Source: Cathleen McCarthy (‘Jeanette’), ‘He Sees Wings’, Peterborough Examiner, 28 February 1928, p. 3
Text: He was a little boy, not more than seven years of age. He was watching along with his brother and another small lad, the picture of ‘Wings’ at the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Opera House. Half the time he was on his feet, that is, in the air scenes. The sentimental episodes left him cold. He sat quietly through them, evincing little interest. “There’s the girl” was his only comment when the lady appeared. And he clung steadfastly to the belief that David and Jack were brothers. That’s why they were such pals, in his opinion.
He knew instantly what would come later on. “Watch the girl,” he said. “She’s going to climb under the car.” She did. “Now they’ll hit the car.” They did, with one of their bombs.
The Germans were “bad guys” and the two heroes of the picture were “good guys.” They were also Canadians, instead of Americans, as the producers intended. “Watch the Canadians win,” he said, every time that the camera depicted a triumphant advance.
“There’s one of the good guys in the wee, white car,” he announced triumphantly. “He’s going to get the bad guy’s balloon. Watch him get it – oh, lady, lady!” (as the flames consumed the big gas bag). He read the sub-titles rapidly. “Weeks pass.” His brother: “What passed?” Little boy (impatiently): “Any weeks.” They all subside, to brighten up again when the planes ‘strafe’ the German trenches.
“Oh boy, look at ’em run! Look at the good guys smash the bad guys. Hurray!” (as the tanks rumble over an energetic machine gun nest). “They’re all Canadians in that tank. It goes that way because they’re all drunk inside. Look at the rest of the Canadians coming along behind the tank so they won’t get killed.”
Later: “Gee, he killed his brother. Look at him yellin’ at the good guy and he can’t hear. Gosh, he killed him. Look at the lady cryin’. That’s their mother. She liked the dead one best.” They quiet down. The killing is all finished and the “good guy” is dead. As far as they care concerned, the picture is over.
Comments: Cathleen McCarthy (1889-198?) was a Canadian journalist and film reviewer who wrote from the Ontario newspaper Peterborough Examiner under the name of Jeanette. Peterborough cinema historian Robert G. Clarke writes about this delightful record of children watching the 1927 First World War movie Wings at Peterborough’s Grand Opera House on his website www.peterboroughmoviehistory.com. I am grateful to him for providing me with a copy of the full article and his OK to reproduce it here.
Source: ‘Robin Goodfellow’, ‘The Value of the Cinema’, Cambridge Daily News, 30 August 1919, p. 4
Text: Anyone who doubts the value of the cinema in teaching history and instilling patriotism in the growing generation ought to make a point of seeing the film depicting the life story of Nelson, which was shown at the Playhouse during the early part of the week. No school lesson however interesting, could “grip” the boy or girl in the same way that this wonderful picture did the crowds of youngsters this week. It did one’s heart good to hear them cheer as one after another the outstanding events in the life of the great hero were flashed upon the screen. The schoolchildren of today are evidently taught more about the country’s naval battles than when I went to school, for a little chap sitting behind me the other evening was well up in his facts, and shouted with eagerness at the first mention of any of the engagements, little and big, in which the immortal Nelson took part. He knew his characters well, too, for Napoleon – “Old Bony”, as he irreverently termed him – came in for a full share of hisses whenever he was shown. The young folks were not quite so well acquainted with “the lady in the case” – who was Lady Hamilton? a bright looking schoolboy asked me – but that is as it should be. “Emma’s” part in the story was very cleverly and tactfully handled by the producer. I have only one fault to find with the cinema productions of to-day, and that is the shocking spelling one frequently sees in the introductory lines explaining the pictures. There was nothing wrong with this in respect with the Nelson film, but just before, following some excellent pictures of a daring flight through the Arc de Triomphe, a photo was shown of the “interprid” airman. This is not an isolated instance, by any means. I have noticed it repeatedly in different films. A little more care in this work would vastly improve matters.
Comments: ‘Robin Goodfellow’ (a pseudonym) wrote a column ‘Table Talk’ for the Cambridge Daily News, from which this account derives. The British feature film Nelson (1918) was directed by Maurice Elvey for Master-International Exclusives. The French aviator Charles Godefroy flew through the Arc de Triomphe in Paris on 7 August 1919. My thanks to Lucie Dutton for bringing this piece to my attention.
Source: Gilbert Frankau, Gilbert Frankau’s Self-Portrait: A Novel of His Own Life (London: Hutchinson, 1940), pp. 143-146
Text: In the fullness of time Chambers departed, leaving me and Wilson in dual glory at the Grand Hotel, Rome. My main mission was to convince the Italians that we had several men fighting in France and Flanders – the Hun propaganda machine denying this daily, through a secretly subsidised press. “No War Here”, said a Welsh miners’ leader addressing a home audience – and the headline appeared in a Naples paper next day.
The battle films with which I had been supplied might have proved convincing. But Chambers hadn’t been able to sell them; and I could hardly persuade invited audiences to sit through them in free seats.
After some four fruitless weeks of travel I again took counsel with our ambassador; and dashed back to London.
There, I looted every scrap of official film I could find, including several priceless feet of General Cadorna, then generalissimo of the Italian armies, Lord Kitchener, and a sausage balloon taking the air at Queen’s Club.
With these, Muirhead Bone’s etching of a tank in action and complete orchestra scores for “The British Grenadiers”, “Tipperary” and other martial music, I returned to Italy, and took up my headquarters at the Hotal Cavour, Milan.
What Luca Comerio, the Italian cinema man, and I did to the official British war films in the solitude of his studio is nobody’s business but our own.
