctors, coalmen and the Gas Light and Coke Company. To the profligate poor or near-poor, the priority of the Picture Palace was an unanswerable case.

Hollywood bit-players, now known by name only to cineastes, the elevator boys, gangsters, cab-drivers, bar-tenders, cops, butlers, Italian chefs and foreign counts were, I suppose, as real to us then as the characters of Coronation Street today. The difference lay in the kind of familiarity. For one thing, it was unmistakably foreign and beyond our reach. We had to learn to translate intuitively what Confederate money was, a sawbuck or even a hundred bucks, converts a dime or a nickel into something comparable, or the meaning of being behind the eight-ball, taking a rain-check or over and easy. These were elementary steps but they had to be mastered at an age when the grasp on your own language and birthplace was meagre enough.

But foreign, and specifically American, their very strangeness made the dreams of Hollywood accessible and open to identification and fantasy in a way that home-grown films were not. Surely few Coronation Street diehards could want to live there. The luxury and privilege of, say, living in Manhattan held more promise of imaginative fulfilment than the more familiar but remote English equivalents. The American model was unreal but attainable. A world of large gardens, tennis parties, housemaids, college scouts and Inns of Court might seem pleasant and comfortable enough but there was little impulse or point of dreaming yourself into it. You would watch it from without but never enter it even if you were inclined. What was not unimaginable or close to you was Eric Blore opening the door, having William Powell recover your wife’s jewellery for you, being made vice-president of a corporation by your father-in-law, Edward Arnold or Eugene Palette, handing your topper to the hat-check girl at the Stork Club as you escorted Carole Lombard or even, at a pinch, Gail Patrick into dinner, wearing a black shirt and white tie and black pin-stripe with a white carnation like Dan Duryea, or maybe taking a cab driven by Frank Jenkins to Penn Station. There was no need to have passed your Common Entrance, let alone have been to Eton or Oxford. It was available, to be admired, envied and even coveted, and most of all to those of us in the front seats who had sneaked in through a carelessly unbarred exit door.

Madeleine Carroll was my earliest favourite star, but then there were scores, year after year, only enriching each other. Robert Donat reminded me of my father, although they were unalike. I saw Thirty-Nine Steps whenever I could and there was a time when I knew the dialogue of The Four Feathers and The Prisoner of Zenda by heart. The Rembrandt Cinema in Ewell was almost always full every evening during the war. On Fridays and Saturdays there was certain to be a queue. A Bette Davis film was almost impossible to get into all the week. even Grandma Osborne was known to leave the Warwick Deeping for the afternoon and walk a hundred unaided yards to the Rembrandt to see Now Voyager or Mr Skeffington.

I can only remember one occasion when the Rembrandt was almost empty the whole week – apart from Mondays, which were unpopular. The word of mouth about the film showing around Ewell and Stoneleigh was resentful and indignant. In the Parades and saloon bars, there was talk of Speaking to the Manager, even of Writing to the Film People themselves. Later in the week, undeterred by those who said we were wasting our pocket money, Mickey and I went to see Citizen Kane. We came out afterwards from looming Gothic darkness into the bright Kingston Road, silent, uncomprehending and deeply depressed. At tea the Walls asked if we had tummy ache. It had been nothing, even for two such eleven-year-olds as we were, to giggle about.

Comments: John Osborne (1929-1994) was a British playwright and screenwriter. His childhood was spent at Stoneleigh in the borough of Epsom and Ewell in Surrey. The films he mentions are The 39 Steps (UK 1935), The Four Feathers (UK 1939), The Prisoner of Zenda (SA 1937), Now Voyager (USA 1942), Mr Skeffington (USA 1944) and Citizen Kane (USA 1941). Coronation Street is a British television soap opera set in working class Salford. The Rembrandt Cinema in Ewell opened in 1938 and closed in 1998.

Mass-Observation at the Movies

Source: Harold Walker, quoted in Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (eds.), Mass-Observation at the Movies (London/New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 83

Text: Harold Walker, 11 Regent St (aged 20), regular cinema-goer (10 times a month), preference – American films.

Comments: Regarding question 5 [i.e. which are the best films], I certainly am not a patriot, for in my opinion American films are far superior to British on every point: acting, direction, production, humour, yes, everything! (If I’m not mistaken, you know it!). As for your cheaply-made ‘Quota’ films – well -! Finally, I am eagerly awaiting the result of the combination of Hollywood and Our Gracie. Now what about question 7 [i.e. which of the following would you like more of in the films?] – I fail to see where either religion or politics should have any part whatever in films. In the same category I place ‘people like you and I’ and educational subjects for the simple reason that – we dont [sic] want what we know! or what we should know! no! first and last we want ENTERTAINMENT.

