Cinema Exit

Source: Richard Aldington, ‘Cinema Exit’, in Images Old and New (Boston: The Four Seas Company, 1916), p. 43 [orig. pub. as Images, 1910-1915, Poetry Bookshop, 1915)

Text:
After the click and whirr
Of the glimmering pictures,
The dry feeling in the eyes
As the sight follows the electric flickerings,
The banal sentimentality of the films,
The hushed concentration of the people,
The tinkling piano –
Suddenly,
A vast avalanch of greenish yellow light
Pours over the threshold;
White globes darting vertical rays spot the sombre buildings;
The violent gloom of the night
Battles with the radiance;
Swift figures, legs, skirts, white cheeks, hats
Flicker in oblique rays of dark and light.

Millions of human vermin
Swarm sweating
Along the night-arched cavernous roads.

(Happily rapid chemical processes
Will disintegrate them all.)

Comments: Richard Aldington (born Edward Godfree Aldington) (1892-1962) was a British poet, novelist and biographer. As a poet he was associated with the Imagist group. ‘Cinema Exit’ is one of a number of poems Aldington wrote at this time expressing disenchantment with city life.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

An Entertaining Life

Source: Harry Secombe, An Entertaining Life (London: Robson Books, 2001), pp. 37-38

Text: Another influence on me was the local cinema, which went through various transformations in my boyhood. At first it was called the Pictorium, or the ‘Pic’, and then it was refurbished and became the Scala, a name we kids could never pronounce properly. It was a dream factory for the neighbourhood and stood at the confluence of two roads, Foxhole and Morris Lane, a very steep hill which led to the council estate. We would come roaring down the lane on a Saturday afternoon, Ronnie Jones and I, to join the queue for the ‘twopenny rush’. The first task was to buy sweets to take in with us from the little sweet shop at the bottom of Morris Lane. There we were faced with an agonizing choice. A sherbert dab? A lucky packet? (This usually contained fibrous twigs of raw licorice and tiger nuts.) Or a pennorth of unshelled peanuts? I usually plumped for a bullseye, which would at least last most of the main feature, although there were would not be the satisfaction of watching it change colour when the lights went out.

Inside the cinema the smell of wet knickers, orange peel and carbolic flowed over us like a warm, sticky bath and the ravaged plush seats held all sorts of perils – old chewing gum underneath, and the odd stain from a previous tenant’s over-excitement. The din before the lights went out was indescribable, and sometimes the manager in his boiled shirt and dickie bow would come out in front of the curtains and threaten us with mass explusion if we didn’t calm down. This normally did the trick, and the curtains would eventually jerk back and the projectors would clatter into life, and a collective sigh would go up as the titles appeared on the screen.

Cowboy films and African jungle epics were may favourites when I was very small, and then I progressed to a fondness for ‘Andy Hardy’ and gangster films. When the exit doors were flung open – always before the end of the serial, so that the screen became blank – I would emerge from the cinema as James Cagney or Mickey Rooney. All the way back up the hill I’d be reliving the film, firing imaginary bullets at unheeding old ladies behind their lace curtains in Morris Lane, or swinging precariously from the lower limb of the dead tree at the end of Grenfell Park Road. My parents never knew who would come home from the pictures on a Saturday afternoon.

Sometimes at the evening performance children were allowed in with an adult, because in those days there were no ‘X’ rated films. Mam and Dad rarely went to the ‘Pic’: Dad because he;d have to leave half-way through the performance with an attack of hyperventilation, and Mam because she preferred going to the Plaza on a Wednesday afternoon with her friend, Mrs Beynon, who live[d] opposite us in Pen-ys-acoed Avenue.

However, there was one person who was always good-natured enough to take other people’s children with her on these occasions. Her name was Mrs Bayless, and she lived a couple of doors up from our house at the top of St Leger Crescent. She came from the Midlands and had about six children of her own. Thus, when we all trooped up the step behind her, she would demand one ticket for herself and sometimes as many as twelve half-price tickets would spew out of the machine in the booth for the rest of us. The manager, unable to do anything about it, would tear the stubs in half with controlled fury and pass us through into the cinema. In the evenings it was a completely different place from the scene of the ‘twopenny rush’ – discreet organ music would be playing and an overpowering perfumed disinfectant concealed the unspeakable odours of the matinée.

Comments: Harry Secombe (1921-2001) was a Welsh singer, actor and comedian, best known for being one of the Goon Show radio comedy team. His childhood was spent in Swansea, Wales. The Andy Hardy series of MGM feature films starred Mickey Rooney.

Adventures with D.W. Griffith

Source: Extracts from Karl Brown, Adventures with D.W. Griffith (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973), pp. 86-95

Text: It was a packed house, with swarms of people standing around outside, hoping for cancellations so they could get in anywhere at all, even in the top gallery. I never saw or felt such eager anticipation in any crowd as there was at that opening night. We three, my father, my mother, and I, had been given choice seats saved for us by Frank Woods. My parents, old-stagers at the business of opening nights, were all keyed up to a state of high tension, while I – well, I was feeling a little sick because I knew what the picture really was, just another Biograph, our four times as long. I simply couldn’t help feeling that it had been a tragic mistake to build up such a fever pitch of eager anticipation, only to let them down by showing them what was bound to be just another movie. Only longer, much longer, three hours longer. What audience, however friendly, could possibly sit through that much of nothing but one long, one very long movie of the kind they had seen a hundred times before?

My first inkling that this was not to be just another movie came when I heard, over the babble of the crowd, the familiar sound of a great orchestra tuning up. First the oboe sounding A, then the others joining to produce an ever-changing medley of unrelated sounds, with each instrument testing its own strength and capability through this warming-up preliminary. Then the orchestra came creeping in through that little doorway under the proscenium apron and I tried to count them. Impossible. Too many. But there were at least seventy, for that’s where I lost count, so most if not all of the Los Angeles Symphony orchestra had been hired to “play” the picture.

[…]

The house lights dimmed. The audience became tensely silent. I felt once again, as always before, that strange all-over chill that comes with the magic moment of hushed anticipation when the curtain is about to rise.

The title came on, apparently by mistake, because the curtain had not yet risen and all I could see was the faint flicker of the lettering against the dark fabric of the main curtain. But it was not a mistake at all, because the big curtain rose slowly to disclose the title, full and clear upon the picture screen, while at the same time [Joseph Carl] Briel’s baton rose, held for an instant, and then swept down, releasing the full impact of the orchestra in a mighty fanfare that was all but out-roared by the massive blast of the organ in an overwhelming burst of earth-shaking sound that shocked the audience first into a stunned silence and then roused them to a pitch of enthusiasm such as I had never seen or heard before.

Then, of course, came those damned explanatory titles that I had shot time and time again as Griffith and Woods kept changing and rechanging them, all with the object of having them make as much sense as possible in the fewest possible words. Somehow, the audience didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps they were hardened to it. They should have been, by now, because whenever anybody made any kind of historical picture, it always had to be preceded by a lot of titles telling all about it, not to mention a long and flowery dedication thanking everyone from the Holy Trinity to the night watchman for their invaluable cooperation, without which this picture would not have been possible.

The orchestra sort of murmured to itself during the titles, as though to reassure the audience that they couldn’t last forever. And then … the picture, gliding along through its opening sequences on a flow of music that seemed to speak for the screen and to interpret every mood. The audience was held entranced, but I was not. I was worried in the same way that young fathers, waiting to learn whether it’s a boy or a girl, are worried. I was worried, badly worried, about the battle scenes, and I wished they’d get through fiddle-faddling with that dance and all that mushy stuff and get down to cases. For it was a simple, open-and-shut matter of make or break as far as I could see; and I could not see how that mixed-up jumble of unrelated bits and pieces of action could ever be made into anything but a mixed-up jumble of bits and pieces.

Well, I was wrong. What unfolded on that screen was magic itself. I knew there were cuts from this to that, but try as I would, I could not see them. A shot of the extreme far end of the Confederate line flowed into another but nearer shot of the same line, to be followed by another and another, until I could have sworn that the camera had been carried back by some sort of impossible carrier that made it seem to be all one unbroken scene. Perhaps the smoke helped blind out the jumps, I don’t know. All I knew was that between the ebb and flow of a broad canvas of a great battle, now far and now near, and the roaring of that gorgeous orchestra banging and blaring battle songs to stir the coldest blood, I was hot and cold and feeling waves of tingling electric shocks racing all over me.

[…]

Somewhere during my self-castigation a title came on reading INTERMISSION. So soon? I asked my father the time. He pulled out his watch, snapped open the case, and said it was nine thirty. Preposterous. Somehow during the past fifteen minutes, or not more than twenty, an hour and a half had sneaked away.

We went out with the rest of the crowd to stretch our legs and, in true backstage fashion, to eavesdrop on the comments of the others. There was enthusiasm, yes; lots of it. It had been exactly as grandpa had described it was the consensus, only more real. There were also a few professionals who were wisely sure that Griffith was riding for all fall. “You can;t shoot all your marbles in the first half and have anything left for your finish” was the loudly expressed opinion of a very portly, richly dressed gentleman. “That battle was a lulu, best I’ve seen, and that assassination bit was a knockout, I ain’t kidding you. But what’s he going to do for a topper, that’s what I want to know. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. This thing is going to fizzle out like a wet firecracker, that’s what it’s going to do. Don’t tell me, I know! I’ve seen it happen too many times. They shoot the works right off the bat and they got nothing left for their finish. You wait and see. You just wait and see.”

[…]

And yet it wasn’t the finish that worried me so much as the long, dull, do-nothing stuff that I knew was slated for the bulk of the second half. Stuff like the hospital scenes, where Lillian Gish comes to visit Henry Walthall, she in demurest of dove grey, he in bed with a bandage neatly and evenly wrapped around his head. Now what in the world can anyone possibly do to make a hospital visit seem other than routine? He’ll be grateful, and she’ll be sweetly sympathetic, but what else? How can you or Griffith or the Man in the Moon possibly get anything out of such a scene? Answer: you can’t. But he did, by reaching outside the cur-and-dried formula and coming up with something so unexpected, and yet so utterly natural, that it lifted the entire thing right out of the rut and made it ring absolutely true.

Since this was an army hospital there had to be a sentry on guard. So Griffith looked around, saw a sloppy, futile sort of character loitering about, and ran him in to play the sentry, a fellow named Freeman, not an actor, just another extra. Well, Lillian passed before him and he looked after her and sighed. In the theater and on the screen, that sigh became a monumental, standout scene, because it was so deep, so heartfelt, and so loaded with longing for the unattainable that it simply delighted the audience. But not without help. Breil may not have been the greatest composer the world has ever known but he did know how to make an orchestra talk, and that sigh, uttered by the cellos and the muted trombones softly sliding down in a discordant glissando, drove the audience into gales of laughter.

[…]

I endured the “drama” – all that stuff with Ralph Lewis being shown up as a fake when he wouldn’t let his daughter marry George Siegmann because he was a mulatto – all because I was itching to get to the part where Walter Long chased Mae Marsh all over Big Bear Valley, running low and dripping with peroxide. What came on the screen wasn’t Walter Long at all. It was some sort of inhuman monster, an ungainly, misshapen creature out of a nightmare, not running as a human being would run but shambling like a gorilla. And Mae Marsh was not fluttering, either. She was a poor little lost girl frightened out of her wits, not knowing which way to turn, but searching, searching for safety, and too bewildered to know what she was doing. So she ran to the peak of that rock, and when the monster came lumbering straight at her, she … well, all I can say is that it was right, absolutely, perfectly, incontestably right.

And did the audience hate Griffith for letting them down? Not a bit of it. When the clansmen began to rise,the cheers began to rise from all over that packed house. This was not a ride to save Little Sister but to avenge her death, and every soul in that audience was in the saddle with the clansmen and pounding hell-for-leather on an errand of stern justice, lighted on their way by the holy flames of a burning cross.

