Untold Stories

Source: Alan Bennett, Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 170-171

Text: I had no notion as a child that going to the pictures was a kind of education, or that I was absorbing a twice-weekly lesson in morality. The first film I remember being thought of as ‘improving’ was Henry V, which, during our brief sojourn at Guildford, was playing permanently at Studio I at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. I saw it, though, with my primary school at the local Odeon in Guildford, and that it was meant to be educational did not stop it being, for me, magical, particularly the transformation from the confines and painted scenery to the realities of the siege and battlefield in France. The reverse process had the same effect so that the final cut back to the Globe and the actors lining up for their call still gives me a thrill.

Seeing films one also saw – always saw – the newsreels, though only one remains in my memory. It would have been some time in 1945 and it was at the Playhouse, a cinema down Guildford High Street. Before the newsreel began there was an announcement that scenes in it were unsuitable for children and that they should be taken out. None were; having already waited long enough in the queue nobody was prepared to give up their hard-won seat. It was, of course, the discovery of Belsen with the living corpses, the mass graves and the line-up of sullen guards. There were cries of horror in the cinema, though my recollection is that Mam and Dad were much more upset than my brother and me. Still, Belsen was not a name one ever forgot and became a place of horror long before Auschwitz.

The moral instruction to be had at the cinema was seldom as shocking as this: just a slow absorption of assumptions not so much about life as about lives, all of them far removed from one’s own. There were cowboys’ lives, for instance, where the dilemmas could be quite complex and moralities might compete: small-town morality v. the morality of the gunfighter with the latter more perilous and demanding of heroism, High Noon perhaps its ultimate representation. There was the lesson of standing up to the bully, a tale told in lots of guises: in westerns, obviously, but also in historical films – Fire Over England, A Tale of Two Cities and The Young Mr Pitt all told the same story of gallant little England squaring up to the might of France or Spain, for which, of course, read Germany.

Then there were the unofficial heroes: dedicated doctors, single-minded schoolteachers, or saints convinced of their vision (I am thinking particularly of The Song of Bernadette, a film that had me utterly terrified). Always in such films it was the official wisdom v. the lone voice and one knew five minutes into the film what the hero or heroine (star anyway) was going to be up against. I suppose one of the reasons Casablanca and Citizen Kane stand out above the rest is that their morality was less straightforward. William Empson, I think, never wrote about film but there are many the plot of which this describes:

The web of European civilization seems to have been strung between the ideas of Christianity and those of a half-secret rival, centring perhaps (if you made it a system) round honour: one that stresses pride rather than humility, self-realisation rather than self-denial, caste rather than either the communion of saints or the individual soul.

It was a dilemma I was familiar with because it was always cropping up at the Picturedrome.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Untold Stories’ from which this selection comes. The films mentioned are Henry V (UK 1944), High Noon (USA 1952), Fire over England (UK 1937), A Tale of Two Cities (UK 1958 or USA 1935 – there was no film of Dickens’ novel made during the Second World War), The Young Mr Pitt (UK 1942), The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943), Casablanca (USA 1942) and Citizen Kane (USA 1941). Newsreels of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945.

Seeing Stars

Source: Alan Bennett, extract from Alan Bennett, extract from ‘Seeing Stars’, London Review of Books, vol. 24 no. 1, 3 January 2002, pp. 12-16, reproduced in Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 170-171

Text: I had no notion as a child that going to the pictures was a kind of education, or that I was absorbing a twice-weekly lesson in morality. The first film I remember being thought of as ‘improving’ was Henry V, which, during our brief sojourn at Guildford, was playing permanently at Studio I at the Marble Arch end of Oxford Street. I saw it, though, with my primary school at the local Odeon in Guildford, and that it was meant to be educational did not stop it being, for me, magical, particularly the transformation from the confines and painted scenery to the realities of the siege and battlefield in France. The reverse process had the same effect so that the final cut back to the Globe and the actors lining up for their call still gives me a thrill.

Seeing films one also saw – always saw – the newsreels, though only one remains in my memory. It would have been some time in 1945 and it was at the Playhouse, a cinema down Guildford High Street. Before the newsreel began there was an announcement that scenes in it were unsuitable for children and that they should be taken out. None were; having already waited long enough in the queue nobody was prepared to give up their hard-won seat. It was, of course, the discovery of Belsen with the living corpses, the mass graves and the line-up of sullen guards. There were cries of horror in the cinema, though my recollection is that Mam and Dad were much more upset than my brother and me. Still, Belsen was not a name one ever forgot and became a place of horror long before Auschwitz.

The moral instruction to be had at the cinema was seldom as shocking as this: just a slow absorption of assumptions not so much about life as about lives, all of them far removed from one’s own. There were cowboys’ lives, for instance, where the dilemmas could be quite complex and moralities might compete: small-town morality v. the morality of the gunfighter with the latter more perilous and demanding of heroism, High Noon perhaps its ultimate representation. There was the lesson of standing up to the bully, a tale told in lots of guises: in westerns, obviously, but also in historical films – Fire Over England, A Tale of Two Cities and The Young Mr Pitt all told the same story of gallant little England squaring up to the might of France or Spain, for which, of course, read Germany.

Then there were the unofficial heroes: dedicated doctors, single-minded schoolteachers, or saints convinced of their vision (I am thinking particularly of The Song of Bernadette, a film that had me utterly terrified). Always in such films it was the official wisdom v. the lone voice and one knew five minutes into the film what the hero or heroine (star anyway) was going to be up against. I suppose one of the reasons Casablanca and Citizen Kane stand out above the rest is that their morality was less straightforward. William Empson, I think, never wrote about film but there are many the plot of which this describes:

The web of European civilization seems to have been strung between the ideas of Christianity and those of a half-secret rival, centring perhaps (if you made it a system) round honour: one that stresses pride rather than humility, self-realisation rather than self-denial, caste rather than either the communion of saints or the individual soul.

It was a dilemma I was familiar with because it was always cropping up at the Picturedrome.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Seeing Stars’, on his memories of cinemagoing, from which this selection comes. The films mentioned are Henry V (UK 1944), High Noon (USA 1952), Fire over England (UK 1937), A Tale of Two Cities (UK 1958 or USA 1935 – there was no film of Dickens’ novel made during the Second World War), The Young Mr Pitt (UK 1942), The Song of Bernadette (USA 1943), Casablanca (USA 1942) and Citizen Kane (USA 1941). Newsreels of Belsen were shown in British cinemas from 30 April 1945.

Links: Full article at London Review of Books

The attitude of high school students toward motion pictures

Source: Clarence Arthur Perry, The attitude of high school students toward motion pictures (New York: National Board of Review of Motion Pictures, 1923), pp. 41-44

Text: Slapstick or vulgar:
I do not like the vulgar comedies that are sometimes shown.
It is most disgusting to watch these people throw things at each other and act silly.
I do not like comedies in which the principal characters spend a great deal of time bombarding each other with cakes, pies, etc.
I dislike many of the so-called comedies which are humorous only to the feeble-minded.
I like comedies when they are really funny, but the ones where they fight and throw pies in people’s faces are absolutely silly.
I dislike those comedies in which they rush you all about most of the time.
I don’t like foolish, silly comedies that are meant to make you laugh at any cost, even resorting to certain vulgar experiences and actions.

Not true to life:
Pictures that do not happen in every-day life I do not like.
I don’t like pictures where the hero is always having hair-breadth escapes and never gets hurt.
I don’t like comedies where a man runs over a bank and has a sensational fall and comes out alive.
Pictures showing impossible feats do not appeal to me.
I don’t like pictures in which the worthy but poor young man, against impossible conditions, wins the hand of the young millionairess.
I don’t like pictures with real slush and unnatural plots, involving divorce, suicide and all sorts of utterly impossible stunts.
I don’t like a picture in which a small man attacks about a half dozen men larger than himself and throws them off of houses and bluffs.
I don’t like the dime novel brand of thriller where the hero is always in great danger at the end of each episode.
Those stories in which the hero comes out without a scratch and gets the girl he wants are the bunk.
I don’t like pictures that seem unreal in everyday life; for example, a blind man gets back his eyesight, a thing that hardly happens every day.
I dislike pictures where the hero can do nothing wrong, and the villain is so mean he can do nothing good.

Mushy or over-sentimental:
I don’t like stories where they are always hugging and kissing during the whole show.
Of course everyone enjoys a love story once in a while, but there is too much hugging and kissing usually in the shows.
I don’t like those mushy pictures where the fellow falls over himself for the girl.
I don’t like silly love stories which don’t build up character.
I don’t like love stories with a lot of fuss.
I don’t like slushy pictures with too much display of affection.
I loathe and detest that sentimental wishy-washy stuff.

Artistically bad:
The kind of picture I do not like is the kind whose plot is old and has been told and retold and each time is but the warmed-over edition of the previous story.
I do not like these long-drawn-out senseless pictures that can be told in half an hour instead of two and a half hours.
I don’t like pictures that are made to give one thrill after another; the facts are too easily comprehended and thus spoil what good there might be in the picture.
I don’t like pictures which are padded.
I don’t like pictures where there is no plot, or no main idea to them.
I don’t like pictures without a plot, for instance, “Neptune’s Bride.”
I don’t like pictures where the whole plot consists of a girl who dances before a cheap audience.
I don’t care for the average “clever” picture that has no plot, background, purpose or scarcely any other of the essential qualities of a good film.
Pictures such as “Back Pay” should not be released; they are not interesting, educating or entertaining and only wreck the reputation of a good theatre. Many pictures like those are given harmless names and passed off on the public, while such as “Male and Female” as directed by Cecil de Mille drive crowds away from a good show by a suggestive name.

Immoral:
I don’t like a picture that shows the vamps and such like.
I don’t like pictures that are vile and that you have to be ashamed of.
I do not like pictures that are so personal that they are embarrassing for a boy and girl to go together to see.
I absolutely despise the over-emotional love story and bedroom scenes because to sit and watch them is embarrassing besides demoralizing.
I do not like pictures like the “Affairs of Anatol” that deal with such demoralizing types of people supposedly in society.
I don’t like stories with bedroom and harem scenes.
I dislike pictures where there are vulgar displays made by women, and pictures on questionable topics.
I do not like a play where the actors are not dressed properly, for instance, “Foolish Wives.”
I do not think it necessary for some actresses to wear so little clothing as they do.
I do not like those stories in which the words or actions can be taken in an immoral way as well as the way in which probably they were meant.
I don’t like stories with sex as their only excuse for being.

Murder and shooting:
I don’t like pictures where everybody gets shot.
I don’t like pictures with very much murdering.
I don’t like pictures having murdering or killing scenes in them.
I have no taste for the picture in which so many of the players get killed.
I don’t like pictures which involve murders and are taken down in Chinatown.
I don’t like murder stories that get you too excited to sleep or to concentrate on anything but the picture you have just seen.
I greatly dislike horrible picturizations which include numerous murders and terrifying incidents.

Brutality:
I do not like pictures of the villainous kind where the heroine is mistreated.
I do not like stories of hideous crimes.
I don’t like pictures that show prison life, or anything of hardship or cruelty.

Comments: Clarence Arthur Perry (1872-1944) was an American sociologist and town planner. His study The attitude of high school students toward motion pictures (1923) is based on a questionnaire circulated by the National Committee for Better Films, working with the National Board of Review. The questionnaire was sent to 600 high schools across America in May 1922 and received 44,000 responses. The questions included filmgoing habits, favourite actors, picture preferences and dislikes, attitudes towards educational films, and whether and films served as a stimulus to reading. The report is filled with interesting and useful data. The responses quoted here are a selection of those given in answer to the question “Mention any kinds of picture you do not like”. The films referred to are Neptune’s Bride (USA 1920 d. Leslie T. Peacocke), Back Pay (USA 1922 d. Frank Borzage), Male and Female (USA 1919 d. Cecil B DeMille), The Affairs of Anatol (USA 1921 d. Cecil B. DeMille), and Foolish Wives (USA 1922 d. Erich Von Stroheim).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Movies and Conduct

Source: ‘College senior, a girl of 22 years, of native white parentage’, quoted in Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), pp. 213-217

Text: Considerably influenced by the gospel of H.L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan, I have for the past few years held the complacent attitude that “the movies were made for morons,” that they were an inferior order of entertainment, and that I was possessed of an intellect decidedly too keen to be swayed by such a low order of art. But as I detach myself from this groundless generalization and consider objectively my motion picture experiences, it appears that, on the contrary, I am at least temporarily very acutely affected.

The movies could not have wielded a very great or enduring influence over me, however, for the reason that I have never been a chronic devotee. All the eighteen years of my life I have lived in a small town whose only picture palace was a small, dark, ill-ventilated hole, frequented by every type of person. As I was rather frail, and an only child, my mother regularly discouraged attendance there; I do not recall ever seeing a movie unaccompanied by one of my parents until I was eleven years old. The theater was called the Critic, a name indicative of the types of shows presented to attract the ardent Baptist population.

My first recollection of a movie is still a very vivid one. I could not have been more than five at the time, when Mother took me to a matinee to see Charlie Chaplin. We arrived early, just in the middle of a “serial,” which was shown in weekly installments. It was called “The Claw,” and revolved about a villainous character whose right hand was replaced by an iron hook. I can still see this claw reaching out from behind a bridge to grab the heroine. Even the following antics of the famous comedian failed to soften my terrified impressions, and for weeks after I slept with the light on at night and peered carefully under the bed each morning before setting foot on the floor.

I also remember seeing at a later date other “serials” in one of which a mother and her child, shipwrecked, drifted about the Atlantic Ocean clinging to a log, while the struggling husband and father drowned before their eyes; and in the other of which occurred a forest fire. All my earliest impressions were those of fear – very real and vivid.

A little later on, however, between the ages of about six and nine, the movies began to work their way into our play. At one period, our favorite game was “Sandstorm,” an idea derived directly from some desert picture now forgotten. The two little boys with whom I played and I would hide in our caravan, the davenport, and watch the storm sweep over the horizon. When it reached us, we would battle our way through it, eventually to fall prostrate in the middle of the room, where we would lie until the storm blew over. Then we would get up and start the game over.

Another popular pastime, which was undoubtedly affected by certain “Western” pictures was “Cowboy.” My father had at one time lived on a coffee plantation in Mexico and owned and provided us with all the necessary regalia – ten-gallon hats, spurs, ‘kerchiefs, and holsters. The pistols which went with the outfit we were not allowed to have, but carried instead carved wooden guns. Stories of Father’s own (fictitious?) experiences were combined with movie scenarios to form what was for two years our great game. I do not recall any specific instances of our imitating the two-reelers, but I do know that Father obtained and autographed for us greatly cherished photographs of the inimitable William S. Hart.

After I entered school, my tastes changed rapidly from the hairbreadth, wild and woolly Westerners and slap-stick comedies to more sentimental forms. Until the time I entered Junior High, I was interested in the actresses, the heroines. I preferred them sweet, blonde, and fluffy – everything that I was not. I doted on misty close-ups of tear-streamed faces. In the sixth grade, my best friend and I were constantly imitating Mary Miles Minter and Mary Pickford, respectively. Later on I became, in turn, Alice Calhoun and Constance Talmadge, but my friend remained true to her first crush. In classes we wrote notes to each other, and signed them “Mary,” “Alice,” or whatever names we had at the time adopted.

After the seventh grade, however, my attentions again shifted, this time to the male actors. I had become boy-conscious, and, affecting an utter disdain toward all boys of my acquaintance, I took delight in the handsome and heroic men of the screen. I liked nearly all of them, as long as they were neither too old nor too paternal (like Thomas Meighan), but I especially favored Charles Ray, Harrison Ford, and, above all, Wallace Reid. He epitomized all I thought young manhood should be clean, good-looking, daring, and debonair. All the girls of my age and most of the boys liked him. We saw such pictures as “Clarence,” “The Affairs of Anatole,” and “Mr. Get-Rich-Quick Wallingford.”

As a young high-school student, I attended the movies largely for the love scenes. Although I never admitted it to my best friend, the most enjoyable part of the entire picture was inevitably the final embrace and fade-out. I always put myself in the place of the heroine. If the hero was some man by whom I should enjoy being kissed (as he invariably was), my evening was a success and I went home in an elated, dreamy frame of mind, my heart beating rather fast and my usually pale cheeks brilliantly flushed. I used to look in the mirror somewhat admiringly and try to imagine Wallace Reid or John Barrymore or Richard Barthelmess kissing that face! It seems ridiculous if not disgusting now, but until my Senior year this was the closest I came to Romance. And then I fell in love with a boy that looked remarkably like
Dick Barthelmess.

I liked my movies pure Romance: beautiful heroines in distress, handsome gallants in love, gorgeous costumes, and happy endings. “When Knighthood Was in Flower,” “Robin Hood,” “Beau Brummel,” and “Monsieur Beaucaire” were favorites, although as a rule I didn’t like screen versions of books I had read and loved. (“The Three Musketeers” was an example of an adored book grossly insulted.) In a life which was monotonous with all the placidity of a Baptist small town, these movies and books were about all the excitement one could enjoy.

I never liked pictures with a moral, unless it was so subtly expressed that I was unaware of its preaching. Such movies as “The Ten Commandments,” and more recently the “King of Kings,” impressed me as gorgeous spectacles, but too flagrant in their moralizing, so that in parts I was bored to the point of antagonism. A renovated production of “Ten Nights in a Barroom” was so bad it bordered on a screamingly funny burlesque. Just recently, however, I saw “White Shadows in the South Seas,” and was surprised to discover how deeply I was affected by the propaganda.

Over-sexed plays were always more or less repulsive. I remember especially “Flesh and the Devil” with the Garbo-Gilbert combination and an older one starring Gloria Swanson and Valentino. I liked neither. The former embarrassed and the latter bored me.

I have always been unrestrained in my emotions at a motion picture. My uncontrollable weeping at sad movies has been a never-ending source of mortification. I recall first shedding tears over the fate of some deserted water-baby when I was about eight years old, and I have wept consistently and unfailingly ever since, from “Penrod and Sam” to “Beau Geste.” The latter, which I liked as well as any picture I have ever seen, caused actual sobbing both times I saw it. I weep at scenes in which others can see no pathos whatsoever. Recently I have refused to see a half-dozen notably sad shows because of their distressing effects.

I do not believe the movies have ever stimulated me to a real thought, as books have done. Neither have they influenced me on questions of morals, of right and wrong. They have given me a more or less fluctuating standard of the ideal man – in general, the good-looking, dreamy, boyish type – and the kind of lover he must be – sincere, thoughtful, and tender. They have given me my ideas of luxury – sunken baths, silken chaises-lounges, arrays of servants and powerful motors; of historical background – medieval castles, old Egyptian palaces, gay Courts; and of geographical settings – the moonlit water framed in palms of the South Seas, the snow fields of the far North, the Sahara, the French Riviera, and numerous others. I suppose they have from time to time influenced my conception of myself; although I was not aware of this until recently when I saw “A Woman of Affairs,” the film version of Michael Arlen’s “Green Hat.” For days after I was consciously striving to be the “Gallant Lady”; to face a petty world squarely and uncomplainingly; to see things with her broad, sophisticated vision; even to walk and to smoke with her serene nonchalance. I, too, wished to be a gallant lady.

