The Cinema Habit

Source: ‘The Cinema Habit’, Punch, vol. 146, 18 March 1914, p. 215

Text: The writer of “The Ideal Film Plot,” which appeared in a recent issue of Punch, has quoted an “authority” (anonymous) for the approval of his scenario. It is quite evident that this “authority” (so-styled) must belong to the plebeian ranks of the film-world. It cannot reside in our suburb.

Our cinema theatre is, I venture to state, of a far superior order, both as to drama and as to morality. It is not a mere lantern-hall, close and stuffy, with twopenny and fourpenny seats (half-price to children, and tea provided free at matinée performances), but a white-and-gold Picturedrome, catering to an exclusive class of patrons at sixpence and a shilling, with neat attendants in dove-grey who atomise scent about the aisles, two palms, one at each side of the proscenium (real palms), and, in addition to a piano, a mustel organ to accompany the pathetic passages in the films. Moreover, the commissionaire outside, whose medals prove that he has seen service in the Charge of the Light Brigade, the Black Hole of Calcutta, and the Great Raid on the House of Commons in 1910, is not one of those blatant-voiced showmen who clamour for patronage; he is a quiet and dignified réceptionnaire, content to rely on the fame and good repute of his theatre. Sometimes evening dress (from “The Laburnums,” Meadowsweet Avenue, who are on the Stock Exchange) is to be seen in the more expensive seats.

It is unquestionably a high-class Picturedrome. True that the local dentist, who is a stickler for correct English, protests against the designation. I have pointed out to him that if a “Hippodrome” is a place where one sees performing hippos, then surely a place where one sees performing pictures is correctly styled a “Picturedrome.”

I am acquiring the cinema habit.

It is very restful. Each film is preceded on the screen by a certificate showing that its morality has been guaranteed by Mr. REDFORD. I have complete confidence in Mr. REDFORD’S sense of propriety. If, for instance, a bedroom scene is shown and a lady is about to change her gown, one’s advance blushes are needless. That film will be arrested at the loosing of the first hook or button. Virtue will always be plainly triumphant and vice as plainly vanquished. Even the minor imperfections of character will be suitably punished. When on the screen we see Daisy, the flighty college girl, borrowing without permission her friend’s hat, gown, shoes, necklace and curls in order to make a fascinating display before her young college man, it is certain that she will be publicly shamed by her friends and discredited in the eyes of her lover whose affections she seeks to win in this unmoral fashion.

On the screen we shall be sure to meet many old friends. The young American society nuts, in square-rigged coats, spacious trousers, and knobbly shoes, will buzz around the pretty girl like flies around a honey-pot, clamouring for the privilege of presenting her with a twenty-dollar bouquet of American Beauty roses. The bouquet she accepts will be the hero’s; and the other nuts will then group themselves in the background while she registers a glad but demure smile full in the eye of the camera.

The hero, however, loses his paternal expectations in the maelstrom of Wall Street. Throwing off his coat – literally, because at the cinema we are left in no doubt as to intentions – he resolves to go “out West” and retrieve the family fortunes.

Our old friends the cow-boys meet him at the wooden shack which represents the railway station at Waybackville, registering great glee at the prospect of hazing a tenderfoot. We know full well that he will eventually win their respect and high regard – probably by foiling a dastardly plot on the part of a Mexican half-breed – and we are therefore in no anxiety of mind when they raise the dust around his feet with their six-shooters, toss him in a blanket or entice him on to a meek-looking, but in reality record-busting, broncho.

In the middle of the drama we look forward to the “chases,” and we are never disappointed. Our pursued hero, attired in the picturesque bandarilleros of shaggy mohair and the open-throated shirterino of the West, will race through the tangled thickets of the picadoro-trees; thunder down the crumbling banks of amontillados so steep that the camera probably gets a crick in the neck looking up at him; ride the foaming torrent with one hand clasping the mane of his now tamed broncho, and the other hand triggering his shooting-iron; and eventually fall exhausted from the horse at the very doorstep of the ranch, one arm, pinged by a dastardly rifle-bullet, dangling helplessly by his side. (It is, by the way, always the arm or shoulder; the cinema never allows him to get it distressingly in the leg or in the neck.)

In the ultimate, with the wounded arm in a sling, he will tenderly embrace the heroine through a hundred feet of film, she meanwhile registering great joy and trustfulness, until the scene slowly darkens into blackness, and the screen suddenly announces that the next item on the programme will be No. 7, Exclusive to the Picturedrome.

We are greatly favoured with “exclusives.” It may be possible that other suburbs have these films, but it must be second-hand, after we have finished with them. The names of the artistes who create the róles are announced on the screen: “Captain Jack Reckles – Mr. Courcy van Highball,” or it maybe “Juliet, Miss Mamie Euffles.” Or it is a film taken at the local regatta or athletic sports, and the actors in it include all the notabilities of the district. We flock to see how we (or our neighbours) look on the screen, and enjoy a hearty laugh when the scullers of “The Laburnums” register a crab full in the eye of the camera, or “The Oleanders” canoe receives a plenteous backwash from a river-steamer.

But the staple fare is drama – red-blooded drama, where one is never in doubt as to who is in love with whom, and how much. Sometimes, to be frank, there is a passing flirtation, due to pique, between a wife and a third party, leading to misunderstandings, complications and blank despair on the part of the husband; but as there is always a “little one” somewhere in the background, we are never anxious as to the final outcome. It will end with the husband embracing the repentant (but stainless) wife, and at the same time extending a manly hand of reconciliation to the third party.

We also like the dying fiddler (with visions) and the motor-car splurges – especially the latter. In our daily life we are plagued with motor-cars, cycle-cars and motor-cycle side-cars, being on a highroad from London town to the country; but on the screen we adore them.

The cinema is very restful. There are no problems to vex the moral judgment; no psychological doubts; no anxieties. It will be “the mixture as before,” ending in the loving, lingering kiss.

Say what you will of Mr. REDFORD, he never deprives us of the kiss.

Comments: Punch was a British humorous magazine which frequently poked fun at the cinema and its audiences. George Redford was head of the British Board of Film Censors.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg