Cinemas and Cemeteries

Source: Richard Carr, ‘Cinemas and Cemeteries’, World Film and Television Progress, vol. 2 no. 2 (May 1937), pp. 18-19

Text: Once synonymous with suburban snobbery, Tooting to-day is a progressive and up-to-date suburb, contrasting favourably with its encircling neighbours, Balham and Wandsworth. As inner-London suburbs go, Tooting is fairly new: not so long ago, green fields abounded where now stand rows and rows of middle-class villas or streets of Council houses. Only in the older part of the suburb are there slums, bad ones too, slowly giving way before a continued and, at times, ferocious anti-slum campaign.

The population to-day is largely lower-middle and working class: the higher-ups have gradually moved further out as Council housing development has brought working-class people from the more crowded parts of London. Now its inhabitants are mainly office, shop, transport, printing and building workers, progressive in opinion and making the suburb a busy, lively and progressive area. It has no industries: unless cinemas and cemeteries be such.

For a population of 39,000 Tooting has seven cinemas. There are of course several others, on the outskirts of surrounding districts, within easy reach. Two of Tooting’s seven are “supers,” one a cine-news; the others date from earlier days and are correspondingly inadequate.

In old Tooting, there is a cinema which has claimed to be one of the first halls in London to show films. During its chequered career it has been music-hall, theatre, cinema; has closed and re-opened so often that the legend “under new management” might well be engraved on its walls, second in importance only to the cinema’s name.

The exact date at which films were first shown at this theatre is uncertain but its type of programme certainly tends to take one back some years in movie history. Names appear on the programme strange to the new generation of cinema-goers. Serials are run here too, serials on the old model in which the hero is left for a whole week suspended over a precipice, or lying helpless before an oncoming express, or at the mercy of relentless enemies. The display bills, contrasting with the modernistic advertising of the “supers,” are just long black-lettered lists of films: lists of westerns, of thrillers, of serials, of comedies, films not for an age but for all time.

Besides children and lads, appreciative of exciting films, a small and rather depressed audience visits this cinema. One fancies them lost, hovering helplessly between the cinemas they knew in the ill-lit, novelty days and the new “supers.” These are neither the simple, easily satisfied audiences of the pre-war days, nor the sophisticated movie fans of to-day. Perhaps, too old or too tired to go farther than just round the corner to the pictures, or too conservative to accept change, or too dazed and bewildered by the luxury of the super and the speed and complexities of the modern film. Some are people from small provincial towns and villages who find the less luxurious cinema more like home. Much of this cinema’s custom depends of course on children to whom the cheaper prices are essential or the straight films more interesting.

One of the “supers,” Mr. Bernstein’s Granada, is the Mecca of cinema-goers for miles round, though its regular patronage is built of Tooting people. It opens at twelve, and for sixpence, in the afternoon, you can sit in a comfortable seat in luxurious surroundings and get somewhere around three and a half hours of entertainment. Two full-length films, a newsreel, a comedy cartoon or short and stage shows varying from straightforward acts to “sensations” and “circuses” at holiday times. No circus being complete without horses, elephants, and acrobats, even these are to be seen on the Granada stage at Christmas time.

Mr. Bernstein treats his patrons well: offers them substantial fare, good seating and reasonable prices and asks their opinions on films and stars regularly. There are minor criticisms though; the length of the programme means that the last performance starts around seven-thirty, sometimes a few minutes earlier or later. For men or women some distance from their work, or for shop-assistants in the area, this means missing part of the performance: even for those who can with a scramble get there round about seven, there is often a long wait outside in the cold, or standing inside, none too pleasant after a day’s work. This applies chiefly to the cheaper seats, the one-and-three and the nine-pennies and it is worth Mr. Bernstein’s while to give this some attention.

Repertory
Perhaps the best comment on this is provided by the success of Tooting’s newest venture: The Classic, a repertory cinema, where you can see the films you missed or those you liked well enough to see again. This cinema gives a two-and-a-half-hour show, one price only downstairs, sixpence. It was formerly a struggling independent cinema, bad lighting, bad screening, and bad sound diminishing its custom, its programmes being consequently limited. It has been renovated outside and in, seating and screening greatly improved, though the old structure has prevented it being all it should. One full length film is shown, the rest of the programme being made up of shorts, colour
cartoons and news.

It opened with David Copperfield; went on to Little Giant, the Edward G. Robinson success; Ruggles of Red Gap; Bengal Lancer; Top Hat; If I Had a Million; Desire; and The Informer. Its future programmes include Crime Without Passion; Design for Living; and Viva Villa. The highest of high-brow cinema-goers could hardly better this list within the limitations imposed. So far the attendances have been unusually good, showing increased appreciation of good films and a growing preference for a shorter programme. The mammoth programme is all right for the family outing, for an entire evening out, but for the late workers, a show starting at 8.30 gives time for a meal and allows a comfortable evening.

Audiences in this suburb vary greatly, both in size and in behaviour. Holiday shows, especially the Christmas circuses, bring crowds of children, mothers and fathers. They enjoy almost everything and applaud the stage acts with tremendous gusto. On the other hand gangster, tough-guy and western pictures bring a larger number of men than women to the cinema. The Shirley Temple type of film brings women and youngster. Recent successes have been Texas Rangers, Bullets or Ballots, Rhythm on the Range, San Francisco, Swing Time, My Man Godfrey, Manhattan Madness, The Great Ziegfeld, and Libelled Lady.

Speed, Action and Fast Dialogue
Differences in taste are noticeable: the audience in one of the smaller cinemas, catering mostly for working-class people, is much more responsive to speed, action, and fast dialogue than in the cinemas attended mainly by families, by women and by young girls, or middle-class people. Love stories get better response from the women of all classes. The Granada is a combination of lower middle-class and working-class audiences of the family type, and does fairly well with Shirley Temple and George Arliss for example; but an increase of men in the audience is very noticeable when a film like Texas Rangers, Bullets or Ballots, or Mutiny on the Bounty is shown. In the cinema where there is a tougher audience, much fidgeting and talking goes on during British pictures and most films of a purely love-interest type. With such audiences action pictures, good musicals, and good dialogue find an appreciative audience. The idols are Spencer Tracey, James Cagney, Edward G. Robinson, Gary Cooper, and, in comedy films, W.C. Fields and Laurel and Hardy.

The Cine-news represents a real experiment, for the news-theatre has, in the past, got its chief support in the centre of towns, where many people have an hour to spare or to occupy. In a suburb, it does not invite the same support, the only attractions being newsreels of big races, fights, and other sporting events. A certain amount of custom is received as a result of nearby cinemas being crowded. In the main, the response has not been overwhelming. Whether local news items offer a means of building support remains to be seen, but it has to be remembered that the main attractions of the Cine-news — its cartoons and its newsreels — are often showing at the main cinemas as well.

Progressive Taste
Tooting provides much of interest and encouragement to the progressive cinemagoers or worker. Tip-top films are invariably well supported if shown under satisfactory conditions. The shifting of audiences from cinema to cinema corresponds strikingly to the merits of the film showing, save for such exceptional periods as holidays.

That there is a large and rapidly growing audience for the best type of film is strongly demonstrated by the likes and dislikes of Tooting audiences.

Comments: Richard Carr was a film journalist who wrote a series of articles on filmgoing habits across Britain for World Film and Television Progress. Tooting’s seven cinemas were the Granada Theatre, the Regent Cinema (founded c.1909 and probably the vintage cinema referred to by Carr), the Cinenews, the Broadway Palace Theatre, the Classic Cinema, the Mayfair Cinema, and the Methodist Central Hall.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive (c/o Media History Digital Library)

The Film Gone Male

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance: The Film Gone Male’, Close Up vol. IX no. 1, March 1932, pp. 36-38

Text: Memory, psychology is to-day declaring, is passive consciousness. Those who accept this dictum see the in-rolling future as living reality and the past as reality entombed. They also regard every human faculty as having an evolutionary history. For these straight-line thinkers memory is a mere glance over the shoulder along a past seen as a progression from the near end of which mankind goes forward. They are also, these characteristically occidental thinkers, usually found believing in the relative passivity of females. And since women excel in the matter of memory, the two beliefs admirably support each other. But there is memory and memory. And memory proper, as distinct from a mere backward glance, as distinct even from prolonged contemplation of things regarded as past and done with, gathers, can gather, and pile up its wealth only round universals, unchanging, unevolving verities that move neither backwards nor forwards and have neither speech nor language.

And that is one of the reasons why women, who excel in, memory and whom the cynics describe as scar[c]ely touched by evolving civilisation, are humanity’s silent half, without much faith in speech as a medium of communication. Those women who never question the primacy of “clear speech”, who are docile disciples of the orderly thought of man, and acceptors of theorems, have either been educationally maltreated or are by nature more within the men’s than within the women’s camp. Once a woman becomes a partisan, a representative that is to say of one only of the many sides of question, she has abdicated. The batallions of partisan women glittering in the limelit regions of to-day’s world, whose prestige is largely the result of the novelty of their attainments, communicating not their own convictions but some one or other or a portion of some one or other of the astonishing varieties of thought-patterns under which men experimentally arrange such phenomena as are suited to the process, represent the men’s camp and are distinguishable by their absolute faith in speech as a medium of communication.

The others, whom still men call womanly and regard with emotion not unmixed with a sane and proper fear, though they may talk incessantly from the cradle onwards, are, save when driven by calamitous necessity, as silent as the grave. Listen to their outpouring torrents of speech. Listen to village women at pump or fireside, to villa women, to unemployed service-flat women, to chatelaines, to all kinds of women anywhere and everywhere. Chatter, chatter, chatter, as men say. And say also that only one in a thousand can talk. Quite. For all these women use speech, with individual differences, alike: in the manner of a façade. Their awareness of being, as distinct from man’s awareness of becoming, is so strong that when they are confronted, they must, in most circumstances, snatch at words to cover either their own palpitating spiritual nakedness or that of another. They talk to banish embarrassment. It is true they are apt to drop, if the confrontation be prolonged, into what is called gossip and owes both its charm and its poison to their excellence in awareness of persons. This amongst themselves. In relation to men their use of speech is various. But always it is a façade.

And the film, regarded as a medium of communication, in the day of its innocence, in its quality of being nowhere and everywhere, nowhere in the sense of having more intention than direction and more purpose than plan, everywhere by reason of its power to evoke, suggest, reflect, express from within its moving parts and in their totality of movement, something of the changeless being at the heart of all becoming, was essentially feminine. In its insistence on contemplation it provided a pathway to reality.