On the whole, I doubt if the movies have wielded much of an influence on my life; not because they were incapable of it, but because they have had too little opportunity. In my youth, my family discouraged attendance at the local cinema, and as I grew older, I formed other interests. Since the first of October, I have seen no more than ten pictures. Two of these impressed me immensely; three of them I could not sit through. Last year I used to go mainly to hear the organ music, but with the advent of the Vitaphone, this attraction is dispensed with. I dislike the stage shows presented at the leading theaters, and also the “talkies.” I usually attend a movie for rest and relaxation, and a bellowing, hollow voice or a raucous vaudeville act does not add to my pleasure. I like my movies unadulterated, silent, and far-between.

Comments: American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. This extract comes from Appendix C, ‘Typical Examples of the Longer Motion Picture Autobiographies’.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

The Nickel Madness

Source: Barton W. Currie, ‘The Nickel Madness,’ Harper’s Weekly, 24 August 24 1907, pp. 1246-1247.

Text: The Nickel Madness

The Amazing Spread of a New Kind of Amusement Enterprise Which is Making Fortunes for its Projectors

The very fact that we derive pleasure from certain amusements, wrote Lecky, creates a kind of humiliation. Anthony Comstock and Police-Commissioner Bingham have spoken eloquently on the moral aspect of the five-cent theatre, drawing far more strenuous conclusions than that of the great historian. But both the general and the purity commissioner generalized too freely from particulars. They saw only the harsher aspects of the nickel madness, whereas it has many innocent and harmless phases.

Crusades have been organized against these low-priced moving-picture theatres, and many conservators of the public morals have denounced them as vicious and demoralizing. Yet have they flourished amazingly, and carpenters are busy hammering them up in every big and little community in the country.

The first “nickelodeon,” or “nickelet,” or whatever it was called was merely an experiment, and the first experiment was made a little more than a year ago. There was nothing singularly novel in the ideal, only the individualizing of the moving-picture machine. Before it had served merely as a “turn” in vaudeville. For a very modest sum the outfit could be housed in a narrow store or in a shack in the rear yard of a tenement, provided there was an available hallway and the space for a “front.” These shacks and shops are packed with as many chairs as they will hold and the populace welcomed, or rather hailed, by a huge megaphone-horn and lurid placards. The price of admission and entertainment for from fifteen to twenty minutes is a coin of the smallest denomination in circulation west of the Rockies.

In some vaudeville houses you may watch a diversity of performances four hours for so humble a price as ten cents, provided you are willing to sit among the rafters. Yet the roof bleachers were never so popular or profitable as the tiny show-places that have fostered the nickel madness.

Before the dog-days set in, licenses were being granted in Manhattan Borough alone at the rate of one a day for these little hurry-up-and-be-amused booths. They are categorized as “common shows,” thanks to the Board of Aldermen. A special ordinance was passed to rate them under this heading. Thereby they were enabled to obtain a license for $25 for the first year, and $12.50 for the second year. The City Fathers did this before Anthony Comstock and others rose up and proclaimed against them. A full theatrical license costs $500.

An eloquent plea was made for these humble resorts by many “friends of the peepul.” They offered harmless diversion for the poor. They were edifying, educational, and amusing. They were broadening. They revealed the universe to the unsophisticated. The variety of the skipping, dancing, flashing, and marching pictures was without limit. For five cents you were admitted to the realms of the prize ring; you might witness the celebration of a Pontifical mass in St. Peter’s; Kaiser Wilhelm would prance before you, reviewing his Uhlans. Yes, and even more surprising, you were offered a modern conception of Washington crossing the Delaware “acted out by a trained group of actors.” Under the persuasive force of such arguments, was it strange that the Aldermen befriended the nickelodeon man and gave impetus to the craze?

Three hundred licenses were issued within the past year in the Borough of Manhattan alone for common shows. Two hundred of these were for nickelets. They are becoming vastly popular in Brooklyn. They are springing up in the shady places of Queens, and down on Staten Island you will find them in the most unexpected bosky dells, or rising in little rakish shacks on the mosquito flats.

Already statisticians have been estimating how many men, women, and children in the metropolis are being thrilled daily by them. A conservative figure puts it at 200,000, though if I were to accept the total of the showmen the estimate would be nearer half a million. But like all statisticians, who reckon human beings with the same unemotional placidity with which they total beans and potatoes, the statistician I have quoted left out the babies. In a visit to a dozen of these moving-picture hutches I counted an average of ten babies to each theatre-et. Of course they were in their mothers’ or the nurse-girls’ arms. But they were there and you heard them. They did not disturb the show, as there were no counter-sounds, and many of them seemed profoundly absorbed in the moving pictures.

