Source: Simon Nelson Patten, Product and Climax (The Art of Life series) (New York: B.W. Huebsch, 1909), pp. 45-48
Text: The next higher form of climax lies in the melodrama and its allied cheap shows of which the newest kind, the nickel theatre, has a novel importance. It is the first amusement to occupy the economic plane that the saloon has so long exclusively controlled. Its enormous popularity is proof that it appeals to the foundation qualities of men. It is moreover upbuilding, for the pictures of exciting adventures rouse the imagination and concentration which have lapsed in humdrum toil. It is accused of immoral suggestion: the suggestion however is chiefly in the wording of the titles, and the real test of immorality, which is destruction or construction of power, altogether fails. Such a test, naturally, lies in the later effects. If the man goes to the saloon he is “let down” and debilitated afterward; he becomes irritable or confused. There is no such reaction after the cheap show; the glow lasts, subsiding slowly as the memory of the thrilling rescue or the bad man’s capture is overlaid by new sensations. The watcher thinks with purpose, following a story which either has a plot or else holds his attention by showing novel scenes of travel among alien people. He can rest, be warmed, find the companionship of the like minded, and spend half an hour in either the nickel theatre or the saloon for the same price. A conservative estimate puts the number of people in New York City who daily visit the Nickelodeon at 200,000. On one New York street there are five Nickelodeons each having a capacity of 1,000 persons per hour and open from morning until midnight. In the crowded quarters they are almost as numerous as the saloons, and if their popularity continues they will soon out number them. Saloon keepers, says an investigator, are already complaining that their trade is injured by them.
Miss Jane Addams would give to physical sport the place which I have as signed to cheap shows. And this would be the natural place for it, I agree. Primitive men thought through their bodies before they thought through their imaginations; that is, they acted events before they sat down to watch others perform. Physical sport out of doors to-day would also be the natural corrective of the sedentary life of indoor workers. But we are confronted by then fact that there is not now, and is not likely to be for many years, any system of sport that will compare with the theatre in its present organization and accessibility. Great numbers of people easily obtain and are continually influenced by the cheap theatre; comparatively few are stimulated by its natural forerunner, physical play, because there is so scanty equipment for it. To make it a persuasive influence we must first secure an improved general organization of the city — in fact, a geographical reorganization of it, fundamental enough to replace whole areas of dwellings with parks, narrow streets by boulevards, shipping ways with boating courses and construct gymnasiums and baths extensive enough for many thou sand people. In the meantime the actual lift is made by the existing well organized and numerous centers of mimic deeds of virtue and prowess. To close them would be to leave the five-cent pleasure seekers with no alternative but the saloon or street.
Comments: Simon Nelson Patten (1852-1922) was an American economist. Jane Addams was an American social worker and reformer.
Source: Alexander Black, Time and Chance: Adventures with People and Print (New York/Toronto: Farrar and Reinhardt, 1937), pp. 117-118
Text: I was witness to one blunder in translating an audience sound that may have had a parallel under other circumstances, yet scarcely with a setting so unique. Edouard [sic] Muybridge was lecturing at the Oxford Club in Brooklyn on his experiments in photographing the horse in motion – experiments which resulted in startling the artists of the world. By the aid of a primitive projector he was displaying his studies on a screen. The action pictures showed not only horses but human figures, some of which were not merely novel but strikingly beautiful. While Muybridge was projecting and describing the dance of a girl model with floating draperies that glittered in the sunlight, someone in the audience, impatient at the prevalence of too-audible comment, uttered a ‘Sh-h-h!’ Muybridge mistook the shush for a hiss. It was astounding that he should mistake the intention behind the sound, but he blurted out a quick-tempered protest. ‘I am amazed,’ he said, ‘that from an intelligent audience there should be any misjudgement of a picture which I think has been rightly recognized as a work of art. It is a sad humiliation to discover that prudery can go so far.’ The shusher said nothing. Perhaps only in an American audience could Muybridge’s rebuke have been heard in silence. The silence was not only a cruelty to him, but a saddening confession of stupidity if not on the part of the whole audience, on the party of the committee – not to mention the shusher. Of course Muybridge was enlightened when he got through, but the mischief had been done. At least one after-comment insisted that the incident ‘made a monkey of Muybridge and cowards of the crowd.’
Comments: Alexander Black (1859-1940) was an American photographer, journalist and novelist. He became a pioneer of cinematic-style narrative through his 1894 lecture Miss Jerry, which combined staged slides (using professional actors) with some illusion of movement and live commentary. The English chronophotographer Eadweard Muybridge, whose sequence photographs did so much to inspire cinema, lectured across America and Europe in the 1880s. The lecture described hear may have taken place in early 1889 (early film history Terry Ramsaye refers to the incident in his book A Million and One Nights). My thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing this passage to my attention.
Source: Damon Runyon, ‘Damon Runyon Finds Some Foreign-Made Pictures Make Him Forget His Patriotism’, The Miami Herald, 7 January 1939, p. 6
Text: As a cash customer of the movies, we are such a rooter for the American pictures as opposed to the foreign-made films that the latter have to be even better than stupendous or colossal to win a decision from us over the home growns. The best we usually give them is a draw. We are 100 per cent patriotic to Sam Goldwyn.
We sometimes think the seats may prejudice us to some extent against the foreigners. The seats in some of those hideaway side street theaters where the foreigners generally show in New York are harder than a politician’s heart. Against those seats a picture has to be practically a miracle to gain our grudging approval.
The larger theaters where the American pictures are shown have nice soft-cushioned seats. The way we like to look at a picture is to slump down in one of those seats until our head is slightly below the level of the back of the seat. That puts us reclining on our spinal column, a most restful attitude, indeed.
Then with our knees propped against the seat in front of us and our sack of candy in our lap, we can really enjoy the screen proceedings. You try propping your knees against the back of a seat in one of the hard-seat theaters and you will get your shin bones all skinned up. Besides the occupant of the seat in front of you is thrown out of plumb by the pushing at his back, and sometimes he, or she, as the case may be, gets right stuffy about the matter.
Thus figuring in the discomfort we generally have two strikes called on a foreign film before it even starts unraveling. Add to that our patriotism to Sam Goldwyn, you can see that we are a dead tough audience. en we go out admitting that the foreigner was a fair picture it must have been a regular lily.
On several occasions during the past semester after seeing a foreign picture in a hard-seat theater we realized that we were thinking, not of the hard seats, but of the picture. It was a symptom that alarmed us. It indicated that the picture must have had many points of excellence to act as an anesthesia to our memory of those seats.
We saw some of the pictures a second time to teat this reaction, and all the while the films were unwinding we forced ourself to keep repeating “Remember old Sam,” that our patriotism might remain flaming throughout the display. The result was the same as before. We not only forgot our discomfort in the hard seats, but there were periods when we could not keep Sam in mind.
We have decided that they must have been good Pictures—so good, in fact, that we are wondering if it is not a portent of some nature to Hollywood. When those foreign picture makers can smack us cash customers between the eyes with at least half a dozen good pictures in a season, it may be time for Hollywood to investigate and see what makes them tick.
“Pygmalion,” “The Lady Vanishes,” “The Citadel,” “The Beachcomber,” “To the Victor,” “Grand Illusion,” “Pearls of the Crown,” “Carnet De Bal” and “Professor Mamlock” are among the foreigners and some of our fellow cash customers say that five of them are entitled to place among the 10 best pictures of the year. We are not so sure of that, but we are sure that “Pygmalion” and “Grand Illusion” are as good as any pictures we saw during 1938, if not better.
As we have said before, Hollywood still has a pretty neat answer to a number of these pictures, which is they will not make a white quarter in this country. They are just artistic triumphs and artistic triumphs are no good for the bankroll. However, we are wondering what is going to happen if those foreign picture makers eventually hit the combination of popular American appeal with the artistic excellence they have already attained?
We are told that most of the foreign pictures lack the technical perfection of the Hollywood pictures, but we have been inquiring around among our fellow cash customers and we find that few of them pay much attention to technique if the picture has a good story, well told. The strength of the foreigners, as we gather from the cash customers, is story, and, of course, direction of story.
Comments: Damon Runyon (1880-1946) was an American journalist and short-story writer, best known for the musical adaptation of his stories, Guys and Dolls. The films he mentions are Pygmalion (UK 1938), The Lady Vanishes (UK 1938), The Citadel (UK 1938), Vessel of Wrath (UK 1938), Owd Bob (UK 1938), La Grande Illusion (France 1937), Les Perles de la couronne (France 1937), Un carnet de bal (France 1937) and Professor Mamlock (USSR 1938). My thanks to Carol O’Sullivan for bringing this piece to my attention.
Source: James Baldwin, The Devil Finds Work (1976), included in Collected Essays (New York: The Library of America, 1998), p. 479
Text: Joan Crawford’s straight, narrow and lonely back. We are following her through the corridors of a moving train. She is looking for someone, or she is trying to escape from someone. She is eventually intercepted by, I think, Clark Gable.
I am fascinated by the movement on, and of, the screen, that movement which is something like the heaving and swelling of the sea (though I have not yet been to the sea): and which is also something like the light which moves on, and especially beneath the water.
I am about seven. I am with my mother, or my aunt. The movie is Dance, Fools, Dance.
I don’t remember the film. A child is far too self-centered to relate to any dilemma which does not, somehow, relate to him – to his own evolving dilemma. The child escapes into what we would like his situation to be, and I certainly did not wish to be a fleeing fugitive on a moving train; and, also, with quite another part of my mind, I was aware that Joan Crawford was a white lady. Yet, I remember being sent to the store sometime later, and a colored woman, who, to me, looked exactly like Joan Crawford, was buying something. She was so incredibly beautiful – she seemed to be wearing the sunlight, rearranging it around her from time to time, with a movement of one hand, with a movement of her head, and with her smile – that, when she paid the man and started out of the store, I started out behind her. The storekeeper, who knew me, and others in the store who knew my mother’s little boy (and who also knew my Miss Crawford!) laughed and called me back. Miss Crawford also laughed and looked down at me with so beautiful a smile that I was not even embarrassed. Which was rare for me.
Comments: James Baldwin (1924-1987) was an African-American essayist, novelist and social commentator. His memories of the film Dance, Fools, Dance (USA 1931) come at the start of his long essay on film and race, The Devil Finds Work (1976). His childhood was spent in Harlem, New York City.
Source: Joseph Medill Patterson, ‘The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama’ The Saturday Evening Post, 23 November 1907, pp. 10-11, 38.
Text: Three years ago there was not a nickelodeon, or, five-cent theatre devoted to moving-picture shows, in America. To-day there are between four and five thousand running and solvent, and the number is still increasing rapidly. This is the boom time in the moving-picture business. Everybody is making money- manufacturers, renters, jobbers, exhibitors. Overproduction looms up as a certainty of the near future; but now, as one press-agent said enthusiastically, “this line is a Klondike.”
The nickelodeon in tapping an entirely new stratum of people, is developing into theatregoers a section of population that formerly knew and cared little about the drama as a fact in life. That is why “this line is a Klondike” just at present.
Incredible as it may seem, over two million people on the average attend the nickelodeons every day of the year, and a third of these are children.
Let us prove up this estimate. The agent for the biggest firm of film renters in the country told me that the average expense of running a nickelodeon was from $175 to $200 a week, divided as follows:
Wage of manager $25 Wage of Operator 20 Wage of doorman 15 Wage of porter or musician 12 Rent of film (two reels changed twice a week) 50 Rent of projecting machine 10 Rent of building 40 Music, printing, “campaign contributions,” etc. 18 Total $190
Merely to meet expenses then, the average nickelodeon must have a weekly attendance of 4000. This gives all the nickelodeons 16,000,000 a week, or over 2,000,000 a day. Two million people a day are needed before profits can begin, and the two million are forthcoming. It is a big thing, this new enterprise.
The nickelodeon is usually a tiny theatre, containing 199 seats, giving from twelve to eighteen performances a day, seven days a week. Its walls are painted red. The seats are ordinary kitchen chairs, not fastened. The only break in the red color scheme is made by half a dozen signs, in black and white, NO SMOKING, HATS OFF and sometimes, but not always, STAY AS LONG AS YOU LIKE.
The spectatorium is one story high, twenty-five feet wide and about seventy feet deep. Last year or the year before it was probably a second-hand clothiers, a pawnshop or cigar store. Now, the counter has been ripped out, there is a ticket-seller’s booth where the show-window was, an automatic musical barker somewhere up in the air thunders its noise down on the passersby, and the little store has been converted into a theatrelet. Not a theatre, mind you, for theatres must take out theatrical licenses at $500 a year. Theatres seat two hundred or more people. Nickelodeons seat 199, and take out amusement licenses. This is the general rule.
But sometimes nickelodeon proprietors in favorable locations take out theatrical licenses and put in 800 or 1000 seats. In Philadelphia, there is, perhaps, the largest nickelodeon in America. It is said to pay not only the theatrical license, but also $30,000 a year ground rent and a handsome profit.
To-day there is cutthroat competition between the little nickelodeon owners, and they are beginning to compete each other out of existence. Already consolidation has set in. Film-renting firms are quietly beginning to pick up, here and there, a few nickelodeons of their own; presumably they will make better rates and give prompter service to their own theatrelets than to those belonging to outsiders. The tendency is early toward fewer, bigger, cleaner five-cent theatres and more expensive shows. Hard as this may be on the little showman who is forced out, it is good for the public, who will, in consequence, get more for their money.
Who the Patrons Are
The character of the attendance varies with the locality, but, whatever the locality, children make up about thirty-three per cent. of the crowds. For some reason, young women from sixteen to thirty years old are rarely in evidence, but many middle-aged and old women are steady patrons, who never, when a new film is to be shown, miss the opening.
In cosmopolitan city districts the foreigners attend in larger proportion than the English speakers. This is doubtless because the foreigners, shut out as they are by their alien tongues from much of the life about them can yet perfectly understand the pantomime of the moving pictures.
As might be expected, the Latin races patronize the shows more consistently than Jews, Irish or Americans. Sailors of all races are devotees.
