Film Matinees for Children

Source: ‘Film Matinees for Children’, The Times (London), 13 May 1920, p. 14

Text:
FILM MATINEES FOR CHILDREN.

AN EXCITED AUDIENCE.

At many picture theatres in the outer zone of London it is the custom to set aside one afternoon a week for the benefit of children. The average film, of course, is admirably suited to the intellect of a child, and all that has to be done is to reduce the price of admission to the level of a child’s pocket. The process is wonderfully simple. The price of admission is reduced from 6d. to 3d. and we have what is triumphantly described as a “Children’s Matinée.” The fact remains, however, that although it is unpretentious, a children’s matinée is a remarkable experience. Thoroughly to enjoy it the intruding grown-up must put on the simple faith of a child. He must be both childlike and bland, and, above all, he must forget to be superior. If he will try to forget for a few hours any theories on the film and crime, or the film and education, and just be content to think of the film as an afternoon’s diversion, he may enter into the company of the elect, who regard a film, a dog fight, a revolution, or a Punch and Judy Show, as created for one purpose, and one purpose only-that of their own personal and private entertainment. If he fails to enjoy the experience he must either be very clever or very foolish. He will almost certainly regret that the cinematograph was not invented when he, too, too, was young enough to live in Arcadia.

Mandarin’s Gold was the title of the principal item at one matineé for children this week. The enormous enjoyment they managed to extract from it was a revelation. The ground floor of the hall was thick with ecstatic and squirming children. They squirmed not only with their bodies but with their tongues, and the result resembled the remarks of the chorus in the Frogs of Aristophanes. The clamour was amazing even before the lights went down, and when the title of the film flickered uncertainly on to the screen the noise changed to a roar of the kind that is usually associated with an “infuriated mob.” The Mandarin then made his appearance. It turned out later that he was an extremely unpleasant person, but his gorgeous costume endeared him to his audience at the outset, and he was received with a hurricane of applause. A sophisticated child, who had apparently seen Chu Chin Chow, informed all those around her that she had obtained the autograph of Mr. Oscar Asche, but her remark was treated with such contumely that she had to be led forth in tears.

As the story developed it became obvious, since the scene was laid in New York, that the Mandarin was really an undesirable Alien, and he began to grow very unpopular. He soon attempted to make violent love to an innocent Chinese maiden, and there was not a child in the audience that managed to retain its seat. They arose and denounced him in good but unusual English, and one almost expected to see him tremble under the wrath that was being poured upon him. When, however, he had first played his part, there was no one more hostile about than the producer, and so the Mandarin continued his dastardly deeds with a phlegm that was more British than Oriental. The plot continued to thicken with surprising rapidity, and the uproar began to get quite alarming.

DRAMATIC IRONY.

Then came the peripeteia. The hero and heroine of the film set out to succour the Oriental maiden. There was a glimpse of them in a large motor-car, into the corners of which were crowded what seemed to be half the New York police force. The scene was switched- back to the wicked Mandarin. He was still gloating over his victim, little thinking of the terrible things the producer had in store for him. Here was dramatic irony as the scenario writer loves it. The children in the audience, however, had very little use for irony, and a very diminutive child somewhere in the neighbourhood of the orchestra informed the villain in a very shrill voice that “The coppers were coming.” As it happened the mandarin turned towards the audience at that moment in order to gnash his teeth. The child seemed to think that retribution was swiftly on his track, and he, too, was led out weeping. The remainder of the children paid no attention to these mishaps, for the New York police force had appeared again. They were greeted with an outburst of cheering that would have made them blush if they had been able, and when they burst into the house of the Mandarin the children rose in a body and delivered three hearty cheers. Their enthusiasm was infectious, and one parent in the audience was seen to shake a very large fist at the unfortunate Mandarin, who was by then lying on the floor in an attitude reminiscent of Pecksniff, while the New York police force struck him on his gorgeously decorated head with their batons.

The lights went up, and the children wiped their brows and tried to sit down. Then the babel began again, for the excitement had been so intense that half the audience had left their seats to encourage the protagonists, and taken up positions in rows far in front. They had not sorted themselves out before the next film was being shown. This indicated the habits of the emu, and there was plenty of time to reorganise before the next comic film appeared.

Comments: The film described was Mandarin’s Gold (USA 1919), directed by Oscar Apfel and starring Warner Oland as Li Hsun, the mandarin. Chu Chin Chow was a 1916 musical comedy based on the story of Ali Baba, written by Oscar Asche. Pecksniff is a character in Charles Dickens’s novel Martin Chuzzlewit.

Nights at the Alexandra

Source: William Trevor, Nights at the Alexandra (London: Hutchinson, 1987)

Text: People loved the Alexandra. They loved the things I loved myself – the scarlet seats, the lights that made the curtains change colour, the usherettes in uniform. People stood smoking in the foyer when they’d bought their tickets, not in a hurry because smoking and talking gave them pleasure also. They loved the luxury of the Alexandra, they loved the place it was. Urney bars tasted better in its rosy gloom; embraces were romantic there. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shared their sophisticated dreams, Deanna Durbin sang. Heroes fell from horses, the sagas of great families yielded the riches of their secrets. Night after night in the Alexandra I stood at the back, aware of the pleasure I dealt in, feeling it all around me. Shoulders slumped, heads touched, eyes were lost in concentration. My brothers did not snigger in the Alexandra: my father, had he ever gone there, would have at last been silenced. Often I imagined the tetchiness of the Reverend Wauchope softening beneath a weight of wonder, and the sour disposition of his wife lifted from her as she watched All This and Heaven Too. Often I imagined the complicated shame falling from the features of Mr Conron. ‘I have told her you are happy,’ Herr Messinger said.

Comments: William Trevor (1928-2016) was a Irish novelist and short story writer. His bittersweet novella Nights at the Alexandra concerns a young man who becomes involved with an Englishwoman and her older German husband as they build a cinema in Ireland during the Second World War. Urney chocolates were popular throughout Ireland. All This and Heaven Too is a 1940 American feature film.

Dr Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon

A view of Philip James de Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon (1782), British Museum (via Wikipedia)

Source: Ephraim Hardcastle [W.H. Pyne], extracts from chapter ‘Dr Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon’, in Wine and Walnuts, or, After dinner chit-chat (London: Longman, Hurst, Rees, Orme, and Brown, 1823), pp. 284-290, 295-298, 302-304

Text: The stage on which the Eidophusikon was represented, was little more than six feet wide, and about eight feet in depth; yet such was the painter’s knowledge of effect and scientific arrangement, and the scenes which he described were so completely illusive, that the space appeared to recede for many miles, and his horizon seemed as palpably distant from the eye, as the extreme termination of the view would appear in nature.

The opening subject of the Eidophusikon represented the view from the summit of One-tree Hill, in Greenwich Park, looking up the Thames to the Metropolis; on one side, conspicuous upon its picturesque eminence, stood Flamstead House; and below, on the right, the grand mass of building, Greenwich Hospital, with its imposing cupolas, cut out of pasteboard, and painted with architectural correctness. The large groups of trees formed another division, behind which were the towns of Greenwich and Deptford, with the shore on each side stretching to the metropolis, which was seen in its vast extent, from Chelsea to Poplar. Behind were the hills of Hampstead, Highgate, and Harrow; and the intermediate space was occupied by the flat stage, as the pool or port of London, crowded with shipping, each mass of which being cut out in pasteboard, and receding in size by the perspective of their distance. The heathy appearance of the fore-ground was constructed of cork, broken into the rugged and picturesque forms of a sand-pit, covered with minute mosses and lichens, producing a captivating effect, amounting indeed to reality.

This scene, on the rising of the curtain, was enveloped in that mysterious light which is the precursor of day-break, so true to nature, that the imagination of the spectator sniffed the sweet breath of morn. A faint light appeared along the horizon; the scene assumed a vapourish tint of grey; presently a gleam of saffron, changing to the pure varieties that tinge the fleecy clouds that pass away in morning mist; the picture brightened by degrees; the sun appeared, gilding the tops of the trees and the projections of the lofty buildings, and burnishing the vanes on the cupolas; when the whole scene burst upon the eye in the gorgeous splendour of a beauteous day.

The clouds in every scene had a natural motion, and they were painted in semi-transparent colours, so that they not only received light in front, but, by a greater intensity of the argand lamps, were susceptible of being illuminated from behind. The linen on which they were painted was stretched on frames of twenty times the surface of the stage, which rose diagonally by a winding machine. De Loutherbourg, who excelled in representing the phenomena of clouds, may be said to have designed a series of effects on the same frame; thus, the first gleam of morn led to the succeeding increase of light; and the motion being oblique, the clouds first appeared from beneath the horizon, rose to a meridian, and floated fast or slow, according to their supposed density, or the power of the wind.

To illuminate the interesting scenes for this display of nature, the ingenious projector had constructed his lights to throw their power in front of the scenes; and this plan might be tried with advantage for spectacles, and particular effects at least, on the great stages of our magnificent theatres. The lamps on De Loutherbourg’s stage were above the proscenium, and hidden from the audience, instead of being unnaturally placed as we are accustomed to see them, by which the faces of the performers are illuminated, like Michael Angelo’s Satan, from the regions below; thus throwing on their countenances a preternatural character, in defiance of all their well studied science of facial passion and expression. What painter ever dreamt of inverting the order of nature so entirely as to light the human countenance upwards? And why depart so strangely from truth upon the stage? The expression would be increased tenfold by lighting from above the proscenium. — For how infinitely more impressive is the emotion of the passions, when described with the spacious orbit of the eye in that deep shadow which the grand gusto of the historic style of painting has adopted — the majesty of intellectual intelligence is seen to rest upon the human brow. Nothing can outrage truth, or do so much violence to that delicate expression, which is the soul of acting, when addressed to the philosophical mind, as to view the bold projection of the chin, the subordinate and characteristic prominence of the nose, the upper part of the orbits of the eyes, instead of forming harmonious shadows, glaring in the blaze of stage-lamps, each a separate touch of light. Were the other method adopted for illuminating the stage, the scenes would recede, in their respective distances; the front and most prominent characters would cast a shadow on those in the second ground, and the general effect would assume the superior light and shadow of nature in manifold combinations, such as we behold on the historical groups of the great masters. Why should we continue to tolerate absurdities upon the stage, to the manifest injustice of those fine and masterly traits, as exhibited in the actor’s “anatomy of expression?” which might, but for this, serve as a school for the painter to study the rudiments of rage, anger, terror, guilt, jealousy, and other potent passions operating on the human visage, with that marked expression which the science of certain great actors can personate at will.

Before the line of brilliant lamps, on the stage of the Eidophusikon, were slips of stained glass; yellow, red, green, purple, and blue: by the shifting of which, the painter could throw a tint upon the scenery, compatible with the time of day which he represented, and by a single slip, or their combinations, could produce a magical effect; thus giving a general hue of cheerfulness, sublimity, or awfulness, subservient to the phenomena of his scene. This too might be adopted on the regular stage, were the ingenious machinists of the scene-room to set their wits to work; and at no vast expence, since the improvements of lighting with gas.

[…]

Gainsborough was so wrapt in delight with the Eidophusikon, that for a time he thought of nothing else — he talked of nothing else — and passed his evenings at that exhibition in long succession. Gainsborough, himself a great experimentalist, could not fail to admire scenes wrought to such perfection by the aid of so many collateral inventions. Loutherbourg’s genius was as prolific in imitations of nature to astonish the ear, as to charm the sight. He introduced a new art — the picturesque of sound.

I can never forget the awful impression that was excited by his ingenious contrivance to produce the effect of the firing of a signal of distress, in his sea-storm. That appalling sound, which he that had been exposed to the terrors of a raging tempest could not listen to, even in this mimic scene, without being reminded of the heart-sickening answer, which sympathetic danger had reluctantly poured forth from his own loud gun — a hoarse sound to the howling wind, that proclaimed, “I too, holy Heaven! need that succour I fain would lend!”

De Loutherbourg had tried many schemes to effect this; but none were satisfactory to his nice ear, until he caused a large skin to be dressed into parchment, which was fastened by screws to a circular frame, forming a vast tambourine; to this was attached a compact sponge that went upon a whalebone spring; which,s truck with violence, gave the effect of a near explosion; a more gentle blow, that of a far-off gun; and the reverberation of the sponge produced a marvellous imitation of the echo from to cloud, dying away into silence.

The thunder was no less natural, and infinitely grand: a spacious sheet of thin copper was suspended by a chain, which, shaken by one of the lower corners, produced the distant rumbling, seemingly below the horizon; and as the clouds rolled on, approached nearer and nearer, increasing peal by peal, until, following rapidly the lightning’s zig-zag flash, which was admirably vivid and sudden, it burst in a tremendous crash immediately over-head.

Once, being at the Eidophusikon, with a party of intelligent friends, when this scene was performing over Exeter ‘Change, I had the felicity to experience a most interesting treat. I had often wished for an opportunity to compare the effect of the awful phenomenon — a thunder storm, with this imitative thunder of De Loutherbourg’s. A lady exclaimed, “It lightens!” and, in great agitation, pointed to an aperture that admitted air to the upper seats. The consternation caused by this discovery, induced many to retire to the lobby, some of whom, moved by terror or superstition, observed, “that the exhibition was presumptuous.” We moved to the gallery, and opening a door, stood upon the landing place, where we could compare the real with the artificial storm. When the exhibition was over, and were tired to sup with one of our party, the worthy James Christie, in Pall Mall, we naturally went into the merits of this scenic display; when it was sagely determined, that man was an extraordinary creature, who could create a copy of Nature, to be taken for Nature’s self.

[…]

But the most impressive scene, which formed the finale of the exhibition, was that representing the region of the fallen angels, with Satan arraying his troops on the banks of the Fiery Lake, and the rising of the Palace of Pandaemonium, as described by the pen of Milton. De Loutherbourg had already displayed his graphic powers in his scenes of fire, upon a great scale, at the public theatre — scenes which had astonished and terified [sic] the audience; but in this he astonished himself, — for he had not conceived the power of light that might be thrown upon a scenic display, until he made the experiment on his own circumscribed stage. Here, in the foreground of a vista, stretching an immeasurable length between mountains, ignited from their bases to their lofty summits, with many-coloured flame, a chaotic mass rose in dark majesty, which gradually assumed form until it stood, the interior of a vast temple of gorgeous architecture, bright as molten brass, seemingly composed of unconsuming and unquenchable fire. In this tremendous scene, the effect of coloured glasses before the lamps was fully displayed; which, being hidden from the audience, threw their whole influence upon the scene, as it rapidly changed, now to a sulphurous blue, then to a lurid red, and then again to a pale vivid light, and ultimately to a mysterious combination of the glasses, such as a bright furnace exhibits, in fusing various metals. The sounds which accompanied the wondrous picture, struck the astonished ear of the spectator as no less preternatural; for, to add a more awful character to peals of thunder, and the accompaniments of all the hollow machinery that hurled balls and stones with indescribable rumbling and noise, an expert assistant swept his thumb over the surface of the tambourine, which produced a variety of groans, that struck the imagination as issuing from infernal spirits.

Such was De Loutherbourg’s Eidophusikon; and would that it were in being now, when the love of the fine arts has spread in so vast a degree! — that knowledge which would have appreciated its merits having increased a thousand-fold, since the period when the greatest scene-painter in the world was induced to dispose of his wondrous little stage, because the age could not produce amateurs sufficient, after two seasons, to muster an audience to pay for lighting his theatre!

Comments: William Henry Pyne (1769-1843) was a British writer, painter and illustrator, who wrote under the pseudonym Ephraim Hardcastle. The Eidophusikon was the invention of Franco-British artist and scenery designer Philip James de Loutherbourg (1740-1812). It was a form of mechanical theatre, showing landscape pictures whose visual features changed through a system of pulleys, mirrors, coloured glass, with sound effects, though the exact mechanics are not known. There were three versions. The first was exhibited at De Loutherbourg’s home in Lisle Street, Leicester Square, London February-May 1781. The second, with additional scenes introduced, including the ‘Pandaemonium’ sequence, was exhibited January 1872 to some time in 1873. The third, that witnessed by Pyne, opened at Exeter Change on the Strand, London, in 1786. The venture was not a financial success, partly because De Loutherbourg could not keep up with audience demand for new scenes. The invention and its artworks do not survive.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Cinematograph

Source: O. Winter, ‘The Cinematograph’, The New Review, May 1896, pp. 507-513

Text: Life is a game played according to a set of rules – physical, moral, artistic – for the moment ironbound in severity, yet ever shifting. The heresy of to-day is to-morrow‘s dogma, and many a martyr has won an unwilling crown for the defence of a belief, which his son’s boot-black accepts as indisputable. The tyranny of the arts, most masterful of all, seldom outlasts a generation; time brings round an instant revenge for a school’s contempt of its predecessor; and all the while Science is clamorously breaking the laws, which man, in his diffidence, believes to be irrefragable.

When the first rude photograph was taken, it was already a miracle; but stability was the condition of its being, and the frozen smirk of an impossible tranquillity hindered its perfection. Even the “snap-shot,” which revealed poses indiscoverable to the human eye, was, at best, a mere effect of curiosity, and became, in the hands of Mr. Muybridge and others, the instrument of a pitiless pedantry. But, meantime, the moving picture was perfected, and, at last, by a skilful adaptation of an ingenious toy, you may contemplate life itself thrown moving and alert upon a screen. Imagine a room or theatre brilliant with electric lights and decorated with an empty back-cloth. Suddenly the lights are extinguished, and to the whirring sound of countless revolutions the back-cloth quivers into being. A moment since it was white and inanimate; now it bustles with the movement and masquerade of tremulous life. Whirr! And a train, running (so to say) out of the cloth, floats upon your vision. It draws up at the platform; guards and porters hustle to their toil; weary passengers lean through the window to unfasten the cumbrous door; sentimentalists hasten to intercept their friends; and the whole common drama of luggage and fatigue is enacted before your eyes. The lights leap up, and at their sudden descent you see upon the cloth a factory at noon disgorging its inmates. Men and women jostle and laugh; a swift bicycle seizes the occasion of an empty space; a huge hound crosses the yard in placid content; you can catch the very changing expression of a mob happy in its release; you note the varying speed of the footsteps; not one of the smaller signs of human activity escapes you. And then, again, a sudden light, and recurring darkness. Then, once more, the sound and flicker of machinery; and you see on the bare cloth a tumbling sea, with a crowd of urchins leaping and scrambling in the waves. The picture varies, but the effect is always the same – the terrifying effect of life, but of life with a difference.

It is life stripped of colour and of sound. Though you are conscious of the sunshine, the picture is subdued to a uniform and baffling grey. Though the waves break upon an imagined shore. they break in a silence which doubles your shrinking from their reality. The boys laugh with eyes and mouth-that you can see at a glance. But they laugh in a stillness which no ripple disturbs. The figures move after their appointed habit; it is thus and not otherwise that they have behaved yesterday and will behave to-morrow. They are not marionettes, because they are individuals, while a marionette is always generalised into an aspect of pity or ridicule. The disproportion of foreground and background adds to your embarrassment, and although you know that the scene has a mechanical and intimate correspondence with truth, you recognise its essential and inherent falsity. The brain and the eye understand not the process of the sensitive plate. They are ever composing, eliminating, and selecting, as if by an instinct. They work far more rapidly than the most elaborate mechanism. They discard one impression and take on another before the first has passed the period of its legitimate endurance. They permit no image to touch them without alteration or adaptation. The dullest eye, the deafest ear, has a personality, generally unconscious, which transforms every scene, and modifies every sound. A railway station, for instance, is a picture with a thousand shifting focuses. The most delicate instrument is forced to render every incident at the same pace and with the same prominence, only reserving to itself the monstrous privilege of enlarging the foreground beyond recognition. If you or I meet an arriving train, we either compose the scattered elements into a simple picture, and with the directness, distinguishing the human vision from the photographic lens, reject the countless details which hamper and confuse our composition, or we stand upon the platform eager to recognise a familiar face. Then the rest of the throng, hastily scanned, falls into a shadowy background. Thus in the moving picture, thrown upon the screen, the crowd is severally and unconsciously choosing or rejecting the objects of sight. But we find the task impossible. The grey photograph unfolds at an equal pace and with a sad deliberation. We cannot follow the shadows in their enthusiasm of recognition; the scene is forced to trickle upon our nerves with an equal effect; it is neither so quick nor so changeful as life. From the point of view of display the spectacle fails, because its personages lack the one quality of entertainment: self-consciousness. The ignorant man falls back upon the ancient wonderment. “Ain’t it lifelike!” he exclaims in all sincerity, though he possesses the faculty of comparison but roughly developed, and is apt to give an interpretation of reality to the most absurd symbols.

