Cheap Amusements

Source: John Collier, ‘Cheap Amusements’, Charities and the Commons, 11 April 1908, pp. 73-76

Text: For four months a joint-committee of the Woman’s Municipal League and the People’s Institute has been engaged in an investigation of the cheap amusements of Manhattan Island. The committee has been composed as follows: Michael M. Davis, Jr., secretary of the People’s Institute, chairman; Mrs. Josephine Redding, secretary of the Woman’s Municipal League, secretary; Mrs. R. H. McKelvey, Miss Henrietta B. Rodman, Miss Alice Lewisohn, Mrs. F.R. Swift, Michael H. Cardoza, Charles H. Ayres, Jr., John Collier, and W. Frank Persons. The investigation has been made financially possible through the Spuyten Duyvil branch of the Woman’s Municipal League. The writer has acted as field investigator.

Attempt has been made to cover all phases of the cheap amusement problem, excluding from the detailed investigation dance-halls and skating-rinks on the one hand and high-priced theaters on the other. Legal and business aspects have been studied as well as educational and sanitary. The subject-matter has been fourfold: melodrama, vaudeville and burlesque; nickelodeons, or moving picture variety shows; penny arcades; and miscellany. The miscellany are anatomical museums, fake beauty-shows, etc., which are confined to a limited area of the city where they maintain a difficult existence. They can be passed over in the present brief report. What follows sums up the results of the investigation.

The whole topography of the cheap-amusement problem has changed within the last six years. To illustrate: the old-time crass melodrama has been in large measure dethroned, crowded out by the cheap vaudeville and the nickelodeon. The cheap vaudeville has spread widely and has become a problem in itself; it plays a fairly constructive role in a few instances, and in several is about the vilest and most brutalizing form of entertainment in New York. Withal, it generally keeps within the bounds of the laws protecting public decency, which are largely matters of interpretation, but only through agitation, hard fighting and a constantly aroused public sentiment can it be kept within bounds. But even the cheap vaudeville has been eclipsed by the tremendously expansive nickelodeon, the number of which in Greater New York, has grown in a few years from nothing to more than six hundred. The nickelodeon is now the core of the cheap amusement problem. Considered numerically it is four times more important than all the standard theaters of the city combined. It entertains from three to four hundred thousand people daily, and between seventy-five and a hundred thousand children. And finally, the penny arcade has sprung into mushroom existence, has proved itself to be irredeemable on the educational side and without the elements of permanent growth in popular favor and has worn out its public. It is now being driven from the field by the nickelodeon.

Not only the superficial aspect, but the essential nature of the cheap amusement problem has changed and changed for the better. Constructive elements have entered and triumphantly made good with the public, so that now the cheap-amusement situation offers an immediate opportunity and a rousing challenge to the social worker. The nickelodeon’s the thing, and the story of its development is instructive.

Five years ago the nickelodeon was neither better nor worse than many other cheap amusements are at present. It was often a carnival of vulgarity, suggestiveness and violence, the fit subject for police regulation. It gained a deservedly bad name, and although no longer deserved, that name still clings to it. During the present investigation a visit to more than two hundred nickelodeons has not detected one immoral or indecent picture, or one indecent feature of any sort, much as there has been in other respects to call for improvement. But more than this: in the nickelodeon one sees history, travel, the reproduction of industries. He sees farce-comedy which at worst is relaxing, innocuous, rather monotonously confined to horseplay, and at its best is distinctly humanizing, laughing with and not at the subject. Some real drama: delightful curtain-raisers, in perfect pantomime, from France, and in the judgment of most people rather an excess of mere melodrama, and in rare cases even of sheer murderous violence. At one show or another a growing number of classic legends, like Jack and the Beanstalk or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, can be seen any night. The moving picture repertoire amounts to tens of thousands, and is amazingly varied. One firm alone in the city has two million feet of “film” stored away until it can be used again as fresh material, after the public has forgotten it. In addition to the moving-picture, the nickelodeon as a rule has singing, and almost invariably the audience joins in the chorus with a good will. Thus has the moving-picture-show elevated itself. But the penny arcade has not elevated itself, and the cheap vaudeville, if anything, has grown worse.