Most of the shows have musical accompaniments. The enterprising manager usually engages a human pianist with instructions to play Eliza-crossing-the-ice when the scene is shuddery, and fast ragtime in a comic kid chase. Where there is little competition, however, the manager merely presses the button and starts the automatic going, which is as apt as not to bellow out, I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill, just as the angel rises from the brave little hero-cripple’s corpse.
The moving pictures were used as chasers in vaudeville houses for several years before the advent of the nickelodeon. The cinemetograph or vitagraph or biograph or kinetoscope (there are seventy-odd names for the same machine) was invented in 1888-1889. Mr. Edison is said to have contributed most toward it, though several other inventors claim part of the credit.
The first very successful pictures were those of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight at Carson City, Nevada, in 1897. These films were shown all over the country to immense crowds and an enormous sum of money was made by the exhibitors.
The Jeffries-Sharkey fight of twenty-five rounds at Coney Island, in November, 1899, was another popular success. The contest being at night, artificial light was necessary, and 500 arc lamps were placed above the ring. Four cameras were used. While one was snapping the fighters, a second was being focused at them, a third was being reloaded, and a fourth was held in reserve in case of breakdown. Over seven miles of film were exposed, and 198,000 pictures, each 2 by 3 inches, were taken. This fight was taken at the rate of thirty pictures to the second.
The 500 arc lamps above the ring generated a temperature of about 115 degrees for the gladiators to fight in. When the event was concluded, Mr. Jeffries was overheard to remark that for no amount of money would he ever again in his life fight in such heat, pictures or no pictures. And he never has.
Since that mighty fight, manufacturers have learned a good deal about cheapening their process. Pictures instead of being 2 by 3 inches are now 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches, and are taken sixteen instead of thirty to the second, for the illusion to the eye of continuous motion is as perfect at one rate as the other.
By means of a ratchet each separate picture is made to pause a twentieth of a second before the magic-lantern lens, throwing an enlargement to life size upon the screen. Then, while the revolving shutter obscures the lens, one picture is dropped and another substituted, to make in turn its twentieth of a second display.
The films are, as a rule, exhibited at the rate at which they are taken, though chase scenes are usually thrown faster, and horse races, fire-engines and hot-moving automobiles slower, than the life-speed.
How the Drama Is Made
Within the past year an automatic process to color films has been discovered by a French firm. The pigments are applied by means of a four-color machine stencil. Beyond this bare fact the process remains a secret of the inventors. The stencil must do its work with extraordinary accuracy, for any minute error in the application of color to outline made upon the 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches print is magnified 200 times when thrown upon the screen by the magnifying lens. The remarkable thing about this automatic colorer is that it applies the pigment in slightly different outline to each successive print of a film 700 feet long. Colored films sell for about fifty per cent. more than black and whites. Tinted films – browns, blues, oranges, violets, greens and so forth – are made by washing, and sell at but one per cent. over the straight price.
The films are obtained in various ways. “Straight” shows, where the interest depends on the dramatist’s imagination and the setting, are merely playlets acted out before the rapid-fire camera. Each manufacturing firm owns a studio with property-room, dressing rooms and a completely-equipped stage. The actors are experienced professionals of just below the first rank, who are content to make from $18 to $25 a week. In France a class of moving-picture specialists has grown up who work only for the cameras, but in this country most of the artists who play in the film studios in the daytime play also behind the footlights at night.
The studio manager orders rehearsals continued until his people have their parts “face-perfect,” then he gives the word, the lens is focused, the cast works rapidly for twenty minutes while the long strip of celluloid whirs through the camera, and the performance is preserved in living, dynamic embalmment (if the phrase may be permitted) for decades to come.
Eccentric scenes, such as a chalk marking the outlines of a coat upon a piece of cloth, the scissors cutting to the lines, the needle sewing, all automatically without human help, often require a week to take. The process is ingenious. First the scissors and chalk are laid upon the edge of the cloth. The picture is taken. The camera is stopped, the scissors are moved a quarter of an inch into the cloth, the chalk is drawn a quarter of an inch over the cloth. The camera is opened again and another picture is taken showing the quarter-inch cut and quarter-inch mark. The camera is closed, another quarter inch is cut and chalked; another exposure is made. When these pictures so slowly obtained we run off rapidly, the illusion of fast self-action on the part of the scissors, chalk and needle is produced.
Sometimes in a nickelodeon you can see on the screen a building completely wrecked in five minutes. Such a film was obtained by focusing a camera at the building, and taking every salient move of the wreckers for the space, perhaps, of a fortnight. When these separate prints, obtained at varying intervals, some of them perhaps a whole day apart, are run together continuously, the appearance is of a mighty stone building being pulled to pieces like a house of blocks.