In becoming audible and particularly in becoming a medium of propaganda, it is doubtless fulfilling its destiny. But it is a masculine destiny. The destiny of planful becoming rather than of purposeful being. It will be the chosen battle-ground of rival patterns, plans, ideologies in endless succession and bewildering variety.

It has been declared that it is possible by means of purely aesthetic devices to sway an audience in whatever direction a filmateur desires. This sounds menacing and is probably true. (The costumiers used Hollywood to lengthen women’s skirts. Perhaps British Instructional, with the entire medical profession behind it, will kindly shorten them again). It is therefore comforting to reflect that so far the cinema is not a government monopoly. It is a medium, or a weapon, at the disposal of all parties and has, considered as a battlefield a grand advantage over those of the past when civil wars have been waged disadvantageously to one party or the other by reason of inequalities of publicity, restrictions of locale and the relative indirectness and remoteness of the channels of communication. The new film can, at need, assist Radio in turning the world into a vast council-chamber and do more than assist, for it is the freer partner. And multitudinous within that vast chamber as within none of the preceding councils of mankind, is the unconquerable, unchangeable eternal feminine. Influential.

Weeping therefore, if weep we must, over the departure of the old time films gracious silence, we may also rejoice in the prospect of a fair field and no favour. A field over which lies only the shadow of the censorship. And the censorship is getting an uneasy conscience.

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. British Instructional Films was a British production company which specialised in instructional and educational films.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Dynamite in the Middle East

Source: Khalil Totah, Dynamite in the Middle-East (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955), pp. 146-147

Text: Before leaving the Syrian capital, I must relate the tale of American influence. The film of Hamlet was advertised and as I had been unable to see it in the United States, I asked myself in what better place could it be seen than in Damascus. I invited Miss Jane Hockett, whose parents I know in Whittier, to go with me. She is in the United States service as a librarian in the Information Center. People at the Semiramis Hotel advised against my going to that theatre because they thought it was cheap, noisy and dirty. I warned Miss Hockett about the probable undesirability of the place, but she was a good sport. The hall was down in a kind of cellar and full to overflowing. There were no reserved seats and one had to take his chance. I came to the theatre early and requested one of the ushers to save me a couple of seats as I was bringing a lady. He held the seats. The hall was crowded with a noisy lot of adults and children. How a film like Hamlet should attract so many “kids” was rather astonishing. Of course the film was in English, but on the side there was an Arabic translation. People were eating peanuts, pumpkin seeds and roasted peas. At the intermission Coca-Cola, lemonade and ice cream were hawked by boys in the aisles. The seats were crude and hard, but it was a unique experience to see Hamlet in Damascus. The crowds and goings on which are so unlike an American movie theatre were indeed worth the admission of fifteen cents.

Not far from my hotel was another ramshackle cinema house. The performance started at 9 p.m. There was bedlam at the door! It seemed as if half of the ragged bootblacks, porters and errand boys were there. There were hardly any women to be seen. The place looked more like a market place or an oriental street scene than a cinema house. Everything was being hawked. Boys were yelling at the top of their voices and selling everything — chewing gum, cakes, cigarettes and chocolates. People felt at home, shouted, yelled, visited, laughed and enjoyed themselves to the full. It was more like a circus or a baseball game in America. There was no reserve, no hushed tones, no restraint. The boys and young men just “let her go.” But when the curtain was up and those Hollywood beauties appeared in their underwear, you should have heard the exclamations of the crowd’s delight. “Ya salam! Ya Allah!” No wonder there was such a mob at the door and several performances. As to the admission fee, it was in two classes. First class on the balcony was 12¢. Second class for the riffraff was 8¢.

In the balcony, and therefore first class, was a rotund, corpulent gentleman. He took his seat and then ordered an usher to bring him a nargileh (a hubble bubble). While feasting his eyes on the Hollywood girls, he drew on his nargileh, the long pipe attached to a large bottle almost full of water. On top was a sort of tobacco called tunback, which was placed on some burning coals. The smoke passed through the water, through the pipe and to the mouth. This gentleman was relaxation itself. The bottle gurgled and laughed, he drew and drew and hugely enjoyed a rare smoke. What would Americans give to see that scene in an American movie house on Main Street? “Ya Allah! Ya salam!”

Comments: Khalil Totah (1886-1955) was a Palestinian author, lecturer and educationalist, who wrote books on Palestinian history and political development. He became an American citizen in 1946. The book from which this this extract comes was his final work, posthumously published, giving a view of Middle Eastern affairs for an American audience. The film he saw was Hamlet (UK 1948), directed and starring by Laurence Olivier.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Mazie

Source: Joseph Mitchell, extract from ‘Mazie’ in Up in the Old Hotel (London: Vintage, 1992), pp. 23-24 (original essay published in The New Yorker, 21 December 1940)

Text: … Mazie has presided for twenty-one years over the ticket cage of the Venice Theatre, at 209 Park Row, a few doors west of Chatham Square, where the Bowery begins.

The Venice is a small, seedy moving-picture theatre, which opens at 8 A.M. and closes at midnight. It is a dime house. For this sum a customer sees two features, a newsreel, a cartoon, a short, and a serial episode. The Venice is not a ‘scratch house.’ In fact, it is highly esteemed by its customers, because its seats get a scrubbing at least once a week. Mazie brags that it is as sanitary as the Paramount. ‘Nobody ever got loused up in the Venice,’ she says. On the Bowery, cheap movies rank just below cheap alcohol as an escape, and most bums are movie fans. In the clientele of the Venice they are numerous. The Venice is also frequented by people from the tenement neighborhoods in the vicinity of Chatham Square, such as Chinatown, the Little Italy on lower Mulberry Street, and the Spanish section on Cherry Street. Two-thirds of its customers are males. Children and most women sit in a reserved section under the eyes of a matron. Once, in an elegant mood, Mazie boasted that she never admits intoxicated persons. ‘When do you consider a person intoxicated? she was asked. Mazie snickered. ‘When he has to get down on all fours and crawl.‘ she said. In any case, there are drunks in practically every Venice audience. When the liquor in them dies down they become fretful and mumble to themselves, and during romantic pictures they make loud, crazy, derogatory remarks to the actors on the screen. but by and large they are not as troublesome as a class of bums Mazie calls ‘the stiffs,’ These are the most listless of bums. They are blank-eyed and slow-moving, and they have no strong desire for anything but sleep. Some are able to doze while leaning against a wall, even in freezing weather. Many stiffs habitually go into the Venice early in the day and slumber in their seats until they are driven out at midnight. ‘Some days I don’t know which this is, a movie-pitcher theatre or a flophouse,’ Mazie once remarked. ‘Other day I told the manager pitchers with shooting in them are bad for business. They wake up the customers.’

Most Bowery movie houses employ bouncers. At the Venice, Mazie is the bouncer. She tells intimates that she feels fighting is unladylike but that she considers it her duty to throw at least one customer out of the theatre every day. ‘If I didn’t put my foot down, the customers would take the place,’ she says. ‘I don’t get any fun out of fighting. I always lose my temper. When I start swinging, I taste blood, and I can’t stop. Sometimes I get beside myself. Also, a lot of the bums are so weak they don’t fight back, and that makes me feel like a heel.’ Mazie is small, but she is wiry and fearless, and she has a frightening voice. Her ticket cage is in the shadow of the tracks of the City Hall spur of the Third Avenue elevated line, and two decades of talking above the screeching of the trains have left her with a rasping bass, with which she can dominate men twice her size. Now and then, in the Venice, a stiff throws his head back and begins to snore so blatantly that he can be heard all over the place, especially during tense moments in the picture. When this happens, or when one of the drunks gets into a bellowing mood, the women and children in the reserved section stamp on the floor and chant,‘Mazie! Mazie! We want Mazie!’ The instant this chant goes up, the matron hastens out to the lobby and raps on the side window of Mazie’s cage. Mazie locks the cash drawer, grabs a bludgeon she keeps around, made of a couple of copies of True Romances rolled up tightly and held together by rubber bands, and strides into the theatre. As she goes down the aisle, peering this way and that, women and children jump to their feet, point fingers in the direction of the offender, and cry, ‘There he is, Mazie! There he is!’ Mazie gives the man a resounding whack on the head with her bludgeon and keeps on whacking him until he seems willing to behave. Between blows, she threatens him with worse punishment. Her threats are fierce and not altogether coherent.‘Outa here on a stretcher!‘ she yells. ‘Knock your eyeballs out! Big baboon! Every tooth in your head! Bone in your body!’ The women and children enjoy this, particularly if Mazie gets the wrong man. as she sometimes does. In action, Mazie is an alarming sight. Her face becomes flushed, her hair flies every which way, and her slip begins to show. If a man defends himself or is otherwise contrary, she harries him out of his seat and drives him from the theatre. As he scampers up the aisle, with Mazie right behind him, whacking away, the women and children applaud …

Comments: Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) was an American journalist, best-known for his pieces in The New Yorker, of which Up in the Old Hotel is a collection. The Venice opened in 1914 and seated 650 people. The profile continues with its description of Mazie and the cinema operation, noting that she was quite uninterested in films themselves, saying ‘They make me sick’. My thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing this piece to my attention.

The Spell of China

Source: Archie Bell, The Spell of China (Boston: The Page Company, 1917), pp. 97-102

Text: The Chinese are becoming infatuated with the motion picture exhibition to such an extent that they will gladly attend a performance, the program of which extends through four, five, or even six hours, which is quite in keeping with the time limit of native theatrical representations. I saw a crowd quite overcome with joy at the vicissitudes that befell the heroine in the American-made film, “The Hazards of Helen.” The thrilling scenes were greeted by outbursts of applause, many of the spectators rising to their feet and shouting lustily when the hero saved Helen and her baby by venturing onto the railroad bridge and jumping into the river with the two in his arms as the express train whizzed across the screen.

Such a demonstration meant much more in China than it would mean in a Western country. It is not “good form,” not even “proper,” for a Chinese to betray his emotions; at least, he must not let them rise to the surface. He may applaud at the theater, but even while making this demonstration, which is not in accordance with ancient custom, he must not smile or laugh. The comedian may grimace; gentlemen in the audience are not supposed to do so. The
scene may be very thrilling and tense, but Chinese gentlemen should have better control of themselves than to show by any facial movement that they are excited.

But Helen, assuredly very modern, as seen in the motion pictures, caused them to forget some of the things that they had been taught by their fathers. They not only betrayed the fact that they received the thrill, but they seemed to be delighted to do so and seemed to desire to let the hero know that they appreciated what they had done. When “close-up” portraits of the characters were shown, smirking and “looking pleasant,” which is so contrary to all the canons of Chinese theatric art, they stood up and waved their hands. When the express train was flashed on the screen, whizzing along at a mile a minute — in a country where trains seem likelier to move a mile in ten minutes — they applauded as we in America applaud when a favorite star makes her “big speech” in the third act. Certainly they enjoyed “The Hazards of Helen.” It was the first time that I saw a Chinese audience witnessing a film that was “Made in America.” If I had never seen another Chinese audience beholding a “Made in America” film, I would have had the impression that the motion picture was more popular in China than in America. But I saw many of them. I saw audiences only mildly interested, and I saw some that were quite visibly bored, because they did not know what it was all about, and, not knowing, they could not feel an interest any more than the popular American audience would feel for Greek tragedy or the sacred dances of Siam. At Chinese motion picture houses a lecturer frequently stands on the stage and explains the action, even in such stories of primitive situations as “The Hazards of Helen.”

“Now you see the little child going out on the railroad bridge,” he says. “She is a thoughtless infant, who does not know that death is lurking in her path. She is as happy as any innocent little child can be. She skips over the railway ties, having found a new amusement. But what will happen when the fast train comes thundering along the track? What will become of the child!”

Oh, he is an eloquent extemporaneous speaker, this Chorus who explains the play! He weaves much into his “explanation” that is prompted by the picture itself, much that never entered the mind of the scenario writer.

“Helen sees the little girl,” he continues; “What can she do? How can she save her?” (Helen is flashed on the screen gazing bridge-ward, with a sort of hunted-deer expression.) “Will she stand there and see the child run over by the train, or thrown into the river below? No, she does not think twice, but rushes out onto the bridge and snatches the child into her arms. But the cruel train is coming; see, it is coming around the mountain. It will plunge into the tunnel and then out onto the bridge.” (Business of express train plunging into a tunnel.) “The hero sees Helen and he, too, rushes out onto the bridge. Will he reach her and the child before the train comes? That is the great question. See! He has reached them, but it is too late! In ten seconds the train will be upon them. There is no time to escape, so the hero takes both Helen and the child in his arms and jumps off the bridge into the river. Will he be strong enough to swim and reach the shore in safety with his precious load?”

And so forth, the “lecturer” creates action, when he thinks the interest is flagging. During the scenes that make merely an “exposition” of the characters and plots he is obliged to keep up his story, or at least he does so. He invents enough plots and counterplots to provide another instalment of the serial. I was unable to learn the origin of these gentlemen, who seem so important to the movie in China, but they must have had much theatrical experience in their native country. They must have as ready knowledge of all the old plots as the average
dramatist in America. Perhaps some of them have acted in Chinese plays, the plots of most of which are the same as the stereotyped plots in American drama. They remember, but the audience does not, apparently, because, as in America, it appears to enjoy the unraveling of the same old stories. It is the “lecturer” who makes the American motion picture intelligible to the oriental audience, at least the Chinese audience, which insists upon knowing something about what is transpiring. Chinese actors carry “suggestion” so much further than the Americans would attempt to do their speeches are so absolutely inaudible, on account of the strumming and squawking of the various instruments of the orchestra, that people do not expect to hear too much and have learned to trust to their eyes. Or perhaps they do not care to understand. In the course of a six-to-ten hour entertainment, which is not an uncommon length of time for a Chinese play to run, they will hear enough to satisfy them and reward them for going to the theater. It is useless to permit one’s self to become overwrought and excited about mere play acting. Life itself is much more comic, much more tragic; and they do not become excited about life, seeming to value it very lightly, and not worrying about death.

Comments: Archie Bell was an American travel writer. The Hazards of Helen was an American serial, originally starring Helen Holmes (later episodes starred Rose Gibson in the role), that was originally released 1914-1917 in 119 episodes. Lecturers explaining the action of silent films were common in many cultures, most famously the benshi of Japan. The film shows described were probably in Shanghai.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Mexican Touch

Source: Edwa Moser, The Mexican Touch (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940), pp. 110-114

Text: If one was to patronize the movies, Monday was the day to choose, preferably Monday afternoon. Every Monday morning, the Cine Morelos was cleaned and disinfected. The Cine Morelos, once known as the Teatro Diaz, had been built on the colonial plan, with a pit that scarcely sloped at all, surrounded by tier upon tier of boxes. Hänsel had what he called his own box, though he let us sit in it. It was his because he always managed to arrive twenty minutes before the calliope announced the opening, and as soon as he got into his box, he put his booted foot against the door so that no one else could come in. His box faced the center of the screen and was situated on the first and most desirable tier. There were six hard, stiff chairs in it. We were rather crowded as none of us could risk sitting too close to the rail for fear someone above might become excited and absent-mindedly spit. On our hard chairs, we huddled together, the fumes of iodoform writhing, I could have sworn visibly, about us. Hänsel sat straight as a ramrod, his monocle gleaming above a thick handkerchief tied about his nose. Gretel ignored the smell, saying placidly, “Better it should stink a bit than swarm with fleas.” Above us, tier upon tier, the seats would fill, until sometimes … as when Jungle Jim was showing in serial … the whole place became a solid mass of dark, intent faces. The theater was always packed.

It was a good theater. The sound effects carried well and the screen was in good condition. It is true that the electricity sometimes failed, but that was not the fault of the management. At such times, we bought peanuts from the venders [sic] and smoked and chatted pleasantly together until the lights came on again. I recollect only one occasion when the film broke, just at its most thrilling moment, of course, and I remember when the lights were turned on how startled I was that most of the men in the audience had, in the excitement of the story, drawn their revolvers. I remember how unconcerned they looked as they stood up or squirmed about in their seats to put their revolvers away again.

The pictures shown were of all kinds and from all countries. Indeed, at the little Cinema Palace of Cuernavaca, the children and I saw more French and British and German, not to mention Argentinian, films than we had ever seen at home. There were also Mexican movies.

Usually the Mexican movies were clumsy and hard to follow. But I found, after I considered the matter a bit, that the difference was owing not to inferior production, but to their unique technique. The focal point of the action seemed to be, not conveniently in front of me along the “footlights,” but somewhere else, farther off. Then I recollected the Abbey Players from Dublin, who maintain that the center of interest should be the center of the stage itself, as if the audience were included with the actors. And after that, I saw, too, that there was yet another resemblance to the Irish theater: the plots of the Mexican movies need not come to any definite conclusion. After that I enjoyed the good films immensely.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the Mexicans could create drama without the glamourizing that Hollywood thinks essential. The houses were houses, ineptly furnished but adequate. On the screen they looked somehow innocent and appealing. They might have been any of the houses we passed every day. The heroines were seldom beautiful. Their clothes would not set a fashion. None of them had had their teeth straightened, much less filed and capped. But when they could act, they could act; and without “glamour,” they became urgent and important because they were human beings appealing to human beings in terms of mutual humanity. Some of the heroes were cross-eyed. (Crossed eyes are still considered a mark of beauty by those who appreciate Aztec art.) They behaved … as men behave. They spat, they got drunk, they left their shirttails out or tucked them in in public, they cried on their mothers’ shoulders, they cut off an unfaithful sweetheart’s pigtail. And they continued with apparent satisfaction to everyone the life that went on everywhere, every day.

This method was immensely satisfactory to me, for as there.was no attempt at “build-up,” I could believe that the films represented Mexican life, which we foreigners might otherwise never know. Ken liked the Mexican films. He would go again and again to roar with laughter over El Chaflan and Don Catarino, who were so funny, so naturally funny, it was hard to know if they knew themselves that they were funny. Don the films left cold. He preferred swapping yarns with Alberto or Pedro. Molly would, to Hansel’s delight, emit a succession of disgusted “Ooo’s” every time Rafael Falcón had occasion to weep, as he often had — for he wept beautifully, the tears streaming across his pale, shapely cheeks — while all the girls in the audience could be heard sniffing in sympathy. And Conchita, when we had got home, would sigh at mention of his name, and wiggle her hand inside her dress above her heart to show what palpitations she suffered on his account. But not my Molly. …

There was one picture that impressed us all — as successful a piece of work as we ever saw anywhere. Its name was La Mujer de Nadia (Nobody’s Wife) and it was produced by a woman. It was the story of three young students, none of them particularly attractive, who lived together in a one-room house amid the agreeable harmony of music, painting, and poetry, and who, returning one night from a comradely spree, found a woman unconscious by heir door. They took her in, feeling sorry for anyone who was unhappy and alone while they were so gay, so secure in their fellowship. She, poor drab! could hardly be distracting to that. But with food, and a home and friendship, the girl changed. She became young and beautiful. They all fell in love with her. The painter’s best picture was her portrait. The musician’s best composition had love of her for its theme. The poet’s best verses wooed her. But with love came jealousy. They began hating. It was a tragic moment when the little waif determined she must not destroy the structure on which her happiness was built. Silently, she told the little house good-by and went away, knowing her absence would unite again the spirit that had let her live.

We still remember that picture as one of the merriest, as well as saddest, we ever saw. There was about it the quality of a Strauss waltz that echoes after the party’s over and the guests have gone, and the sky grows gray. It was the only movie I have ever seen that I should like to have for my own.

Comments: Edwa Moser was an American magazine writer and novelist, who wrote this book on a 1930s visit to Mexico. Ken and Molly were her children. Hänsel and Gretel were names she gave to their German neighbours. El Chaflan was a character played by Mexican actor Carlos López; Don Catarino may be a reference to a comic strip character who was filmed. Rafael Falcón was a Mexican film actor. La Mujer de Nadia (La mujer de nadie) was directed by Adela Sequeyro in 1937. Iodoform is a disinfectant.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Homestead

Source: Margaret Frances Byington, Homestead: The Households of a Mill Town [The Pittsburgh Survey vol. 4] (New York: Charities Publication Committee, 1910), pp. 110-112

Text: Practically the only public amusements in Homestead, during my stay there, were the
nickelodeons and skating rinks. Six of the former, all but one on Eighth Avenue, sent out their penetrating music all the evening and most of the afternoon. There was one ten-cent vaudeville house, but the others charge five cents for a show consisting of songs, moving pictures, etc., which lasts fifteen minutes or so.