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. Quota films refers to the proportion of British films which had to be shown in British cinema, which led to a rash of cheaply-made features guaranteed a screening somewhere (‘Quota Quickies’). Our Gracie is Gracie Fields, born in Rochdale, Lancashire, who made the Twentieth Century-Fox-produced film We’re Going to be Rich in 1938.

Why I Go to the Cinema

Source: Elizabeth Bowen, extracts from ‘Why I Go to the Cinema’ in Charles Davy (ed.), Footnotes to the Film (London: Lovat Dickson, 1937), pp. 205-220

Text:I go to the cinema for any number of reasons – these I ought to sort out and range in order of their importance. At random, here are a few of them: I go to be distracted (or “taken out of myself”); I go when I don’t want to think; I go when I do want to think and need stimulus; I go to see pretty people; I go when I wanted to see life ginned up, charged with unlikely energy; I go to laugh; I go to be harrowed; I go when a day has been such a mess of detail that I am glad to see even the most arbitrary, the most preposterous pattern emerge; I go because I like bright light, abrupt shadow, speed; I go to see America, France, Russia; I go because I like wisecracks and slick behaviour; I go because the screen is an oblong opening into the world of fantasy for me; I go because I like story, with its suspense; I go because I like sitting in a packed crowd in the dark, among hundreds riveted on the same thing; I go to have my most general feelings played on.

These reasons, put down roughly, seem to fall under five headings: wish to escape, lassitude, sense of lack in my nature or my surroundings, loneliness (however passing) and natural frivolity. As a writer, I am probably subject during working hours to a slightly unnatural imaginative strain, which leaves me flat and depleted by the end of the day. But though the strain may be a little special in nature, I do not take it to be in any way greater than the strain, the sense of depletion, suffered by other people in most departments of life now. When I take a day off and become a person of leisure, I embark on a quite new method of exhausting myself; I amuse myself through a day, but how arduous that is; by the end of the day I am generally down on the transaction – unless I have been to the country …

… I hope I never go to the cinema in an entirely unpropitious mood. If I do, and am not amused, that is my fault, also my loss. As a rule, I go empty but hopeful, like someone bringing a mug to a tap that may not turn on. The approach tunes me up for pleasure. The enchantment that hung over those pre-War facades of childhood – gorgeously white stucco facades, with caryatids and garlands – has not dissolved, though the facades have been changed. How they used to beam down the street. Now concrete succeeds stucco and chromium gilt; foyers once crimson and richly stuffy are air-conditioned and dove-grey. But, like a chocolate-box lid, the entrance is still voluptuously promising: sensation of some sort seems to be guaranteed. How happily I tread the pneumatic carpet, traverse anterooms with their exciting muted vibration, and walk down the spotlit aisle with its eager tilt to the screen. I climb over those knees to the sticky velvet seat, and fumble my cigarettes out – as I used not to do.

I am not only home again, but am, if my choice is lucky, in ideal society. I am one of the millions who follow Names from cinema to cinema. The star system may be all wrong – it has implications I hardly know of in the titanic world of Hollywood, also it is, clearly, a hold-up to proper art – but I cannot help break it down. I go to see So-and-So. I cannot fitly quarrel with this magnification of personalities, while I find I can do with almost almost unlimited doses of anybody exciting, anybody with beauty (in my terms), verve, wit, toupet and, of course, glamour. What do I mean by glamour? A sort of sensuous gloss: I know it to be synthetic, but it affects me strongly. It is a trick knowingly practiced on my most fuzzy desires; it steals a march on me on my silliest side. But all the same, in being subject to glamour I experience a sort of elevation. It brings, if not into life at least parallel to it, a sort of fairy-tale element. It is a sort of trumpet call, mobilizing the sleepy fancy. If a film is to get across, glamour somewhere, in some form – moral, if you like, for it can be moral – cannot be done without. The Russians break with the bourgeois-romantic conception personality; they have scrapped sex-appeal as an annexe of singularising, anti-social love. But they still treat with glamour; they have transferred it to mass movement, to a heroicised pro-human emotion. I seek it, in any form.

To get back to my star: I enjoy, sitting opposite him or her, the delights of intimacy without the onus, high points of possession without the strain. This could be called inoperative love. Relationships in real life are made arduous by their reciprocities; one can too seldom simply sit back. The necessity to please, to shine, to make the most of the moment, overshadows too many meetings. And apart from this – how seldom in real life (or so-called real life) does acquaintanceship, much less intimacy, with dazzling, exceptional beings come one’s way. How very gladly, therefore, do I fill the gaps in my circle of ideal society with these black-and-white personalities, to whom absence of colour has added all the subtleties of tone. Directly I take my place I am on terms with these Olympians; I am close to them with nothing at all at stake. Rapture lets me suppose that for me alone they display the range of their temperaments, their hesitations, their serious depths. I find them not only dazzling but sympathetic. They live for my eye. Yes, and I not only perceive them but am them; their hopes and fears are my own; their triumphs exalt me. I am proud for them and in them. Not only do I enjoy them; I enjoy in them a vicarious life …

… How much I like films I like – but I could like my films better. I like being distracted, flattered, tickled, even rather upset – but I should not mind something more; I should like something serious. I should like to be changed by more films, as art can change one; I should like something to happen when I go to the cinema.

Comments: Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) was a Irish novelist and writer of short stories. The above is extracts from her contribution to the compilation book Footnotes to the Film.

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 182-184

Text: NO. 15A
AGE: 18 SEX: F.
PARENTS’ OCCUPATION: FATHER – SOLDIER, MOTHER – HOUSEWIFE
OCCUPATION: G.P.O. EMPLOYEE
NATIONALITY: BRITISH

When I go to the cinema, I go to be entertained, and having seen the film I like to feel convinced, and satisfied with my entertainment. I enjoy quite a few types of films but in nine cases out of ten the draw is the star in the film. The sort of film I like best has plenty of outdoor scenes, and children. Always, I look for a sense of freedom in a film, something refreshing, something that really might happen in real life. Children too, seem to be the embodiment of freedom and happiness. One of the most refreshing, charming, film [sic] I have ever seen was Sunday Dinner for a Soldier. Here the children, the elder sister, the grandfather, the animals, the houseboat all seemed so real, and their experiences might happen to anybody. For that reason too I enjoyed National Velvet and the beautiful refreshing scenes shot by the sea.

On the more serious side I like a good film taken from a novel whether modern or old but to convince me the acting must be at a very high standard. Here, the stars attract me, Bette Davis, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergmann [sic]; and as I watch them I think how wonderful it must be and how satisfying to them to be able to act like that. What an achievement to really be able to convince the audience that you are happy, sad, indifferent, cruel, etc. I like a film of a serious nature to have an unhappy ending although I can never remember crying in a cinema if the hero or heroine died.

Then too, I like a film in which one scene stands out above all others so that I remember it for a long time afterwards, such as King Henry wooing the French Princess in Henry V, the duel scene in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, of Agnes Morrcheat’s [sic] performance in The Magnificent Ambersons. I find great pleasure in thinking back over them.

I like a comedy but it must be very clever and fast and funny so that I can laugh all the time. It must also have a great many surprises in it. I like some films with classical music running through them. Especially I enjoyed Song of Russia because of Tchaikowsky’s beautiful music. I think that his music is more beautiful than any other composer’s.

Lastly I like travel films because I can learn something from them about other countries. Although I should like to travel all over the world, I shall never be able to, and through seeing films about other lands, this makes up a little for not being able to go, (but only a very little I’m afraid).

The films I dislike most are modern musicals and also the ‘gay nineties’ type. The acting is generally very bad, the plot is repeated again and again, and after a day I have forgotten all about the film. The only reason I would go to a musical would be to study the actresses’ hair styles and dress. Very sentimental films tend to depress and even sicken me. The players never win my sympathy in the slightest.

I do not like American films with scenes set in England because they are always inaccurate. England looks in these films Hollywood would like her to look. This annoys me very much.

I do not like seeing films taken from novels I have read as they are nearly always chopped about beyond recognition and if I was the unfortunate authoress of a book that had been hacked about I should feel like weeping with shame when I saw my book filmed.

I do not like crime films, thrillers, or murders, as I find myself imagining all sorts of horrible things when I am alone in the house or walking in the dark at night for a time after I have seen them.

Lastly, I am hoping that I shall never see a war film or an ‘underground army’ type of film as long as I live. I want to forget all about war and try to help peace in this poor old world of ours for ever.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through a competition in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘A Study in Film Preferences’. Agnes Moorehead is the name of the actress in The Magnificent Ambersons (USA 1942). The other films mentioned are Sunday Dinner for a Soldier (USA 1944), Henry V (UK 1944), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK 1943), National Velvet (1944) and Song of Russia (USA 1944).

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 182-184

Text: NO. 15A
AGE: 18 SEX: F.
PARENTS’ OCCUPATION: FATHER – SOLDIER, MOTHER – HOUSEWIFE
OCCUPATION: G.P.O. EMPLOYEE
NATIONALITY: BRITISH

When I go to the cinema, I go to be entertained, and having seen the film I like to feel convinced, and satisfied with my entertainment. I enjoy quite a few types of films but in nine cases out of ten the draw is the star in the film. The sort of film I like best has plenty of outdoor scenes, and children. Always, I look for a sense of freedom in a film, something refreshing, something that really might happen in real life. Children too, seem to be the embodiment of freedom and happiness. One of the most refreshing, charming, film [sic] I have ever seen was Sunday Dinner for a Soldier. Here the children, the elder sister, the grandfather, the animals, the houseboat all seemed so real, and their experiences might happen to anybody. For that reason too I enjoyed National Velvet and the beautiful refreshing scenes shot by the sea.

On the more serious side I like a good film taken from a novel whether modern or old but to convince me the acting must be at a very high standard. Here, the stars attract me, Bette Davis, Ida Lupino, Joan Fontaine, Ingrid Bergmann [sic]; and as I watch them I think how wonderful it must be and how satisfying to them to be able to act like that. What an achievement to really be able to convince the audience that you are happy, sad, indifferent, cruel, etc. I like a film of a serious nature to have an unhappy ending although I can never remember crying in a cinema if the hero or heroine died.

Then too, I like a film in which one scene stands out above all others so that I remember it for a long time afterwards, such as King Henry wooing the French Princess in Henry V, the duel scene in The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, of Agnes Morrcheat’s [sic] performance in The Magnificent Ambersons. I find great pleasure in thinking back over them.

I like a comedy but it must be very clever and fast and funny so that I can laugh all the time. It must also have a great many surprises in it. I like some films with classical music running through them. Especially I enjoyed Song of Russia because of Tchaikowsky’s beautiful music. I think that his music is more beautiful than any other composer’s.

Lastly I like travel films because I can learn something from them about other countries. Although I should like to travel all over the world, I shall never be able to, and through seeing films about other lands, this makes up a little for not being able to go, (but only a very little I’m afraid).

The films I dislike most are modern musicals and also the ‘gay nineties’ type. The acting is generally very bad, the plot is repeated again and again, and after a day I have forgotten all about the film. The only reason I would go to a musical would be to study the actresses’ hair styles and dress. Very sentimental films tend to depress and even sicken me. The players never win my sympathy in the slightest.

I do not like American films with scenes set in England because they are always inaccurate. England looks in these films Hollywood would like her to look. This annoys me very much.

I do not like seeing films taken from novels I have read as they are nearly always chopped about beyond recognition and if I was the unfortunate authoress of a book that had been hacked about I should feel like weeping with shame when I saw my book filmed.

I do not like crime films, thrillers, or murders, as I find myself imagining all sorts of horrible things when I am alone in the house or walking in the dark at night for a time after I have seen them.

Lastly, I am hoping that I shall never see a war film or an ‘underground army’ type of film as long as I live. I want to forget all about war and try to help peace in this poor old world of ours for ever.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through a competition in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘A Study in Film Preferences’. Agnes Moorehead is the name of the actress in The Magnificent Ambersons (USA 1942). The other films mentioned are Sunday Dinner for a Soldier (USA 1944), Henry V (UK 1944), The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (UK 1943), National Velvet (1944) and Song of Russia (USA 1944).

Mass-Observation at the Movies

Source: Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (eds.), Mass-Observation at the Movies (London/New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 229.

Text: Commercial traveller, aged 35, Leamington Spa.

Once per month I go to the films. This is when my car is greased at a neighbouring garage, and I find it convenient to sit in the warmth and comfort of a cinema until the operation is complete. I cannot remember 6 films I have seen, I saw Dear Octopus this week. I liked it. I had not one damned Yankee accent in the whole film. The usual strident idiocies of Hollywood were absent. I did not, as usual, feel like vomiting. And even the news short did not as usual give the impression that Americans only were fighting the Germans. If you want an opinion about films you will have to go to others. My opinions are perhaps illinformed [sic], but they are definite, if given vent to, they make me swear.

Comment: 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 a directive issued in November 1943 asking the question ‘What films have you liked best during the past year? Please list six films in order of liking and give your reasons for liking them.’ Dear Octopus was a British film, made in 1943, based on the play by Dodie Smith.