Such eccentric pictures were in high demand a couple of years ago, but now the straight-story show is running them out. The plots are improving every year in dramatic technique. Manufacturing firms pay from $5 to $25 for good stories suitable for film presentation, and it is astonishes how many sound dramatic ideas are submitted by people of insufficient education to render their thoughts into English suitable for the legitimate stage.
The moving-picture actors are becoming excellent pantomimists, which is natural, for they cannot rely on the playwright’s lines to make their meanings. I remember particularly a performance I saw near Spring Street on the Bowery, where the pantomime seemed to me in nowise inferior to that of Mademoiselle Pilar-Morin, the French pantomimist.
The nickelodeon spectators readily distinguish between good and bad acting, though they do not mark their pleasure or displeasure audibly, except very rarely, in a comedy scenes by a suppressed giggle. During the excellent show of which I have spoken, the men, woman and children maintained steady stare of fascination at the changing figures on the scene, and toward the climax, when forgiveness was cruelly denied, lips were parted and eyes filled with tears. It was as much a tribute to the actors as the loudest bravos ever shouted in the Metropolitan Opera House.
To-day a consistent plot is demanded. There must be, as in the drama, exposition, development, climax and denouement. The most popular films run from fifteen to twenty minutes and are from five hundred to eight hundred feet long. One studio manager said: “The people want a story. We run to comics generally; they seem to take best. So-and-so, however, lean more to melodrama. When we started we used to give just flashes- an engine chasing to a fire, a base-runner sliding home, a charge of cavalry. Now, for instance, if we want to work in a horse race it has to be as a scene in the life of the jockey, who is the hero of the piece – we’ve got to give them a story; they won’t take anything else – a story with plenty of action. You can’t show large conversation, you know, on the screen. More story, larger story, better story with plenty of action- that is our tendency.”
Civilization, all through the history of mankind, has been chiefly the property of the upper classes, but during the past century civilization has been permeating steadily downward. The leaders of this democratic movement have been general education, universal suffrage, cheap periodicals and cheap travel. To-day the moving-picture machine cannot be overlooked as an effective protagonist of democracy. For through it the drama, always a big fact in the lives of the people at the top, is now becoming a big fact in the lives of the people at the bottom. Two million of them a day have so found a new interest in life.
The prosperous Westerners, who take their week or fortnight, fall and spring, in New York, pay two dollars and a half for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Broadway theatre. The stokers who have driven the Deutschland or the Lusitania from Europe pay five cents for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Bowery nickelodeon. What in the difference?
The stokers, sitting on the hard, wooden chairs of the nickelodeon, experience the same emotional flux and counter-flux (more intense is their experience, for they are not as blase) as the prosperous Westerners in their red plush orchestra chairs, uptown.
The sentient life of the half-civilized beings at the bottom has been enlarged and altered, by the introduction of the dramatic motif, to resemble more closely the sentient life of the civilized beings at the top.
Take an analogous case. Is aimless travel “beneficial” or not? It is amusing, certainly; and, therefore, the aristocrats who could afford it have always traveled aimlessly. But now, says the Democratic Movement, the grand tour shall no longer be restricted to the aristocracy. Jump on the rural trolley-car, Mr. Workingman, and make a grand tour yourself. Don’t care, Mr. Workingman, whether it is “beneficial” or not. Do it because it is amusing; just as the aristocrats do.
The film makers cover the whole gamut of dramatic attractions. The extremes in the film world are as far apart as the extremes in the theatrical world- as far apart, let us say, as The Master Builder and The Gay White Way.
If you look up the moving-picture advertisements in any vaudeville trade paper you cannot help being struck with this fact. For instance, in a current number, one firm offers the following variety of attractions:
Romany’s Revenge (very dramatic) 300 feet Johnny’s Run (comic kid chase) 300 ” Roof to Cellar (absorbing comedy) 782 ” Wizard’s World (fantastic comedy) 350 ” Sailor’s Return (highly dramatic) 535 ” A Mother’s Sin (beautiful, dramatic and moral) 392 ” Knight Errant (old historical drama) 421 ” Village Fire Brigade (big laugh) 325 ” Catch the Kid (a scream) 270 ” The Coroner’s Mistake (comic ghost story) 430 ” Fatal Hand (dramatic) 432 “
Another firm advertises in huge type, in the trade papers:
LIFE AND PASSION OF CHRIST Five Parts, Thirty-nine Pictures, 3114 feet Price, $373.78 Extra for coloring $125.10
The presentation by the picture machine of the Passion Play in this country was undertaken with considerable hesitation. The films had been shown in France to huge crowds, but here, so little were even professional students of American lower-class taste able to gauge it in advance, that the presenters feared the Passion Play might be boycotted, if not, indeed, indeed, in some places, mobbed. On the contrary, it has been the biggest success ever known to the business.