[…]

So everyone was rescued and everyone was happy and everyone was noble in victory and the audience didn’t just sit there and applaud, but they stood up and cheered and yelled and stamped feet until Griffith finally made an appearance.

If you could call it an appearance. Now I, personally, in such a situation would have bounded out to the center of the stage with both hands aloft in a gesture of triumph, and I would probably have shaken my hands over my head, as Tom Wilson had told me was the proper thing for any world’s champion to do at the end of a hard-fought but victorious fight.

Griffith did nothing of the sort. He stepped out a few feet from stage left, a small, almost frail figure lost in the enormousness of that great proscenium arch. He did not bow or raise his hands or do anything but just stand there and let wave after wave of cheers and applause wash over him like great waves breaking over a rock.

Then he left. The show was over. There was an exit march from the orchestra, but nobody could hear it. People were far too busy telling one another how wonderful, how great, how tremendous it had all been.

Comments: Karl Brown (1896-1990) was an American cinematographer and director. He served as assistant to cinematographer Billy Bitzer on D.W. Griffith’s feature film The Birth of a Nation. His memoir Adventures with D.W. Griffith is one of the best first-hand accounts of silent era film. The event recalled here is the premiere at Clune’s Auditorium, Los Angeles, on 8 February 1915, when the film was still known as The Clansman. The composer Joseph Carol Breil did not conduct at the premiere – it was Carli Elinor, conducting his own score. Brown’s memory sometimes places film sequences in the wrong order, though Griffith did re-edit the film after initial screenings and in response to requests by censorship boards. Frank Woods was co-scriptwriter on the with with Griffith. Walter Long was a white actor playing a black character, Gus.

Germs

Source: Richard Wollheim, Germs: A Memoir of Childhood (London: The Waywiser Press, 2004), pp. 40-46

Text: At about the time when I came of an age to notice novelty, and no longer assumed that the world as I now looked out on it had witnessed all the events recounted in the history books which I was just beginning to devour, the first new thing to break in on my vision was the cinema. At one moment the cinema did not exist, and, the next moment, these generally square buildings were all over. Made of the thin, dark red bricks of the period, they were faced with white stucco grooved to look like stone, which, with great artificiality, introduced the bright look of the seaside into land-locked suburbia. Behind the cinema was the car-park reserved for the patrons – cinema, car-park, patron, all being new words – but soon there were few more familiar, more welcome, sights than the string of small coloured lights looped over the entrance to the car-park, or the two chromium-plated boxes that were screwed to the brickwork of the cinema, through the glass fronts of which, when they were not too dirtied by the rain, passers-by could make out from the sepia-tinted stills, the high points in the movie that was currently showing: when one of these shots came up in the course of the movie, a low gasp of recognition was involuntarily released into the crowded darkness of the hall. If the film was a western, or a war film, another form of preview, which I loved, was a sand table that would be set out in the foyer of the cinema, re-creating the high sierras and canyons of some unknown land, or the battlefields of Flanders with their water-filled trenches and blasted trees, or the skies above them where fearless aviators were locked in single combat.

In every cinema, a patrons’ book was placed next to the kiosk where tickets were sold, and those who signed their names in the book would then receive free a monthly programme, printed in violet ink on shiny paper so that the lettering was always slightly blurred. Each double bill had a page devoted to it, and it was a rule of our family, originating probably from my mother, who liked rules without reason, that only on a Thursday morning, and then with her permission, and under her direct supervision, could the programme be picked up, and the page turned, turned and then very precisely folded back onto itself. When my mother turned the page of the programme, she let out a low hiss. Ordinarily the programme lay on my father’s bedside table, along with the miscellaneous books he brought back from his travels: some Tauchnitz volumes, a work of Freud’s in German, a novel by Joseph Kessel in French. My mother had no need for a bedside table.

Half turning the page, or looking round the corner into the future, was, without some very special excuse, forbidden, and not until I was 14 or 15, by which time I was grappling in my mind with the ideas of Raskolnikov, did it seriously occur to me to breach this rule.

For each film, the programme gave the title, listed the characters and the actors who played them, said whether the film was a U certificate or A certificate, and provided a brief synopsis of the plot. I loved the words “character”, “cast”, “plot”, “synopsis”, and I wanted to learn the precise distinctions that they embodied. I did well with some of these words, but with the last of them I made the least headway. The word itself was obscure, and so were many of the synopses themselves, particularly so when the film was “A” certificate, or was judged unsuitable for children to see, for the management went on the assumption that the synopsis, though it had to be fair, must be suitable for all to read, with a result that was very far from that intended. Even as I began to read the three or four lines, I fell into a state of dread that I had read, or was just about to read, something that, innocuous enough in itself, would nevertheless inform me, particularly if I allowed my mind to wander, of something that I was not supposed to know about, and, though I had no desire to preserve my innocence, what I did not want was to lose it through someone else, and least of all through someone else’s carelessness or oversight, for then I would inadvertently be tied for ever to the shame from which I desired to escape.

The regime under which I grew up reserved the cinema for two sorts of occasion: winter, and rainy afternoons.

Winter came round with its own relentlessness […] Rain, by contrast, was unpredictable, and it remained all my childhood the object of a deep conflict.