Here, then, is life; life it must be because a machine knows not how to invent; but it is life which you may only contemplate through a mechanical medium, life which eludes you in your daily pilgrimage. It is wondrous, even terrific; the smallest whiff of smoke goes upward in the picture; and a house falls to the ground without an echo. It is all true, and it is all false. “Why hath not man a microscopic eye?” asked Pope; and the answer came prosaic as the question: “The reason it is plain, he’s not a fly.” So you may formulate the demand: Why does not man see with the vision of the Cinematograph? And the explanation is pat: Man cannot see with the mechanical unintelligence of a plate, exposed forty times in a second. Yet such has ever been the ambition of the British painter. He would go forth into the fields, and adjust his eyes to the scene as though they were a telescope. He would register the far-distant background with a monstrous conscientiousness, although he had to travel a mile to discover its qualities. He would exaggerate the foreground with the clumsy vulgarity of a photographic plate, which knows no better cunning, and would reveal to himself, with the unintelligent aid of a magnifying glass, a thousand details which would escape the notice of everything save an inhuman machine. And while he was a far less able register of facts than the Cinematograph, he was an even worse artist. He aimed at an unattainable and undesirable reality, and he failed. The newest toy attains this false reality without a struggle. Both the Cinematograph and the Pre-Raphaelite suffer from the same vice. The one and the other are incapable of selection; they grasp at every straw that comes in their way; they see the trivial and important, the near and the distant, with the same fecklessly impartial eye. And the Pre-Raphaelite is the worse, because he is not forced into a fatal course by scientific necessity. He is not racked upon a machine that makes two thousand revolutions in a minute, though he deserves to be. No; he pursues his niggled path in the full knowledge of his enormity, and with at least a chance, if ever he opened his eye, of discovering the straight road. The eye of the true impressionist, on the other hand, is the Cinematograph’s antithesis. It never permits itself to see everything or to be perplexed by a minute survey of the irrelevant. It picks and chooses from nature as it pleaseth; it is shortsighted, when myopia proves its advantage; it can catch the distant lines, when a reasoned composition demands so far a research. It is artistic, because it is never mechanical, because it expresses a personal bias both in its choice and in its rejection. It looks beyond the foreground and to the larger, more spacious lines of landscape. Nature is its material, whereas Fred Walker and his followers might have been inspired by a series of photographic plates.

Literature, too, has ever hankered unconsciously after the Cinematograph. Is not Zola the M. Lumière of his art? And might not a sight of the Cinematograph have saved the realists from a wilderness of lost endeavour? As the toy registers every movement without any expressed relation to its fellow, so the old and fearless realist believed in the equal value of all facts. He collected information in the spirit of the swiftly moving camera, or of the statistician. Nothing came amiss to him, because he considered nothing of supreme importance. He emptied his notebooks upon foolscap and believed himself an artist. His work was so faithful in detail that in the bulk it conveyed no meaning whatever. The characters and incidents were as grey and as silent as the active shadows of the Cinematograph. M. Zola and M. Huysmans (in his earlier incarnation) posed as the Columbuses of a new art, and all the while they were merely playing the despised part of the newspaper reporter. They fared forth, notebook in hand, and described the most casual accidents as though they were the essentials of a rapid life. They made an heroic effort to strip the brain of its power of argument and generalisation. They were as keenly convinced that all phenomena are of equal value as is the impersonal lens, which to-day is the Academician’s best friend. But they forget that the human brain cannot expose itself any more easily than the human eye to an endless series of impartial impressions. For the human brain is not mechanical: it cannot avoid the tasks of selection and revision, and when it measures itself: against a photographic apparatus it fails perforce. It is the favourite creed of the realists that truth is valuable for its own sake, that the description of a tiresome hat or an infamous pair of trousers has a merit of its own closely allied to accuracy. But life in itself is seldom interesting – so much has been revealed by photography; life, until it be crystallised into an arbitrary mould, is as flat and fatuous as the passing bus. The realist, however, has formulated his ambition: the master of the future, says he, will produce the very gait and accent of the back-parlour. This ambition may already be satisfied by the Cinematograph, with the Phonograph to aid, and while the sorriest pedant cannot call the result supremely amusing, so the most sanguine of photographers cannot pronounce it artistic. At last we have been permitted to see the wild hope of the realists accomplished. We may look upon life moving without purpose, without beauty, with no better impulse than a foolish curiosity; and though the spectacle frightens rather than attracts, we owe it a debt of gratitude, because it proves the complete despair of modern realism.

As the realistic painter, with his patient, unspeculative eye bent upon a restless foreground, produces an ugly, tangled version of nature, so the disciple of Zola perplexes his indomitable industry by the compilation of contradictory facts. Not even M. Zola himself, for all his acute intelligence, discovered that Lourdes, for instance, was a mere flat record. By the force of a painful habit, he differentiated his characters; he did not choose a single hero to be the mule (as it were), who should sustain all the pains and all the sins of the world. No, he bravely labelled his abstractions with names and qualities, but he played the trick with so little conviction, that a plain column and a half of bare fact would have conveyed as much information and more amusement. Now, M. Zola has at least relieved the gloom of ill-digested facts by adroitly-thrown pétards. When you find his greyness at its greyest, he will flick in a superfluous splash of scarlet, to arouse you from your excusable lethargy. But in America, where even the novel may be “machine-made,” they know far better than to throw pétards. Their whole theory of art is summed up in the Cinematograph, so long as that instrument does its work in such an unexciting atmosphere as the back-yard of a Boston villa. Life in the States, they murmur, is not romantic. Therefore the novel has no right to be romantic. Because Boston is hopelessly dull, therefore Balzac is an impostor. For them, the instantaneous photograph, and a shorthand clerk. And, maybe, when the historian of the future has exhausted the advertisement columns of the pompous journals, he may turn (for statistics) to the American novel, first cousin, by a hazard, to the Cinematograph.

The dominant lesson of M. Lumière’s invention is this: the one real thing in life, art, or literature, is unreality. It is only by the freest translation of facts into another medium that you catch that fleeting impression of reality, which a paltry assemblage of the facts themselves can never impart The master quality of the world is human invention, whose liberal exercise demonstrates the fatuity of a near approach to “life.” The man who invents, may invent harmoniously; he may choose his own key, and bend his own creations to his imperious will. And if he be an artist, he will complete his work without hesitancy or contradiction. But he who insists upon a minute and conscientious vision, is forthwith hampered by his own material, and is almost forced to see discordantly. Hence it is that M. Zola is interesting only in isolated pages. His imagination is so hopelessly crippled by sight, that he cannot sustain his eloquence beyond the limit of a single impression. Suppose he does astonish you by a flash of entertainment, he relapses instantly into dulness, since for him, as for the Cinematograph, things are interesting, not because they are beautiful or happily combined, but because they exist, or because they recall, after their clumsy fashion, a familiar experience.

Has, then, the Cinematograph a career? Artistically, no; statistically, a thousand times, yes. Its results will be beautiful only by accident, until the casual, unconscious life of the streets learns to compose itself into rhythmical pictures. And this lesson will never be learned outside the serene and perfect air of heaven. But if only the invention be widely and properly applied, then history may be written, as it is acted. With the aid of these modern miracles, we may bottle (so to say) the world’s acutest situations. They will be poured out to the students of the future without colour and without accent, and though their very impartiality may mislead, at least they will provide the facts for a liberal judgment. At least they will give what an ingenious critic of the drama once described as “slabs of life.” For the Cinematograph the phrase is well chosen; but for Ibsen, who prompted its invention, no phrase were more ridiculous. For whatever your opinion of Hedda Gabler, at least you must absolve its author from a too eager rivalry with M. Lumière’s hastily-revolving toy.