Last year incidents leading up to the murder of Stanford White were shown, succeeded enormously for a very few weeks, then flattened out completely and were withdrawn. Film people are as much at sea about what their crowds will like as the managers in the “legitimate.”
Although the gourdlike growth of the nickelodeon business as a factor in the conscious life of Americans is not yet appreciated, already a good many people are disturbed by what they do know of the thing.
Those who are “interested in the poor” are wondering whether the five-cent theatre is a good influence, and asking themselves gravely whether it should be encouraged or checked (with the help of the police).
Is the theatre a “good” or a “bad” influence? The adjectives don’t fit the case. Neither do they fit the case of the nickelodeon, which is merely the theatre demociatized.
Take the case of the Passion Play, for instance. Is it irreverent to portray the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension in a vaudeville theatre over a darkened stage where half an hour before a couple of painted, short-skirted girls were doing a “sister-act”? What is the motive which draws crowds poor people to nickelodeons to see the Birth in the Manger flashed magic-lanternwise upon a white cloth? Curiosity? Mere mocking curiosity, perhaps? I cannot answer.
Neither could I say what it is that, every fifth year, draws our plutocrats to Oberammergau, where at the cost, from first to last, of thousands of dollars and days of time, they view a similar spectacle presented in a sunny Bavarian setting.
It is reasonable, however, to believe that the same feelings, whatever they are, which drew our rich to Oberammergau, draw our poor to the nickelodeons. Whether the powerful emotional reactions produced in the spectator by the Passion Play are “beneficial” or not is as far beyond decision as the question whether a man or an oyster is happier. The man is more, feels more, than the oyster. The beholder of the Passion Play is more, feels more, than the non-beholder.
Whether for weal or woe, humanity has ceaselessly striven to complicate life, to diversify and make subtle the emotions, to create and gratify the new and artificial spiritual wants, to know more and feel more both of good and evil, to attain a greater degree of self-consciousness; just as the one fundamental instinct of the youth, which most systems of education have been vainly organized to eradicate, is to find out what the man knows.
In this eternal struggle for more self-consciousness, the moving-picture machine, uncouth instrument though it be, has enlisted itself on especial behalf of the least enlightened, those who are below the reach even of the yellow journals. For although in the prosperous vaudeville houses the machine is but a toy, a “chaser,” in the nickelodeons it is the central, absorbing fact, which strengthens, widens, vivifies subjective life; which teaches living other than living through the senses alone. Already, perhaps, touching him at the psychological moment, it has awakened to his first, groping, necessary discontent the spirit of an artist of the future, who otherwise would have remained mute and motionless.
The nickelodeons are merely an extension course in civilization, teaching both its “badness” and its “goodness.” They have come in obedience to the law of supply and demand; and they will stay as long as the slums stay, for in the slums they are the fittest and must survive.
Comments: Joseph Medill Patterson (1879-1946) was an American journalist and newspaper publisher, founder of the New York Daily News. Nickelodeons (a nickname given in America to the shop-conversions that preceded purpose-built cinemas) came to the interest on general newspapers and magazines in 1907. The illustrations come from the original publication.
Source: Simone de Beauvoir (trans. Patrick Dudley), America Day by Day (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1952), pp. 62-63
Text: And how easy it was to take part in New York life! From early morning people on Broadway queued up for the movies. At any time of the day, with an hour to kill, you can go to see animated cartoons or newsreels. But above all it is at night, in crowded Forty-second Street, that the movies have the dual attraction of fairs in foreign countries and national rejoicings. On Times Square you can see the latest Hollywood films; on Forty-second Street they show old Westerns, comedies and pictures that give one goose-flesh: I mean the thrillers. In a small cinema on one of the grands boulevards of Paris they used to show one of these horror films weekly twenty years ago. Now that they have become talkies they have scarcely altered. Once more I watched the murdered mummies finally stabbed through the heart with hunting knives; vampires greedily drinking up fresh blood; robots charged with uncontrollable forces, sowing death and terror …. Every time the mummy appears the audience shouts, not with terror, of course, but with delight, for they no longer believe it.
But the animated cartoons disappointed me; they have become set and mechanical. And the films I saw did not reveal New York to me as I had hoped they would one evening. But they helped to bind me to America. I no longer looked at the screen in the same way that I did at home; the exotic drugstores, the streets, the elevators and the press-bells had disappeared; they were now just realistic details. But this realism had poetry all the same. The screen transfigured everyday objects and reimposed that distance between me and the drugstore which was abolished every time I drank an orange juice, although continuing to exist nevertheless. It was by means of these black and white pictures that I had come to know America, and still they seemed to me to be its real substance; the screen is a platonic heaven where I find my concept in all its purity. The houses built of stone are but doubtful embodiments of it.
Comments: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a French intellectual. She visited America over a four-month period in 1947. Her account of her journey was first published in France in 1948 as L’Amérique au jour le jour.
Source: Fitzhugh Green, The Film Finds Its Tongue (New York: G.P. Putnam, 1929), pp. 11-14
Text: Slowly the theatre filled. Every seat was sold, and occupied. It was a curious, speculative audience, there on unfamiliar grounds, uncertain what it was about to see, or how it should be received. It was prepared more to see a scientific marvel than to be entertained.
The four men were prepared—for anything.
Eight-thirty arrived. The lights dimmed; babble of voices hushed. A white beam shot overhead and splashed upon the screen; the beam from the movie projector. But it fell first on the draped curtains on the stage, revealing a subtitle. The curtains parted on a conventional cinema screen. The title gave way, familiarly, to a photograph … a man … Will H. Hays. He advanced to the foreground and there was a little sound. It penetrated through people’s minds that they had “heard” him clear his throat.
Then, suddenly, the picture began to speak!
The audience hung on its every word, half expecting something to happen … the machinery would break down. In the first trials of every machine there is a good chance that it will break. One lacks confidence in it.
The phenomenon was like watching a man flying without wings. It was uncanny. The shadow of Will H. Hays was true to life. His lips moved and sound came forth. His was a short speech; when it was done and he stood there, people found themselves clapping, unconsciously. As if he heard them, he bowed. He seemed to be present, and yet he did not seem to be present. No wonder a scientist next day called it: “The nearest thing to a resurrection!”
As the picture disappeared a buzz of talk ran through the theatre. Then silence again as the second number appeared: the Philharmonic Orchestra playing the “Tannhauser” overture. Sweet music reached out from the huge invisible horn behind the screen and wrought its spell upon the listeners. It was familiar music, marvellously played. It swept on through the cadences of the overture; the quiet, half-religious opening, the seductive melody of the Venusberg, the crashing finale … and during it the photographs, leaping from one section of the orchestra to another, focusing on busy musicians bent over their instruments.
As the movie image of Henry Hadley turned to his auditors after the last note he “faced” a theatre full of people applauding spontaneously—yet he wasn’t there!
The ice had been broken: the talking picture had now an audience for the first time in three decades.
Throughout the rest of the first half of the program the audience sat breathlessly drinking the novelty in. It found that it liked film that talked. It found it possible to judge such a film; it liked some of the numbers better than others. It found itself fascinated by the intimacy with which the artist was revealed; found itself watching Elman’s fingering, Martinelli’s tone formation; found itself brought closer to those artists than ever before; even found itself, presently, gaining an illusion that the artists themselves were present!
When the lights went up for intermission the audience cheered, then gave way to a concentrated buzz of excitement. History was being made and they were there to see the event, was the way every one felt.
The second half was a conventional screen drama—also with the new talking-picture attachment. But before its stirring plot was done the little group of men who waited received their verdict. The uncontrollable enthusiasm of the audience gave it:
Comments: Fitzhugh Green was author of a booklet that documents the development of the sound film by the American studio Warner Bros. The event he documents here is the public debut of the Vitaphone talkie film process (film accompanied by synchronised sound disc) on 6 August 1926 at the Warner Theatre, New York. Eight short films shown on the evening followed by the feature film Don Juan (1926), which had a synchronised music score and sound effects but no spoken dialogue. The short films shown were Hon. Will H. Hays, President of the Motion Picture Producers & Distributors of America, Inc., Who Will Address You (the only ‘talkie’ of the evening), Overture “Tannhauser” featuring conductor Henry Hadley and the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, violinist Mischa Elman playing “Humoresque” by Antonín Dvorák and “Gavotte” by François-Joseph Gossec, His Pastimes featuring novelty guitarist Roy Smeck, Beethoven’s The Kreutzer Sonata played by Harold Bauer and Efrem Zimbalist, a selection of Russian songs and dances entitled An Evening on the Don, singer Anna Case and Spanish dancers in La Fiesta, and opera singer Giovanni Martinelli singing Vesti La Giubba (the hit of the evening). The four men were the four Warner brothers.
Source: Harris Merton Lyon, extract from ‘The Raven’, in Graphics (St. Louis: William Marion Reedy, 1913), pp. 40-42
Text: “Where yuh going?” said the one brought up as a lady.
“To the movin’ pitcher show. It’s only five cents.
“I aint’ got it just now.”
“Well, go get a nickel from your ma and come along.”
So Alicia went back and got the nickel. Her mother never even asked her what it was for.
A cheap, tinsel edifice, formerly a shoe store. Inside, a pitch dark, low-ceilinged box of a room. Wooden benches. A disgusting smell of multiple-breathed human breath, ammoniac reek of perspiration on the unbathed. A dim red light to the left, indicating a doubtful and rusty exit. In front the dingy screen upon which the mottled and galvanized pictures rippled off the story of some classic sweetheart carried away at dawn by her passionate lover. The heroine threw a riding-cloak over her night dress and was borne down a ladder from the window of a castle. The hero wore doublets, hose, sword, a feather in his hat, spurs. A great iron-grey horse awaited them. They mounted, wheeled and started off. The chase began. Lure! Romance! Adventure! Dare and do! Love! Passion! Lure!