On the one hand, there was the knowledge that only the sight of rain spitting against the windows, or battling with the wipers as they raced across the windscreen, could convert what was a shadowy promise written in violet ink into the warm reality of the cinema. Entry into this reality was gradual, and it was the richer, the darker, the more deliciously oppressive, for the three or four stages into which it was broken up. First, the car had to be parked. My mother, like many drivers of that period, had some difficulty in “backing-back”, as it was called, and often I could feel my bladder fill in response to her slowness. Then there was the run across the car park in Wellingtons and a stiff mac, crunching the cinders underfoot as I went, and already feeling that the world in which anything might happen was taking me over. Jumping the puddles, I was a horse leaping a swollen stream as we, the cavalry, moved up into the attack, or I was a steeplechaser taking in its stride a particularly vicious hurdle, or, cut out the horse, and now I was my own awkward self who hadn’t seen the puddle, and waded straight through it, or who had seen it but hadn’t noticed how deep it was, and slammed down, first one foot, then the other, to make the water splash up over the top of my boots. For a minute or so, I became the rough boy I never wanted to be. Next there was the delay as the tickets had to be bought, and the small violet or cherry-coloured pieces of paper curled up through the carefully etched slab of steel that lay just the other side of the ornamental grille, and were torn off and handed to us. Certainty descended, and we progressed through the foyer, up the steps, into the cinema itself, unless there was a necessary detour through the long curtains into the chamber grandiosely marked ‘Gentlemen’. My prayer was always the same: it was that we should arrive just before the lights went down, and the torches of the usherettes, flickering like fireflies in the night, were needed to direct us to our seats. For, once darkness fell, couples who had nowhere else to meet started to find comfort in the warm smell of each other, and, for me to be certain that I could withstand the excitement with which the cinema began to creak, it was best to have looked on the faces of the audience while they were still distinct under the ceiling lights. Indeed I could see no reason why my mother should not imitate the punctuality that my governess showed every Sunday when she took me to church, and why we should not time our entry to perfection so that we would walk down the aisle at the very moment when the organ, which always gave me a headache if I had to listen to it for any period of time, had stopped, and the organist had taken his bow, and organ and organist had descended into some uncertain depths. If only my mother would co-operate with my wishes, then no sooner would I have been got into my seat, and my mac folded on a neighbouring chair, than the great miraculous event, half sunset, half sunrise, with the intervening night displaced, would start to unfold. The lights dimmed, a hush, like the end of the day, fell on the audience, and the first titles came up on the screen, and they could, just for a moment, be seen on the far side of the gauze curtains, as clear as pebbles through still water. Then, as the curtains slid open, and the gauze was gathered up into pleats, it was as though a light wind had started up before dawn, and made ripples on the surface of the stream, and now, from one second to the next, as fast as that, the lettering became blurred, until the curtains passed across it, and then, one by one, the words again became legible, and the screen took on the unbounded promise of a book first opened.

All this I longed for, but, against this, there was another sight, and the deep-seated dread I had of it. It was that when, at the end of the film, still blinking at the light, still trying to resolve the loyalties that the film had stirred up in me, who was good, who was bad, and, as a separate issue, which side was I on, I would find myself standing by the heavy glass doors that led back to reality, and not only would the rain have stopped, but the sun would have come out. By now the water that had clung to the trees, or that had collected on the lampposts and on the tiled roofs and on the undersides of the gutters, would, at first slowly, but with gathering momentum, have dripped down, and now lay on the road, where the first rays of pale sunlight hit it, so that, looking out, I could see the tarred surface glint and sparkle in the late, departing glory of the evening. To many a natural cause of joy, this sight stirred in me the deepest, darkest melancholy […]

Someone might ask why could I not have wanted the rain to come down enough that I could go to the cinema, but to clear up enough that, the film over, I would look out on dry streets? I convey nothing about my childhood if it is not clear that I could never have formed such a desire, for I always found one thing worse than having too little, and that was having too much. To a superstitious child, which I was, it was like being God. To a young boy unruly with socialism, which I was soon to be, it was like being rich. It handed life over to boredom.

Comments: Richard Wollheim (1923-2003) was a British philosopher whose posthumously published memoir Germs is a considered to be modern classic. At the time of this memory (early 1930s), his family was living in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey. ‘U’ and ‘A’ certificates were introduced by the British Board of Film Censors from its inception in 1912.

Enter the Dream-House

Source: Mo Heard, interviewed in Margaret O’Brien and Allen Eyles (eds.), Enter the Dream-House: Memories of Cinemas in South London from the Twenties to the Sixties (London: Museum of the Moving Image, 1993), pp. 63-66

Text: We lived in Catford, the edge of Catford, in Lewisham in South-East London. My Mum went to Taunton to have me because it was during the Blitz in 1940. I’m the only child. I have no brothers or sisters and my dad was away in the army. My mother went to the pictures twice a week and I’m sure she took me. My earliest memories are going to all the cinemas in that area: there were three in Catford and there were three in Lewisham and I went to all of them. My mother took me to “A” films – Joan Crawford and Bette Davis and all those. I think my earliest memories are round about 1945, 1946. I remember seeing It Always Rains on Sunday and all those British films. We used to go after nursery school. What I do remember is my mother used to buy the ice-cream in the Co-op, so it must have been at a period when you couldn’t get ice-creams in the cinemas or they were cheaper outside, and we used to take those with us.

About ice-creams in cinemas, we used to get tubs and they were very, very hard and you used to peel round the top of the cardboard tubs until it was halfway down and the ice-cream inside was so hard you could hold the tub and lick it like an ice-cream cone. And I always remember the tops – you never had wooden spoons in those days, you took the top off and folded it in half and used that as a spoon.

I remember coming out and it was dark and we used to walk home and always stop at the fish and chip shop and but threepenneth of chips. I was completely hooked by all those films.

Did any films frighten you as a child?

I remember very vividly certain frightening scenes but I do not remember what films they were from. They must have been “A” films but obviously, because I was so young, I would not know what the title was. I remember there was a woman in a bedroom and she heard the glass breaking downstairs and she went down the staircase and her silhouette was against the wall and she had a flowing nightgown on. I don’t know who it was. And she came down the stairs and I think whoever it was at the bottom reached up and murdered her or something. And there was another film where some woman was walking down a crunchy gravel path in a park or a garden at night and there were footsteps following her in this crunchy gravel. And then she stopped and they stopped.

In those days it was continuous performance, so you’d go in and move along the row and then you’d plonk down and you might be in the middle of a B picture. How at the age of four or five could you pick up a story like that? And then you’d go through the newsreels and the ads and the rest of it and then you’d get the A picture and then you’d come to the B picture. And the moment it got to the point where we came in, my mother would nudge me and say “This is where we came in.” And up you’d get and walk out. We didn’t have to leave but I suppose she didn’t want to sit there any longer.

Did you go to children’s shows on Saturday mornings?

