Are Movies Going to Pieces?

Source: Pauline Kael, extract from ‘Are Movies Going to Pieces?’, The Atlantic Monthly, vol. 214, no. 6 (December 1964), pp. 61-81, reproduced in I Lost It at the Movies (New York: Marion Boyars, 1993)

Text: One evening not long ago, some academic friends came to my house, and as we talked and drank we looked at a television showing of Tod Browning’s 1931 version of Dracula. Dwight Frye’s appearance on the screen had us suddenly squealing and shrieking, and it was obvious that old vampire movies were part of our common experience. We talked about the famous ones, Murnau’s Nosferatu and Dreyer’s Vampyr, and we began to get fairly involved in the lore of the genre – the strategy of the bite, the special earth for the coffins, the stake through the heart versus the rays of the sun as disposal methods, the cross as vampire repellent, et al. We had begun to surprise each other by the affectionate, nostalgic tone of our mock erudition when the youngest person present, an instructor in English, said, in clear, firm tone, “The Beast with Five Fingers is the greatest horror picture I’ve ever seen.” Stunned that so bright a young man could display such shocking taste, preferring a Warner Brothers forties mediocrity to the classics, I gasped, “But why?” And he answered, “Because it’s completely irrational. It doesn’t make any sense, and that’s the true terror.”

Upset by his neat little declaration – existentialism in a nutshell – by the calm matter-of-factness of it, and by the way the others seemed to take it for granted, I wanted to pursue the subject. But O. Henry’s remark “Conversation in Texas is seldom continuous” applies to California, too. Dracula had ended, and the conversation shifted to other, more “serious” subjects.

But his attitude, which had never occurred to me, helped explain some of my recent moviegoing experiences. I don’t mean that I agree that The Beast with Five Fingers is a great horror film, but that his enthusiasm for the horror that cannot be rationalized by the mythology and rules of the horror game related to audience reactions that had been puzzling me.

Last year I had gone to see a famous French film, Georges Franju’s Eyes Without a Face, which had arrived in San Francisco in a dubbed version called The Horror Chamber of Dr. Faustus and was playing on a double-horror bill in a huge Market Street theater. It was Saturday night and the theater, which holds 2646, was so crowded I had trouble finding a seat.

Even dubbed, Eyes Without a Face, which Franju called a “poetic fantasy,” is austere and elegant: the exquisite photography is by the great Shuftan, the music by Maurice Jarre, the superb gowns by Givenchy. It’s a symbolist attack on science and the ethics of medicine, and though I thought this attack as simpleminded in its way as the usual young poet’s denunciation of war or commerce, it is in some peculiar way a classic of horror.

Pierre Brasseur, as a doctor, experiments systematically, removing the faces of beautiful young kidnaped women, trying to graft them onto the ruined head of his daughter. He keeps failing, the girls are destroyed and yet he persists – in some terrible parody of the scientific method. In the end, the daughter – still only eyes without a face – liberates the dogs on which he also experiments and they tear off his head.

It’s both bizarrely sophisticated (with Alida Valli as his mistress doing the kidnaping in a black leather coat, recalling the death images from Cocteau’s Orpheus) and absurdly naive. Franju’s style is almost as purified as Robert Bresson’s, and although I dislike the mixture of austerity and mysticism with blood and gore, it produced its effect – a vague, floating, almost lyric sense of horror, an almost abstract atmosphere, impersonal and humorless. It has nothing like the fun of a good old horror satire like The Bride of Frankenstein with Elsa Lanchester’s hair curling electrically instead of just frizzing as usual, and Ernest Thesiger toying with mandrake roots and tiny ladies and gentlemen in glass jars. It’s a horror film that takes itself very seriously, and even though I thought its intellectual pretensions silly, I couldn’t shake off the exquisite, dread images.

But the audience seemed to be reacting to a different movie. They were so noisy the dialogue was inaudible; they talked until the screen gave promise of bloody ghastliness. Then the chatter subsided to rise again in noisy approval of the gory scenes. When a girl in the film seemed about to be mutilated, a young man behind me jumped up and down and shouted encouragement. “Somebody’s going to get it,” he sang out gleefully. The audience, which was, I’d judge, predominantly between fifteen and twenty-five, and at least a third feminine, was as pleased and excited by the most revolting, obsessive images as that older, mostly male audience is when the nudes appear in The Immoral Mr. Teas or Not Tonight, Henry. They’d gotten what they came for: they hadn’t been cheated. But nobody seemed to care what the movie was about or be interested in the logic of the plot – the reasons for the gore.

And audiences have seemed indifferent to incomprehensible sections in big expensive pictures. For example, how is it that the immense audience for The Bridge on the River Kwai, after all those hours of watching a story unfold, didn’t express discomfort or outrage or even plain curiosity about what exactly happened at the end – which through bad direction or perhaps sloppy editing went by too fast to be sorted out and understood. Was it possible that audiences no longer cared if a film was so untidily put together that information crucial to the plot or characterizations was obscure or omitted altogether? What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? was such a mess that Time, after calling it “the year’s scariest, funniest and most sophisticated thriller,” got the plot garbled.

In recent years, largely because of the uncertainty of producers about what will draw, films in production may shift from one script to another, or may be finally cut so that key sequences are omitted. And the oddity is that it doesn’t seem to matter to the audience. I couldn’t tell what was going on in parts of 55 Days at Peking. I was flabbergasted when Cleopatra, with no hint or preparation, suddenly demonstrated clairvoyant powers, only to dispense with them as quickly as she had acquired them. The audience for The Cardinal can have little way of knowing whose baby the priest’s sister is having, or of understanding how she can be in labor for days, screaming in a rooming house, without anybody hearing her. They might also be puzzled about how the priest’s argument against her marriage, which they have been told is the only Catholic position, can, after it leads to her downfall and death, be casually dismissed as an error.

It would be easy to conclude that people go to see a “show” and just don’t worry if it all hangs together so long as they’ve got something to look at. But I think it’s more complicated than that: audiences used to have an almost rational passion for getting the story straight. They might prefer bad movies to good ones, and the Variety list of “all-time top grossers” (such as The Greatest Show on Earth and Going My Way) indicates that they did, but although the movies might be banal or vulgar, they were rarely incoherent. A movie had to tell some kind of story that held together: a plot had to parse. Some of the appreciation for the cleverness of, say, Hitchcock’s early thrillers was that they distracted you from the loopholes, so that, afterwards, you could enjoy thinking over how you’d been tricked and teased. Perhaps now “stories” have become too sane, too explicable, too commonplace for the large audiences who want sensations and regard the explanatory connections as mere “filler” – the kind of stuff you sit through or talk through between jolts.

It’s possible that television viewing, with all its breaks and cuts, and the inattention, except for action, and spinning the dial to find some action, is partly responsible for destruction of the narrative sense – that delight in following a story through its complications to its conclusion, which is perhaps a child’s first conscious artistic pleasure. The old staples of entertainment – inoffensive genres like the adventure story or the musical or the ghost story or the detective story – are no longer commercially safe for moviemakers, and it may be that audiences don’t have much more than a TV span of attention left: they want to be turned on and they spend most of their time turning off. Something similar and related may be happening in reading tastes and habits: teen-agers that I meet have often read Salinger and some Orwell and Lord of the Flies and some Joyce Cary and sometimes even Dostoyevsky, but they are not interested in the “classic” English novels of Scott or Dickens, and what is more to the point, they don’t read the Sherlock Holmes stories or even the modern detective fiction that in the thirties and forties was an accepted part of the shared experience of adolescents. Whatever the reasons – and they must be more than TV, they must have to do with modern life and the sense of urgency it produces – audiences can no longer be depended on to respond to conventional forms.

Perhaps they want much more from entertainment than the civilized, but limited rational pleasures of genre pieces. More likely, and the box-office returns support this, they want something different. Audiences that enjoy the shocks and falsifications, the brutal series of titillations of a Mondo Cane, one thrill after another, don’t care any longer about the conventions of the past, and are too restless and apathetic to pay attention to motivations and complications, cause and effect. They want less effort, more sensations, more knobs to turn …

Comments: Pauline Kael (1919-2001) was an American film critic, noted for her strong opinions and sharp style. This is the first half of her essay. She continues with an argument against technique in ‘art house’ films for technique’s sake. She concludes, “People go to the movies for the various ways they express the experiences of our lives, and as a means of avoiding and postponing the pressures we feel. This latter function of art – generally referred to disparagingly as escapism – may also be considered as refreshment, and in terms of modern big city life and small town boredom, it may be a major factor in keeping us sane.” My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing the essay to my attention.

Links: Complete essay at www.atlantic.com

Jaws on the Water

Source: ‘Jaws on the Water’ by https://instagram.com/hlkfotos, referenced in ‘The most TERRIFYING screening ever? Seriously, would you watch Jaws like this?’, http://www.express.co.uk/entertainment/films/589985/jaws-screening-on-water-scariest-films-alamo-drafthouse, 9 July 2015

Comments: A screening of Jaws (USA 1975), Steven Spielberg’s film about a shark terrorising a beach resort, at the Alamo Drafthouse, New Braunfels, Texas, where audiences watch the film from rubber rings floating in a lake. The Alama Drafthouse ski ranch and entertainment complex first introduced the ‘Jaws on the Water’ concept in 2002.

Links: Jaws on the Water event page

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 97-99

Text: AGE: 30 SEX: F
OCCUPATION: CLERK NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: COMMERCIAL TRAVELLER
MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HOUSEWIFE

I started film-going at the early age of eight and adored Bebe Daniels from then, until now; custard pies, Keystone Police, and most of all, the Western films of silent days! I went always with my Grandmother, and, although we could afford the better seats, always had on account of her sight, to sit well to the front among the whistling stamping orange-eating patrons a thing which has made me dislike and despise the smelly poor for all time. I adored the noisy out of tune piano, and always tried to emulate the noisy thumping that passed as musical accompaniment, never having patience to practice scales and my ‘show-piece’ Mignosiette(?) as I should have done so to this day I only play by ear. I fell in love with Ken Maynard a dark rather saturnine man who rode a beautiful white horse, and collected everything I could find printed about him, begged his show posters, and treasured every picture I found of him anywhere. At twelve I wondered what sort of films they were that I was never allowed to see, and played truant from school one afternoon with another small and curious-minded friend to see my first ‘sex’ film. It was of the trials and temptations of a rather blowsy continental actress, and puzzled us for weeks, setting us wondering about things we had never before bothered about. Did men kiss women like that, and did babies come unwanted, from such episodes and behaviour? So my curiosity aroused, from Ken Maynard at eight I sneaked off at twelve now unescorted to see all the extravagant and unreal epics of sex and high living I could find. Did it do me any harm? Yes – I’m afraid so. Children should never be allowed to see at such an early age, the ugly side of life and I have only myself to blame. When I am asked to ‘take me in lady, its an “A” film’ my refusal is always firm. Now boys seemed tame who couldn’t hug and kiss like the exaggerated figures on the screen, and being silent films, I always imagined the dialogue to be more fiery than any the censor would pass. The Hunchback of Notre Dame frightened me to death and to this day I hate the shudder that passes through me at the sight of an ugly or deformed person. Frankenstein kept me awake at night and gave me nerves. The fresh notes Al Jolson sang filled me with wonder, and with these musicals the morbid faded from my film-going entertainment, both horror and sex. There wasn’t time to think about exotic love-making or blood-drinking vampires when you could hear clever people singing see dancing more wonderful than you ever imagined, and above all listen to all these wonderful people talking! Yes, talkies and above all musicals, cleared the air for me! Films with a story were now clever and interesting, and what if I did try to look like Joan Crawford – I tried to look like Norma Shearer too – so it all balanced itself out. Anyway I was often better dressed than before (I am now in my teens), and my hair looked more cared for and more attractively arranged. Films definitely did make me more receptive to love-making and I expected it to be a more experienced job than I would have done had I not seen on the films how love should be made! Leslie Howard made love kindly, Clark Gable was tough and a go-getter, Gary Grant gay but rather dangerous, Ronald Colman ministerial, Errol Flynn impossibly venturesome and Bob Montgomery the ideal gentleman etc. etc. etc. I looked for all these qualities in my friends and measured them up by it. Once I fell in love desperately with a man who was the absolute double of Gary Grant. He wanted me to elope and although everyone warned me against him – I nearly did so – blinded with the glamour of his likeness to the screen star. Luckily my father found out a week before they arrested him as an embezzler so that was that! Films where the heroine is poor but beautiful, have come by wealth and adventure by choosing the primrose path in life have always in a submerged urge sort of way tempted and fascinated me. The situation has never risen in my life – but the outlook on it is there. I have always had great ambition – fed by films – to be a journalist. I don’t suppose that it is much like its prototype in N. York or the idea we get of it on the screen, but how I’d love to find out. I’ve wanted to travel, yes, but not so much the world as to cross America from N. York to the Pacific Coast, in one of those stream-lined buses, seeing the towns and villages en route and meeting the people who live in them. I’d like to see Honolulu too, even though they tell me most of the natives have tuberculosis. This all reads as if films have made me very pro-American, and I’m afraid that is so. I am not dissatisfied with home life or environment, one meets the same class of people in every station of life, in any country. Suburban life here is dull, but so would it be in New England, as in London or New York one would find a more mixed and bohemian crowd. By saying that I mean I have no urge to roam, through film-going, and to travel the world is, more or less, the ambition of everyone who uses the brains they were endowed with. British films have never in all my life, made the slightest impression on me. They are dull, ugly and uninspired – generally a stage success filmed because it was that or a poorly produced musical. There are very few real British film stars, and those stars of the stage who grace the screen at intervals are too old to photograph well, poor dears. The inanities of George Formby leave me cold, the American sense of humour I adore. I once studied Christian Science because Mary Pickford believed in it, I truly believe in the survival of souls, since I saw Topper takes a trip. Bing Crosby singing ‘Holy Night’ gives me more religious uplift than all the dull sermons of our snobbish Vicar, and I’d rather hear Jimmy Durante’s croak than Barbara Mullens silly little squeaking whisper. The greatest thing that has come out of my film-going was the ability it gave me to understand and see the viewpoint of the men from America who came here to fight with us. It also gave me an earlier understanding of the facts of life than I would have had, and made me dissatisfied and impatient with the inferior in entertainment. Not – at thirty – I choose my film going carefully, never just ‘go to the pictures’ and whether it is Carmen Miranda or Bette Davis, Micky Rooney or Humphrey Bogart, Walter Disney or Shakespeare. I am a discriminating picturegoer. From custard pies to Orson Welles is a long way, but it has been a happy and worthwhile journey.

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. Topper Takes a Trip (USA 1938) is a comedy about a ghost.

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 60 -61

Text: AGE: 37 SEX: F. OCCUPATION: Housewife NATIONALITY: British

Films have been my hobby for years, I’m now 37.

The first film I can remember clearly was one of which the comedian Pimple made as a Scotch Soldier leading others, I know it was very funny to me at the time. We used to pay a 1d. Saturday afternoons and as we came out we were given a bag of sweets.

Then a few years after, I can remember Jack Mulhall in light comedian roles in which he was perfect, I still catch glances of him in small parts now at the movies. Then I was in the flapper age when Rudolph Valintino [sic] was the hero, and when his picture was on The Shiek [sic]. I know we girls had to stand to get in and we were saying ‘Isn’t he marvellous’, ‘I wish I was Agnes Ayers’ [sic]. I bought every photo I could possibly get of him, and my bedroom was surrounded with him, so you see there were pin-up-boys in those times too.

Even now when I see old pictures of him in your magazine I still get a little romantic feeling, silly isn’t it how a picture does effect [sic] you of anyone.

His picture The Four Horsemen was one of his greatest, but when I went to see that, it was dark when I came out and being young, I was terrified all the way home. ‘The Horsemen* were following me all the way. I ran as hard as I could. I think the silent pictures effected [sic] people more than the talkies, as I think hearing them talk makes it less creepy. I know ‘Lon Chaneys’ always upset me.

Sometimes I wish they would show one of the old silent ones occasionly as I’m sure the children of today don’t realize the wonder of the film worlds [sic] progress through the years, I still go very often to the pictures in fact I’d like to go more often. I like to go on my own and get carried away by the acting especially when it is an actor you have a little warm spot for, for I’m sure youngsters aren’t the only ones who go because they like the ways and actions and little mannerisms of their favourite actors.

I like Ralph Bellamy because he reminds me of someone years ago.

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 Sheik (USA 1921) starred Agnes Ayres and Rudolph Valentino, who also starred in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921). ‘Pimple’ was a character played by British comedian Fred Evans. The film referred to is probably Pimple in the Kilties (UK 1915)

Horror Films

Source: Excerpt from interview with Tom Affleck, ‘Horror Films’, ref, 92-16-1 (1992), quoted in Annette Kuhn, An Everyday Magic: Cinema and Cultural Memory (London/New York: I.B. Tauris, 2002), p. 70

Text: The picture that sticks in my mind, The Werewolf of London, the most horrific one I ever remember. Coming out of the picture house I went to my Granny’s to meet my mother and after tea we made our way home. It was now dark and arriving there, having got the light on, my mother told me to pull the blind while she got a shovel of coal for the fire. As I went to the window there was a tap on it from outside and with the inside light on I could not see out. I only heard the tap and flew through to the scullery shouting that the werewolf was after me. Later I found out that the train had come in and one of the people passing was my cousin who tapped on the window.

Resulting from this incident, about eleven at the time, I tok a nervous condition, continually blinking my eyes but a doctor diagnosed nothing seriously wrong …

I finally laid the werewolf to rest when I saw that old picture on television some years ago, although it brought back painful memories.

Comments: An Everyday Magic is a study of the significance of memories of British cinemagoing in the 1930s, which makes extensive use interview material with picturegoers from the time. Werewolf of London is an American film from 1935, starring Henry Hull and Warner Oland.

Untold Stories

Source: Alan Bennett, Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 170-171

Text: I had no notion as a child that going to the pictures was a kind of education, or that I was absorbing a twice-weekly lesson in morality. The first film I remember being thought of as ‘improving’ was Henry V, which, during our brief sojourn at Guildford, was playing permanently at Studio I at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. I saw it, though, with my primary school at the local Odeon in Guildford, and that it was meant to be educational did not stop it being, for me, magical, particularly the transformation from the confines and painted scenery to the realities of the siege and battlefield in France. The reverse process had the same effect so that the final cut back to the Globe and the actors lining up for their call still gives me a thrill.