The very first caption thrown on the screen over the facsimile signature of “Capitano Gilbert Frankau, Stato Maggiore Inglese” (English General Staff) guaranteed the story of “La Battaglia dei Tanks” completely authentic.
And what a story! We printed twelve copies. Within ten minutes of the private preview we sold them all – my instructions were to make the thing pay if I could – to five renters whose theatres covered the whole of Italy.
Tears blinded even those hardboiled renters when a shell burst obscured the entire screen, and the film seemed to break, and that most telling of all our captains [captions] read, “Alas – alas, for the too-intrepid cameraman”. With muted music the effect on large audiences had to be seen to be believed.
Among the believers in the death of that mythical cameraman – for I never had the heart to disillusion Her Excellency – was Lady Rodd …
…That night in 1917 I took Rudyard Kipling – and two charming American women whose names escape the memory – to the theatre where my film had been showing since noon. Gerald Tyrrwhit, unpaid attaché at the Embassy, now Lord Berners, had trained the orchestra for me. They struck up “Rule, Britannia” – by pure coincidence – as we seated ourselves in the box.
Kipling watched the screen. I watched Kipling.
The tunes and that first captional guarantee of authenticity surprised him a little. But he did not even blink when he saw Marconi inventing the tank, or General Cadorna arriving for a conference with Lord Kitchener at which it was decided that the English army should attack on the Somme.
“Good work”, whispered my master. “How did you come to think of that fiction?”
Modesty kept silence. Our troops, tinted blue and brown, massed by night. The London Scottish appeared complete with band to “Auld lang syne” and “A wee doch and doris”. Then “Came the dawn of battle”; and my Queen’s Club sausage balloon rose to survey the German trenches.
Promptly the enemy planes – ours from Salisbury Plain – swooped to the attack, their machine guns chattering. (Tyrrwhit managed that rather well with his drums.) Down fell the balloon (tinted red, and two out of every three pictures excised, to say nothing of the men on the ropes, giving the effect of speed) in real flames.
“Gorgeous”, whispered Kipling. “Cost you a truss of hay, I expect.”
Our plans counter-attacked. A German Fokker, which looked a little like one of our own B.E.2C’s to Kingscote’s pupil in anti-aircraft gunnery, also fell in flames.
The crashed plane, I think, was a real picture. Then, it had no British circles under its wings. If anyone faked the Iron Crosses there, it was not done in Milan.
“But where are the tanks?” whispered Kipling. “We must live up to our titles.”
Again his fan kept silence while superimposed shell-bursts – the damn things never looked quite real, they waggled about too much – rained on our advancing infantry.
“Meanwhile…” read the next caption; and suddenly Kipling chuckled.
“Tanks to the rescue. The Devastating Blinders, eh! Grand”.
They were my own words, my very own dictionary-dredged Italian words; and I could not refrain from displaying my erudition.
“Blindati Devastatori means armoured devastators”, I corrected, as the tank-noses reared high to crush walls I could have sworn built in England, and swept on to the apocryphal attack.
But Kipling preferred his own translation, repeating to himself “devastating blinders”, till that thrilling moment when the mine blew, and spotless Highlanders stormed forward, bayonets flashing, at no double ever seen in France or Flanders to victory or death. We faded out on coloured flags and “Long Live the Allies” to a complete symphony of national anthems.
“What do you think of it?” I asked, as we walked the undarkened streets. (Even the Huns of 1914-1918 never dared to bomb the Eternal City.)
“Superb”, chuckled Kipling, “But you will be slain for this, my friend. Most indubitably you will be slain.”
Comments: Gilbert Frankau (1884-1952) was a British novelist and poet. His book Self-Portrait describes itself as a novel, but it is effectively an autobiography. Like many of the British literary intellgensia during World War I, he was recruited by the covert War Propaganda Bureau to promote British interests during the First World War. Frankau was sent to Italy to oversee the presentation of British official war films, starting in 1916 with the documentary feature Britain Prepared (1915). Behind the comic detail lies some useful and occasionally convincing detail about the presentation of war films. He may be referring to the British documentary feature The Battle of the Ancre and the Advance of the Tanks (1917), though that film in its original state had no fakery. Luca Comerio was a prominent Italian film producer. Rudyard Kipling, another War Propaganda Bureau recruit, was in Italy around May 1917 in preparation for writing an account of the Italian campaign, The War in the Mountains. Lady Rodd was the wife of the British ambassador to Italy.
Source: ‘Inbad’, ‘An Island Night’s Entertainment’, The Ladies’ Mirror, 1 May 1925, pp. 59-60
Text: Those who only know the “Movies” in such palatial homes as New Zealand provides may care to hear how we unsophisticated South Sea Islanders keep in touch with the screen world.
As I sit on my front steps watching the star-shadows of the coco-palms lengthen on the green until they fade away as the sun sinks, and the hills take on the wonderful afterglow of the tropics, there comes into my head a verse of Laurence Hope’s which might have been written about this spot:
The daylight is dying. the flying fox is flying,
Amber and amethyst flame in the sky;
See, the sun throws a late, lingering roseate
Kiss to the landscape to bid it goodbye.
The glow on the hills gradually fades until only little clouds high up keep the warm tint; the chatter of hundreds of mynahs in the purau trees dies away as they settle for the night, and gradually the scent of a myriad flowers, unnoticed in the day, steals down the soft breeze and mingles with the smell of wood smoke from the neighbouring village as the evening meal is prepared. Just as I knock the ashes from my pipe preparatory to going indoors to light the lamp and settle to an evening’s reading, a figure comes soft-footed across the lawn and proves to be Johnny Pokia. a native planter who is my nearest neighbour. The white vest and scarlet pareu set off his muscular figure as our bifurcated garments never could, and one wonders anew at the narrow ignorance of the missionaries who introduced and insisted on European clothing.
“Haeremai, Johnnie! Metaké?” and his wonderful teeth flash as he comes up and takes a seat on the steps.
“You goin’ pickshurs to-night?”
I had forgotten that it was picture night, and had looked forward to a quiet evening. Still –
“Good picture you think. John?”
“Yes. Charlie Brown tellin’ me gooood pickshu. Plen-ty fight’n!”
“You going John?”
“I dunno. What you t’ink?”
The troubled look on John’s face is explained. Alas. a lack of the needful has kept others from their heart’s desire ere this!
“All right. I’ll come. Go and get dressed and tell your boy and girl they can come too.”
Johnnie’s gloom vanishes as if by magic. As he turns away and as I rise to go in to change (for I, too. wear vest and pareu in my isolated home). there is a faint distant throbbing in the air which gradually draws nearer and nearer until the headlights of a big lorry appear round a point.
This brings Charlie Brown with the projector and films from his plantation home near Arorangi and the throbbing emanates from a number of his “boys” clustered on the tail of the car who beat a drumming advertisement along the route that this is picture night. Their instruments are crude – an empty kerosene tin, two or three sections of hollowed log. and a bass drum, but the effect is surprising. First a rattling roll on the tin, then the logs take it up, the tin stops and a single drummer beats time on a hollow bamboo. Suddenly the others join in with a crash in marvellous time and the lorry thunders past my wharé to the accompaniment of a rolling, throbbing, reverberating roar that gets into the blood as does no other instrument but the pipes.
As I go in to change I concur with the writer who said that every South Sea native appeared to have swallowed a metronome.
In a few minutes I am ready – island toilets are not elaborate – and there comes a timid knock at the door. It is John’s small girl who brings me a crown of flowers to wear. As this custom is not commercialised here as in the larger islands of Hawaii and Tahiti. it is still a sign of friendship and esteem, so I am proud to wear it. It is composed of the waxen tiaré maori interspersed with the scented pits of pineapple rind and red berries from the “bush,” cut in spirals which dangle down at the sides.
John appears in a smart white duck suit and white canvas shoes and we start off down the sandy road, the kids racing on ahead to ensure good places for themselves.
There is a young moon, just sufficient to silhouette the tall coco-palms that border the road, turning their spreading fronds to studies in black and silver, and as we look up we see ever and anon the flittering shape of “mor kiri-kiri,” the flying fox.
As we come into the village we enter an arch of flamboyant trees. which are now in full bloom. and the road is carpeted with their scarlet flowers. The neat concrete houses bordering the road are almost lost in their bowers of flowering shrubs hibiscus of all colours, roses, tiaré maori, and gardenia grow like weeds in the rich soil. and the houses themselves are half smothered in masses of alamanda and bougainvillea. Gradually the road is filled with natives bound for the picture house. the men in whites or blue denims; the women in flowing “Mother Hubbards” of muslin.
After a walk of nearly a mile we reach the grassy plot beside the tin shed which forms our local picture palace. We are late. but Charlie Brown does not consider the audience sufficiently large yet, so blows several loud blasts on his whistle to warn stragglers that the show is about to commence, and the “band” strikes up anew. Curious to watch the crowd as the stirring rattle gets into their veins – many of them find it too much for them and do little impromptu shuffles as they stand talking in groups. Suddenly there is a burst of laughter and applause as a little man in white vest and dungarees with an enormous hibiscus flower over his ear leaps into the space near the drummers and goes through the knee-bending, wriggling motions of a hula. A barrow laden with fruit pasties and huge slabs of water-melon does a brisk trade with the waiting crowd.
Charlie Brown comes across to pass the time of day, and gives us an inkling of the pictorial treat in store. He looks round, considers that the crowd is now large enough, and blows a long blast on his whistle. The drums die away after a final tattoo and we file in and take our places. The front benches are packed with a mob of chattering kiddies so John and I take our places well to the rear under the projector. Next to me is the charming wife of a neighbouring planter with her daughter who is home from her New Zealand boarding school for the holidays. In front of me is one of the real “old-timers” who came here years ago, before the mast of a wind-jammer and found the island lure too much for him. He has a little store in the village, but knows that there will be no trade while the shows lasts.
The chief picture to-night is a Pearl White serial, “The House of Hate,” and provides enough strenuous action to satisfy even the present audience. Dark Tony Moreno, always a great favourite with the natives, is the hero, and his timely rescues of the fair lady stir the excited crowd to frenzy. When he is embroiled in a “rough house” with the villain’s myrmidons, the audience rises and yells encouragement.
The natives cannot, of course, read the captions. so Charlie Brown keeps up a running fire of explanation. One suspects that he does not keep much to the text. and from the chuckles and roars that greet his witty sallies, and the point-blank refusal of the lady beside me to translate some of his jokes it is to be feared that much of his talk is distinctly Rabelaisian in character.
The episode from the serial draws to an end, and the Impresario announces that there will be a further instalment next week. Follows a short interval in which we go out for a breath of fresh air.
John presents me with a big slice of water melon, which is thirst-quenching and refreshing, and takes the place of the whisky and soda of more civilised lands.
The whistle blows and we once more take our seats. The next film is a mystery picture featuring a man who has invented a cloak which renders the wearer invisible, and is tremendously popular with the crowd, who love anything that savours of “mana-mana!”
There are many thrills in the picture, but they affect the audience in a different way. Instead of the ear-shattering roar which acclaimed the fights, the mysterious vanishments are greeted with long-drawn gasping “A-h-h-s” of excitement. One remembers some of the old fairy tale pictures with their suddenly appearing djinns and melons that become coaches in the twinkling of an eye. What excitement they would create here!
The show comes to an end at last and the crowd disperses chattering like daws about the night’s thrills. The planter’s wife and daughter are offered a lift on the lorry, which passes their home, so we bid them good-night and wander home along the beautiful road. John is busy discussing the picture with friends, so I hurry and overtake the young daughter of my nearest white neighbours, who has been to the show in care of a native lady. The moon has disappeared, but it is a wonderful night of stars and the cool refreshing breeze is grateful after the somewhat close atmosphere we have left.
We discuss “Shakespeare and the musical glasses” until my little home is reached, the lass goes on with her friends and I wait at the gate set in the tall hedge of mock-coffee until John comes up. This is a “dry” island, so we go in and have a couple of glasses of home-brewed orange beer, and my guest takes his leave with many expressions of thanks and as a parting gift insists that I accept the half of a fruit pastie he has bought at the barrow and is taking home to his vahine. She, too, is a “movie fan,” but, alas, the duties devolving upon a newly-arrived piccaninny keep her at home for the present.
I go round to the back of the house to investigate the cause of a rattling noise and find that a big heady-eyed hermit crab has somehow got into my rubbish bucket and cannot get out. The varmint shows no signs of alarm in the ray of my electric torch, but sits up and waves his black glistening claws at me menacingly. I pick him up by his “house” gingerly – no fun to get a nip from his claws, which are capable of breaking a finger – and heave him away towards his home under the purau trees that fringe the beach. The soft lap-lap of ripples on the white coral sand of the lagoon catches my cars. Shall I? The night seems too wonderful for bed. In a few seconds I am on my ‘way to the calm water of the lagoon, a pareu knotted round my middle. The next half hour is spent swimming lazily about or floating in a water so buoyant that it is almost impossible to sink, until I find I am nearly asleep. A run home across the grass, a quick shower under the bathroom tap, and so to bed. As I put out the lamp and turn in, the palms and trees rustle as though the night had turned over in its sleep. and the distant harmonies of a “himene” drift down the village.
So ends another happy island day. Can a man be more than happy?
Comments: The film show described here took pace on the island of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. The racial language used is only typical of its period. The 20-episode serial The House of Hate (USA 1918) starred Pearl White and Antonio Moreno. I have not been able to identify what the mystery film with the invisibility theme might be. My thanks to Carol O’Sullivan for having drawn this article to my attention.
Source: Karel Čapek (trans. Šárka Tobrmanová-Kühnová), ‘The Age of the Eyes’, The People’s Paper [Lidové noviny], 22 February 1925, reproduced in Believe in People: The Essential Karel Čapek (London: Faber and Faber, 2010), pp. 18-20
Text: You may have noticed that conspicuously few old people go to the cinema. Even if you take into account that older people are as a rule more frugal and more comfortable, and all in all, less profligate than the rest of us, it’s not a sufficient explanation for why so few of them indulge in the depraved invention of luminous pictures. The older generation expresses open disgust for this modern spectacle. They mutter something like, ‘Don’t bother us with such tosh,’ and open yesterday’s paper or a fifty-year-old novel instead. Meanwhile, the said fifty-year-old novel is being enacted on the screen of a picture palace round the corner, and the rest of us, who are breathlessly watching its flying action, can’t understand that an old man has the patience to read such ancient trash. The average film is, in the vast majority of cases, much closer to Walter Scott than to, say, Vít Nezval, and resembles George Sand more closely than George Bernard Shaw. The average film doesn’t pick up on modern literature, but on old literature. As a matter of fact, it’s the direct successor of old novelistic fiction. The younger generation doesn’t realise that in the cinema they give themselves up to the lush imaginative world of their distant fathers. The older generation doesn’t have an inkling that the shadowy pictures they are so contemptuous of are bone of their bones, or rather I should say the shadow of their bones. Which is of course a typical, unbridgeable rift between the generations.
It seems to me, then, that the older generation doesn’t reject film because it’s too modern, or too silly, but for more profound reasons: because it’s too fast and isn’t rendered in words. I am of the opinion that older people would take pleasure in going to the cinema if texts instead of pictures were projected on the screen. In the beginning of their world is the word, not an optical event. A picture in itself, a picture without language, doesn’t mean anything; it must get words to acquire reality. An old man sees just shadows, shadows, shadows on the screen, bolting, and unreal. If they waited for a moment, he could find a term for them and describe them in words. But alas, they’ve gone, and new shadows are fluttering there in a mute hurry of events. The word lasts, the word can be remembered, the word is solid and firm. But movement doesn’t last long enough to be interpolated into what exists and what is valid; it’s just a change, a transition, and not a decent, reliable, enduring being. An old man watches the running film as if dreams were being shot before him; if he read in a book about a lissom damsel walking like a doe, he’d believe it, but when he sees a lissom damsel on the screen, walking like a doe, he doesn’t recognise this poetic moment because it’s not written there with binding words. It doesn’t say anything, it’s just phoney and monkey business. And the old man leaves the cinema as if he hadn’t seen anything. Don’t bother me with such tosh, he says.
A kind of re-education of people has really taken place here. A person sitting in the cinema must have found a shorter connection between the eye and the brain without the medium of words; in a technical sense, he may even have found a direct connection between the eye and the brain. The older generation probably lacks this direct connection, this leaping of a spark from the retina straight to the cerebral centres. They are more of a reading, conceptual type, while today’s man is becoming a visual type. My late Granny had to read out loud to properly understand what she was reading, for her the word was still an auditory, not a visual, image. In bygone times most readers must have perceived reading through the ear. Later on a more trained reader dropped this aural digression and understood directly by means of verbal signs. In film even the word has turned out to be a digression; we are learning to understand without words. I don’t want to decide if it is progress for the time being it’s a fact.
But surely film threatens literature to a considerable extent, not because it wants to replace it, but because it develops another kind of people – a visual instead of a reading type. The reading sort is patient; it takes its time to penetrate the circumstances, to bask in the descriptive passages and follow the conversation from start to finish. The visual type will not be so patient; it wants to seize the situation in a single glance, to comprehend the story without letting it last, and immediately see something new. But perhaps one day people will run from that stampede of pictures back to the book, to take a breather, or rather, they’ll have the radio narrate fairy tales and novels nice and slowly for them; they’ll listen with closed eyes, letting themselves be lulled by the word, which will re-assume its original destiny – to be spoken language. Maybe who knows? – maybe the book will die out, maybe it will become a curious cultural heritage like inscribed Babylonian bricks. But art will not die out.
Comments: Karel Čapek (1890-1938) was a Czech novelist, essayist and playwright, best known for his science fiction works including the play R.U.R. which introduced the concept of the robot. He was no enthusiast for the cinema, but liked the audiences. Vít Nezval was Vítězslav Nezval, a Czech avant garde poet.
Source: Douglas Brownrigg, Indiscretions of the Naval Censor (London, Cassell, 1920), pp. 215-217
Text: After dinner, spurred by ennui, my companion and I went, to the local cinema house, or barn, and, climbing up many stairs, we arrived among the local “knuts” and enjoyed a remarkably fine show. There were excellent films of the French infantry and cavalry training, followed by a full-blooded American business, “featuring” a lady on horseback being pursued headlong down a ravine by picturesque ruffians. I didn’t, however, see the pursuers follow her “over the top.” I suspect the merchant turning the handle had his dinner-hour then.
Somehow, and why I never understood, the next chapter of the story showed bandits taking the tyres off a motor (I don’t think it was a Ford) and putting the car on the railway lines, and — puff, puff, off they went in pursuit of the “Twentieth Century, Limited,” “operating ” between Chicago and New York. They overtook the train, and climbed in through the corridor window, and “did in” a gentleman sitting in the restaurant car, who can hardly have had time to compare his country unfavourably with this old place, where even on our South Eastern lines I think one of our expresses could have given the slip to a motor-car such as was shown on the screen.
And then came the climax, the ab-so-lute limit. I confess that my heart was thumping with excitement. Whether that denotes senility or childishness I don’t know, but it is the plain fact, and I believe everybody in the hall was likewise quivering with excitement, when on the screen was thrown the horrible and almost unbelievable words: “Final Chapter of this story — NEXT WEEK”!
That may be all right for the residents of Sligo, but what about two miserable devils from London? I could have torn the house down willingly. Even with the knowledge that “next week” would bring them the denouement of this hair-raising story, I was surprised that the young bloods of Sligo could stand it. Maybe they are inured to cinema shocks, as they were the only sort of shocks to which Ireland was exposed during the war!
Comments: Sir Douglas Egremont Robert Brownrigg (1867-1939) was the the Chief Naval Censor in Britain during the First World War. Despite the surprised tone of this account of an Irish film show, Brownrigg was well acquainted with the film industry, through his connections with propaganda filmmaking (as noted in his memoir, which is at times as indiscreet as its titles promises). A ‘knut’ was a slang term for a young person about town.
Source: Carl Koch, from ‘Japanese Cinema’, Close-up vol. VIII no. 4 (December 1931), pp. 296-298
Text: The Japanese film director and actor, Katsumi, recently showed me his latest film in a Berlin projection room. This film, in which he played the main role, told of the downfall of a Samurai who fought against the reigning Shogun about two centuries ago. The plot developed slowly and was punctuated by innumerable captions, until after about 6,000 feet a tremendous fight broke out between the Samurai and (apparently) the whole assembled bodyguard of the Shogun. This ended in the hero’s suicide after an incredible struggle against overwhelming odds. Although the movements were extremely interesting both in their details and in the way they followed through, yet it was clearly impossible to expect a European audience to tolerate anything so long. In fact, I was quite at a loss how this film could be adapted for the European market.
A few weeks later I received an invitation from Katsumi to a Sunday morning performance of this film in a small west-end cinema, where it was to be privately shown to the Japanese colony in Berlin. As I came into the cinema, I was given a printed slip containing a synopsis of the film. At the side of the screen was a lectern where Katsumi stood.
The film started. At the same time Katsumi began a running commentary to the preliminary titles in the normal explanatory tones of a narrator. The Samurai were strolling about on the screen. Silence. The actors conversed with each other. The voice began again, no longer in explanatory, everyday tones, but using the guttural utterance of the Japanese classical theatre to provide an exact accompaniment to the various actors’ conversation. Then a long caption, unaccompanied perhaps for half its length. Then some monotonous instrument like a guitar began to play, continued through the following scenes and stopped suddenly in the middle of a scene. The film continued. Silence. Then, the quiet explanatory voice of the speaker. A humorous remark elicited a titter from the audience — apparently some personal allusion of the speaker’s. Presently the voice became pathetic, continued so through scenes and captions, and then suddenly stopped dead. Silence. More music. Single plucked notes with long pauses in between. Another conversation in the deep gutteral style of the classical theatre, very carefully synchronised with the film and the various actors, who were made to speak sometimes high, sometimes low, clearly, confusedly, slowly or quickly, according to the context. Silence again. On the screen the chief of Shogun’s bodyguard vainly interrogated his daughter whom he had sent to spy on the hero in order to convict him of treason. She was in love with the hero and attempted to persuade her father that she had been unable to discover anything. The old man had now shot his last bolt. He sat there for some time, alone, motionless. Suddenly a gesture — and a man’s shriek. The girl rushed back into the room and flung herself on her father. He tried to free himself in order to reach his sword. His daughter tried to prevent him. The same terrible shriek recurred everytime the old man made some violent effort. At last his daughter broke down, gave him the required information and betrayed her lover. Light guitar music. It was all very thrilling. Finally came the fight, which was accompanied, partly by an exciting rhythmic figure that rose and fell, partly by the solemn declamation of some text that was probably well known to all the Japanese present.
A movie had suddenly been turned into a talkie by the extraordinary art of the speaker, the restrained but subtly differentiated use of different kinds of elocution, and the persistence of the transparent monodic, nearly always unisonal, music. This music had no resemblance to the illustrative music usually to be heard in the European cinema; it ran counter to the action on the screen in a kind of dialectical counterpoint. (For instance, doleful music usually accompanied gay scenes on the screen; quick and lively music, slow sad scenes.) The restraint with which this was carried out made for clearness, lucidity, excitement, variety. The subtleties of tone often lent scenes which had dragged in the projection room an extraordinary tension.
This is the way in which films are shown in Japanese cinemas. The idea of an announcer and a completely independent musical accompaniment is foreign to us, and so we can hardly hope to import Japanese films with any success, since, in spite of adaptation and revision, some passages would still remain too long and deliberate in tempo, and (apart from that) the film sequences are not such as are customary according to the unwritten convention between public and producer here in Europe.
Comments: Carl Koch (1892-1963) was a German film director, whose credits included Nippon, a compilation short of extracts from Japanese films, which at this time were scarcely known about in the West. Katsumi is presumably the Japanese actor-director Yôtarô Katsumi. The article is illustrated with stills from a Japanese film whose title is given as The Torch (made by the Shochiku company). My thanks to Dawid Glownia for bringing this passage to my attention.
Source: Arnold Bennett, journal entry 6 March 1924, in Newman Flower (ed.), The Journals of Arnold Bennett: 1921-1928 (London: Cassell, 1933)
Text:Thursday, 6 March – German film last night at Polytechnic Cinema. One has the idea that all films are crowded. The balcony here was not 15% full. Front row, where Duff Tayler and I were, 8s. 6d. for 1½ hours’ entertainment. A gloomy place, with gloomy audience. No style or grace in them. All lower middle class or nearly so. The hall tricked out with a silly sort of an ikon, illuminated, of Death, to advertise or recall or illustrate the film. The orchestra most mediocre. Played all the time, and three performances a day! Hell for the players I should think. Also the habit of illustrating certain points musically, or noisily. The clock must strike, etc. And a special noise as a sort of leit motif for death. Lastly three small common Oriental mats (probably made in England) laid in front of the screen on the stage to indicate that much of the story was Oriental. The captions, etc, were appalling, and even misspelt, such as ‘extention’, ‘Soloman’ etc. The phrasing! Good God. The City of Yesteryear meant, I believe, the cemetery.
Comments: Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) was a British writer, best known for his novels of life in the Potteries with its ‘five towns’ that now equate with Stoke-on-Trent. The Polytechnic Cinema was part of what was originally the Royal Polytechnic Institution, a venue for popular science lectures and entertainments, which hosted the UK debut of the Lumière Cinématographe in February 1896. It operated as a cinema in the 1920s, and was recently re-furbished and relaunched as the Regent Street Cinema. The film Bennett saw was Fritz Lang’s Der müde Tod aka Destiny (Germany 1921), which features Death as a character and a sequence set in Persia.
Source: Violet Hunt (with a preface and two additional chapters by Ford Madox Hueffer), The Desirable Alien at Home in Germany (London: Chatto and Windus, 1913), pp. 281-287
Text: I had never seen a cinematograph show until I came to live in Germany. I was then told that England abounded in them, and that this wild joy was at hand, and had been at hand for years in the two main streets that bounded my dwelling. I had never, so far, discovered them never known this famous form of amusement. Now I live in them. I am only sorry that the censor has lately been allowed to have anything to do with them; for now I shall never see again what I saw in the course of my first cinematograph the … No! Joseph Leopold, taking upon himself the office of the much-abused functionary, says that I am not to set down what I saw. At any rate, it was the triumph of the unexpected, and that surely is the salt of cinematographs and entertainments generally. And it was nothing wrong it was only out of place, and would not have been out of place in a musical comedy nay, it would have been indicated. … I burn to say what it was. …
Joseph Leopold does not take a frivolous view of this enormous international development. The cinematograph is an institution; it is educational; it is, at any rate, reading without tears.* It is vastly inducive of a philosophical attitude of mind; it is a vivid, cogent object-lesson in the sequence of events. The couple of stories usually given historical, cosmopolitan, revelatory of varieties of national character, as even the more laughable films are must be provocative of something like the prophetic powers that a study of history, past and present, gives.
A Hoch Spannendes Detective Drama may, in its details, pander to a vulgar taste, but it is pretty certain to reach the level of the intelligence it is designed to impress. Possibly some forger has been turned from his wickedness, some fool from his folly, some potential murderer from his crime, by the sight of one of these dramas of financial ruin, of blood and revenge, even though, owing to the obvious imperfection of the medium, blood cannot run red or the face of the ruined man blanch. It is better so; it is better, as Shakespeare’s Helena said, that “the white death should sit on their cheeks for ever,” for the coloured films are abominable. But as it is, I should not mind wagering that conscience money has been paid as a result of some evening spent in a red plush-covered armchair, with an antimacassar slung over the back of it a square of tawdry lace that is apt to follow you out into the street.
And are no simple souls induced to a more tolerant rule of piety after seeing, say, “The Bellringer,” where the devil terrifies the ancient functionary from ringing the Angelus, and only gives him leave to pursue his calling on condition that the devil shall take the first soul that enters the church while the bell is ringing? It is hard on the soul, but the philosophy of the scapegoat is sound enough. The innocent, since medieval times, must suffer for the guilty. And an angel from Heaven, her wide wings disguised under a beggar’s cloak, enters the church, and rings the bell for the charitable old bellringer, who has stooped in the porch to succour her.
This is, of course, a film which would not obtain in a Protestant town. And others which I have seen in Germany would be prohibited in England for the sake of the young person.
People rail in England against this large-looming personage, and her invasion of the library committees and the stalls at the “problem” plays, so dear to the English soul. But we have a short way with her in Germany. English people, who have a reasonable zest for seeing life as it is, complain that they are driven by their parental susceptibilities to read milk-and-water stuff, and view plays that are only fit for babes. But no one suggests that the onus of chaperonage might be thrown on the police, as it is in Germany, and the young person, deaf to moral suasion of parents, kept by armed force from the book or the play, instead of the play or the book from the young person! Yet it is practically so in Germany as far as the theatre is concerned. Reasonable plays are put on and enjoyed by the elders. An angel with a flaming sword stands at the gate of the theatrical Eden and forbids the young of both sexes to enter Paradise before their time i.e., eighteen years old. The Chief of Police prescribes to what plays young men and maidens under this age shall be admitted or no, and places a simple policeman at the doors of the theatre to enforce his behest.
And as for children of tender years, the Germans see that the lesson shall not be too strong, too deeply driven home to the tender intelligence. When a film that may prove a bugbear is presented, or one holding the powers-that-be up to execration or vilifying the Army, and any other lawfully consstituted authority, children are not allowed to enter at all.
It is impossible for local governments to take such a tender interest in the morals of their subjects without the conflict of authorities producing some odd results. It must never be forgotten that Germany is a mass of little, ill-welded nationalities, all under a First War Lord. That is what the Kaiser literally is. The curious local jealousies existing between one State and another are the unknown factor, and make a topsy-turveyness which in operation remind one of an opera of Gilbert and Sullivan.
There is one famous film, “Heisses Blut,” which was prohibited in Frankfort and forbidden to be performed in Trier. That is why I was able to see it in H—, because H— is in Hessen-Darmstadt, not in Prussia. And it is really, as its name denotes, a “Spannendes Drama.” A beautiful and famous Danish actress has played in the preparation of the film the part of the woman of strong passions united to a gentleman unable to satisfy them. She casts her affection on the new chauffeur, and makes an assignation with him during her husband’s absence. He returns and surprises the pair, and turns the temperamental lady and her lover out of the house. The degraded one becomes a burglar’s mate, and we see her in a thieves’ kitchen concocting a plan for the breaking into her former abode. She is persuaded by her truculent chauffeur lover to dress as a boy, to scale the window and let him in. She naturally chooses the nursery window. By her boy’s cot the ex-husband finds her; she confesses, and he takes her back. Hoch Spannendes, indeed!
For novelists like Joseph Leopold and me the rage for picture theatres is a distinct gain. It may be the novel-form of the future. When there will be so many books published that no one has time to read them, the author, wise before his time, will devote his intelligence to the presentation of his message, whatever it is, through this hasty medium, to all who will not wait for the development of style, niceties of dialogue, and so on. It is not perhaps generally known that the actors who take the parts of characters in a film accompany all their gestures, for the sake of vraisemblance, with speeches appropriate thereto half gag, half set down for them.
But without envisaging such a total abnegation of the merits of style in the future, let us see that in so far as the present condition of things affects authors they have all to gain by the tales that are told nightly in dumb show. The audience, composed pretty nearly of rustics in the classical sense, unsophisticated, unlettered, slow at apprehending the contortions, the mysteries of a good plot, will gradually get more and more used to following its peripatetics, tracing out its issues, holding the multiple strands that go to make a story, weaving them gradually, skilfully, into the main one, till by the time the light suddenly grows in the “Saal,” and the Pathe cock seems to stand on the empty sheet and crow triumphant, the whole has grown coherent in their minds. It is magnificent training for readers. We see in “Das Gefahrliche Alter,” another good German film, the spendthrift at the restaurant confronted by la douloureuse, and the elegant harpy who has cost him so dear at his side egging him on: “Get the money to pay it!” Her speech is given in writing on a board, but it is hardly necessary the context is explanatory enough. The slide shifts, we see his mother weeping over her secretaire, where notes for fifty pounds are tumbling about, mixed with correspondence cards, as they will in the desks of mothers in films. We see her go to bed. And in the next slide her son appears, walking in the peering, creepy way which is suggestive of proposed criminal attempts on secretaires. … And so on and so on, to a mother’s inevitable forgiveness.
Yes, I consider the advent of the Boy Scouts, the invention of picture postcards, and the rage for picture theatres, as the three most important developments of this age of brass and iron.
* The village of Kreuzberg on April 14, 1913, allocated £50 of its yearly revenue to purchasing seats for poor children at the local cinematographs on Sundays throughout the year. J.L.F.M.H.
Comments: Isobel Violet Hunt (1862-1942) was a British author, feminist, associate of the Pre-Raphaelites, and literary hostess. Closely linked with many of the literary notables of her age, she was the lover of the Anglo-German novelist Ford Madox Hueffer, who later changed his name to Ford Madox Ford and portrayed her as Sylvia Tietjens in his novel series Parade’s End. He collaborated with her on this book, which is a record of her impressions of time spent in Germany over 1911/12. ‘Joseph Leopold’, identified as her companion in the book, is Ford Madox Hueffer (his giveaway initials J.L.F.M.H. follow the footnote about poor children in cinemas). Heisses Blut (Germany 1911) starred the Danish actress Asta Nielsen. There were two German films entitled Das gefährliche Alter made in 1911. I have not been able to identify the ‘Bellringer’ film. Eyewitness accounts of cinemagoing at this period which refer to artificially coloured films are rare.
Source: C.M. Leicester, A Holiday in Burma, with a chapter on a visit to Calcutta (Exeter: A. Wheaton and Company, 1928), pp. 44-49
Text: After dinner there is time for an entertainment of some sort, as the hours kept in Rangoon are not early. An opportunity offers of seeing a Burmese film by Burmese actors, and the party is attracted to this in preference to any more usual entertainment.
There are several picture houses in Rangoon. Some display posters familiar in London and give inside the comfort of plush upholstery. There is also an Indian cinema house where may be seen perhaps a presentment of Hindu folk lore. The Burman has his own favourite resort, his own film favourites whose deeds of valour and daring are recorded vividly on the hoardings. The film appears to have caught the imagination of the Burman, and he has recently embarked on the production of native films. After some experience of partial failure due to the difficulty of lighting, the strong sunlight being insufficient to show up details and to do justice to the jewels which are worn in the legendary tales of kings and princes, it was decided that there must be a visit to America to study methods of production and lighting. Recently films have been produced which have done great credit to the Burmese producers.
The building of the Burmese cinema is neither beautiful or very comfortable, and ten rupees has secured the luxury of a ‘box,’ a sort of loose box with concrete walls and wooden sides, containing half-a-dozen seats. There is some unaccountable delay in starting the show, and the orchestra fills in the time playing on the native instruments what are evidently popular airs, for the audience breaks in and sings the refrains. At last a start is made, and the local news is shewn in pictures with descriptions in Burmese, and, as a finale to this prelude, there appears the cause of the delay — a slide, unearthed from some dim recess, with ‘Welcome’ in colour and
garlands: a friendly greeting to the intruding West.
Then follows the film, a record of the adventures of a very popular hero who appears to combine in his attractive person all the daring of a Jack Sheppard and a Dick Turpin with the adventurous spirit of the desperado who has for the past year successfully eluded justice for wild deeds committed in the Thazi district. Dressed in his native lungyi and gaung baung, and complete with pistol and mask, he pursues his exciting career and accomplishes a series of desperate flights and escapes; capturing a horse and riding bareback; dropping from a roof into a waiting motor car; tearing with open throttle along country roads whilst from the back he peppers his pursuers with shots from his revolver. Breathless, exciting adventure in accordance with the accepted tradition of another hemisphere, but with the scenes laid in less familiar settings.
The orchestra faithfully records the emotions aroused in the audience, who from time to time break into the music with song. To unaccustomed ears it appears impossible that there can be any definite scheme in the sounds produced by the instruments, and one experiences an involuntary tribute to the intelligence of these people, who evidently are more sensitive to cadences than we are ourselves.
The sub-titles, in Burmese characters, stretch across the screen like chains, their meaning elusive and intriguing.
The pictures must unfold their own story. The youth is evidently the pampered son of a family of high respectability. His parents, in Western dress, are seated in padded comfort, in a room replete with ‘occasional’ tables, lace covers and anti-macassars. The father is reading a newspaper and the mother is toying with a piece of embroidery, when the news comes of their son’s escapades. Shocked and distressed, there is much talk but no action. They seem hampered by their unaccustomed garments and the chairs. It would seem more natural for them to be squatting on the floor in their native costume.
Then follow more hair-breadth adventures and escapes and the introduction of the love interest. There are meetings in a garden with a charming little lady with flower-decked hair. Passionate appeals are made and tender glances are exchanged — and that is all there is to a love scene in Burma. It would certainly fail to ‘grip’ a Western audience, for the lover does not approach his lady nearer than a couple of yards — so etiquette decrees. There is a parting and the lady is sad. The lover leaves her, to continue his thrills in another reel.
By this time it is after ten o’clock, and half-time. Already the young man has committed crime enough to hang him many times over. He seems certainly to be heading for disaster. It is impossible that so gallant a figure should end ignominiously on the scaffold, and it would appear to be equally impossible that the authorities can be hoodwinked into allowing him to escape his due and settle down into domesticity with his waiting lady love. A solution is difficult. But endurance is at an end, and with the full knowledge that the next reel will produce the thrill of the hero placing his enemy on the rails in front of an on-coming train, the box is vacated and escape effected into the night air.
Outside are lined up the cars of the Burmese merchants, their drivers asleep, awaiting the end of the performance, which will be about midnight.
Comments: Burma (now Myanmar) was a British colony in the 1920s. Fiction film production began in the country in 1920. It is unclear whether the news referred to was a newsreel or news relayed through slides. I have not been able to find any information on C.M. Leicester, except that he was British and probably came from Devon. His visit to Burma and India took place over 1926-27.