The nickelodeon is a family theater, and is almost the creation of the child, and it has discovered a new and healthy cheap-amusement public. The penny arcade is a selfish and costly form of amusement, a penny buying only a half-minute’s excitement for one person. Its shooting-gallery and similar features are likewise costly. In the short-lived pictures there is no time for the development of human interest, but the gist of a murder or of a salacious situation can be conveyed. So the penny arcade has resembled the saloon, from which the family has stayed away; and everything artificial has been mustered in to draw the floating crowd. As for the cheap theater, it has had a false tradition behind it, and managers have taken for granted that a low-priced performance could be given only by an inferior cast. So when the cheap theater has departed from the crudest melodrama it has gone over into inferior vaudeville and has depended on illegitimate methods for its success. This is the rule, although there are exceptions, and vaudeville at best has only a limited interest for the great, basic, public of the working and immigrant classes in New York.

But the nickelodeon started with a free field and a marvelous labor-saving device in the moving-picture, and it began above all as a neighborhood institution, offering an evening of the most varied interest to the entire family for a quarter. Thus the nickelodeon grew as solidly as it grew swiftly, and developed a new amusement seeking public, the public that has made the nickelodeon what it is. Right here is found the most significant aspect of the present amusement situation. All the settlements and churches combined do not reach daily a tithe of the simple and impressionable folk that the nickelodeons reach and vitally impress every day. Here is a new social force, perhaps the beginning of a true theater of the people, and an instrument whose power can only be realized when social workers begin to use it.

The investigation led almost immediately to constructive opportunities. On the legal side, an anomalous situation was found. In no existing law, state or municipal, was penny arcade or moving picture mentioned. These theaters were grouped by construction as common shows, along with ferris wheels and bicycle carrousels, and were put under the authority of the license bureau. But where the standard theater is regulated in the minutest detail as regards its building requirements, by written law, there is no law and no printed specification for the moving picture show, which plays with fire. The theaters are controlled by the police, in whom responsibility is centered, and who co-operate with the proper departments. But the nickelodeon is controlled by the license bureau, a clerical department, and up to ten months ago it went to all intents and purposes unsupervised. Then popular agitation and the initiative of a hard working official in the fire department, set the city’s machinery at work, and a good deal has been done. The moving picture show is reasonably safe from fire now; it is not yet safe from contagious disease, and the air is often very bad.

As a first step toward adjusting the legal situation, the investigation committee framed a bill, which has been introduced by Assemblyman Samuel A. Gluck at Albany, and which has passed the Assembly by a large majority. Barring unforeseen obstacles it will pass the Senate at the present session. This bill provides for the raising of license fees on nickelodeons from $25 to $150 a year, for the placing of this license under the direct control of the police, along with the license for standard theaters, and for the exclusion of school children from nickelodeons during school hours and after eight o’clock at night, except when accompanied by guardians. This bill went to Albany with the endorsement of various civic organizations, the Board of Education, and the Moving Picture Association itself which has shown every desire to co-operate in the improvement of moving picture standards.

On the side of co-operation with the moving-picture business looking toward more elevated performances, and even the improvement of the artistic and educational quality and of sanitary conditions through direct competition on a commercial basis, the opportunity is immediate and large. In this field it is probable that the drama machinery of the People’s Institute will be turned to use in some co-operative plan, giving endorsement to the best of the shows and receiving in return the right to regulate their programs. Settlements on their own initiative could do valuable work in this way. The investigation committee, which is to be perpetuated as a sub-committee of the drama committee of the People’s Institute, will in all probability start one or more model nickelodeons, with the object of forcing up the standard through direct competition, of proving that an unprecedentedly high class of performance can be made to pay, and perhaps, in the event of success, of founding a people’s theater of the future.

Comments: John Collier was an American social worker working for the New York People’s Institute. Michael M. Davis of the same organisation later produced an important study of commercial entertainments, including cinema, The Exploitation of Pleasure: A Study of Commercial Recreations in New York City (1911). Charities and the Commons was a weekly journal dedicated to social and charitable themes. Penny arcades would often include moving pictures, usually of the peepshow variety.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

The Cinema in Arcady

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance XII: The Cinema in Arcady’, Close Up vol. II no. 1, July 1928, pp. 52-57

Text: Hedge-topped banks form a breezeless corridor upon whose floor, white with dust, the sun beats down. Dust films the edges and most of the flowering things that brought forgetfulness of the hidden distances have fled. We trudged averted from beauty defaced, hearing bird-song in the unspoiled hedges of fresh invisible fields and watching for the bend of the long lane and the reward: shelter or high trees that there begin their descending march and, for our shaded eyes, the view of the little grey harbour town at our feet screened by misty tree-tops of spring, the wide estuary beyond it, sapphire backed by golden sand-dunes, miniatures of the tors standing in distant amber light along the horizon. The bend came and the twin poplars that frame the prospect for which our waiting eyes were raised; to see, fastened from trunk to trunk an obliterating sign-board: Come to the Pictures.

Jealously the year before we had resented the walls of the small palace rising in unearthly whiteness at the angle of a grey ramshackle by-street. And even while we knew that what we were resenting was the invasion of our retreat by any kind of culture and even while we were moved by the thought of the marvels about to appear before the astonished eyes of villagers and fisherfolk, we still had our doubts. And this placard defacing the loveliest view in the neighbourhood seemed symbolically to confirm them. We doubted because we had found in these people a curious completeness; wisdom, and a strange sophisticated self-sufficiency. We told ourselves that they were an ancient aristocratic people and made romantic generalisations ffrom every scrap of favourable evidence. And though it may perhaps fairly be claimed that these lively, life-educated people of the coast villages and fishing stations do not need, as do the relatively isolated people of crowded towns, the socialising influence of the cinema, we were obliged in the end to admit that our objections were indefensible.

There, at any rate, the cinema presently was. We ignored and succeeded in forgetting it until the placard appeared and in imagination we saw an epidemic of placards, in ancient hamlets, in meadows, on cliffsides and we went forth to battle. We battled for months for the restoration of the hillside landscape. In vain. Urban district councillors were sympathetic and dubious. The villagers were for living and letting live and the harbour towns-folk would not come out against a fellow townsman. Generally our wrathful sorrow provoked a mild amusement. The placard was regarded as a homely harmless affair as inoffensive as a neighour’s out hung washing, except by those few who were voluble in execration of the cinema and all its works. From these we collected evidence recalling the recorded depredations of strong drink amongst primitive peoples. Crediting all we heard we should see the entire youthful population of the parish, and many of the middle-aged, centred upon the pictures, living for them. We heard of youths and maidens once frugal, homely and dutiful, who now squander their earnings not only twice weekly when the picture is changed, but nightly. Of debt. Of tradesmen’s bills that mount and mount unpaid as never before. The prize story is of a one-time solid matron now so demoralised that rather than miss a picture she will obtain groceries on credit and sell of them to her neighbours.

It is clear that down here amongst these full-living hard-working landspeople the enchantment has worked at least as potently as in the towns. And reflection suggests an explanation that would apply equally to almost any rural district where life is lived all the year round in the open or between transparent walls, lived from birth to death in the white light of a publicity for which towns can offer no parallel. Drama is continuous. No day passes without bringing to some group or member of the large scattered family a happening more or less shared by everyone else and fruitful of eloquence. Speech is relatively continuous. Solitude almost unknown. And these people have turned to the pictures as members of a family who know each other by heart will turn to the visitor who brings the breath of otherness. And whereas in the towns those who frequent the cinema may obtain together with its other gifts admission to a generalized social life, a thing unknown in slum and tenement, lodging-house and the smaller and poorer villadom, these people of village and hamlet, already socially educated and having always before their eyes the spectacle of life in the raw throughout its entire length, the assemblage of every kind of human felicity and tribulation, find in the cinema together with all else it has to offer them, their only escape from ceaseless association, their only solitude, the solitude that is said to be possible only in cities. They become for a while citizens of a world whose every face is that of a stranger. The mere sight of these unknown people is refreshment. And the central figures of romance are heaven-born, are the onlookers as they are to themselves, heroes and heroines unknown to their neighbours. To cease for a moment to be just John or Mary carrying about with you wherever you go your whole known record, to be oblivious of the scene upon which your life is lived and your future unalterably cast, is to enter into your own eternity.

It is not possible perfectly to disentangle from that of the wrireless, the popular newspaper and the gramophone, the influence of the cinema in rural districts. Certain things however, emerge more or less clearly. There is for example no evidence, at any rate down here in the west, of any increased desire for town life. Rather the contrary, for the prestige of that life has suffered more than a little as a result of realistic representation and the strongest communicable impression whether of London, New York or other large city — all much of a muchness and equally remote, though not more so than Plymouth — is that of insecurity. Neither in railway station, hotel, or crowded street is either money or life for a single moment free from risk. And the undenied charm of the Far West is similarly overshadowed: you must be prepared either to shoot or to be shot. And although condemnation goes hand in hand with envy of the apparently limitless possibilities of acquisition and independence, the vote on the whole goes steadily for the civilisation and safety of rural conditions.

Melodrama and farcical comedy are prime favourites and an intensity of interest centres about the gazette, the pictures of what is actually going on in various parts of the world. That there is always something worth seeing and that the music is “lovely” is almost universal testimony. It is probable that the desire for perpetual cinema will presently abate. A year of constant film-seeing is not overmuch for those without theatre, music-hall or any kind of large scale public entertainement. Meantime one clearly visible incidental result of this intensive cultivation is to be noted: these people, and particularly the younger generation, have no longer quite the local
quality they had even a year ago. They are amplified, aware of resources whose extent is unknown to them and have a joyful half-conscious preoccupation with this new world that has been brought into their midst, a preoccupation that on the whole, and if one excludes the weaklings who would in any case be the prey of desirable or undesirable external forces, serves to enhance the daily life. They no longer for one reason and another, amongst which the cinema is indisputably the foremost, [f]it to their local lives as closely as of yore. Evidence of this change is to be found even in their bearing. The “yokel” is less of a lout than he was wont to be and the dairymaid even on workdays is indistinguishable from her urban counterpart. And though doubtless something is lost and the lyric poet is shedding many an unavailing tear, much undeniably is gained. These youths and maidens in becoming world citizens, in getting into communication with the unknown, become also recruits available, as their earth and-cottage-bound forbears never could have been for the world-wide conversations now increasingly upon us in which the cinema may play, amongst its numerous other roles, so powerful a part.

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Sociology of the Film

Source: Unnamed 17-year old female, quoted in J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 213-215

Text: Have Films Ever Appeared in Your Dreams?

Yes, films have often appeared in my dreams.

I think films are a wonderful medium of entertainment, one which we should think about a great deal. When I see a beautiful film, as when I see a beautiful play or hear a lovely piece of music at a concert or on the radio, I like to think about it by myself and when I go to bed I dream about them.

For me to think about and therefore to dream about a film, it has to be one of the first class or else to be very unusual. The acting must be good, the voice arresting for me to see or hear them in my dreams. I never dream of slapstick comedy, or even a thrilling murder. When I see a film it may interest me during the couple of hours I am in the cinema, but I may forget it promptly on leaving it. Sometimes, however, I see a film which I like very much, one
which I could see again perhaps, on the way home from the theatre I think about it, and at night, asleep, certain scenes will come back to me. Perhaps it will be a line spoken by one of the actors, maybe a glance or gesture.

I can always remember, when I was a child seeing The Great Ziegfeld. In those days it was considered spectacular, and in my dreams for many nights afterwards I dreamt of the revolving stage, the glamourous (glamorous) girls and those lovely dogs. In those days too I used to see Shirley Temple a great deal. At night I used to re-live her adventures and unhappy moments. Wonderful things like films have a strange impression on a child’s mind, and now
that I am seventeen, films still have a great fascination for me.

I went to see The Man in Grey some time ago, a picture which I found thoroughly enjoyable and stimulating. At night I kept seeing the terrifying look on James Mason’s face as he beat Hester to death. I could not get it out of my dreams for some time.

After I had seen the picture The Great Waltz, I did not dream of scenes or people but of the haunting Strauss waltzes. It was the same with Love Story when parts of the Cornish Rhapsody appeared in my dreams. Also The Great Victor Herbert and A Song to Remember.

A week or so ago I saw Madonna of the Seven Moons. I enjoyed it and thought about it quite a bit. When you think about a thing a lot before going to sleep, it is likely that you should dream about it. But no! For some reason or other I kept hearing Patricia Roc say when she saw her mother — ‘It isn’t possible, no one could be so lovely’. While on the subject of split minds, I always remember going to see Dr. Jeckyll [sic] and Mr. Hyde on a foggy night, and having the most terrible nightmare afterwards. I kept seeing the face change from good to bad and vice versa.

After seeing Blossoms in the Dust, lilies kept appearing in my dreams. The night after seeing Since You Went Away the scene in the hay was re-lived in my dreams.

Rebecca was one of the best films I have ever seen, and therefore quite natural that I should think and dream about it a lot. I often saw in my dreams Joan Fontaine’s shy face. And in many of my dreams I saw Laurence Olivier’s expression when he told his wife about Rebecca. I heard that wonderful voice saying: ‘Do you think I killed her, loving her; I hated her.’ It was a wonderful piece of acting.

I think the him I dreamed about more than any other was Gone with the Wind. I could see it over and over again and still dream about it. How often did I dream I saw Vivien Leigh as Scarlett O’Hara climb the stairs at Twelve Oaks after telling Ashley that she loved him, she was so proud, so beautiful. How often did I see her treading her way among the wounded in Atlanta. And I could see Melanie’s face when she was so ill. A scene I shall never forget was of Scarlett on her return home, standing in the desolate garden and saying ‘As God is my witness, I’m never going to be hungry again’. You could not see her face only her silouhette (silhouette).

I dreamed of her also standing in the windy orchard almost at the end of her tether. I saw over and over again Clark Gable’s eyes as she fell down the stairs. I dreamt I saw Scarlett entering Melanie’s party, in her red dress and her head up, ready for anything. I saw the sweet smile of Bonnie, Mammie’s disapproving face, and Gerald’s expression as he opened the door to Scarlett.

The scene I saw most was the last one where she lay on the stairs thinking everything she loved most in the world had gone, and she heard the voice of her father, Ashley and Rhett coming to her telling her that Tara was left. I saw her stiffen and say ‘After all, tomorrow is another day’. What a lovely ending for a film!

I could go on for ever telling of all the films I have dreamed of, but it would take too long. Films take my mind off things and I can always relax in a cinema. They make me forget this world and live in another. Therefore I like to dream of good films and sometimes I dream that there were more good films to dream about. Don’t you?

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above response comes from the section ‘The Adult and the Cinema’, and is the first half of of the picturegoer’s response. She is described as Age – 17 years, Profession – junior clerk, Nationality – British (London), Sex – female, Profession of father – furrier.

The Lure of the Films

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Illustration by Wilson C. Dexter that accompanies the original article

Source: Olivia Howard Dunbar, ‘The Lure of the Films’, Harper’s Weekly, 18 January 1913, pp. 20, 22

Text: Adventures to discover how and where the rest of the world amuses itself are rarely as jocund as they sound. But the adventurer of proper spirit is usually content in witnessing the riotous joy of the multitude, however grimly unmoved his own less facile springs of mirth. Oddly enough, an attempt to share in the delights of “moving pictures,” widely accepted as the most popular of amusements, can scarcely be counted upon to produce even this vicarious satisfaction. For if the adventurer himself gives no sign of being entertained by the “photoplay” or the “art-film,” neither, to his amazement, does the close-packed audience that surrounds him – a fact that is at first inexplicable.

Does all the world demand the “film-show” and then withhold its approval from sheer caprice? And why does it throng so steadily today to the very performance whose lack of stimulus it must have discovered yesterday and the day before?

On the other hand, if a random assemblage of this sort gives mysteriously few evidences of active enjoyment, it gives fewer still of displeasure or ennui. To watch it is to discover that it is infinitely tolerant; completely and blessedly immune to boredom. It even betrays no annoyance on being gently approached from behind by some deputy of the management, and sprayed, as a festal touch, with strong. inalienable scent. Daily and hourly – for their patronage is so great that they open either at noon or at nine in the morning — these theaters offer thousands of cases in disproof of all that has been fallaciously said in regard to the restless energy of the American. You wonder how it can be possible, in an alleged busy world, to secure this magnificent total of leisure – to assemble daily, and for long, blank periods, so many people who have nothing to do and who are obviously not worrying about it. Every day, under these roofs, has the stagnant and misleading air of a holiday. And while it may be true that shirking housewives and truant children are never missing, it is nevertheless an interesting fact that three-fourths of the spectators are always men.

Rarely does such an audience betray animation, scarcely ever awareness. Its posture is indifferent and relaxed; its jaws moving unconcernedly in tune with the endlessly reiterated ragtime ground out by some durable automaton — at least, one prefers to believe it an automaton; its dull eyes unresponsively meeting the shadowy grimaccs on the flickering “ film.”

Are these pleasure-seekers resolutely disguising their enjoyment? Or are they, as they appear to be, half asleep? It is true that all the conditions conduce to semi-somnolence – the unbroken whine of the ragtime; the unnatural “continuousness” of the exhibition, hour after hour, without a moment’s interval; the lack of sequence or climax, as of one oddly literal dream succeeding another — varied, at long intervals, by a bolder picture that introduces the strange, noiseless turbulence of nightmare.

In spite of the lack of enthusiasm, there is an indefinable atmosphere of experience and accustomedness. Nobody but yourself is unfamiliar and inquiring. There is rather less suspense and excitement than you will encounter in a trolley-car. You begin to suspect that the phlegmatic audience, having come a great many times before, is quite prepared for the fact that nine-tenths of the programme will be padding and that it does not mind in the least. There is not so much as a change of its expression, much less a sign of applause, as companies of shadow-soldiers are assembled and drilled; parades of a dozen kinds trail their blurred length across the curtain; foreign cities flash out glimpses of their characteristic scenes; ships are launched, cornerstones are laid, medals are presented, and laboratory experiments demonstrating some feature of popular science are painstakingly performed. All “films,” in fact, that may be classed as educational or even indirectly instructive, as well as the occasional ones that are of a genuinely artistic interest, meet with frank but unrcbellious indifference.

For an hour this may continue. Then you are conscious of a stir in the chairs behind you, and a man’s didactic voice begins to enlighten the woman who is with him, in precisely the same fashion that the couple who have sat behind you at the theater all your life have gratuitously explained and perfunctorily listened. You rouse yourself, look about, even glance at the forgotten curtain to discover what it is that has relieved an apathy so general and so profound; and discover that, far from being some unimagined marvel, it is merelv a street scene in New York. And you wonder why the “Film Trust” should go to the trouble of contriving historical “playlets” in costume, through which audiences sleep contentedly, when what really stirs them is the representation of something that they see every day of their lives – the life-size figure of a policeman, a trolley-car, a crowd on Broadway. But this is not, after all, a new phenomenon. The ecstasy experienced by persons of a certain degree of simplicity in recognizing on the stage a familiar object or character has never been explained, although producers must long have realized and catered to it, as an incident in many kinds of drama. It has so often been apparent that audiences betrayed a keener delight in the introduction into a play of a cow or a horse than in the exploits of the most accomplished actor. During one long afternoon of widely varied cinematographic devices, the only genuine success was achieved by a youth who came out before the curtain made a sound like an automobile! This bit of simple realism did wake the sleeping audience from its dreams and gave them an unmistakably poignant pleasure which they expressed without restraint.

These flashes of sympathetic response are rare and fleeting, but may always be evoked by one other element – the broadly farcical. And it is perhaps unnecessary to explain that, the more nearly this unliteral comedy (for realism plays no part_here) approaches that of the comic supplement, the wilder and more immediate its success. An altercation, a practical joke, a chase, are of course the unvarying themes, a chase of anything by anybody, however meaningless, being the acknowledged favorite. Unfailingly popular are the pictured disputes between an impossible mistress and an unnatural servant, in which the maid tumultuously triumphs; or farcical interruptions of the love-making of an ill-suited couple; or rowdy street scenes in which people tumble over each other and somebody gets beaten for an offense he didn’t commit, while the culprit leers from a. neighboring corner. All this is, of course, more or less vulgar, but in the highly unrealistic sense that the comic supplement is vulgar — a harsh, unlovely, shadow-land, repellent, one would suppose, to intelligence and sanity.

The merriment that was set free by the pictured conflict of boy and policeman subsides again into apathy when the first scene in the more ambitious “photoplay” is flashed upon the curtain. For these fragmentary echoes of melodrama seem to be accepted merely as echoes, dim and undisturbing. Their warmed-over quality enables the spectator to remain entirely cool and disillusioned. And yet these plays often present not only the same type of heroine and villain that the old plays did, but the same actors — one would swear to it. The villain’s throwing back his head in cruel, contemptuous laughter is a trick he must have learned and often practised on Fourteenth Street. And the malign deliberation of his walk is full of an ancient theatric significance that could scarcely be felt by any traditionless cub, hired to play in pantomime before the camera. On the other hand, that intemperate use of the telephone that characterizes the moving-picture play was of course unknown to melodrama.

The “Indian play ” – indeed, the Wild West drama generally — is understood to be a commodity that is ordered in large quantities for contemporary audiences; but the result produces no apparent excitement. While a red man discovers a child left alone in a prairie cabin, and, brandishing cruel weapons, pursues the child through various shadow-scenes, the audience contentedly chews its gum. Further scenes are revealed in which the child’s father appears, rescues the child and slays the Indian — but the onlookers are still unmoved. Even the dramatic adventures of the simpering young girl who is menaced by a nondescript villain and rescued at the critical moment by the humble but hitherto neglected suitor are accepted with complete nonchalance. Endangered girlhood is, however, so frequently and persistently presented that the theory must exist that it is a favorite stimulus with these stodgy audiences.

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‘There is not so much as a change of expression, much less a sign of applause.’ Illustration by Wilson C. Dexter that accompanies the original article, with caption

Yet these apathetic groups who now appear, except for their occasional bursts of unjoyous mirth, emotionless, are the same men and women who only a few years ago thronged constantly to the melodramas at the urge of what seemed to be an elemental need, the need of wholesome emotional exercise. No audience was ever disappointed in one of these eminently reliable performances; none was ever bored or critical or sleepy. One knew what one had come for and settled down comfortably to enjoy it. It was of relatively little importance whether the central figure in the tangle of love, danger, sacrifice, villainy, heroism, disaster, and triumph was Nellie, the Beautiful Cloak Model, or Bertha, the Sewing-Machine Girl — the succession of thrills was of practically the same character and intensity. What these audiences unconsciously demanded was an excuse to laugh, weep, pity, resent, condemn, and admire, all in strict conformity with the orthodox moral code; and it was this that was abundantly furnished them. It would surely be a psychological marvel if so deep a need could have vanished as the coincidence of a mere change of fashion in entertainments.

But the best and most satisfying feature of the melodramas was their imaginative scope, their denial of logical limitations. The simple, normal mind while it has felt a childlike delight in the occasional realistic detail, has probably always been charmed by the theater in proportion as its spectacle, as a whole, transcended reality. A world as unfettered as the world of faery, whose characters should have the shape and speech of the ordinary wage-earner, would have at any time a compelling appeal. “What attracted me so strongly to the theater,” Wagner says, speaking of his childhood, “was … the fascinating pleasure of finding mvself in an entirely different atmosphere, in a world that was purely fantastic and often gruesomely attractive. Thus to me … some costume or a characteristic part of it seemed to come from another world, to be in some way as attractive as an apparition.” There is no doubt that this is the expression of a universal experience; and that if a sensitive, impressionable child of six or seven could define and express the emotions (too vaguely recalled by the adult) aroused by its first theater, this would form a human document of thrilling interest. And it may be that melodrama at its best supplied multitudes of adult children with an approximation of this delicious and memorable experience of infancy.

In comparison with the popular drama that it has succeeded and supplanted, the motion picture of course provides little or no emotional outlet. It is far from attempting to “purge with pity and terror” the casual multitudes that it attracts. In most cases the interest that it excites, when it excites any, is shallow, fleeting, two-dimensional, like the pictures themselves. It offers no illusion and no mystery. What is left to those who have had to accustom themselves to this thin and unsatisfying form of emotion, but to acquire, as they have, a self-protective surface of apparent torpor?

It is easy, of course, to recall conspicuously exceptional cases. There is now and then a feverish desire to see the pictured record of some current event of especial interest, particularly when it has to do with sports. But the kind of excitement that would be aroused by the records of a baseball or football game is a very special thing, and is infinity [sic] removed from the mere normal desire for amusement. Yet it is fully shared, as everybody knows, by sophisticated childhood. Indeed, the overpowering desire felt by youthful East Side citizens to see certain celebrated “movies” has more than once led them into tragic difficulty. Not many months ago, just after a much-advertised prize-fight, two little boys, whose uncontrollable longing for the admission fee to a picture-hall had led them to upset a grocer’s display and barter his goods independently, were brought to the Children’s Court. “The price of admittance was five cents?” inquired the judge, examining them. The smaller boy, who was very small indeed, quickly raised his thin, tense face. “Oh, but it was ten cents to see the big fight, judge!” he cried, hoarsely, the tremendous intensity of his manner and expression at once defining the almost irresistible character of his temptation and what he felt to be the manly magnitude of his crime.

But even though its imagination starve, a disaster of which it can scarcely be conscious, it is not difficult to understand why the vast, simple, unexigent public so faithfully follows up the moving picture. Almost any institution that cost so little would probably be patronized, even though the most it did was to provide a convenient and often comfortable lounging place, and, in the poorer quarters of the city, to provide an excuse for social contact. After all, there is no question but that the equivalent of a nickel is usually supplied. Beyond this, there is the fascination of never knowing what one is going to see, which is a far greater lure than an exact knowledge of what is forthcoming. But its strongest hold must be the fact that it makes no demand whatever upon its audiences, requiring neither punctuality — for it has no beginning — nor patience — for it has no end — nor attention — for it has no sequence. No degree of intelligence is necessary, no knowledge of our language, nor convictions nor attitude of any kind, reasonably good eyesight being indeed the only requisite. In the world of amusement, no line of less resistance than this has surely yet been offered.

Comment: Olivia Howard Dunbar (1873-1953) was an American biographer and writer of ghost stories.

My Last Breath

Source: Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath (London: Flamingo, 1985), pp. 31-33

Text: I think I was about eight years old when I discovered the cinema, at a theatre called the Farrucini. There were two doors, one exclusively for exiting, one for entering, set in a beautiful wooden facade. Outside, a cluster of lemonade sellers equipped with a variety of musical instruments hawked their wares to passersby. In reality, the Farrucini was little more than a shack; it had wooden benches and a tarpaulin for a roof.

I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies alone, but was always accompanied, as everywhere, by my nurse, even when I only went across the street to play with my friend Pelayo. I remember how enthralled I was by my first cartoon; it was about a pig who wore a tricolor sash around its waist and sang. (The sound came from a record player hidden behind the screen.) I’m quite sure that it was a color film, which at that time meant that each image had been painted by hand.

Movies then were little more than a curiosity, like the sideshow at a country fair. They were simply the primitive products of a newly discovered technique. Apart from trains and streetcars, already habitual parts of our lives, such ‘modern’ techniques were not much in evidence in Saragossa. in fact, in 1908, there was only one automobile in the entire city, an electric one.

Yet movies did signify a dramatic intrusion into our medieval universe and soon several permanent movie theatres appeared, equipped with either armchairs or benches, depending on the price of admission. By 1914, there were actually three good theatres: the Salon Doré, the Coyne (named after the famous photographer), and the Ena Victoria. (There was a fourth, on the Calle de los Estebanes, but I’ve forgotten the name. My cousin lived on that street, and we had a terrific view of the screen from her kitchen window. Her family finally boarded it up, however, and put in a skylight instead; but we managed to dig a small hole in the bricks, where we took turns watching soundless moving pictures.)

When it comes to the movies I saw when I was very young, my memory grows cloudy; I often confuse them with movies I saw later in Madrid. But I do remember a French comedian who kept falling down; we used to called him Toribio. (Could it have been Onésime?) We also saw the films of Max Linder and of Méliès, particularly his Le Voyage dans la lune. The first American films – adventure serials and burlesques – arrived later. There were also some terribly romantic Italian melodramas; I can still see Francesca Bertini, the Greta Garbo of Italy, twisting the long curtain at her window and weeping. (It was both wildly sentimental and very boring.) The most popular actors at the time were the Americans Conde Hugo (Count Hugo) and Lucilla Love (pronounced Lové in Spanish). They were famous for their romances and action-packed serials.

In addition to the traditional piano player, each theatre in Saragossa was equipped with its explicador, or narrator, who stood next to the screen and ‘explained’ the action to the audience. ‘Count Hugo sees his wife go by on the arm of another man,’ he would declaim, ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, you will see how he opens the drawer of his desk and takes out a revolver to assassinate his unfaithful wife!’

It’s hard to imagine today, but when cinema was in its infancy, it was such a new and unusual narrative form that most spectators had difficulty understanding what was happening. Now we’re so used to film language, to the elements of montage, to both simultaneous and successive action, to flashbacks, that our comprehension is automatic; but in the early years, the public had a hard time deciphering this new pictorial grammar. They needed an explicador to guide them from scene to scene.

I’ll never forget, for example, everyone’s terror when we saw our first zoom. There on the screen was a head coming closer and closer, growing larger and larger. We simply couldn’t understand that the camera was moving nearer to the head, or that because of trick photography (as in Méliès’s films), the head only appeared to grow larger. All we saw was a head coming towards us, swelling hideously out of all proportion. Like Saint Thomas the Apostle, we believed in the reality of what we saw.

Comment: Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) was one of the world’s great filmmakers. This extract is taken from his autobiography. Toribio was the given Spanish name for the French comic actor André Deed, best known under his Italian name of Cretinetti. Onésime was a different actor. The film with the expanding head may be Georges Méliès’s L’homme à la tête en caoutchouc (1901). I have not been able to identify Conde Hugo or Lucilla Love, who might possibly have featured in Spanish serials, of which there were a number in the late 1910s.