The part these shows play in the life of the community is really surprising. Not only were no other theatrical performances given in Homestead, but even those in Pittsburgh, because of the time and expense involved in getting there, were often out of the reach of workingmen and their families. The writer, when living in Homestead, found few things in Pittsburgh worth the long trolley ride, forty-five minutes each way. Many people, therefore, find in the nickelodeons their only relaxation. Men on their way home from work stop for a few minutes to see something of life outside the alternation of mill and home; the shopper rests while she enjoys the music, poor though it be, and the children are always begging for five cents to go to the nickelodeon. In the evening the family often go together for a little treat. On a Saturday afternoon visit to a nickelodeon, which advertised that it admitted two children on one ticket, I was surprised to find a large proportion of men in the audience. In many ways this form of amusement is desirable. What it ordinarily offers does not educate but does give pleasure. While occasionally serious subjects are represented, as for example pictures of the life of Christ given in Easter week, the performance usually consists of song and dance and moving pictures, all of a mediocre type. Still, for five cents the nickelodeon offers fifteen minutes’ relaxation, and a glimpse of other sides of life, making the same appeal, after all, that theatre and novel do. As the nickelodeon seems to have met a real need in the mill towns, one must wish that it might offer them a better quality of entertainment. Many who go because they can afford nothing expensive would appreciate something better, even at a slightly higher price.

Comments: Margaret Frances Byington (1877-1952) was an American social investigator. Homestead was part of the 1907-08 Pittsburgh Survey into social conditions, sponsored by the Russell Sage Foundation. Homestead is in Allegheny County, Pennyslvania, and is famed for the Homestead Strike of 1892.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Watching War Films With My Dad

Source: Al Murray, Watching War Films With My Dad (London: Random House, 2013), pp. 12-15

Text: War films were a mainstay of British male popular culture when I was growing up in the Seventies. To some the Seventies is all about flares and disco, or Mohican haircuts and punk or, worst of all, ABBA – but to me the Seventies is war films on the telly. I was blissfully ignorant of the idea that the movies were a way of British culture processing what had happened to it during World War Two: the nine-year-old me had little sensitivity (or even an atom of it) to what my grandmother who had lost her husband and brother in the war might make of my enthusiasm for war films. Or my mum, who’d never known her father or uncle. They were made for men, about men, with men in them. That’s certainly how I saw them when I was a boy – though I know I didn’t think about it too hard, either.

[…]

I have a clear memory of being taken to see A Bridge Too Far at the cinema when I was nine. It was a really big deal – we didn’t go to the cinema much, and this was a major dad-and-lad event. I think we went to Bletchley but I could be wrong. It might have been the bright lights of Aylesbury, possibly Luton. These were the days of the B-feature, huge cinemas that you could stay in of an afternoon and watch the whole programme all the way round again. I remember seeing The Eagle Has Landed like this: we’d missed the start so stayed and caught the painfully slow first half of exposition and plotting. That was definitely in Luton. And the B-feature was a short about trains.

Now a Sunday-afternoon teatime staple, A Bridge Too Far tells the story of Operation Market Garden. Every male human of my ilk has seen this star-studded war epic, a tale of British pluck and tea, American guts and glory, immaculate German uniforms and ruthlessness, lofty failure, etc., etc. And when I say star-studded I mean star-studded: Connery, Redford, Hackman, Bogarde, Caine, Hopkins, Caan, Olivier – and loads of other people you need the first names for. And Cliff from Cheers in a cameo that irresistibly draws the eye away from Robert Redford, proving that a spud-faced bloke is better than any handsome git any day. Directed epically in an epic style by Dickie Attenborough, with an epic script by William Goldman, it tells the epic tale of the failed Operation Market Garden at a personal as well as, um, epic level. It has tons of guts, tons of glory and stars vying for screen time. It ends poignantly, asking us to ask: why? And it is, like all historical films, shot through with inaccuracies, riddled like a machine-gunned evil Nazi’s corpse. Some of them proper howlers.

And A Bridge Too Far was a big cinematic event for my father, too; living, as we did, in a village in Buckinghamshire with one bus a week. It also wasn’t dad’s thing much – he has always had a restless energy and concetration that didn’t suit the essential passivity of sitting in a cinema seat.

My Dad was an airborne sapper (engineer) officer from the 1950s through to the 1970s and the battle at Arnhem is probably the central event in British airborne culture and history. He knew many of the men who had been there – he did his National Service in the 1950s and then stayed on in the TA. So how Arnhem was represented on the big screen was a properly big deal. He also knew and still knows the battle backwards. An essential truth, how the men fought at Arnhem – bravely and against increasingly overwhelming odds – is in the film, no doubt about it. But it has to be right. Aged nine, I was a willingly thirsty sponge for all of this. But old habits die hard. When I first broached with my father that I’d be writing this book he muttered about how he’d seen War Horse the night before and how most of that was wrong. So watch a war film with me or my dad, or, worse still, me and my dad – at your peril …

Comments: Al Murray (born 1968) is a British comedian, best known for his ‘The Pub Landlord’ character. His memoir Watching Films With My Dad is predominantly about watching war films on television, and their relationship to true history. The chapter goes on to detail the historical inaccuracies in A Bridge Too Far and several other war films of its period.

We Love Glenda So Much

Source: Extract from Julio Cortázar (trans. Gregory Rabassa), ‘We Love Glenda So Much’, in Hopscotch / Blow-up and other stories / We Love Glenda So Much and other tales (New York/London/Toronto: Everyman’s Library, 2014), p. 805 (orig. pub. Queremos tanto a Glenda y otro realtos, 1980)

Text: In those days it was hard to know. You go to the movies or the theater and live your night without thinking about the people who have already gone through the same ceremony, choosing the place and the time, getting dressed and telephoning and row eleven or five, the darkness and the music, territory that belongs to nobody and to everybody there where everybody is nobody, the men or women in their seats, maybe a word of apology for arriving late, a murmured comments that someone picks up or ignores, almost always silence, looks pouring onto the stage or screen, fleeing from what’s beside them, from what’s on this side.

Comments: Julio Cortázar (1914-1984) was an Argentinian novelist and short story writer, best known for his experimental novel Hopscotch, and in film circles for his story ‘Blow-up’ which inspired Antonioni’s eponymous 1966 film. His short story ‘We Love Glenda So Much’, from which the above is the opening words, is about a group of (probably) Argentinian cinemagoers and their obsession with the actress Glenda Garson (loosely based on Glenda Jackson). In his book In Broad Daylight: Movies and Spectators After the Cinema (2012), Gabriele Pedullà says

This passage from We Love Glenda So Much offers an excellent starting point for reflecting on the condition of the spectator during the projection of a film, not least because of the novelist’s skill in sketching the dark cube experience through a catalog of such heterogeneous details. Sight, hearing, touch … A hypothetical list of the elements characterizing cinematic viewing would not be much more extensive than the one we find in the brilliant opening of Cortázar’s story.

A Cinema in the Harbour

Source: Extract from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘A Cinema in the Harbour’, in Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France 1925-1939 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), pp. 64-66 . Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 4 November 1925

Text: The cinema faces the ships. From out at sea a man who has long lived without the pleasures of terra firma can take out his binoculars and make out the large, colourful posters. The cinema goes by the modest name “Cosmos.” Today, it is showing the film called Red Wolves.

The Red Wolves are a band of robbers in the Abruzzi. They have kidnapped the beautiful Margot and hidden her in a high tower miles from anywhere. Ah, but what is miles from anywhere, how high is high? A brave young man by the name of Cesare joins the Red Wolves, but only for appearances: What he really wants is to free Margot.

You probably imagine joining a band of robbers is a simple matter? Let me tell you! It’s incredibly difficult.You need to take a battery of tests, in wrestling, in knife fighting, and in arm wrestling. This series of tests takes up most of the film. Cesare comes through them and gains the applause not only of the Red Wolves but of the audience here, who dream of being robbers in the Abruzzi.

The film about the Red Wolves is screened eight times a day, from ten in the morning until midnight. Cesare passes his tests eight times a day, and eight times the audience gets enraptured, a third of them spending the entire day in the cinema. This one-third are women and children. By day it’s cooler in the dark cinema than it is in their own cramped apartments and in the even more cramped streets. So the women go there to cool off. Children get in for nothing. Every adult visitor brings at least four children with her. She pays for one seat and occupies five.

In the evening the men, dockworkers in the harbour, come along. They eat, they wash, and they go to the cinema. They watched and cheered Cesare’s deeds yesterday and the day before yesterday. But it’s not possible to see enough of such heroism, if you are nothing more than a dockworker – with the dream in your heart of being a robber in the Abruzzi.

Even more romantic than a harbour is the robbers’ cave in the Abruzzi. The day labourer who is today a fisherman, tomorrow gets taken on as a seaman, and the day after finds himself in a distant port watching the film about the Red Wolves finds his life insufficiently romantic.

I like to imagine the robbers in the Abruzzi going to the cinema to see a film about the sea dogs of Marseilles. The robbers in the mountain envy the men of the port. The robber treats his calling as a humdrum job, and dreams of something romantic and exotic elsewhere. It is these reciprocal yearnings that make the film industry tick.

And yet the men in the harbour have roughly the same traits as the men of the mountains. The dockers stab with Corsican knives; they are passionate arm wrestlers with their friends, a stage wrestling matches with their colleagues. They are pleased to see that these same recreations are also popular in the Abruzzi. While still sitting in the cinema, they pull out their knives, and, not taking their eyes off the screen, give their neighbour a playful little stab.

The neighbour, who doesn’t stand for this sort of nonsense, challenges his friend to step up in front of the screen and make like Cesare.

So in the cinema, you don’t just see the deeds of men of the Abruzzi but also those of the men of Marseilles.

Meanwhile the pianist keeps banging out La Fille du Régiment. No wonder the viewers are getting restive. They want a different tune. The pianist gets up, walks out, and the film continues without music.

A little later I see a large, angry-looking man. He’s not putting up with the piano-player’s rudeness. One knows what it means when a very large, very broad man, with a broad red belt slung around his hips, with about one inch of forehead and with hands like iron shovels, won’t stand for the impertinence of a tiny piano player in evening dress and umbrella.

Five minutes later the pianist is wriggling in the iron grip of the irate cinemagoer, the lights go on, and everyone laughs. The giant waves to the crowd with his left hand, plunks the pianist down in front of his instrument, and decrees the tune desired by the majority.

And the film carries on. …

Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. I have not been able to identify any film of this period called ‘The Red Wolves’ (or a translation of this) or which features a robber band called by that name.