As a matter of fact, some mothers- and all nurse-girls- will tell you that the cinematograph has a peculiarly hypnotic or narcotic effect upon an infant predisposed to disturb the welkin. You will visit few of these places in Harlem where the doorways are not encumbered with go-carts and perambulators. Likewise they are prodigiously popular with the rising generation in frock and knickerbocker. For this reason they have been condemned by the morality crusaders.

The chief argument against them was that they corrupted the young. Children of any size who could transport a nickel to the cashier’s booth were welcomed. Furthermore, undesirables of many kinds haunted them. Pickpockets found them splendidly convenient, for the lights were always cut off when the picture machine was focused on the canvas. There is no doubt about the fact that many rogues and miscreants obtained licenses and set up these little show-places merely as snares and traps. There were many who though they had sufficient pull to defy decency in the choice of their slides. Proprietors were said to work hand in glove with lawbreakers. Some were accused of wanton designs to corrupt young girls. Police-Commissioner Bingham denounced the nickel madness as pernicious, demoralizing, and a direct menace to the young.

But the Commissioner’s denunciation was rather too sweeping. His detectives managed to suppress indecencies and immoralities. As for their being a harbor for pickpockets, is it not possible that even they visit these humble places for amusement? Let any person who desires- metaphorically speaking, of course- put himself in the shoes of a pickpocket and visit one of these five-cent theatres. He has a choice of a dozen neighborhoods, and the character of the places varies little, nor does the class of patrons change, except here and there as to nationality. Having entered one of these get-thrills-quick theatres and imagined he is a pickpocket, let him look about him at the workingmen, at the tired, drudging mothers of bawling infants, at the little children of the streets, newsboys, bootblacks, and smudgy urchins. When he has taken all this in, will not his (assumed) professional impulse be flavored with disgust? Why, there isn’t an ounce of plunder in sight. The pickpocket who enters one of these humble booths for sordid motives must be pretty far down in his calling- a wretch without ambition.

But if you happen to be an outlaw you may learn many moral lessons from these brief moving-picture performances, for most of the slides offer you a quick flash of melodrama in which the villain and criminal are getting the worst of it. Pursuits of malefactors are by far the most popular of all nickel deliriums. You may see snatch-purses, burglars, and an infinite variety of criminals hunted by the police and the mob in almost any nickelet you have the curiosity to visit. The scenes of these thrilling chases occur in every quarter of the globe, from Cape Town to Medicine Hat.

The speed with which pursuer and pursued run is marvellous. Never are you cheated by a mere sprint or straightaway flight of a few blocks. The men who “fake” these moving pictures seem impelled by a moral obligation to give their patrons their full nickel’s worth. I have seen dozen of these kinetoscope fugitives run at least forty miles before they collided with a fat woman carrying an umbrella, who promptly sat on them and held them for the puffing constabulary.

It is in such climaxes as these that the nickel delirium rises to its full height. You and old follow the spectacular course of the fleeing culprit breathlessly. They have seen him strike a pretty young woman and tear her chain-purse from her hand. Of course it is in broad daylight and in full view of the populace. Then in about one-eighth of a second he is off like the wind, the mob is at his heels. In a quarter of a second a half-dozen policemen have joined in the precipitate rush. Is it any wonder that the lovers of melodrama are delighted? And is it not possible that the pickpockets in the audience are laughing in their sleeves and getting a prodigious amount of fun out of it?

The hunted man travels the first hundred yards in less than six seconds, so he must be an unusually well-trained athlete. A stout uniformed officer covers the distance in eight seconds. Reckon the handicap he would have to give Wegers and other famous sprinters. But it is in going over fences and stone walls, swimming rivers and climbing mountains, that you mount the heights of realism. You are taken over every sort of jump and obstacle, led out into tangled underbrush, through a dense forest, up the face of a jagged cliff- evidently traversing an entire county- whirled through a maze of wild scenery, and then brought back to the city. Again you are rushed through the same streets, accompanying the same tireless pack of pursuers, until finally looms the stout woman with the umbrella.

A clerk in a Harlem cigar-store who is an intense patron of the nickelodeon told me that he had witnessed thief chases in almost every large city in the world, not to mention a vast number of suburban town, mining-camps and prairie villages.

“I enjoy these shows,” he said, “for they continually introduce me to new places and new people. If I ever go to Berlin or Paris I will know what the places look like. I have seen runaways in the Boys de Boulong and a kidnapping in the Unter der Linden. I know what a fight in an alley in Stamboul looks like; have seen a papermill in full operation, from the cutting of the timber to the stamping of the pulp; have seen gold mined by hydraulic sprays in Alaska, and diamonds dug in South Africa. I know a lot of the pictures are fakes, but what of that? It costs only five cents.”

The popularity of these cheap amusement-places with the new population of New York is not to be wondered at. The newly arrived immigrant from Transylvania can get as much enjoyment out of them as the native. The imagination is appealed to directly and without any circumlocution. The child whose intelligence has just awakened and the doddering old man seem to be on an equal footing of enjoyment in the stuffy little box-like theatres. The passer-by with an idle quarter of an hour on his hands has an opportunity to kill the time swiftly, if he is not above mingling with the hoi polloi. Likewise the student of sociology may get a few points that he could not obtain in a day’s journey through the thronged streets of the East Side.

Of course the proprietors of the nickelets and nickelodeons make as much capital out of suggestiveness as possible, but it rarely goes beyond a hint or a lure. For instance, you will come to a little hole in the wall before which there is an ornate sign bearing the legend:

FRESH FROM PARIS
Very Naughty

Should this catch the eye of a Comstock he would immediately enter the place to gather evidence. But he would never apply for a warrant. He would find a “very naughty” boy playing pranks on a Paris street- annoying blind men, tripping up gendarmes, and amusing himself by every antic the ingenuity of the Paris street gamin can conceive.

This fraud on the prurient, as it might be called, is very common, and it has led a great many people, who derive their impressions from a glance at externals, to conclude that these resorts are really a menace to morals. You will hear and see much worse in some high-price theatres than in these moving-picture show-places.

In of the crowded quarters of the city the nickelet is cropping up almost a thickly as the saloons, and if the nickel delirium continues to maintain its hold there will be, in a few years, more of these cheap amusement-places than saloons. Even now some of the saloon-keepers are complaining that they injure their trade. On one street in Harlem, there are as many as five to a block, each one capable of showing to one thousand people an hour. That is, they have a seating capacity for about two hundred and fifty, and give four shows an hour. Others are so tiny that only fifty can be jammed into the narrow area. They run from early morning until midnight, and their megaphones are barking their lure before the milkman has made his rounds.

You hear in some neighborhoods of nickelodeon theatre-parties. A party will set out on what might be called a moving-picture debauch, making the round of all the tawdry little show-places in the region between the hours of eight and eleven o’clock at night, at a total cost of, say, thirty cents each. They will tell you afterwards that they were not bored for an instant.

Everything they saw had plenty of action in it. Melodrama is served hot and at a pace the Bowery theatres can never follow. In one place I visited, a band of pirates were whirled through a maze of hair-raising adventures that could not have occurred in a Third Avenue home of melodrama in less than two hours. Within the span of fifteen minutes the buccaneers scuttled a merchantman, made its crew walk the plank, captured a fair-haired maiden, bound her with what appeared to be two-inch Manila rope, and cast her into the hold.

The ruthless pirate captain put his captive on a bread-and-water diet, loaded her with chains, and paced up and down before her with arms folded, a la Bonaparte. The hapless young woman cowered in a corner and shook her clankless fetters. Meanwhile from the poop-deck other pirates scanned the offing. A sail dashed over the horizon and bore down on the buccaneers under full wing, making about ninety knots, though there was scarcely a ripple on the sea. In a few seconds the two vessels were hurling broadsides at each other. The Jolly Roger was shot away. Then the jolly sea-wolfs were shot away. It was a French man-of-war to the rescue, and French man-of-war’s men boarded the outlaw craft. There were cutlass duels all over the deck, from “figgerhead” to taffrail, until the freebooters were booted overboard to a man. Then the fiancé of the fair captive leaped down into the hold and cut off her chains with a jack-knife.

Is it any wonder, when you can see all this for five cents and in fifteen minutes, that the country is being swept by a nickel delirium? An agent for a moving-picture concern informed the writer that the craze for these cheap show-places was sweeping the country from coast to coast. The makers of the pictures employ great troops of actors and take them all over the world to perform. The sets of pictures have to be changed every other day. Men with vivid imaginations are employed to think up new acts. Their minds must be as fertile as the mental soil of a dime-novelist.

The French seem to be the masters in this new field. The writers of feuilletons have evidently branched into the business, for the continued-story moving-picture has come into existence. You get the same characters again and again, battling on the edges of precipitous cliffs, struggling in a lighthouse tower, sleuthing criminals in Parisian suburbs, tracking kidnapped children through dense forests, and pouncing upon would-be assassins with the dagger poised. Also you are introduced to the grotesque and the comique. Thousands of dwellers along the Bowery are learning to roar at French buffoonery, and the gendarme is growing as familiar to them as “the copper on the beat.”

And after all it is an innocent amusement and a rather wholesome delirium.

Comment: Anthony Comstock was renowned moralist who formed the New York Society for the Suppression of Vice. This article on New York’s nickelodeons was originally made available online via The Silent Film Bookshelf, a collection of transcriptions of original texts on aspects of film history collated by David Pierce. The site is no longer available, but can be traced in its entirety via the Internet Archive.

The Child and the Cinematograph Show

Source: Canon H.D. Rawnsley, The Child and the Cinematograph Show and the Picture Post-Card Evil (reprinted from the Hibbert Journal, vol. xi. 1913), pp. 3-11

Text: It is not improbable that the cinematograph film has a good deal to answer for in this matter of the public demand for horror and sensation. On many of the hoardings near the cinematograph halls or pavilions, beneath the sensational programmes are written such words as “nerve-thrillers”, “eye-openers tonight”, and when we turn to these programmes we cannot help noticing that it is the horrible that draws. “Massacre; a terrible tragedy, 2000 feet”; “The Wheel of Destruction”; “The Motor Car Race: the car when going at prodigious speed overturns and buries its living occupants. Don’t miss this”. “Dante’s hell”, the Devil film, with a huge invitation beneath it, “Don’t miss this opportunity of seeing Satan – Satan and the Creator; Satan and the Saviour, 4000 feet in length”; all these are signs of a downgrade pandering to a sense of horror which is being fostered throughout the length and breadth of the land by the downgrade film.

I spoke to a boy, about twelve years old, who had attended a cinematograph show in a little country town a week or two ago, and he positively trembled as he reported what he had seen. He said, “I shall never go again. It was horrible”. I said, “What was horrible?” He said, “I saw a man cut his throat”.

As I write, a friend tells me that a week or two ago his neighbours, seeing pictures of Sarah Bernhardt advertised as the chief item in a cinematograph show, visited the hall with their little daughter. They found to their disgust the bulk of the entertainment was sensational horrors of such a character that in consequence they were obliged to sit up all night with the child, who constantly woke with screams and cries …

Nor is this sense of horror alone appealed to. Many of these films prove to be direct incentives to crime. Clever burglaries are exhibited before the eyes of mischievous boys, who at once have their attention called to the possibility of the “expert cracksman’s life” …

In the face of the claims of the cinematograph proprietors that the exhibitions are for the moral improvement and amusement of the masses, and in opposition to all the tall talk about the educational value of the film to which the trade from time to time treats us, we have only to reply, “Look at your posters and the items of horror or fierce excitement or degrading sensationalism which, in spite of Mr Redford and his censorship, are still being exhibited up and down the country, to the detriment and discouragement of the nobler feelings of gentleness and compassion!”

The worst of it all is, that neither the police nor the agents of the cinematograph firms who are sent out as exhibitors, are sufficiently educated to know what is horrible and what is not. Thus, for example, when the mayor was appealed to in a town where the most terrible exhibition of the horrors of hell and the tortures of the damned were being visibly enacted as illustrations in gross caricature of Dante’s Inferno, he in turn appealed to the police to visit the cinematograph hall and report. The officer who was well up in the legal aspect of the case and was probably on the look-out for a criminally indecent film as a thing to be objected to, reported to the mayor that he could see nothing objectionable in this horrible Hell film, and therefore had not thought it necessary to speak to the exhibitor …

It is not only the sensational, cruel, or crime film that is sowing seeds of corruption among the people. The film manufacturers have invaded the most holy mysteries of our religious faith. There can be no question that in suitable surroundings, and with specially reverent treatment, pictures from the life of our Lord may be impressive and educational, but the idea of exploiting the life of our Lord as a commercial speculation, and the getting of a troupe of actors to go out to Palestine and pose in situ as His disciples, and as impersonators of the scenes described in the Gospels, is in itself abhorrent; and the quickness of motion needed by the film takes away reverence and imparts a sense of what is artificial, and sometimes almost comic …

It is not only the health of the religious and moral sense and spiritual understanding of the child which needs safeguarding. The time has come when the educationists of the country must realise that it is no use spending millions of money upon elementary education if children beneath school age are allowed to attend a cinematograph show till eleven o’clock at night, and then go home so overwrought and excited by the scenes they had witnessed that sleep is impossible.

I say overwrought advisedly, for it was reported in the press a short time ago that a child going home from a cinematograph hall pleaded piteously with a policeman to protect him from those two men with long beards that were following him. The two men with long beards were two ruffians that he had seen, and actually supposed to be living beings, in a cinematograph film that night …

… A census was taken on a certain Saturday in November last, in Liverpool, with the result that it was proved that there were 13,332 children below the age of fourteen present at matinees held in twenty-seven halls in that city, which appeared to cater especially for children so far as the price of entrance was concerned. The children’s ages … ranged from four or five up to thirteen, and they were viewing the ordinary films shown at the other performances during the rest of the week. Parts of the programme were composed of pictures of a sensational character, some showing crimes, others serious accidents, while not a few were suggestive of immorality.

Comment: Canon Hardwicke Drummond Rawnsley (1851-1920) was an outspoken critic of the cinema, who wrote and lectured widely on its supposed evil effects on children. The Dante film referred to is the Italian production L’inferno (1911). The troupe of actors going to Palestine is a reference to the American film company Kalem’s production of From the Manger to the Cross, made in 1912. George A. Redford was the first president of the British Board of Film Censors.