It was all action, feverish action, cut to the very quick and kept there. No explanations were offered, save those which each unskilled brain in the rapt audience could give itself. Men whipped out revolvers, shot each other; women suddenly kissed men; and so on. Act followed act rapidly without leaving time for digestion, even if those who watched had any powers of digesting such miraculous scenes. Thus for three-quarters of an hour the fantastic, dazzling display gave them sensation after sensation; and the gaping crowd, absorbed, forgot them; absorbed new ones, immediately forgot them—craving endlessly more. More bowing, smiling, kissing, shooting, trickery, disguises, thievery, pantomime passion, slapstick comedy, runaways. The grotesque. The ignoble. The dramatic.
Then, with a violent final click the machine stopped. Lights were turned on. The two front doors thrown open. Voices bawled: “Out this way, ladies and gents. This way out!” The show was over.
Comments: Harris Merton Lyon (1882-1916) was an American short story writer. His moralistic short story ‘The Raven’, originally published in a newspaper, centres around a visit to a New York moving picture show and the dangers that ensue for a naive young girl seeing films for the first time (she ends up a victim of White Slavery and commits suicide). Many ‘nickelodeons’ in the early years of cinemagoing were shop conversions, as here.
Source: Anon., ‘”Keith’s Union Square,” The New York Dramatic Mirror, 11 July 1896, p. 17
Text: Lumière’s Cinématographe created a decided sensation here last week. It was fully described in last week’s Mirror, and it is only necessary to add that the audiences were very enthusiastic over the new discovery. The depot picture with its stirring arrival of an express train, and the charge of the French hussars were wildly applauded and each of the pictures came in for its share of approval. A new picture was shown which represented the noonhour at the factory of the Messrs. Lumière in Lyons, France. As the whistle blew, the factory doors were thrown open and men, women and children came trooping out. Several of the employees had bicycles, which they mounted outside the gate, and rode off. A carryall, which the Lumières keep to transport those who live at a distance from the factory, came dashing out in the most natural manner imaginable. A lecturer was employed to explain the pictures as they were shown, but he was hardly necessary, as the views speak for themselves, eloquently.
Comments: The Lumière Cinématographe made its American debut at Keith’s Union Square Theater, New York City, on 29 June 1896. The films shown include La sortie des usines Lumière and L’arrivé d’un train. The charge of the French hussars could be one of several films of the Seventh Cuirassiers filmed by the Lumières.
Source: Paul Morand (trans. Hamish Miles), New York (London: William Heinemann, 1931 [orig. pub. 1930]), pp. 198-199
Text: As for the Roxy, that surpasses the impossible. Find a way through those dense crowds queued up there all day long; pass the tall gold-laced ushers, at once door-keepers and custodians of order; enter this Temple of Solomon. The overheated air is unbreathable, the din of the mechanical orchestra, which one failure in the electricity could bring to a standstill, is merciless; amid palm-trees and gigantic ferns one moves forward into the Mexican palace of some Spanish governor whom the tropics have turned stark mad. The walls are of a reddish rough-cast, treated with a liquid to give a semblance of age, and the brazen doors of the Ark of the Covenant open into a hall with golden cupolas, in old style, and a ceiling with storied panels. Satan has hung this disused sanctuary with scarlet velvet; a nightmare light falls from bowls of imitation alabaster, from yellow glass lanterns, from branching ritual candlesticks; the organ-pipes, lit from beneath by greenish lights, make one think of a cathedral under the waves, and in the wall are niches awaiting sinful bishops. I find a seat in a deep, soft fauteuil, from which for two hours I witness giant kisses on mouths like the crevasses of the Grand Canyon, embraces of titans, a whole propaganda of the flesh which maddens, without satisfying, these violent American temperaments. It is more than a Black Mass; it is a profanation of everything – of music, of art, of love, of colours. I vow I had there a complete vision of the end of the world. I saw Broadway suddenly as one vast Roxy, one of those unsubstantial treasures, one of those joy-baited traps, one of those fleeting and illusory gifts won by the spells of wicked magicians.
Comments: Paul Morand (1888-1976) was a French author and intellectual. He made trips to New York between 1925-1929, resulting in his travel book New York, published in French in 1930. The Roxy Theatre was located at 7th Avenue and 50th Street, off Times Square in New York City. It seated 5,920 (originally 6,200), and opened on 11 March 1927. It was named after its manager, the cinema impresario Samuel L. ‘Roxy’ Rothafel.