I went to Saturday morning pictures at the Prince of Wales [Lewisham] and the Plaza [Catford]. I became an ABC Minor – “We’re Minors of the ABC and every Saturday we go there … and shout aloud with glee”, etc., etc. I remember when the manager – or whoever used to get up before the films on stage and get us to sing bouncing ball songs – asked if there were children who wanted to get up and do tap dances and things, I got up with a friend and we sang “I’m Forever Blowing Bubbles”. I think I must have been only about seven. It must have been painful.

And, of course, the terrible noise that all the yobby kids made! And my friend and I used to sit near the back and we were terribly classy because we knew about cinema and we watched the films. Every time in the films they came to the dialogue, suddenly mayhem, pandemonium broke out, and we would sit there and we’d go “Shut up! Be quiet!” and tell off these kids around us. Once we obviously chose the wrong people to tell off, because they chased us afterwards down the High Street and were going to beat us up.

When I was older I would say I was brought up on the American musical and I just dreamt and fantasised about being Vera-Ellen and Cyd Charisse, Debbie Reynolds, Mitzi Gaynor – all those actresses with their very tight waists and their big belts and their dresses and skirts that went out and there were all those petticoats. When someone like Mitzi Gaynor did a twirl and the skirts sort of rose up, they had about six miles of thick petticoats on underneath.

Did you ever try and copy hairstyles and make-up?

I don’t think so. I used to draw ladies with dresses like that on my school books and all over the place. I do remember in Catford there was a shoe shop on the corner of Wildfell Road and Rushey Green and it was called Vyners of Hollywood. And in the windows, literally stacked from floor to ceiling, were thousands of shoes, and they were all glamour shoes. And they had sort of twelve-inch wedge heels and they were made of snake skin. And they had peep toes and high ankle things. And I used to drool over that shop. I never ever met anyone in the street who ever wore anything like that. And I really wanted shoes like that. By the time I got to the age of being able to wear shoes like that, they’d disappeared.

I used to go to matinees in the holidays with friends. And I remember my friend and I, we must have been about ten, queuing up for hours to see this wonderful film at the Queens in Rushey Green. It was next to the Lewisham Hippodrome. It was the most beautiful cinema. It was very tiny. There were a few marble steps up to these gold-handled glass doors and then there was a central paybox. I think you went in either side. I remember low ceilings, very narrow inside, and lots of brass. There was a brass rail halfway down with a red plush curtain and presumably the expensive seats were behind and the cheaper ones in front. On the left-hand side, there were only three or four seats against the wall before the aisle, just a few seats down the side. I can see it now: it was quite narrow but tall and arched, so it was definitely a mini electric palace.

And I remember queuing for hours to see this film with my friend and when we finally got in and were sitting there watching this film, the usherette came up with a torch and shone it one me. And there was my dad who was terribly cross because he’d obviously got very worried that I hadn’t come home. He knew that I’d gone to the pictures and he’d come to find me and fetch me out.

Talk about being shown up in the cinema, I remember going to the Gaumont at Lewisham with my mum and my aunt and it was in the afternoon and just a few people in there, and they’d bought the cheaper seats at the front. And I remember my aunt, who was always a bit of a girl, she said, “Come on, there are loads of seats – let’s move back.” And we moved back and, of course, the usherette came and told us off and made us move forward again. There was no one sitting at the front at all and I was very embarrassed by that.

What was the Gaumont like as a building?

The Gaumont at Lewisham was a palace. We never, ever went in the circle at the Gaumont. It was obviously far too expensive for my mum. We always went in the stalls. And what I do remember is queuing to get into a film that everybody wanted to go and see. And once you’d bought your ticket, on each side of the foyer they had these “corrals” and you would go into this corral which had a brass rail and you would queue inside that. And then they would let you into the back of the stalls where they had more corrals, which I’ve never seen anywhere else. The cinema was enormous – I think it must have had about six aisles. Right at the back, you had the low wall on the back seats and then you had this step up away from the back aisle and that had the brass rails round it. So you were let into one of these corrals where you stood and you were higher than the seats so you could watch the film. And then they would gradually get you out and seat you.

And one other thing: some B picture star, Faith Domergue, had appeared at the Gaumont and there she was coming down the stairs and my mother said, “Go on, go and ask her for an autograph.” And she got my diary out and I went up and this film star used my back to write her autograph, and there was a flash, a photographer, and my mother discovered it was the local paper. And she said, “You’re going to be in the local paper.” But I never was.

Comments: Mo Heard has been an actress, publisher, writer, usherette at the National Film Theatre, and at the time of this interview in 1993 she was manager of the Actors’ Company at the Museum of the Moving Image in London. The Queen’s Hall at Rushey Green opened in 1913 and closed in 1959. The Gaumont Palace in Lewisham opened in 1932 and seated 3,050. It finally closed as a cinema in 1981. My grateful thanks to Mo Heard for permission to reproduce this interview.

With the Picture Fans

Source: W.W. Winters, ‘With the Picture Fans’, The Nickeodeon, 1 September 1910, pp. 123-124

Text: Come on, girls, let’s go to the show. You get the tickets, Gertie. Of course, it’s Dutch treat, you know. Here’s mine.” There immediately begins an animated search among powder rags, trinkets, and sundry other articles held in a girl’s pocketbook, for the little purse with her small change. Result! “Heavens. Has everybody put all they have in? Yes? And only two dollars and sixty-nine cents. Mercy! Let’s see, one, two, three, four, five. Five of us can’t go anywhere on that. No, we went to Chase’s yesterday, so there are two of us who don’t want to go there. What? Of course, I won’t go in the gallery! Horrors ! I’m surprised at you, Clara. Oh! come on, then, and for mercy’s sake quit fighting about it here.”

Answer to the riddle. Twenty minutes later Five girls, with as many bundles, containing candy, etc., are sitting giggling in one of the city’s foremost nicolettes. Happiness!

* * *

“Do you know, Mrs. Jones, I do get too petered out shopping for any use, I do, indeed.” Mrs. Jones, looking a little done up herself, sympathizes with her. “And do you know, Mrs. Jones, it do beat all how hard it is these days to find a bargain. Oh! there goes that Mrs. Brown. ‘Pon my word, I don’t know where she gets the money she spends on her clothes. And Mr. Jones says her husband ain’t doing nothing worth talking of. Don’t tell me some women ain’t worthless. But Lord! you never can tell; there’s that dear Mrs. Smith, and you do know that her husband is acting scand’lus. What? You didn’t? Why it do beat all, but you know they say he has been running around with some little hussy that dyes her hair and — and, mercy, it’s an outrage, but I never do talk scandal, so you will have to find out — now, I wonder! Mrs. Jones, let’s take in this here show. Never been in one? Well, come on in now, I’ll pay, and I’ve got some candy that I promised Johnnie I would get him, but he’ll never know if we eat some, come on.” Exit Mrs. Jones and her talkative friend through the entrance of one of the five-cent theaters.

* * *

“Two o’clock. H-m-m-m, threequarters of an hour before I can see that man. Why didn’t I make it earlier. Great Scott, what a noise those places do make. Wonder what they’re like. H-m-m-m, 40 minutes. I reckon I’ll take a chance.” The next minute the gentleman disappears into a nicolodeon [sic], with a rather sheepish look.

When one says five-cent theater the first thought is that they are for the poorer people, those who cannot afford even to pay 50 cents for a seat in the “peanut” at one of the other theaters. But is this so? To a certain extent, yes; but only to a certain extent. No matter what time you take to visit these theaters you are sure to find among the motley throng some who are of your station almost, no matter what that station may be. You can, for instance, see plenty of Chinamen there, but whether or not — and from the immobile expression I should say not — they are enjoying it can only be a conjecture. And right here it can be said, and with praise, that one set that they appeal to is the soldier from the fort, the marine barracks, and, in fact, anywhere he comes from. This is in itself a fact that is worthy of praise, for if the soldier can secure an evening’s enjoyment by going to those places, and, at the same time, not spend more than he thinks right, they have filled a vacancy long felt in cities adjoining posts. Then, too, there are the children. They can surely find no more harmless amusement, and few less expensive. And last, but not by any means least, are the men and women who drop in for a while to be amused, or to fill up a spare moment, or even out of courtesy. This only brings us to the cleanness of the performance. It can be truly said that, as a general rule, there is nothing to offend the most fastidious. Taken as a whole, they present amusements that are good, bad, and — worse, the pictures of which the same may be said at times, but which are at least clean. This, too, is a fact worthy of praise, and more — of continuance.

* * *

How different it must seem to a man or woman who has not visited the city for, say, five years — nay, even less — to come here, and in the evening stroll down the avenues and streets. To see tall buildings outlined with lights, huge doorways filled with lighted figures, brilliant paintings, and the ever-present phonograph. But to see the outlay of lights and noise and color is to go back to the Midway at a fair; and consequently we wander past the girl at the window, depositing at the same time a coin, carelessly and as if by chance, on the counter, take up our ticket, and slip inside. It depends entirely upon where this sudden idea takes you what the inside will be like. No two are the least alike, and it must be said that they all show a certain amount of beauty. It is well to say a certain amount, for not wanting to knock them, there is nevertheless a certain incongruity about some of them in the manner in which they have mixed ideas. In other words, you can from the “trimmings” imagine it was done after any of a dozen styles of architecture. But this is a side issue. You go there to see moving pictures and vaudeville acts, and not to comment upon the wall decorations. You go there for amusement. And you can surely get it. No matter how crude the acting, or how far fetched the pictures, there is always sure to be some one who thinks they are “perfectly lovely,” and so amusement is assured. For if you cannot enjoy the performance it is pretty safe to say it is because you have been used to better acting, etc., but unless you are an absolute pessimist you cannot fail to be amused by those around you who do enjoy it.

* * *

One of the most noticeable habits of the patrons of those theaters is that of reading out loud what is flashed upon the screen. “The Capture of the Outlaws.” Ah-h-h-h-h. Everybody sits up and “takes notice.” “Love Triumphant.” Another long-drawn-out “Ah-h-h-h!” and some more notice. Then comes an act a la vaudeville. Somebody in the exurberance of their spirits yells “Get the hook!” whether or not the act is bad, whereat everybody laughs. There are times when the whole audience is so pleased with itself and everybody else that let any one accidentally, quite accidentally, sneeze, why, the whole house re-echoes with laughter. Have you ever noticed some old party who is so absorbed in the thing going on before him that he unconsciously makes remarks to nobody in particular, and seen how everybody around is generally tolerant, generally, be it said, and will nudge one another, and smile, and bob their heads in his direction. Ever seen it? Ever done it? Ever been it? Isn’t it nearly always a good-natured crowd? Doesn’t your heart warm within you and you feel like patting some small boy on the head, a small boy, be it said, that at any other time you would push out of your way? Somehow you all enter into the spirit of the thing. Armed with a few stray nickels, a bag of peanuts, a good supply of patience and good humor, and oh! what a time we did have! You all know that line from Kipling, “The colonel’s lady and Judy O’Grady are sisters under the skin.” Isn’t it so? Don’t you slip away from yourself, lose your reticence, reserve, pride, and a few other things? Don’t you even forgive the fat old gentleman who, when he passed you, stepped on your co—-? Aren’t you most willing to do that? And why? Here’s where I retreat and let you puzzle it out.

* * *

And when you come out, this is particularly so of a Saturday night, you wander up and down and find yourself brushing shoulders with goodness knows who. And then you go to speak to your friend, he was right by your side a second ago. You turn. “Oh! do let’s take in that one — Oh ! Oh-h-h-h! I be-eg your pardon. Oh! there you are. Mercy, that was a perfectly strange man.” There you are! The man took off his hat and went his way and forgot you. But there is something in the air, a something caused by the bright lights, and a great deal of squeeky noises issuing forth from each recess you pass, that gets into your bones, and you all lock arms, everybody in your crowd, and swing down the street, happy and care free, and proceed to take in every five-cent theater that so much as displays a little tweeny light — and then wish for more. And, of course, it is understood that you had not only no idea of ever going in the “cheap” places, but, when you were finally inveigled in, that you could go once, but never again. But what’s the use? Why not submit gracefully and admit that the five-cent theaters have a place all their own and that, after all, you are going again. By Jove! So there!

Comments: ‘Nickelodeon’ was a name given to early American film theatres, which appeared in cities from around 1905 onwards, where seats were commonly priced at five cents (a nickel).

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Leaving the Movie Theater

Source: Extract from Roland Barthes (trans. Richard Howard), ‘Leaving the Movie Theater’, in The Rustle of Language (New York: Hill and Wang, 1986), pp. 345-346

Text: There is something to confess: your speaker likes to leave a movie theater. Back out on the more or less empty brightly lit sidewalk (it is invariably at night, and during the week, that he goes), and heading uncertainly for some café or other, he walks in silence (he doesn’t like discussing the film he’s just seen), a little dazed, wrapped up in himself, feeling the cold – he’s sleepy, that’s what he’s thinking, his body has become something sopitive, soft, limp, and he feels a little disjointed, even (for a moral organization, relief comes only from this quarter) irresponsible. In other words, obviously, he’s coming out of hypnosis. And hypnosis (an old psychoanalytic device – one that psychoanalysis these days seems to treat quite condescendingly) means only one thing to him; the most venerable of powers: healing. And he thinks of music: isn’t there such a thing as hypnotic music? The castrato Farinelli, whose messa di voce was “as incredible for its duration as for its emission,” relieved the morbid melancholy of Philip V by singing him the same aria every night for fourteen years.

This is often how he leaves a movie theater. How does he go in? Except for the – increasingly frequent – case of a specific cultural quest (a selected, sought for, desired film, object of a veritable preliminary alert), he goes to movies as a response to idleness, leisure, free time. It’s as if, even before he went into the theater, the classic conditions of hypnosis were in force: vacancy, want of occupation, lethargy; it’s not in front of the film and because of the film that he dreams off – it’s without knowing it, even before he becomes a spectator. There is a “cinema situation,” and this situation is pre-hypnotic. According to a true metonymy, the darkness of the theater is prefigured by the “twilight reverie” (a prerequisite for hypnosis, according to Breuer-Freud) which precedes it and leads him from street to street, from poster to poster, finally burying himself in a dim, anonymous, indifferent cube where that festival of affects known as a film will be presented.

What does the “darkness” of cinema mean? (Whenever I hear the word cinema, I can’t help thinking hall, rather than film.) Not only is the dark the very substance of reverie (in the pre-hypnoid meaning of the term); it is also the “color” of a diffused eroticism; by its human condensation, by its absence of worldliness (contrary to the cultural appearance that has to be put in at any “legitimate theater”), by the relaxation of postures (how many members of the cinema audience slide down into their seats as if into a bed, coats or feet thrown over the row in front!), the movie house (ordinary model) is a site of availability (even more than cruising), the inoccupation of bodies, which best defines modern eroticism – not that of advertising or strip-tease, but that of the big city. It is in this urban dark that the body’s freedom is generated; this invisible work of possible affects emerges from a veritable cinematographic cocoon; the movie spectator could easily appropriate the silkworm’s motto: Inclusum labor illustrat; it is because I am enclosed that I work and glow with all my desire.

In this darkness of the cinema (anonymous, populated, numerous – oh, the boredom, the frustration, of so-called private showings!) lies the very fascination of the film (any film). Think of the contrary experience: on television, where films are also shown, no fascination; here darkness is erased, anonymity repressed; space is familiar, articulated (by furniture, known objects), tamed: the eroticism – no, to put it better, to get across the particular kind of lightness, of unfulfillment we mean: the eroticization of the place is foreclosed: television doomed us to the Family, whose household instrument it has become – what the hearth used to be, flanked by its communal kettle …

Comments: Roland Barthes (1915-1980) was a French literary theorist and semiotician. This text, of which the first part is reproduced here, comes from a posthumously-published collection of essays written between 1967 and 1980.

Kiss Me Again, Stranger

Source: Daphne Du Maurier, extract from ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’ in Kiss Me Again Stranger: A Collection of Eight Stories Long and Short (New York: Doubleday, 1953 [orig. pub. The Apple Tree, Gollancz, 1952]), pp. 9-12

Text: I’m one for routine. I like to get on with my job, and then when the day’s work’s over settle down to a paper and a smoke and a bit of music on the wireless, variety or something of the sort, and then turn in early. I never had much use for girls, not even when I was doing my time in the Army. I was out in the Middle East, too, Port Said and that.

No, I was happy enough living with the Thompsons, carrying on much the same day after day, until that one night, when it happened. Nothing’s been the same since. Nor ever will be. I don’t know …

The Thompsons had gone to see their married daughter up at Highgate. They asked me if I’d like to go along, but somehow I didn’t fancy barging in, so instead of staying home alone after leaving the garage I went down to the picture palace and, taking a look at the poster, saw it was cowboy and Indian stuff — there was a picture of a cowboy sticking a knife into the Indian’s guts. I like that — proper baby I am for westerns — so I paid my one and twopence and went inside. I handed my slip of paper to the usherette and said, “Back row, please,” because I like sitting far back and leaning my head against the board.

Well, then I saw her. They dress the girls up no end in some of these places, velvet tarns and all, making them proper guys. They hadn’t made a guy out of this one, though. She had copper hair, page-boy style I think they call it, and blue eyes, the kind that look short-sighted but see further than you think, and go dark by night, nearly black, and her mouth was sulky-looking, as if she was fed up, and it would take someone giving her the world to make her smile. She hadn’t freckles, nor a milky skin, but warmer than that, more like a peach, and natural too. She was small and slim, and her velvet coat — blue it was — fitted her close, and the cap on the back of her head showed up her copper hair.

I bought a programme — not that I wanted one, but to delay going in through the curtain — and I said to her, “What’s the picture like?”

She didn’t look at me. She just went on staring into nothing, at the opposite wall. “The knifing’s amateur,” she said, “but you can always sleep.”