And now, that Science may ever keep abreast of literature, comes M. Röntgen’s invention to play the part of the pyschologist [sic]. As M. Bourget (shall we say?) uncovers the secret motives and inclinations of his characters, when all you ask of him is a single action, so M. Röntgen bids photography pierce the husk of flesh and blood and reveal to the world the skeletons of living men. In Science the penetration may be invaluable; in literature it destroys the impression, and substitutes pedantry for intelligence. M. Röntgen, however, would commit no worse an outrage than the cure of the sick and the advancement of knowledge. Wherefore he is absolved from the mere suspicion of an onslaught upon art. But it is not without its comedy, that photography’s last inventions are twin echoes of modern literature. The Cinematograph is but realism reduced to other terms, less fallible and more amusing ; while M. Röntgen’s rays suggest that, though a too intimate disclosure may be fatal to romance, the doctor and the curiosity-monger may find it profitable to pierce through our “too, too solid flesh” and count the rattling bones within.

Comments: O. Winter was an occasional writer for art and culture journals in the 1890s. I have not been able to trace his full name. The essay was written after seeing an exhibition of the Lumière Cinématographe, which debuted in the United Kingdom on 20 February 1896. A number of Lumière films are suggested by the text, including Arrivée d’un train and La Sortie des Usines Lumière (Workers Leaving the Factory). Those mentioned in the text are the novelists Emile Zola, Joris-Karl Huysmans, Honoré Balzac and Paul Bourget, playwright Henrik Ibsen, Pre-Raphaelite painter Fred Walker, and photographer Eadweard Muybridge. Wilhelm Röntgen discovered what would soon become known as X-rays in 1895; X-rays, or Röntgen rays, would frequently be exhibited alongside motion pictures in the late 1890s.

The Diorama

Plan and exterior of the Diorama in Park Square, Regent’s Park, from Pugin and Britton, Illustrations of the Public Buildings of London vol. 1 (second edition, 1838)

Source: ‘The Diorama’, The Morning Post, 29 September 1823, p. 3

Text: The Exhibition under the above name, which we announced to the public a few days ago, was on Saturday submitted to private inspection, previous to it being thrown open to the public this day. The immense building which has been erected for the purpose, is situated in the Regent’s Park, directly opposite the eastern side of Portland Crescent, and close to the Riding School. its magnitude may be judged of from the fact that the mere walls were raised at an expense of 8000l. The interior is also fitted up in a most costly and tasteful style. The saloon, from which the exhibition is viewed, is circular, and splendidly hung with crimson cloth, while the ceiling is formed by a transparency of elegant device, representing medallion heads of the greatest masters in painting. the accommodations for the public are in a style befitting the superior arrangements and construction of the whole.

With regard to the exhibition itself, we think it better for two reasons, to abstain from any attempt at explaining the means by which its effect is produced. In the first place it might be prejudicial to the amazing interest with which every person must be struck who sees it; and secondly, the perfect novelty of the thing, and the extraordinary power by which it operates, almost makes us despair of giving an intelligible or a credible account of the little which a first visit has enabled us to ascertain. All we shall do, therefore, will be to describe the effect which a visitor beholds on entering the saloon. he sees before him a magnificent landscape, out into which nothing seems to prevent his walking but the benches occupied by lovely forms, whom his politeness will not permit him to disturb. this is the Valley of Sarnen, in Switzerland, perhaps the most enchanting specimen of all that is beautiful in natural scenery, that can be found even in that romantic country. In the foreground he will see a little rivulet rising and bubbling down its tiny precipice with all the animation of nature. Close behind it he sees a house, which wears the very air of invitation and hospitality. Then spreads out an expanse of country, decorated with every variety of rural charms. in its ample bosom rests a soft blue lake, and the distance is filled by mountains rearing their snow-crowned heads, and shining in all the diademic splendour which is conferred upon them by the sun’s rays. Suddenly, however, the beholder finds the brightness of the scene giving way to the approach of gloom. The hills lose their brightness, and the transparent blue of the tranquil lake is defaced by the reflection of the darkening clouds. A threatened storm passes off with all its fury to one of the mountaintops, and the beauty of nature is again vindicated by the restoration of her smiles and gladness. Having exhausted his admiration upon this magical delusion, he perceives that he, and all his fellow gazers, if they amount to three hundred, are receding from the view; and in a few seconds he finds himself looking up the nave of Trinity Chapel, Canterbury Cathedral. Here his wonder will be taxed to a still higher point; and he must hold fast of the impossibility with all his might, or he will conclude that some of the things which he sees before him are real and not imitative. We, of course, need not add, that the whole is pictorial illusion. It is altogether an exhibition unprecedented in its magnitude, and, in our opinion, far surpassing every thing of its kind in beauty. The Paintings rank high as works of art, independent of the astonishing interest they receive from this stupendous machine. We have been informed that above 12,000l. have been expended on the establishment previous to its opening. The price of admission appears at first sight to be high; but without considering the enormous expense to which we have alluded, we are sure that no one will think the money too much, after he has paid it. in short, the Diorama is an exhibition which every body must see.

Comments: The Diorama was the invention of Louis Daguerre, later one of the inventors of photography. The diorama was a visual spectacle presented in an elaborate theatre, able to accommodate around 350 people. The audience would viewed a large-scale landscape painting on a screen 70ftx45ft whose appearance would alter through the manipulation of lighting and scenic effects. A turntable would then rotate the audience around to view a second painting. The Diorama premiered in Paris in 1822, and opened in London at Regent’s Park on 29 September 1823 in a venue designed by Augustus Pugin (father of the architect of the same name). Daguerre himself was one of the artists who produced the paintings. The Diorama was a considerable popular success, and was followed by a number of imitator attractions. It was opened from 10am until dusk. The show lasted around 15 minutes. The prices of admission were 3 shillings (for seats in boxes), 2 shillings (standing in the ampitheatre), children aged under 12 half-price.

Links:
The Morning Post (British Newspaper Archive, subscription site)
R. Derek Wood, The Diorama in Great Britain in the 1820s (1993)

The Nickel Theater

Source: James Oppenheim, ‘The Nickel Theater’ in Monday Morning and other poems (New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1909), pp. 66-68

Text:
O Shakespeare come and sit with us!
Here are such theater-glories
As you, O million-peopled Soul, had loved! For
you told stories
The crowds could see — yea, though the poems
swept over their brains blind.
So much were women and men your words you
spoke to all mankind.

It’s a thick black room and a rough rude crowd —
the real strong human stuff —
A screen’s before, a beam of light rules through
the air — enough!
Lo, on that beam of light there darts vast hills
and men and women.
The screen becomes a stage; here’s life, blood-red
with the living human!

In but ten minutes how we sweep the Earth, un-
baring life.
Here in Algiers and there in Rome — a Paris street
— the strife
Of cowboys swinging lariat ropes — the plains, the
peaks, the sea —
Life cramped in one room or loosed out to all
eternity!

Lo, now, behold the dead salt desert, the trail-lost
man and wife,
A child clutched to her breast ! They toil through
sand, they cry for life.
They stagger on from hill to hill — now far, now
near — their cry
Breaks through our hearts, their fight is ours, we
love them as they die!

Yea, in ten minutes we drink Life, quintessenced
and compact.
Earth is our cup, we drain it dry; yea, in ten min-
utes act
The lives of alien people strange; the Earth grows
small; we see
The humanness of all souls human: all these are
such as we!

O at day’s end, and after toil that dragged the
heart In the street,
What utter glory to forget, to feel again the beat
Of the warming heart with light and life and love’s
unearthly gleam,
Till Dreams become our Living World, and all
the World’s a Dream!

Now we have lived the pain of others, now we
have drunk their joy!
It gives us new heroic grip upon our day’s employ!
O Shakespeare, here Earth’s dimmest brain can
draw strength from great stories!
The millions grasp their heritage of Art, the
theater-glories!

Comments: James Oppenheim (1882-1932) was an American poet, novelist, writer on psychology and editor of the literary magazine The Seven Arts.

Links: Copy of Monday Morning and other poems at Hathi Trust

The Murder of Othello

Source: H.F. Hoffman, ‘The Murder of Othello’, Moving Picture World, 22 July 1911, p. 110

Text: It may be wrong for a writer in one department to go browsing around in the pasture of another. Mr. Richardson is supposed to be conducting the projection department of this paper, and no doubt I am violating all professional ethics when I deliberately steal some of his thunder. I have noticed that sometimes operators have criticised him because he goes to a show and then writes a “knock” about the operator.

If Mr. R. were not so capable of taking care of himself I might feel sorry for him and be inclined to help him out, but as it is I know he would not thank me for such a foolish proceeding on my part. However, there is no law that I can find against the giving of moral support, and therefore whatever I may write about the operator will come under the head of Moral Support.

Many of you exhibitors make use of a little slide that reads: “If you like our show tell others; if not, tell us.” Then when someone tells you your show is awfully bad you call it a “knock” and mumble something about deadheads being the biggest kickers, etc. That is, some of you do, but the majority of you take the criticism in the spirit in which it is given. The politicians say, “Let the tariff be reformed, but only by its friends,” and we say, “Let the moving picture be reformed, but only by its friends.”

Someone has got to do the kicking; that is a certainty, and we feel to a large extent the burden falls upon us who have the welfare of moving pictures at heart. We wish that everything about them were perfect, so we would not have to criticise. We believe we will live to see the day when they will be as nearly perfect as possible, but we also realize that nothing was ever improved by trying to gloss over the faults. One of the best ways to learn things is to learn by making mistakes. Teddy Roosevelt says that the only way to make a people correct their faults is to keep reminding them of those faults. In other words, “Ding it into em.”

There has been considerable written in the past in these pages about bad projection, etc., and the chances are that there will be and ought to be considerably more, just so long as there are exhibitors who stand for films to be run without titles or with the words reading backwards, or a dozen other stupid sins of comission or omission that are to be seen daily almost anywhere. The only way to remedy the fault is to keep on dinging about it.

Your little slide that says “If you like our show tell others; if not, tell us,” is all very pretty on the screen, but it doesn’t amount to much. If you are an exhibitor you know very well that none of your patrons comes to you and tells you your show is “rotten.” In the first place, they wouldn’t want to hurt your feelings, and secondly, they won’t take a chance on you swelling up and asking what people will want next for a nickel. If you are an exhibitor you also know that the public is fickle. You know that they simply reverse your little slide. When your show is good they tell you, and when it is bad they tell others. They like to flatter you, perhaps in the hope of getting on the free list some day. Your faults they relate to your competitor up the street because they may think he likes to hear it and may possibly grant them the freedom of his house, or something else. I don’t know why they do it, but they do.

The opinions of lay critics are not very safe guides, as I have found out once or twice to my sorrow. The public judges by results only. With them a picture is either good or bad, but they could not tell exactly why. Their criticism is not analytical. They do not know good projection from bad, except in the most superficial way. When the operating is bad you never hear them say, “What poor projection they have here.” No; you are more apt to hear them say “I like the pictures, but they hurt my eyes.” When the projection is good they forget about the technical end and lose themselves in the picture itself. Why? Because things are as they ought to be; they expect good projection when they come. They have a right to expect it.

[…]

Now then, having brushed away opposition from all sources, let us proceed with the Murder of Othello. He was murdered by an operator last Friday night. They took him out of his tin armour and placed him on the operating table in the operating room. They made a diagnosis, gave him an anasthetic [sic], then put him through a sausage machine and when the poor fellow came out of the other end he was mangled beyond recognition.

I had been talking just before with the manager. He said, “Yes, I take the Moving Picture World. A manager should not be without it because it is so full of valuable advice. Have you noticed our solid brick operating room?” I then took notice. The place was an airdome seating at least 1,500, with loads of room to spare. Behind the rear seats was a promenade fifty feet wide, and there at the end of the middle aisle stood the solid brick oven on four legs. It covered an area about six feet square or 36 square feet. He could have built a two-story residence there without interfering with anyone’s view, and yet he who took the World for its helpful hints had constructed this 6×6 oven and called it an operating room. Oh, Brother Richardson, you will have to use bigger type.

The Othello picture began with the usual chorus — “What’s the name of this?” “I wonder what this is.” “Mamma, who’s that man?” “Did you get the name?” “I beg pardon, sir, did you notice the title of this?” “I wish I knew what this is all about.” “What is it?” “I don’t know, looks like something from the Bible.” “What did it say?” “Excuse me, was there any name to this?” “No, I didn’t see any,” etc. Now in the name of just plain common sense, I am going to ask why this thing is done, day after day, in so many places. Is it possible that a man can have the nerve to call himself a manager or an operator, and still show such indifference to the one thing of all that brings the people to the place — the picture?

I would like to have a photograph of the mind of such a man to see by what mental process he concludes that the audience knows what it is looking at. After the first offense, if that party were in my employ, he would last about as long as a June frost. All this talk about reels coming from the exchange without titles is a lazy man’s excuse. Cover glass is cheap and title slides can be written in half a minute. Fancy lettering is not necessary and takes up too much time. There is nothing in a temporary slide that looks any better than good plain handwriting, especially if the slide is tinted and the principal words are properly capitalized and underscored. Try it and you will find it better than most of these horrible hand-printed affairs.

The big laugh in Othello came with the first scene when the title and sub-titles came through reading backwards. It was the same laugh you hear when a song slide gets in upside down. But the fun didn’t end there. Instead of clipping his film at once and reversing the upper reel, the operator let the whole thing go through the way it was. We are all aware that Othello is not the easiest subject in the world to follow, even under the best of circumstances. The title and all the sub-titles are extremely necessary, even to those who know it, and a good lecture should go with it for those who do not. Imagine the audience then, for the most part in utter ignorance of what they were looking at. The light was vile. The patrons had their choice of two things to look at. On the sheet the spectacle of a white woman smearing her love upon a colored man, or in the operating room, the operator who had attracted their attention.

It seems that in his dilemma he had hit upon the idea of hiding his mistake by speeding up his machine when the sub-titles appeared, so as to get them over with quickly. But the racket of it only made matters worse by drawing their attention to him. All thought of how the audience was enjoying the picture was far from his mind, but they were enjoying it just the same. They quickly saw that he was trying to pull the wool over their eyes so they began to watch for the sub-titles. When these appeared mid he put on the high speed the audience would howl with delight. He was greeted with mock applause, laughter, cat calls and other noises. Nobodv felt bad when Othello breathed his last. The program was short on comedy anyhow, and this filled the bill very nicelv. On my part, for a long time to come, I will remember the murder of Othello.

Comments: The film of Othello was probably the Film d’Arte Italian production Otello (Italy 1909), which was released in the USA in April 1910. Mr Richardson is F. H. Richardson, who wrote a technical advice column for Moving Picture World. H.F. Hoffman was a film lecturer and occasional writer for the journal.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

If I Don't Write It, Nobody Will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Sense of Touch

senseoftouch

Source: ‘Ole Luke-Oie’ [Ernest Dunlop Swinton], extract from ‘The Sense of Touch’, The Strand Magazine, December 1912, pp. 620-631. Illustrations by John Cameron.

Text: ‘Pon my word, I really don’t know what made me go into the place. I’ve never been keen on cinemas. The ones I went to when they first came out quite choked me off. The jiggling of the pictures pulled my eyes out till they felt like a crab’s, and the potted atmosphere made my head ache. I was strolling along, rather bored with things in general and more than a bit tired, and happened to stop as I passed the doors. It seemed just the ordinary picture palace or electric theatre show – ivory-enamelled portico, neuralgic blaze of flame arc-lights above, and underneath, in coloured incandescents, the words, “Mountains of Fun.”

Fun! Good Lord!

An out-sized and over-uniformed tout, in dirty white gloves and a swagger stick, was strolling backwards and forwards, alternately shouting invitations to see the “continuous performance” and chasing away the recurring clusters of eager-eyed children, whose outward appearance was not suggestive of the possession of the necessary entrance fee. There were highly-coloured posters on every available foot of wall-space – sensational scenes, in which cowboys, revolvers, and assorted deaths predominated – and across them were pasted strips of paper bearing the legend, ” LIFE-REPRO Novelty This Evening.”

I confess that, old as I am, it was that expression which caught me – ” LIFE-REPRO.” It sounded like a new metal polish or an ointment for “swellings on the leg,” but it had the true showman’s ring. I asked the janitor what it meant. Of course he did not know – poor devil! – and only repeated his stock piece: “Splendid new novelty. Now showing. No waiting. Continuous performance. Walk right in.”

I was curious; it was just beginning to rain; and I decided to waste half an hour. No sooner had the metal disc – shot out at me in exchange for sixpence – rattled on to the zinc counter of the ticket-window than the uniformed scoundrel thrust a handbill on me and almost shoved me through a curtained doorway. Quite suddenly I found myself in a dark room, the gloom of which was only accentuated by the picture quivering on a screen about fifty feet away. The change from the glare outside was confusing and the atmosphere smote me, and as I heard the door bang and the curtain being redrawn I felt half inclined to turn round and go out. But while I hesitated, not daring to move until my eyes got acclimatized, someone flashed an electric torch in my eyes, grabbed my ticket, and squeaked, ” Straight along, please,” then switched off the light.

Useful, wasn’t it? I couldn’t see an inch. You know, I’m not very touchy as a rule, but I was getting a bit nettled, and a good deal of my boredom had vanished. I groped my way carefully down what felt like an inclined gangway, now in total darkness, for there was at the moment no picture on the screen, and at once stumbled down a step. A step, mind you, in the centre of a gangway, in a place of entertainment which is usually dark! I naturally threw out my hands to save myself and grabbed what I could. There was a scream, and the film then starting again, I discovered that I was clutching a lady by the hair. The whole thing gave me a jar and threw me into a perspiration – you must remember I was still shaky after my illness. When, as I was apologizing, the same, or another, fool with the torchlight flashed it at my waistcoat and said, “Mind the step,” I’m afraid I told him, as man to man, what I thought of him and the whole beastly show. I was now really annoyed, and showed it. I had no notion there were so many people in the hall until I heard the cries of “Ssshh! ” “Turn him out! ” from all directions.

When I was finally led to a flap-up seat – which I nearly missed, by the way, in the dark – I discovered the reason for the impatience evinced by the audience. I had butted in with my clatter and winged words at the critical moment of a touching scene. To the sound of soft, sad music, all on the black notes, the little incurable cripple child in the tenement house was just being restored to health by watching the remarkably quick growth of the cowslips given to her by the kind-hearted scavenger. Completely as boredom had been banished by the manner of my entrée it quickly returned while I suffered the long-drawn convalescence of ” Little Emmeline.” As soon as this harrowing film was over and the lights were raised I took my chance of looking round.

The hall was very much the usual sort of place – perhaps a bit smaller than most – long and narrow, with a floor sloping down from the back. In front of the screen, which was a very large one, was an enclosed pit containing some artificial palms and tin hydrangeas, a piano and a harmonium, and in the end wall at its right was a small door marked ” Private.” In the side wall on the left near the proscenium place was an exit. The only other means of egress, as far as I could see, was the doorway through which I had entered. Both of these were marked by illuminated glass signs, and on the walls were notices of “No smoking,” “The management beg to thank, those ladies who have so kindly removed their hats,” and advertisement placards – mostly of chocolate. The decorations were too garish for the place to be exactly homely, but it was distinctly commonplace, a contrast to the shambles it became later on. What?

Yes! I daresay you know all about these picture palaces, but I’ve got to give you the points as they appealed to me. I’m not telling you a story, man. I’m simply trying to give you an exact account of what happened. It’s the only way I can do it.

The ventilation was execrable, in spite of the couple of exhaust fans buzzing round overhead, and the air hung stagnant and heavy with traces of stale scent, while wafts of peppermint, aniseed, and eucalyptus occasionally reached me from the seats in front. Tobacco smoke might have increased the density of the atmosphere, but it would have been a welcome cloak to some of the other odours. The place was fairly well filled, the audience consisting largely of women and children of the poorer classes – even babies in arms – just the sort of innocent holiday crowd that awful things always happen to.

By the time I had noticed this much the lights were lowered, and we were treated to a scene of war which converted my boredom into absolute depression. I must describe it to you, because you always will maintain that we are a military nation at heart. By Jove, we are! Even the attendants at this one-horse gaff were wearing uniforms. And the applause with which the jumble of sheer military impossibility and misplaced sentiment presented to us was greeted proves it. The story was called “Only a Bugler Boy.” The first scene represented a small detachment of British soldiers ” At the Front” on ” Active Service” in a savage country. News came in of the “foe.” This was the occasion for a perfect orgy of mouthing, gesticulation, and salutation. How they saluted each other, usually with the wrong hand, without head-covering, and at what speed ! The actors were so keen to convey the military atmosphere that the officers, as often as not, acknowledged a salute before it was given.

Alter much consultation, deep breathing exercise, and making of goo-goo eyes, the long-haired rabbit who was in command selected a position for “defence to the death” so obviously unsuitable and suicidal that he should have been ham-strung at once by his round-shouldered gang of supers. But, no! In striking attitudes they waited to be attacked at immense and quite unnecessary disadvantage by the savage horde. Then, amid noise and smoke, the commander endeavoured to atone for the hopeless situation in which he had placed his luckless men by waving his sword and exposing himself to the enemy’s bullets. I say “atone,” for it would have been the only chance for his detachment if he had been killed, and killed quickly. Well, after some time and many casualties, it occurred to him that it would be as well to do something he should have done at first, and let the nearest friendly force know of his predicament. The diminutive bugler with the clean face and nicely-brushed hair was naturally chosen for this very dangerous mission, which even a grown man would have had a poor chance of carrying out, and after shaking hands all round, well in the open, the little hero started off with his written message.

Then followed a prolonged nightmare of crawling through the bush-studded desert.

Bugler stalled savage foe, and shot several with his revolver. Savage foe stalked bugler and wounded him in both arms and one leg. Finally, after squirming in accentuated and obvious agony for miles, bugler reached the nearest friendly force, staggered up to its commander, thrust his despatch upon him, and swooned in his arms. Occasion for more saluting, deep breathing, and gesticulation, and much keen gazing through field-glasses – notwithstanding the fact that if the beleaguered garrison were in sight the sound of the firing must have been heard long before ! Then a trumpet-call on the harmonium, and away dashed the relief force of mounted men.

Meanwhile we were given a chance of seeing how badly things had been going with the devoted garrison at bay. It was only when they were at their last gasp and cartridge that the relief reached them. With waving of helmets and cheers from the defenders, the first two men of the relieving force hurled themselves over the improvised stockade. You know what they were? I knew what they must be long before they appeared. And it is hardly necessary to specify to which branches of His Majesty’s United Services they belonged. The sorely-wounded but miraculously tough bugler took the stockade in his stride a very good third. He had apparently recovered sufficiently to gallop all the way back with the rescuers – only to faint again, this time in the arms of his own commanding officer. Curtain! “They all love Jack,” an imitation of bagpipes on the harmonium, and “Rule Britannia” from the combined orchestra. As I say, this effort of realism was received with great applause, even by the men present.

As soon as the light went up I had a look at my neighbours. The seats on each side of me were empty, and in the row in front, about a couple of seats to my right, there was one occupant. He was a young fellow of the type of which one sees only too many in our large towns – one of the products of an overdone industrialism. He was round-shouldered and narrow-chested, and his pale thin face suggested hard work carried out in insanitary surroundings and on unwholesome food. His expression was precocious, but the loose mouth showed that its owner was far too unintelligent to be more than feebly and unsuccessfully vicious. He wore a yachting cap well on the back of his head, and on it he sported a plush swallow or eagle – or some other bird – of that virulent but non-committal blue which is neither Oxford nor Cambridge. It was Boat-Race week. He was evidently out for pleasure – poor devil! – and from his incidental remarks, which were all of a quasi-sporting nature, I gathered that he was getting it. I felt sorry for him and sympathized in his entire absorption in the strange scenes passing before his eyes – scenes of excitement and adventure far removed from the monotonous round of his squalid life. How much better an hour of such innocent amusement than time and money wasted in some boozing-ken – eh?

Well, I’m not quite sure what it means myself – some sort of a low drinking-den. But, anyway, that’s what I felt about it. After all, he was a harmless sort of chap, and his unsophisticated enjoyment made me envious. I took an interest in him – thought of giving him a bob or two when I went out. I want you to realize that I had nothing but kindly feelings towards the fellow. He comes in later on – wasn’t so unsuccessful after all.

Then we had one of those interminable scenes of chase in which a horseman flies for life towards you over endless stretches of plain and down the perspective of long vistas of forest, pursued at a discreet distance by other riders, who follow in his exact tracks, even to avoiding the same tree-stumps, all mounted on a breed of horse which does forty-five miles an hour across country and fifty along the hard high road. I forget the cause of the pursuit and its ending, but I know revolvers were used.

The next film was French, and of the snowball type. A man runs down a street. He is at once chased by two policemen, one long and thin and the other fat and bow-legged with an obviously false stomach. The followers very rapidly increase in number to a mixed mob of fifty or more, including nurses with children in perambulators. They go round many corners, and round every corner there happens to be a carefully arranged obstacle which they all fall over in a kicking heap. I remember that soot and whitewash played an important part, also that the wheels of the passing vehicles went round the wrong way.

Owing to the interruption of light, was it? I daresay. Anyway, it was very annoying. Then we had a bit of the supernatural. I’m afraid I didn’t notice what took place, so I’ll spare you a description. I was entirely engrossed with the efforts of the wretched pianist to play tremolo for ten solid minutes. I think it was the ghost melody from “The Corsican Brothers ” that she was struggling with, and the harmonium did not help one bit. The execution got slower and slower and more staccato as her hands grew tired, and at the end I am sure she was jabbing the notes with her aching fingers straight and stiff. Poor girl! What a life!

At about this moment, as far as I remember, a lady came in and took the seat in front of mine. She was a small woman, and was wearing a microscopic bonnet composed of two strings and a sort of crepe muffin. The expression of her face was the most perfect crystallization of peevishness I’ve ever seen, and her hair was screwed up into a tight knob about the size and shape of a large snail-shell. Evidently not well off – probably a charwoman. I caught a glimpse of her gloves as she loosened her bonnet-strings, and the fingertips were like the split buds of a black fuchsia just about to bloom. Shortly after she had taken her seat my friend with the Boat-Race favour suddenly felt hungry, cracked a nut between his teeth, spat out the shell noisily, and ate the kernel with undisguised relish. The lady gathered her mantle round her and sniffed. I was not surprised. The brute continued to crack nuts, eject shells, and chew till he killed all my sympathy for him, till I began to loathe his unhealthy face, and longed for something to strike him dead. This was absolutely the limit, and I should have cleared out had not the words LIFE-REPRO” on the handbill caught my eye. After all it must come to that soon, and I determined to sit the thing out. After one or two more films of a banal nature there was a special interval – called “Intermission” on the screen – and signs were not wanting of the approach of the main event of the show.

Two of the youths had exchanged their electric torches for trays, and perambulated the gangways with cries of “Chuglit— milk chuglit.” A third produced a large garden syringe and proceeded to squirt a fine spray into the air. This hung about in a cloud, and made the room smell like a soap factory. When the curtain bell sounded the curtain was not drawn nor were the lights lowered. A man stepped out of the small door and climbed up on to the narrow ledge in front of the screen, which served as a kind of stage or platform, and much to my disgust made obvious preparation to address the audience. He was a bulky fellow, and his apparent solidity was increased by the cut of his coat. His square chin added to the sense of power conveyed by his build, while a pair of gold-rimmed spectacles gave him an air of seriousness and wisdom. I at once sized him up as a mountebank, and thought I knew what sort of showman’s patter to expect. He did not waste much time before he got busy. Looking slowly all round the room, he fixed my sporting friend with a baleful glare until the latter stopped eating, then cleared his throat and began …

Comments: Ernest Dunlop Swinton (1868-1951) was a British military officer (influential in the development of tanks in the First World War) and a writer, producing fiction under the pseudonym O’le Luk-Oie. The story continues with an announcer promising a natural history film of unsurpassed life-like realism. The film shows a praying mantis and a scorpion which come out of the screen giant-sized and attack the audience, killing those that the narrator disliked before turning on him (see illustration below). In the end it turns out to have been a dream. The description of a cinema show, though sardonic, is filled with useful documentary detail. The garden syringe is a reference to the disinfectant sprays commonly used on cinema audiences at this time.

Links: Copy of the complete story on the Internet Archive

scorpion