Seeing films one also saw – always saw – the newsreels, though only one remains in my memory. It would have been some time in 1945 and it was at the Playhouse, a cinema down Guildford High Street. Before the newsreel began there was an announcement that scenes in it were unsuitable for children and that they should be taken out. None were; having already waited long enough in the queue nobody was prepared to give up their hard-won seat. It was, of course, the discovery of Belsen with the living corpses, the mass graves and the line-up of sullen guards. There were cries of horror in the cinema, though my recollection is that Mam and Dad were much more upset than my brother and me. Still, Belsen was not a name one ever forgot and became a place of horror long before Auschwitz.

The moral instruction to be had at the cinema was seldom as shocking as this: just a slow absorption of assumptions not so much about life as about lives, all of them far removed from one’s own. There were cowboys’ lives, for instance, where the dilemmas could be quite complex and moralities might compete: small-town morality v. the morality of the gunfighter with the latter more perilous and demanding of heroism, High Noon perhaps its ultimate representation. There was the lesson of standing up to the bully, a tale told in lots of guises: in westerns, obviously, but also in historical films – Fire Over England, A Tale of Two Cities and The Young Mr Pitt all told the same story of gallant little England squaring up to the might of France or Spain, for which, of course, read Germany.

Then there were the unofficial heroes: dedicated doctors, single-minded schoolteachers, or saints convinced of their vision (I am thinking particularly of The Song of Bernadette, a film that had me utterly terrified). Always in such films it was the official wisdom v. the lone voice and one knew five minutes into the film what the hero or heroine (star anyway) was going to be up against. I suppose one of the reasons Casablanca and Citizen Kane stand out above the rest is that their morality was less straightforward. William Empson, I think, never wrote about film but there are many the plot of which this describes:

The web of European civilization seems to have been strung between the ideas of Christianity and those of a half-secret rival, centring perhaps (if you made it a system) round honour: one that stresses pride rather than humility, self-realisation rather than self-denial, caste rather than either the communion of saints or the individual soul.

It was a dilemma I was familiar with because it was always cropping up at the Picturedrome.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Untold Stories’ from which this selection comes. The films mentioned are Henry V (UK 1944), High Noon (USA 1952), Fire over England (UK 1937), A Tale of Two Cities (UK 1958 or USA 1935 – there was no film of Dickens’ novel made during the Second World War), The Young Mr Pitt (UK 1942), The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943), Casablanca (USA 1942) and Citizen Kane (USA 1941). Newsreels of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945.

Narrative and Explanation of the Appearance of Phantoms and other Figures in the Exhibition of the Phantasmagoria

Source: William Nicholson, ‘Narrative and Explanation of the Appearance of Phantoms and other Figures in the Exhibition of the Phantasmagoria. With Remarks on the Philosophical use of common Occurrences’, Journal of Natural Philosophy, February 1802, pp. 147-150

Text: A very striking application of the magic lanthorn has been made this winter to the public amusement by M. Philipsthal at the Lyceum. The novelty consists in placing the lanthorn on the opposite side of the screen which receives the images, instead of on the same side as the spectator, and suffering no light to appear but what passes through, and tends to form those images. His sliders are therefore perfectly opake, except that portion upon which the transparent figures are drawn, and the exhibition is thus conducted.

All the lights of the small theatre of exhibition were removed, except one hanging lamp, which could be drawn up so that its flame should be perfectly enveloped in a cylindrical chimney, or opake shade. In this gloomy and wavering light the curtain was drawn up, and presented to the spectator a cave or place exhibiting skeletons, and other figures of terror, in relief, and painted on the sides or walls. After a short interval the lamp was drawn up, and the audience were in total darkness, succeeded by thunder and lightning; which last appearance was formed by the magic lanthorn upon a thin cloth or screen, let down after the disappearance of the light, and consequently unknown to most of the spectators. These appearances were followed by figures of departed men, ghosts, skeletons, transmutations, &c. produced on the screen by the magic lanthorn on the other side, and moving their eyes, mouth, &c. by the well known contrivance of two or more sliders. The transformations are effected by moving the adjusting tube of the lanthorn out of focus, and changing the slider during the moment of the confused appearance.

It must be again remarked, that these figures appear without any surrounding circle of illumination, and that the spectators, having no previous view or knowledge of the screen, nor any visible object of comparison, are each left to imagine the distiance according to their respective fancy. After a very short time of exhibiting the first figure, it was seen to contract gradually in all its dimensions, until it became extremely small and then vanished. This effect, as may easily be imagined, is produced by bringing the lanthorn nearer and nearer the screen, taking care at the same time to preserve the distinctness, and at last closing the aperture altogether: and the process being (except as to brightness) exactly the fame as happens when visible objects become more remote, the mind is irresistably led to consider the figures as if they were receding to an immense distance.

Several figures of celebrated men were thus exhibited with some transformations; such as the head of Dr. Franklin being converted into a skull, and these were succeeded by phantoms, skeletons, and various terrific figures, which instead of seeming to recede and then vanish, were (by enlargement) made suddenly to advance; to the surprize and astonishment of the audience, and then disappear by seeming to sink into the ground.

This part of the exhibition, which by the agitation of the spectators appeared to be much the most impressive, had less effect with me than the receding of the figures; doubtless because it was more easy for me to imagine the screen to be withdrawn than brought forward. But among the young people who were with me the judgments were various. Some thought they could have touched the figures, others had a different notion of their distance, and a few apprehended that they had not advanced beyond the first row of the audience.

As I have given this account, of an exhibition on which an ingenious mechanic in part depends for his support, it will not be impertinent to my present and future readers to add, that the whole, as well as certain mechanical inventions, were managed with dexterity and address, and that his gains in London have been very considerable. The figures for the most part are but poorly drawn, and the attempt to explain the rational object, or purpose of the exhibition was certainly well intended; but unfortunately for the audience his English was unintelligible. His lightning too, being produced by the camera was tame, and had not the brisk transient appearance of the lightning at the theatres, which is produced by rozin, or lycopodium powder, thrown through alight, which in Mr. P’s utter darkness might easily have been concealed in a kind of dark lanthorn.

My young pupils on their return made drawings, and applied the magic lanthorn to a sheet in a door way between two rooms. Some of their drawings were made on thin paper and varnished, to render them transparent, and others were on glass. The paper figures were less bright than the others; but an advantage may be had in this material by those who cannot draw, because they may colour and varnish small figures, engraved in aqua-tinta or in any other manner without stroke.

A plate of thin sheet iron, such as German stoves are made of, is an excellent instrument for producing the noise of thunder. It may be three or four feet long, and the usual width. When this plate is held between the finger and thumb by one corner, and suffered to hang at liberty, if the hand be then moved or shaken horizontally, so as to agitate the corner at right angles to the surface, a great variety of sounds will be produced; from the low rumbling of distant thunder, to the succession of loud explosive bursts of thunder from elevated clouds. This simple instrument is very manageable, so that the operator soon feels his power of producing whatever character of found he may desire; and notwithstanding this description may seem extravagant, whoever tries it for the first time will be surprized at the resemblance. If the plate be too small, the sound will be short, acute, and metallic.

Comments: William Nicholson (1753-1815) was a British chemist and the principal contributor to the early scientific journal, the Journal of Natural Philosophy, Chemistry and the Arts. The Phantasmagoria was a combination of the magic lantern, back projection, mobile machinery and lighting effects to create ghostly apparitions before an audience. It was first put on in Paris in the 1780s by Philidor, aka Paul Philipsthal, a German showman. Philipsthal presented his Phantasmagoria at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1801. Nicholson’s report on this show subsequently formed the basis of a much better-known account on Philipstahl’s show by David Brewster published in 1831 in Letters of Natural Magic (see separate Picturegoing post). The above transcription has changed the ſ in Nicholson’s text to s, for ease of reading.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Letters of Natural Magic

Source: Sir David Brewster, extract from ‘Letter IV’, Letters on Natural Magic (London: Chatto & Windus, 1883 – orig. pub. 1831), pp. 158-159

Text: The power of the magic lantern has been greatly extended by placing it on one side of the transparent screen of taffetas which receives the images while the spectators are placed on the other side, and by making every part of the glass sliders opaque, excepting the part which forms the figures. Hence all the figures appear luminous on a black ground, and produce a much greater effect with the same degree of illumination. An exhibition depending on these principles was brought out by M. Philipstal in 1802 under the name of the Phantasmagoria, and when it was shown in London and Edinburgh it produced the most impressive effects upon the spectators. The small theatre of exhibition was lighted only by one hanging lamp, the flame of which was drawn up into an opaque chimney or shade when the performance began. In this “darkness visible” the curtain rose, and displayed a cave with skeletons and other terrific figures in relief upon its walls. The flickering light was then drawn up beneath its shroud, and the spectators, in total darkness, found themselves in the middle of thunder and lightning. A thin transparent screen had, unknown to the spectators, been let down after the disappearance of the light, and upon it the flashes of lightning and all the subsequent appearances were represented. This screen being half-way between the spectators and the cave which was first shown, and being itself invisible, prevented the observers from having any idea of the real distance of the figures, and gave them the entire character of aerial pictures. The thunder and lightning were followed by the figures of ghosts, skeletons, and known individuals, whose eyes and mouth were made to move by the shifting of combined slides. After the first figure had been exhibited for a short time, it began to grow less and less, as if removed to a great distance, and at last vanished in a small cloud of light. Out of this same cloud the germ of another figure began to appear, and gradually grew larger and larger, and approached the spectators till it attained its perfect development. In this manner, the head of Dr. Franklin was transformed into a skull; figures which retired with the freshness of life came back in the form of skeletons, and the retiring skeletons returned in the drapery of flesh and blood.

The exhibition of these transmutations was followed by spectres, skeletons, and terrific figures, which, instead of receding and vanishing as before, suddenly advanced upon the spectators, becoming larger as they approached them, and finally vanished by appearing to sink into the ground. The effect of this part of the exhibition was naturally the most impressive. The spectators were not only surprised but agitated, and many of them were of opinion that they could have touched the figures. M. Robertson, at Paris, introduced along with his pictures the direct shadows of living objects, which imitated coarsely the appearance of those objects in a dark night or in moonlight.

Comments: Sir David Brewster (1781-1868) was a British scientists and inventor with a particular interest in optics. The Phantasmagoria was a combination of the magic lantern, back projection, mobile machinery and lighting effects to create ghostly apparitions before an audience. It was first presented in Paris in the 1780s by Philidor, aka Paul Philipsthal, a German showman, and was copied by the Belgian Étienne-Gaspard ‘Robertson’ Robert at the end of the century. Philipsthal presented his Phantasmagoria at the Lyceum Theatre in London in 1801. Though this is a famous account of the Phantasmagoria, Mervyn Heard, in his Phantasmagoria: The Secret Life of the Magic Lantern (Hastings: The Projection Box, 2006) points out that is was adapted from an account by William Nicholson in the Journal of Natural Philosophy, February 1802 (see separate Picturegoing post).

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Seats in All Parts

Source: Leslie Halliwell, Seats in All Parts (London: Granada, 1985), pp. 54-56

Text: … the Lido in Bradshawgate, as unprepossessing an unVenetian a building as could be imagined despite its gondola-filled proscenium frieze. Financed by a small Salford-based circuit, it was little more than a cheap shell. The foyer was bare and cramped, and the centre stalls exists were by crash doors which opened from the auditorium straight out into the side alleys, sometimes drenching the adjacent customers in rain or snow.

But we were unaware of such inconveniences on the Saturday in 1937 when we queued for the gala opening. For some reason the attraction chosen for that one night only was a revival of Jessie Matthews in Evergreen, very welcome but quite uneventful, since we had previously seen it at the Hippodrome. The place nevertheless was mobbed, and we found ourselves in a low point of the front stalls from which it was difficult for me to see more than the top half of the screen over the heads of the people in front. I was comforted, however, by a handful of sample packets of a confectionery, then new, called Maltesers: the usherettes were practically throwing them at everyone who came in, and I grabbed as many as I could from the tray on the way to my seat.

We went again on Monday to see the Lido’s first première, which was Song of Freedom, staring Paul Robeson. It was enjoyable enough while the star held sway, and I responded to his voice as to no one else’s since Al Jolson, who seemed unaccountably to have retired from the screen; but by now we had discovered two of the Lido’s failings. The first was its long, long intervals for ice cream sales, drastically curtailing the supporting programme we expected; the second was an even longer non-attraction called Younger’s Shoppers’ Gazette, a compilation of crude advertising filmlets (I once counted twenty-eight on the one reel). This was certainly not value for money, especially since the Lido was also the proud possessor of a Christie organ, and the interlude for this could stretch the gap between solid celluloid items to as much as thirty-five minutes. Though it had the advantage of a phantom piano attachment, the Lido organ did not rise from the orchestra pit as we expected, nor did it change colour as it came. From some of the side seats you could see it waiting in the wings throughout the performance, and since the main curtain hung slightly short, front stalls patrons could count the feet of the men who pushed it on stage at the appropriate moment. This musical marvel was operated by one Reginald Liversidge, an eager-to-please young man with a gleaming smile and a fine head of skin; his natty tailcoat and graceful manners probably endeared him to the matrons, but not to me. So far as I was concerned, his slide-accompanied concerts of ‘Tchaikovskiana’ were just one more nail in the coffin of a disappointing venue in which I had expected to spend many delightful evenings.

And so I was not impelled, in the years before the 1939 war, to visit the Lido very often. Its schedulers did not have the booking power of the established cinemas, and certainly not of the new Odeon which was to menace them all. It was too often to take the cheapest programme available, and I was happiest when it settled for a re-issue. One such attraction was the 1931 Fredric March version of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, which my mother wanted to see again, having been impressed by it when I was still in swaddling clothes. It was my first experience, in our well-behaved town, of an audience cat-calling and rough-housing during a performance. Mum said comfortingly that they only did it to prove they were not scared by Jekyll’s transformations into Hyde; I was, but tried not to show it, my fear being tempered by a burning desire to wear, when I grew up, a dress cape, cane and top hat just like Mr March’s. I realize now that this superbly crafted film, by far the best version of the story, is not only horrifying but surprisingly one-track-minded in the matter of sex, and therefore not at all a suitable entertainment for a boy of tender years; nonetheless what I most remember from that long-ago evening is how lustrous and dramatic it was to look at. Mum anxiously watched my reactions to the shock moments and, since I showed no ill effects, took me along a few weeks later to see the Lido’s ‘double thrill bill’ consisting of re-issues of The Old Dark House and The Invisible Man. This time, to our astonishment, we were forestalled by the burly commissionaire in the second-hand uniform, who informed us between pursed lips that Children were no Admitted. My mother pointed out that both films had ‘A’ certificates, not ‘H’, and that she regularly took me to ‘A’ pictures, but argument proved useless, and we could only conclude that this was an entirely unofficial rule drawn up by the management either for the public good or (more likely) to drum up business during a dull week. Adamant, the commissionaire repeatedly tapped a hanging notice on which the words ADULTS ONLY had been inscribed in shaky green lettering. Although, he assured us confidentially, he had seen both pictures and wouldn’t give you that (he snapped his fingers) for their horror content, he was powerless to help us, and could only suggest that we went round the corner to the Theatre Royal where Old Mother Riley was showing. His sister had described it as a real good laugh. Disconsolately, we took his advice; but I don’t remember laughing much: the rather primitively filmed knockabout failed to capture the instinctive zest of Lucan and MacShane’s crockery-smashing stage act which I had seen at the Grand on one recent Saturday night.

Comments: Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) was a film historian and programme buyer for ITV and Channel 4. Seats in All Parts is his memoir of cinemagoing, including his Bolton childhood. ‘A’ certificates were introduced in 1912 and stood for ‘Adult’; from 1923 a child attending an ‘A’ film had to be accompanied by an adult. ‘H’ certificates, for Horror, were introduced by the British Board of Film Censors in 1932, to be replaced by the X certificate in 1951. The Lido cinema opened in March 1997 and closed in 1998, by which time it was called the Cannon Cinema. The site is now occupied by a block of flats. The films recalled by Halliwell are Evergreen (UK 1934), Song of Freedom (UK 1936), The Old Dark House (USA 1932), The Invisible Man (USA 1933) and Old Mother Riley (UK 1937). Younger’s Shopper’s Gazette was produced by Younger Publicity Service and ran from the 1920s to the 1940s. An example can be seen on the website of the Media Archive for Central England.

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), p. 115

Text: Age 21 Sex: F
Occupation: Shorthand typist secretary
Father’s occupation: Hairdresser (English)
Mother’s occupation: Housewife (Irish)

When I was 15, I managed to get to see a ‘H’ certificate picture called The Vampire Bat, which was the most frightening film I have ever seen. It was about a woman who lived on human blood which she sucked from the neck of people asleep in there [sic] beds at night. I think what made me terrified was the scene in which she looked through the window into a girls [sic] bedroom watching her chance to get in (during this suspense, I gripped and tore a bit of stuffing out of my seat). I also remember how white looking her face was with a sort of black tinge to it, and her hair was black and down to the waist in length. This vision at the window remained in my memory all the way home afterwards. I could not even speak to the girl I went with very much as she was also shaken. That night I never slept at all. I imagined I saw her looking in at my bedroom window, and I remember screaming which brought my mother hurrying in to see what the matter was. She found me in a cold sweat. I told her about seeing the face at the window just like I did inthe film. She said ‘all pictures are not real but just imagination, and that there was no such thing as a woman vampire. A Vampire was a sort of bird that lived hundreds of years ago in foreign countries’. Anyway it took me some time to get over it. I shiver now when I think of it.

Comment: 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. Contributors were to supply personal details, to trace the history of their interest in films, to say if they were ever frightened by a film, what they may have imitated from films, any temptations or ambitions they had due to films, and if films gave them any vocational ambitions. Prizes were offered for the best answers. In her full autobiography this contributor describes joining the Gaumont British Kiddies Club when aged 11, her fondness for cowboy and Indian films, then for Deanna Durbin, her later idolising of Tyrone Power, and her dissatisfaction with her adult life compared with that which she saw on the screen (she went to the cinema four days a week). The Vampire Bat (USA 1933 d. Frank Strayer) starred Lionel Atwill and Fay Wray. It has no female vampire. ‘H’ certificates, for Horror, were introduced by the British Board of Film Censors in 1932, to be replaced by the X certificate in 1951.