I couldn’t help laughing. I could see she was serious though. She wasn’t trying to have me on or anything.

“That’s no advertisement,” I said. “What if the manager heard you?”

Then she looked at me. She turned those blue eyes in my direction; still fed-up they were, not interested, but there was something in them I’d not seen before, and I’ve never seen it since, a kind of laziness, like someone waking from a long dream and glad to find you there. Cats’ eyes have that gleam sometimes when you stroke them, and they purr and curl themselves into a ball and let you do anything you want. She looked at me this way a moment, and there was a smile lurking somewhere behind her mouth if you gave it a chance, and tearing my slip of paper in half, she said, “I’m not paid to advertise. I’m paid to look like this and lure you inside.”

She drew aside the curtains and flashed her torch in the darkness. I couldn’t see a thing. It was pitch black, like it always is at first until you get used to it and begin to make out the shapes of the other people sitting there, but there were two great heads on the screen and some chap saying to the other, “If you don’t come clean I’ll put a bullet through you,” and somebody broke a pane of glass and a woman screamed.

“Looks all right to me,” I said, and began groping for somewhere to sit.

She said, “This isn’t the picture, it’s the trailer for next week,” and she flicked on her torch and showed me a seat in the back row, one away from the gangway.

I sat through the advertisements and the newsreel, and then some chap came and played the organ, and the colours of the curtains over the screen went purple and gold and green — funny, I suppose they think they have to give you your money’s worth — and looking around, I saw the house was half empty — and I guessed the girl had been right, the big picture wasn’t going to be much, and that’s why nobody much was there.

Just before the hall went dark again she came sauntering down the aisle. She had a tray of ice creams, but she didn’t even bother to call them out and try to sell them. She could have been walking in her sleep, so when she went up the other aisle I beckoned to her.

“Got a sixpenny one?” I said.

She looked across at me. I might have been something dead under her feet, and then she must have recognised me, because that half smile came back again, and the lazy look in the eye, and she walked round the back of the seats to me.

“Wafer or cornet?” she said.

I didn’t want either, to tell the truth. I just wanted to buy something from her and keep her talking.

“Which do you recommend?” I asked.

She shrugged her shoulders. “Cornets last longer,” she said, and put one in my hand before I had time to give her my choice.

“How about one for you too?” I said.

“No, thanks,” she said, “I saw them made.”

And she walked off, and the place went dark, and there I was sitting with a great sixpenny cornet in my hand, looking a fool. The damn thing slopped all over the edge of the holder, spilling on to my shirt, and I had to ram the frozen stuff into my mouth as quick as I could for fear it would all go on my knees, and I turned sideways, because someone came and sat in the empty seat beside the gangway.

I finished it at last, and cleaned myself up with my pocket handkerchief, and then concentrated on the story flashing across the screen. It was a western all right, carts lumbering over prairies, and a train full of bullion being held to ransom, and the heroine in breeches one moment and full evening dress the next. That’s the way pictures should be, not a bit like real life at all; but as I watched the story I began to notice the whiff of scent in the air, and I didn’t know what it was or where it came from, but it was there just the same. There was a man to the right of me, and on my left were two empty seats, and it certainly wasn’t the people in front, and I couldn’t keep turning round and sniffing.

I’m not a great one for liking scent. It’s too often cheap and nasty, but this was different. There was nothing stale about it, or stuffy, or strong; it was like the flowers they sell up in the West End in the big flower shops before you get them on the barrows — three bob a bloom sort of touch, rich chaps buy them for actresses and such — and it was so darn good, the smell of it there in that murky old picture palace full of cigarette smoke, that it nearly drove me mad.

At last I turned right round in my seat, and I spotted where it came from. It came from the girl, the usherette; she was leaning on the back board behind me, her arms folded across it.

“Don’t fidget,” she said. “You’re wasting one and twopence. Watch the screen.”

But not out loud so that anyone could hear. In a whisper, for me alone. I couldn’t help laughing to myself. The cheek of it! I knew where the scent came from now, and somehow it made me enjoy the picture more. It was as though she was beside me in one of the empty seats and we were looking at the story together.

When it was over and the lights went on, I saw I’d sat through the last showing and it was nearly ten. Everyone was clearing off for the night. So I waited a bit, and then she came down with her torch and started squinting under the seats to see if anybody had dropped a glove or a purse, the way they do and only remember about afterwards when they get home, and she took no more notice of me than if I’d been a rag which no one would bother to pick up.

I stood up in the back row, alone — the house was clear now — and when she came to me she said, “Move over, you’re blocking the gangway,” and flashed about with her torch, but there was nothing there, only an empty packet of Player’s which the cleaners would throw away in the morning. Then she straightened herself and looked me up and down, and taking off the ridiculous cap from the back of her head that suited her so well, she fanned herself with it and said, “Sleeping here tonight?” and then went off, whistling under her breath, and disappeared through the curtains.

It was proper maddening. I’d never been taken so much with a girl in my life. I went into the vestibule after her, but she had gone through a door to the back, behind the box-office place, and the commissionaire chap was already getting the doors to and fixing them for the night. I went out and stood in the street and waited. I felt a bit of a fool, because the odds were that she would come out with a bunch of others, the way girls do. There was the one who had sold me my ticket, and I dare say there were other usherettes up in the balcony, and perhaps a cloakroom attendant too, and they’d all be giggling together, and I wouldn’t have the nerve to go up to her …

Comments: Daphne Du Maurier (1907-1989) was a British novelist, short story writer and playwright. Her collection of short stories, The Apple Tree was published in the USA under the title Kiss Me Again, Stranger, the title of the story from which the above extract is taken. The story is about a shy garage mechanic who falls for a mysterious usherette with a murderous secret. The same collection includes The Birds, filmed by Alfred Hitchcock in 1963. ‘Kiss Me Again, Stranger’ has been made into a TV play in the USA on three occasions: 1953, 1958, and 1974, the latter made for Rex Harrison Presents Stories of Love, starring Juliet Mills and Leonard Nimoy.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust