Brother Robert

Source: Annye C. Anderson (with Preston Lauterbach), Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson (New York: Hachette Books, 2020), pp. 51-52

Text: Once I got to go to Beale Street, I’d tag along with Brother Robert, Brother Son, and Sister Carrie to the movies at the Palace Theater. They liked to see Mae West and Bette Davis, and I was a nuisance, always running to the bathroom and wanting popcorn.

Most of the movies we saw at the Palace were Westerns. Buck Jones and Tom Mix were Brother Robert’s favorite cowboys. He wore that big Stetson, like them. All of the young men in our family wore Stetson—that was on the go. My father and Uncle Will wore Dobbs.

At the Palace, Son and Brother Robert saw Gene Autry in Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Gene and another guitar player did a song called “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.”

That piece became a part of Son and Brother Robert’s repertoire whenever they entertained.

All the top bands, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, and Jimmie Lunceford played at the Palace. We could see big entertainment for a small price. These acts also played the Orpheum, the grand opera theater on Main Street at Beale, one of the few integrated venues in the city, though blacks sat in the balcony.

It’s my understanding that Brother Robert would hang out at the Palace while waiting on his next gig. Mr. Barrasso, the owner, let you stay all day on one ticket price. Brother Robert would sleep while the movie played over and over, and the Looney Tunes, shorts, and newsreels ran. He’d sit with the guitar across his chest, watching the old-time cowboy movies. He’d cool off in there on a hot day or warm up on a cold day until the time to meet up with his friends or return to Sister Carrie’s.

Comments: Annye C. Anderson (1926 – ) is the step-sister of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the legendary American blues guitarist and singer. Her memoir provides much personal detail of the life of the step-brother, who was murdered when she was twelve years old, as well as a vivid account of black lives in the American south in the 1930s. Charles ‘Son’ Spencer was his (and her) musician step-brother and Carrie Spencer his (and her) step-sister.

America Day By Day

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.

The Legion of Decency

Source: Extracts from Mary J. Breen, ‘The Legion of Decency: Running a Movie Theater in the 1950s’, http://the-toast.net/2015/11/10/the-legion-of-decency-running-a-movie-theater-in-the-1950s/, originally published as ‘The Legion of Decency’, The Windsor Review, 48:1, Spring 2015

Text: In 1949, when I was five, my cautious Catholic parents bought a movie theatre in a Lutheran-Mennonite village in southern Ontario. My mother later told me they were trying to give my father a break from teaching high school—a rest from the long hours, the conscientious prep and marking, and the stress of dealing with unruly teenagers. What it doesn’t explain is why he of all people agreed to buy a theatre of all things that depended on movies from, of all places, Hollywood.

But I was much too young to ask any of those questions. All I knew was that The Regent Theatre was a wonderful place. I didn’t care that “our show,” as my parents called it, was a low, dark hall that had once been a hotel livery stable. I didn’t care that it was nothing like the grand movie palaces in Toronto that my mother took me to every summer. I didn’t care that the marquee lights didn’t flash, and the maroon curtains covering the screen were heavy with dust, and the plush seats were half-bald and prickled our bare legs in the summer. I didn’t care that we had no snack bar or velvet ropes or uniformed ushers. Instead of perfumed bathrooms, we had smelly outhouses out the back. Instead of soft carpets, we had concrete floors sticky with gum, candy wrappers, and cigarette butts. I didn’t care. I loved being there. I loved helping my father unfurl the loud, garish posters and tack them into the display boxes out front. I loved helping him sweep up on Saturday afternoons. I loved roller-skating fast down one aisle, across the front, and seeing how far I could coast up the other aisle, knowing all the while that the gunfights and runaway stagecoaches would be back in just a few hours.

All of us kids loved the movies, whether they were tales of cowboys or soldiers, pirates or sultans. We also understood them as they echoed the familiar justice of the playground and the Bible: the bad were always punished, and the good always inherited the earth. As soon as Mighty Mouse or Heckle & Jeckle ended and we heard the opening bars of the newsreel, most of us kids would run out past my mother yelling, “We’ll be back!” We’d race to the corner store where we’d cram little paper bags with gum, jaw breakers, banana marshmallows, red licorice sticks, and black liquorice pipes, and then tear back in time for the double bill. My parents never cared if someone without a quarter slipped in with the rest of us. Back in our seats we’d figure out who the good guys were, and then set about helping them by yelling things like, “Look out!” or “Run!” or “Behind the door!” We’d also clap and holler when help arrived, often the US Cavalry charging over the same hill the silent Indians had lined up on minutes before. The fun of it came back to me years later when I was watching Apollo 13 on TV. I cheered out loud when Tom Hanks’ voice came crackling through the clouds. The heat shields had held! That’s what it felt like at our show, week after week after week.

[…]

Then, in 1953, things changed. One night as my father was getting me ready for bed, I started raving on about how, when I grew up, I was going to be either a real cowgirl or a cowgirl in the movies where I’d get paid to play Maple Leaf with great costumes and real horses. He turned to me, his face dark and sober. “I don’t want to hear about Hollywood. It’s a heathen, godless place where everyone is divorced and has far too much money for their own good!” I was stunned. It was the very first time he’d ever scolded me. Then he went on to say I needed to start adding Three Hail Marys for Purity to my nightly prayers. “Remember,” he said, “God knows your every thought, word, and deed. With Almighty God we have no secrets.” I had no idea what he was talking about except that I had better keep my thoughts about the movies to myself.

Comments: Mary J. Breen is a Canadian author who has written two books on women’s health and has published widely in newspapers, magazines and online. Her father was a member of the Christian Brothers order but married before taking his final vows. Her parents ran a cinema despite the Catholic Church’s strong objections to aspects of the film industry, exemplified by the National Legion of Decency and its blacklisting of films to which it objected on moral grounds. After giving up the cinema her father never saw another film. My thanks to Mary J. Breen for permission to reproduce these extracts from her essay on her parents and their cinema venture.

Links: Full article at The Toast

Youth at the Gate

Illustration from Youth at the Gate

Source: Ursula Bloom, Youth at the Gate (London: Hutchinson, 1959)

Text: On Tuesday, August the fourth, when we were already halfway through the evening programme at the White Palace, Mr. Clements returned and started to talk again. He said that he wanted the national anthems of all countries who would be our allies to be played in a kind of pot-pourri at the end of the evening, ours as the final one.

I did not think it was a good idea. Already innumerable countries were involved, some with very long national anthems, and it would take a time to compose and to play, when all the audience asked was to be allowed to go home.

He looked at me with gaunt dark eyes on either side of a big nose which was like an eagle’s beak He was horribly worried, we knew that because his finger-nails were bitten to the quick (one of his nastier habits) and last week one of the girls had noticed that they were actually bleeding.

Mr. Clements was on the Stock Exchange (the cinema being merely a hobby), and with war coming he saw disaster ahead It is pathetic that at the time I did not realize that his wife had a daughter by a previous marriage to a German, a girl born deaf and dumb, and both of them were in agony lest Olga would be taken from them and put into a detention camp. I had never heard of such a place.

Earlier this evening Brooker the commissionaire had gone. A policeman had come for him, which alone caused some perturbation, but he was an old soldier on the Reserve. We wished him well, and those who could gave him something ‘for luck’, there seemed little time for goodbyes. This had brought the war considerably closer. Brooker, a very ordinary little man, who had never even been particularly brave with the drunks, suddenly glittered into something of a hero.

‘God only knows what’ll happen,’ said Mr. Clements in anxiety. ‘It’ll be the end of the world as we know it. One thing is certain, England’ll never be quite the same again.’

I was contemptuous. I thought he was cowardly, something to be despised in this moment of thrill. If we went to war (and oh, how I hoped we should!), England would rise with a glory never before achieved.

‘Maybe it’ll be nicer than you think?’ I suggested as I wrestled with ‘Poet and Peasant’ on the cottage piano.

‘You’re just a silly little girl! You don’t know a thing about it, and you’d better hold your tongue,’ he snapped, then swept out through the curtains, which at the start had been second-hand, leaving me with a haze of their dust and facing the nastier bits of ‘Poet and Peasant’.

The ‘Pathé Gazette’ flickered across the screen with pictures of the Reserves being called up, to be greeted with violent applause from the twopennies. A destroyer put out from Harwich harbour. A slide told the audience that so far – my tin clock told me it was nine o’clock, just before the ‘big picture’ – Germany had not replied to our ultimatum, and the twopennies booed.

The cinema darkened again, just above me lights played on to the screen, and the tin clock (one-and-sixpence) on the piano top began to tick away the last vital minutes of the old regime. At the dramatic moments of one’s life one does not recognize the tensity of emotional crisis. Sitting there playing for Mary Pickford was just another night in my life. No more.

When the end came I played the national anthems, but the audience did not stay, for they were eager to rush out and hear if we were really at war or not. Not yet. I closed the piano lid, and pushed the borrowed music into a box, for at all costs we had to keep that clean or the shop on Hollywell Hill wouldn’t take it back next Monday. I went through the deserted foyer, up shoddy stairs to where Teddy was waiting with his chocolate tray to get it checked. As nobody else came to do it, he and I achieved this together.

The two girl attendants pulled on coats which hung on a wall hook, the only attempt at a ladies’ room that we had. There was no lavatory of any kind and in emergencies one had to go up to the station which was a considerable way off. Any natural need of this kind was vulgar and could not be mentioned. Mother always said it was better than in the eighties when one was prepared to die rather than admit that nature could no longer contain itself, and some people had died, she vowed.

I went downstairs again into the foyer which advertised next week’s programme in big colourful posters to catch the eye. We should be running Les Miserables, a picture I had selected. Montie was waiting, in the green suit of the era, and with a stick.

‘Have we gone to war?’ I asked.

He didn’t know.

Comments: Ursula Bloom (1892-1984) was a highly-prolific British novelist. In her various memoirs, of which Youth at the Gate is only one, she provides detailed accounts of the time she spent as a pianist at the White Palace cinema in Harpenden, just before the First World War.

A Japanese Cinema

Source: ‘A Japanese Cinema’, New Zealand Herald, 25 March 1933, supplement p. 10

Text: A JAPANESE CINEMA

ENTHUSIASM OF AUDIENCE

NO KISSES IN FILMS

An interesting description of a visit to a Japanese cinema theatre is given by an English traveller in a recent issue of “Film Weekly.” Flaming banners and photographs of Japanese film stars denoted that this was the place I sought, (he wrote). I paid my money and entered, my progress to the seat being accompanied by deep bows from the daintily clad and elaborately coiffured usherettes. Next came a coy little lady bearing an ash tray and matches and a cushion for my greater comfort. By my side were two giggling little dolls, who every now and again cast surreptitious and demure glances in my direction.

The programme was nearing the end of the “comic,” in which two Oriental prototypes of Laurel and Hardy were competing for the affections of a lovely geisha. The audience literally screamed with merriment as, while they were indulging in mirthful altercation, another competitor stole her away under their very noses.

Let, no one talk to me of inscrutable, unsmiling Japanese. They form the most responsive and vocal audiences in the world. If they are amused they laugh – and they are easily amused – and their laugh is not just a refined gurgle, but a whole-hearted roar. If they are thrilled, an audible shiver runs through the audience.

A newsreel with a Japanese commentary showed the exploits of the representatives of the Land of the Rising Sun in the Olympic Games. This was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm. The whole aim of Japanese pictures seems to be the glorification of Japan and things Japanese. Never was there a country so intensely nationalistic.

The feature picture was the synchronised version of Ben-Hut, from which, as the kiss in Japan is looked upon as a most disgusting affair, most of the love scenes had been eliminated. Ben-Hur’s caresses were left to the imagination. Every time the lovers showed signs of offending the Japanese moral code by coming to gags, the referee. in the form of a quick fade-out, would order them to break away, whilst the two coy maidens on my left would cover their faces with opened fingers and give a shocked “chi-chi.”

I soon tired of transatlantic Romans, and wandered forth into the gaily bannered streets in search of more film fare. I entered a second “shinema” for the modest sum of 10 sen, about 11⁄2d. All the seats being full, I stood at the back and watched a thrilling drama of the Shanghai conflict. Japan is passing through a period of intense chauvinism, and it is perhaps natural that such a proud and self-reliant nation should mirror its military prowess upon the screen. An elocutionist who commented on the story was much in evidence, in spite of lengthy Japanese captions. The story, if indeed it can be dignified by that, name, was of the slightest. The main theme was the heroism of the soldiers of Nippon.

We then went back to the days of sho-guns and samurai in an historical drama. Our worthy elocutionist, had obviously exhausted himself in his previous effort, and the complicated story slowly unfolded itself to a rapidly dwindling audience. With no English captions to guide me, the picture was almost totally incomprehensible, but I gathered that it dealt with the adventures of a lovely “Broken Blossom,” whose heart still retained its snow-white purity in spite of her sinister environment, a theme very dear to the Japanese mind.

Her handsome lover, sword in hand, after encountering incredible opposition, effects her escape, but dies in her arms. Then the story goes off at another angle with an entirely different set of characters.

Comments: This article was originally published in the British film journal Film Weekly. The silent film Ben-Hur (USA 1925) was reissued in 1931 with a music score and sound effects.

Links: Copy at Papers Past

Television

Production still for Julius Caesar (1938), via BBC Genome blog

Source: Thomas Baird, ‘Television’, World Film News, vol. 3 no. 4 (August 1938), p. 188

Text: An American visitor to this country, when asked what he thought of the Derby, guessed that it had come to stay. Something of the same might be said about television; the fact is that television is no longer merely experimental; it is an amazingly accomplished fact.

It is true, of course, that television must remain experimental so long as it is limited by the money the Department has to spend, and as it is expensive listening hours must be, for the time at least, limited. It is also true that television sets are expensive and we must not expect to find one in every back parlour just yet. But the same was true of gramophones and wireless sets and is still true in a degree of home film projectors. But one experience of an outside broadcast by television is quite sufficient to convince anyone that television has come to stay.

I can remember, it must have been about 1922, hearing a man say, when listening to a crystal set, that he did not believe for a moment that the B.B.C. were so foolish as to have an orchestra in the studio. He was convinced that when the announcer told us that we were to hear a Symphony Orchestra that an engineer merely played a gramophone record. He failed to appreciate that the playing of a gramophone record did not detract from the miracle of radio but, if anything, added to it. The B.B.C. have since proved this. The significant fact is that radio is a means of mass communication and that while the old gramophone filled the homes of individuals, the gramophone by radio filled the homes of the nation. It will therefore be no detraction from the marvel of television if the B.B.C. make use of film, and indeed I hope they will make more and more use of film. If they did little more than carry the already considerable mass of documentary, instructional and travel films to the millions of people whom these films normally pass by, they will have done something worthy of achievement.

But already they are doing much more than this. Radio in general, in spite of the arty and crafty hokum which has surrounded a number of programmes, continues to be significant for two reasons. One is that it is the most universal means of mass communication, and second there is its immediacy. Radio can report within the split second; so, too, can television. The most exciting broadcasts have been the outside ones such as The Derby, The Trooping of the Colour and The Boat Race. While the mass communication of these programmes might be limited to merely thousands of sets, the immediacy was electric. Newsreels seemed historical records the day after one had seen the Derby by television. The Test Match broadcast indeed made most newsreels look pretty silly. Here, with no time lag, was a brilliant account of the excitement of the game, and the amount of detail picked up by the carefully handled cameras was magnificent. The television camera cannot make a cut in the film sense but the quick mix from bowler to batsman was an indication that television had something of its own to offer. All this is merely a confirmation of something that radio has demonstrated again and again. The biggest listening audiences, I believe, are for the King’s speech on Christmas Day and for the nine o’clock broadcast of football pools results from non-B.B.C. stations. Research figures are reputed to show that there is a very large audience for the news bulletin, the weather forecast and for any major sport event. This seems to indicate that the public do rely on radio in the first place as a news agency in the widest sense of the word. In spite, therefore, of the enthusiasms of some for the Foundations of Music and the Experimental Drama hour, I remain convinced that the very stuff of radio can be made out of its ability to tell all the people all about everything all the time — and no fooling. Television, even in its present form, does this admirably with an immediacy and an intimacy denied to any other medium. It would be well if the television department concentrated on this signal service in their near developments.

The version of Julius Caesar broadcast on Sunday, 24th July, illustrated this point admirably. There were three points of interest in the production:

(1) It was a play which we all knew.

(2) It was done in modern dress.

(3) It introduced the penumbrascope.

It is a great play. As it is written it depends chiefly on the actors and the words. On or off the stage the same criterion applies to the speeches. If they are well spoken half the battle is won. Most of the actors did well, but as usual, Caesar himself proved the most difficult part and as usual was the least satisfying. So much for the criticism which must obtain in any presentation. What had Television to offer that the stage had not? Mr. Dallas Bower, who claims some affinity with the cinema, was able to add a point or two. He dubbed the soliloquies, which was a good idea, but he did not make the distinction between the oratorical soliloquies and the subjective ones. His technique was successful so long as it represented the sub-conscious prompting of the mind in Cassius and Brutus but it failed when applied to the soliloquies which served as Chorus. Mark Antony informed the audience of the progress of his plan through sealed lips.

The super-imposed ghost, the rioting scenes and the war scenes taken from film were the kind of things we expect Television to produce, and the standard offered by film must be, if not the criterion, then the objective.

There was nothing significantly televisual in the modern dress approach but it was a good idea and worked out as well as the text would allow, though why Brutus and Cassius did not use their six-shooters on Caesar I cannot imagine.

The penumbrascope, on the other hand, suggests great possibilities. Space and depth are difficult in a small studio and these limits bind the scope of any production. The penumbrascope which produces a shadow cyclorama does not yet give scale to the small studio but it does produce a method of quick change of scene in close-up and mid-shot. It can change mood with increased facility and I fancy it is less expensive than scenery. It needs to be worked out with more regard for the general lighting scheme and it would probably show up better with simpler foreground lighting.

There were times when the stage seemed very crowded and I wondered why Mr. Bower did not raise one of his cameras to a higher angle after the fashion that the newsreel camera oversees a procession. A wider angle of incidence of the cameras would improve the difficult mix from close-up to long shot.

I can imagine that their Drama will require to invest itself with something of this spirit if it is to be anything different from the stage or from the cinema. On the grounds of mass communication I can see no reason why television should not broadcast films or broadcast stage plays. I think they are perfectly justified to spread these two media in a fashion which is within its power only. In these cases the test of quality beyond technicalities must obviously be the test supplied normally to the stage and to films. Already we have had evidence of this. Well-written stage plays televise well: badly-written stage plays are equally bad on the air.

When we come up against something like D.H. Monro’s version of a Russian Ballet rehearsal, we have got something which is bringing alive this peculiar quality with a spontaneity and immediacy which belongs lo television. This production eavesdropped on reality. It was television doing its own peculiar job and therefore television at its own very best.

Comments: Thomas Baird was a British film journalist and documentary film executive, who worked for the Ministry of Information in the 1940s as its non-theatrical film supervisor. He wrote a monthly column for World Film News on the new medium of television. Dallas Bower, one of the pioneering creative figures of British television drama, directed and produced a 110-minute production of William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, in modern-dress (reflecting Nazi Germany), broadcast by the BBC on 24 July 1938. Ernest Milton played Caesar. Penumbrascope was a form of shadow projection. Direct cuts between shots were not possible with television studio technology at this time; instead there would be a transitional ‘mix’ between shots which could take between two and four seconds.

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

Cocks and Bulls in Caracas

Source: Olga Briceño, Cocks and Bulls in Caracas; how we live in Venezuela (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945), pp. 126-130

Text: Everyone is curious to know how we amuse ourselves in South America. What, they wonder, do those strange people do for fun? It’s simple enough. We amuse ourselves like anybody else, admitting the while, parenthetically, that the whole world is short on pastime, with popular imagination in this respect the victim of a pernicious anemia.

Our amusements are those of any other country, but with one peculiarity. Others find their fun outside; we find ours mostly within.

First of all, we have the movies. We are devotees of adjectives, superlatives, and dithyrambs. In certain individuals the harmless mania is particularly marked — in mothers speaking of their children, naturally, and in lovers proclaiming their devotion. Impresarios of public entertainment also suffer from it. This surprises no one. ‘You must blow your own horn’ has come to be, with us, a basic premise. As a result, any statement that is highly flavored with adjectives is automatically reduced by half in the mind of the listener. In the case of impresarios, especially of moving pictures, this drastic reduction falls far short of being enough. One should credit no more than half of half of what is claimed, or better, only half of that! The imagination of these good gentlemen is ultra-supercolossal.

No film is ever advertised in terms consistent with its quality. God forbid! If it were, no one would dream of going to it. After the customary discounting, it would appear an abstract minus quantity.

The time-honored grading of films that is regularly employed in the United States is practically unknown to us. It has been taken up to some slight extent in Caracas recently, but no one has bothered to explain the significance of it, and hence it conveys little or nothing. Venezuela is not grade-conscious like the United States. The only grades we know are the grades a student needs for his degree, the grades of fever shown by a thermometer, and the grades of — say, fervor, which no thermometer can show. The business of grading eggs or milk, for example, is not for us. Not yet.

Never is a film advertised merely by name, dates, and actors. Rather:

‘The most stupendous achievement of the Eighth Art. An unforgettable spectacle that will set you quivering with horror, joy, and anger. A veritable gem of modern moving pictures.’

‘The Downhill Donkey,’ let us say, is one such gay production which might be advertised, in fine print and parentheses, as ‘Grade F’ in North America. The announcement of it will fill a whole page in the daily papers, for in Venezuela, as everywhere else, fame is won by advertising, and impresarios spend real fortunes on publicity. Each strives to outdo the others, and their lives are spent in lawless rivalry, with magazines and papers the major beneficiaries. If all exhibitors were to agree to use a stipulated space, less money would be spent, and the result would be the same. But then the periodicals would be the losers, with sad results for us poor journalists.

When the public buys tickets to a movie, it is torn between the exhibitors’ publicity and its own skepticism. There is no telling what to expect. Hence any film is a surprise. Going to the movies is like roulette — you never know just where the ball will drop. Anyone who has been promised a sensation is bound to be surprised when he finds himself bored; if a sensation is not only promised but delivered, that is the biggest surprise of all.

Movies in Venezuela are not shown continuously. The admission fee buys a view of one film, regardless of grade; there is also a newsreel, but then — good night. This is not quite fair; I was forgetting that there is a fifteen-minute intermission too. At possibly its most exciting moment the film is stopped, the lights come on, gradually or with a flash, according to the impresario’s caprice, and boys come down the aisles to sell chocolate.

For many people the intermission is the high moment of the show. Think of it! Fifteen whole minutes in which to talk with friends, to see who has come with whom, to smoke a cigarette — but that must be done outside — to look at the women’s costumes and see how the men are looking. Fifteen minutes in which to emerge from the anonymity of darkness into the realm of light!

The showings at different hours are not equally important. The first is for children. The vespertina, at five o’clock, is for the formally engaged, who come accompanied by mother, aunt, sister, or little brother; that is also the time for well-bred girls of the old school, white, charming, distant, cool of manner. Altagracia prefers the vespertina. The intermediate showing, which begins at seven, is attended by people in mourning who do not wish to be conspicuous, by couples who may be shady or perhaps just not officially engaged as yet, and by families in good standing but reduced circumstances who have neither new clothes to show nor the five bolivares which are the price of the fashionable performances.

The last, at nine o’clock, is for family parties, the world of fashion, marriageable daughters who are not bespoken, night owls, and the generally emancipated, as well as for the wealthy and those supposed to be wealthy, since it is the most expensive. That is the time to display the new gown, the darling hat just received from Paris, the sweetheart, and financial affluence.

Different films are presented at any one day’s performances. The one shown at nine rates a whole page of publicity; from that peak a film descends to the vespertina, with a quarter page, and finally, in complete decadence, to the common grave which is the intermediate or the matinee performance and warrants only a stingy little epitaph of an advertisement that gives nothing but title and time. Vanitas vanitatum! as the disillusioned Preacher said.

In the smaller towns movies are far more enjoyable than in Caracas. Performances are usually presented out-of-doors, and the weather is always mild. Surrounded by low walls, the movie houses have the finest roof imaginable — a tropical sky of magic beauty, with moon, stars, Southern Cross, and all. One night Altagracia and I watched a raging Arctic blizzard with polar bears, ice-bound ships, seals, Eskimos, and all the frozen seasonings, while the heavens above seemed about to drop from the weight of stars, crickets chirped, and the intoxicating odor of magnolias filled the air. Grown blasé by travel, books, and fashion, we savored the incongruity and smiled in superiority, but the general public, farmers, muleteers, cowboys, travelers, Venezuelans all, exposed the virgin purity of their responsive souls to their emotions, and some even suffered a chill. A few dogs which had sneaked in among the seats barked at the polar bears. Several poor children who were watching, on horseback, outside, were excited by the snowstorm and produced a red one of their own with petals from the roses blooming on the wall; their perfumed shower caressed our faces. Suddenly, beside me, a thick but pleasant voice spoke with a countrified accent:

‘Will the young lady please shove over just a little?’

A farmer who had arrived late was looking for a seat. Frequently, in small-town theaters, the seats are only benches. The fellow must have hesitated a long time before venturing to bother us, but weariness at last had overcome timidity. Hat in hand, he waited for us to shove over and then sat down on the very end of the bench. When finally he had forgotten we were there, he gave free rein to his emotions. We watched him suffer, rejoice, worry, and laugh with the various episodes of the film. For him shouting children, barking dogs, the cries of vendors, stars, scents, had all ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, squeezed into her seat, Altagracia was grumbling about democracy and the absurd idea of rubbing elbows with anyone who came along. But all at once she stopped complaining and began to smile quietly. Her eyes had fallen on a pair of lovers, a half-breed muleteer and a dark-eyed country girl. They were holding hands in silence, and in their faces were reflected the beauty of the starlit night and all the fondness in the world. Southern Cross, rose petals, and magnolias seemed quite in keeping with that idyll unfolding on the bench of a country movie.

Comments: Olga Briceño (1925-1977) was a Venezuelan journalist, travel writer, novelist, lecturer and diplomat, who mostly wrote in Spanish. She was cultural attaché for her country in Cuba and the USA, and co-owner with her husband, Dr. Francis Threadgill, of the Washington modern art Gres Gallery, 1958-62. Her charming book Cocks and Bulls in Caracas, describing family life in her native land, was published in English in America.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Mexican Odyssey

Source: Heath Bowman and Stirling Dickinson, Mexican Odyssey (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1935), pp. 150-151

Text: We join the people walking around the square. French sailors in their immaculate white dress uniforms and pith helmets eye the pretty girls. Are they more beautiful here just for these sailors’ delectation, and do they ever escape their ever-present dueñas? And are their dresses with the big middy-blouse collars in the seamen’s honor, or simply the latest style? For the girls are dressed well in bright summer clothes, and the northern fad for bare legs is really sensible and beautiful here.

From the movie house an amplified victrola is competing with the music outside. Already people are going in, and we find seats in the luneta, half-way back (the best place to see). To us, the people are more fascinating even than the persuasive melody of “Pienselo Bien,” a beguiling, plaintive tune. But to the Mexicans, the center of interest is Ken Maynard, a favorite Western movie star, who is here tonight in person! He has to stand up and bow and smile before they are satisfied.

Always in Mexico there are two movies, almost invariably imported from Hollywood. Westerns are the favorites, but the audience goes wild when their hero, José Mojica, sings for them, as he does tonight. They do not even mind that the newsreel shows the opening of the baseball season in the States, just ten months before, and they cannot understand a picture of a Chicago blizzard, snow swirling about pedestrians. What is snow? Something like ice cream?

Mojica’s picture is laid in the South Seas, and absorbs the Mexicans, although the scenes might have been taken on their own coast. . . . For, as we drive back along their ocean, weaving along the edge where we can look down upon a full moon throwing its wake clear to the breakers below, and as we round the last curve and see our house, black against the shining beach, we wonder what more they could ask.

The jungle is quiet now, it is as if the darkness had obliterated it. But the sea continues to moan. The oldest cry on earth. . . .

Comments: Frederick Heath Bowman (1910-1993) was an American travel writer and later a US Department of State public affairs officer. With his friend and fellow Princeton graduate, the artist Stirling Dickinson (1909-1998), he travelled through Mexico over 1934-35 in a 1929 Ford Model A convertible named ‘Daisy’. Bowman wrote the text and Dickinson provided the illustrations for their popular travel book. The cinema they visited was in Acapulco. José Mojica was a Mexican actor and singer who provided a foreword to Bowman and Dickinson’s book. He later became a Franciscan friar.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Silent Magic

Source: Ivan Butler, Silent Magic: Rediscovering the Silent Film Era (London: Columbus Books, 1987), pp. 27-31

Text: During the early part of the 1920s my own cinema-going was restricted by the confinements of boarding-school during term time, and in the holidays (to a lesser extent) by the fact that at least in our neighbourhood ‘the pictures’, though tolerated and even enjoyed, were still regarded as a poor and slightly dubious relative of the live theatre, the picture gallery and the concert hall. Their passage towards respectability was not helped by scandals in Hollywood such as the ‘Fatty Arbuckle Affair’. I can still recollect the atmosphere of something sinister and shuddersome that surrounded the very word ‘Arbuckle’ long after the trials (and complete acquittal) of the unfortunate comedian, even though my innocent ideas of what actually took place in that San Francisco apartment during the lively party on 5 September 1921 were wholly vague and inaccurate – if tantalizing. In his massive history of American cinema, The Movies, Richard Griffith writes, “During the course of the First World War the middle class, by imperceptible degrees, became a part of the movie audience.’ ‘lmperceptible’ might be regarded as the operative word. However, when it comes to paying surreptitious visits a great many obstacles can be overcome by a little guile and ingenuity, and I don’t remember feeling particularly deprived in that respect. I managed to see most of what I wanted to see.

Our ‘local’ was the cosy little Royal in Kensington High Street, London – a bus journey away. The Royal has been gone for half a century, its demise hastened by the erection of a super-cinema at the corner of Earl’s Court Road. To the faithful it was known not as the Royal but as the Little Cinema Under the Big Clock in the High Street. The clock itself is gone now, but on a recent visit I though I could spot its former position by brackets that remain fixed high in the brick wall. The entrance to the cinema was through a passageway between two small shops, discreetly hidden except for two frames of stills and a small poster. A pause at the tiny box-office, a turn to the left, a step through a swing door and a red baize curtain, and one was in the enchanted land – not, however, in sight of the screen, because that was flush with the entrance, so you saw a grossly twisted pulsating picture which gradually formed itself into shape as, glancing backwards so as not to miss anything, you groped your way up to your seat. To the right of the screen was the clock in a dim red glow, an indispensable and friendly feature of nearly all cinemas in those days, and a warning – as one was perhaps watching the continuous programme through for the second run, that time was getting on. Prices were modest: from 8d (3p), to 3s (15p). This was fairly general in the smaller halls; cheaper seats were available in some, particularly in the provinces, others – slightly more imposing demanded slightly more for the back rows, possibly with roomier seats and softer upholstery, but such elitism was not, to my memory, practised at the Royal.

Projection was to our unsophisticated eyes generally good, preserving the often marvellously crisp and well graded black-and-white photography. Programmes were changed twice weekly (but the cinemas were closed on Sundays, at any rate during the early years) and continuous from about 2 o’clock. They consisted as a rule of a newsreel such as the Pathé Gazette with its proudly crowing cockerel (silent, of course), a two-reel comedy (sometimes the best part of the entertainment), Eve’s Film Review, a feminine-angled magazine the high spot of which was the appearance of Felix the Cat walking, and, finally, the feature film. This was before the days when the double-feature programme became general. Somewhere between the items there would be a series of slide advertisements – forerunner of Messrs Pearl and Dean – which always seemed to include a glowing picture of Wincarnis among its local and ‘forthcoming’ attractions. The average moviegoer of those days (much as today, though perhaps to a greater extent) went to see the star of a film rather than the work of its director; Gish rather than Griffith, Bronson more than Brenon, Bow more than Badger, Swanson more than DeMille though as the years went by the names of the directors became more familiar and their importance more fully recognized. Criticism was often surprisingly informed and uncompromising.

Musical accompaniment at the Royal was provided by a piano during the less frequented hours, supplanted by a trio who arrived at a fixed time regardless of what was happening on the screen. I remember well the curious uplift we felt as the three musicians arrived, switched on their desk lights, tuned up and burst into sound, perhaps at a suitable moment in the story, perhaps not. Meanwhile the pianist (always, I recollect, a lady) packed up and left for a well deserved rest and cup of tea. The skill of many of these small cinema groups, even in the most modest conditions, was remarkable; their ability to adapt, week after week, often with two programmes a week and with little or no rehearsal, to events distortedly depicted a few feet before them, was beyond praise. The old joke about William Tell for action, ‘Hearts and Flowers’ for sentiment, the Coriolan overture for suspense and that’s the lot, was an unfair and unfunny gibe.

I have described the old Kensington Royal in some detail as it was fairly typical of modest cinemas everywhere in Britain at that time. Most were at least reasonably comfortable and gave good value for little money, maintaining decent standards of presentation. Very few deserved the derogatory term ‘flea-pit’, though ‘mouse parlour’ might sometimes have been an accurate description. On one occasion the scuttering of mice across the bare boards between the rows of seats rather disturbed my viewing of a W.C. Fields film (Running Wild, I think it was), though the print was so villainously cut and chopped about that the story was difficult to follow in any case. But such cases were infrequent. I have forgotten the name of the cinema, and the town shall remain anonymous.

Sometimes, in early days, films would be shown in old disused churches, and it is supposedly through this that the employment of an organ for accompaniment in larger cinemas became general. The first exponent was probably Thomas L. Talley, who in 1905 built a theatre with organ specifically for the screening of movies in Los Angeles. It was soon discovered that such an organ could be made to do many things an orchestra could not: it could fit music instantaneously to changes of action, and simulate doorbells, whistles, sirens and bird-song, as well as many percussive instruments. On one later make of organ an ingenious device of pre-set keys made available no fewer than thirty-nine effects and even emotions, including Love (three different kinds), Anger, Excitement, Storm, Funeral, Gruesome, ‘Neutral’ (three kinds), and FULL ORGAN. This last effect, with presumably all the above, plus Quietude, Chase, China, Oriental, Children, Happiness, March, Fire, etc. all sounding together, must have been awesome indeed. […] Before long the organ interlude became an important part of any programme, as the grandly ornate and gleaming marvel rose majestically from the depths of the pit in a glowing flood of coloured light.

Nothing, however, could equal the effect of a large orchestra in a major cinema, which could be overwhelming. The accompaniment (of Carl Davis conducting the Thames Silents Orchestra) to the 1983 screening of The Wind, for instance, was a revelation that will never be forgotten by those who had never before ‘heard’ a silent film in all its glory, particularly at the climax of the storm.

Admittedly, at times, particularly from the front seats, the presence of a busy group of players could be distracting; their lights would impinge on the screen, their busy fiddle bows and occasionally bobbing heads would make concentration on what the shadows behind them were up to a little difficult. In general, however, their mere presence, apart from the music, added immeasurably to the sense of occasion and until one got used to it the cold vacancy below the screen in the early days of sound had a chilling effect. Those cinema musicians are surely remembered with warm affection and regard by all of us who were fortunate enough to have heard them.

[…]

In these days of multi-screen conglomerates it is difficult to imagine the awe and excitement that could be aroused by the greatest of the old-style movie palaces; the thick-piled carpets into which our feet sank, the powdered flunkies and scented sirens who took our tickets with a unique mixture of welcoming smile, condescending grace and unwavering dignity, the enormous chandelier-lit entrance halls, the statues, the coloured star portraits, the playing fountains, the rococo kiosks – all leading through cathedral-dim corridors to the dark, perfumed auditorium itself, the holy of holies where we would catch our first glimpse of Larry Semon plastering Fatty Arbuckle with bags of flour.

Prices, of course, were rather grander than in the smaller, humbler houses, roughly (for variations were wide) from about 1s 3d (6p) or 2s 4d (12p) to 8s 6d (43p) or even 11s 6d (57p); but once you had paid your tribute to the box-office every effort was made to see that you felt you were welcome, were getting your money’s worth and were someone of importance – that this whole occasion was especially for you.

Comments: Ivan Butler (1909-1998), after a career as an actor, went on to become a notable writer on the art and history of cinema. His Silent Magic is a particularly evocative memoir of the silent films he could remember when in his eighties. The American comedian Roscoe ‘Fatty’ Arbuckle was accused of the rape and manslaughter minor actress and model Virginia Rappe. Though acquitted, thanks to lurid reporting his career was ruined. The scandal helped lead to the formation of the Motion Picture Producers and Distributors of America to self-govern the American motion picture industry. The Eve’s Film Review cinemagazine was produced by Pathé, who also made Pathé Gazette. Thames Silents was the name given to a series of theatrical screenings and broadcasts of restored silent films with orchestral scores by Carl Davis, produced by Photoplay Productions and Thames Television over 1980-1990.

From Monmouth to Movies

Marine cinema, Lyme Regis, from World Film and Television Progress

Source: Richard Carr, ‘From Monmouth to Movies’, World Film and Television Progress vol. 2 no. 5 (August 1937), pp. 12-13

Text: Lyme Regis not Movie-mad says Richard Carr

The cinema is not a vital element in the leisure-time of Lyme Regis people. In this little sea-town, described by Macaulay as a “small knot of steep and narrow alleys, lying on a coast, wild, rocky and beaten by stormy seas,” neither young nor old are movie mad; the cinema seem comparatively unimportant.

* * * *

Lyme was once an important town in the West, a wool and weaving centre and a seaport doing a considerable trade in wines and tobacco. Its industry and commerce made it a stronghold of puritanism. In the Civil War it stood out for Parliament when all the West, save Poole, was held by the Royalists, resisting siege by Prince Maurice of the Rhine for two months. It stood strongly for Protestantism against the “Papists,” for Parliament against Absolutism.

The strength of its opinions were again shown when Monmouth made his bid for the throne of England in the name of the Protestant religion. He landed at Lyme and a large part of the town’s male working population marched out with him. They were marched aimlessly around Somerset until, armed only with scythes and staves and rough swords, they were slaughtered at Sedgemoor or taken to grace the gibbets of the Bloody Assize.

This was the last event of national importance in the history of Lyme. From then on its chronicles tell of decline in its industries. But the people held stubbornly to their opinions and, in a smaller way, went on fighting for them.

Out of centuries of such struggle its people achieved a character and strength of their own. It is written all over the counties of Dorset and Devon, this struggle and its later phase, the struggle against squire and parson is mutely testified by the scores of chapels, around the right to build and to worship in which many a bitter fight waged. And, in the nineteenth century, Dorset gave to trade unionism its most celebrated martyrs.

* * * *

To-day Lyme is a seaside resort, small, and, as such places go, unimportant. Its past gives it and its people a character not to be found at the popular seaside resort: the film of the Monmouth Rebellion, once proposed but banned by authority, could be made in its streets, acted and spoken by its people; and with scarcely a change in clothing would be more eloquent of the subject and the times than most of the expensive costume dramas of the studio. A great deal of the character remains; but its industries have gone. There is now but one important industry: the direct or indirect catering for visitors and summer residents. The town reflects this change in its livelihood-making but slowly; it begins to cater slightly for the visitor. A pin-table amusement saloon has made a nervous appearance on the sea-front, but is regarded with heavy disapproval by the authorities, who, by banning the giving of prizes, have recently struck at the basis of its business. The one cinema in the town is soon to have a “luxury” companion.

Lyme’s one cinema is perched high on the sea wall, and in the winter rough seas swamp over the entrance giving many a patron a soaking. Films have been shown in this building for eight years; before then they were shown in the eighteenth century assembly rooms, now demolished. The present home of the movies was once the Volunteers’ Drill Hall, a name which takes it well back into the nineteenth century. Then it served as a theatre. Underneath the cinema, in the high sea wall, are deep vaults, once Roman baths.

A visit to this cinema is a strange experience to anyone used to London “supers” and their audiences. It seats about three hundred. Its smallness, its setting — the queer old town, the rugged cliffs, and the sea breaking on the rocky shore beneath — make it seem most unreal. The audience too seemed apathetic to the films and certainly not willing to applaud or to praise. It being summer according to the calender [sic], the audience was mixed: the sixpennies — right bang in the front and almost close enough to the screen to take part in the films — and the ninepennies, only a few rows behind, were occupied by local people, mainly young, though here and there a labouring man and his wife, dressed for the visit and clearly uncomfortably conscious of being at the cinema. In the one-and-threes and the balcony were visitors. The mixed nature of the audience made clear-cut impressions difficult.

All these facts, the setting, the smallness of the cinema, the audience, made a hard test for the films. Many of them seemed fantastic in these surroundings. The first, for example, was the magazine-interest film. We were shown how champagne was made, from the field to the table; the latest fashions in women’s clothes, some of the garments costing more apiece than many of these people earned in a twelvemonth; finally two young Americans climbing Monte Blanc, in great danger according to the commentator though this was by no means obvious. As the people of Lyme Regis live all their lives at an angle of forty-five degrees, or so it looks to a stranger, this climbing up and down must have seemed very commonplace. A Secrets of Nature film was next; it seemed to interest the swells greatly, but the front seats hardly at all. It was about seagulls, again hardly a novelty to the locals.

Then the newsreel. This is bad enough when one sees it in London, sandwiched in a long programme, but here its triviality seemed outrageous. It was all Royalty and parades with one of the usual obscure and meaningless motorbike-races-round-the-houses thrown in. It brought nothing of the events pounding the world to pieces, nothing of the happenings and men of our day. Its dullness and uselessness was never so striking as in this place where real, vital news of the outside world could mean so much.

The main feature film in the first half of the week was Men of Yesterday. This film was not well liked on its London showing, being condemned for its sentimentality. It was a film about the efforts of ex-servicemen to promote peace by giving a dinner to ex-servicemen from allied and ex-enemy countries. It had all the faults of this conception and all the features of the ex-servicemen’s appeal and movements. It was overwhelmingly sentimental and, set against the stream of world events, its solution of the war problem seemed astonishingly trivial and foolish.

Yet it made some impression. It had an uncomfortable sincerity; the people were more real than is usual in British films. It was about ex-servicemen and they were very much like ex-servicemen. There were no stars, apart from the almost forgotten Stewart Rome and a short appearance by George Robey. It was obviously liked, though this liking was tempered by the objection to war films which, it seems, is as strong here as elsewhere.

I give these impressions for what they are worth because it is almost impossible to find out what people here like or dislike in films. The box-office does not show it, save in rare cases; the people express few opinions, occasionally one or two will say the film was bad. The first show decides the attendance on the next two evenings; opinions are reported among friends, work-mates and neighbours. The fantastic and far-fetched are not popular. Neither is the educational. Musical films are; Rose Marie was one of this year’s successes. The other was Mutiny on the Bounty, which did great business.

Other films which have done fairly well this year have been: Mr. Deeds Goes to Town, Strangers on Honeymoon, Little Lord Fauntleroy, The Three Maxims, When East Meets West. In so far as attendance provides any sort of guide here, George Arliss has some following, as have the Lynn-Walls team. War films are as unpopular here as elsewhere; educationals are disliked; “near the knuckle” films frowned upon; Westerns and action pictures fairly popular with the men; musicals with the women.

In the summer the cinema gets a great deal of its support from visitors; in the winter it depends on the local people. It is the only form of amusement for winter evenings in this town, but during the winter there is a great deal of unemployment. The money earned in the short summer season has to be eked out over the long winter and visits to the cinema are therefore few and far between for most. Through the winter the cinema does a fair business, but very rarely indeed does it have to turn people away, small though the seating capacity be.

It must be remembered too that the intense interest in pictures, fed by the “fan” magazines, by the press reviews and stories, has little effect here — the number of films that can be seen is limited. With one cinema there is no choice. Film papers are something which the local people do without. The reviews of the films in the Press, even the “current release” reviews are useless to these people, for only a small — and not always the best — part of the releases ever reach them and then only long after the reviews have appeared.

Allowing for all these factors; for the poor selection opportunity, for the smallness of the cinema, for the poverty of the people over the greater part of the year, the comparative unimportance of the movies here is not completely explained.

The truth is that, though it has been in and around Lyme for many years, the cinema has not driven itself into the lives of these people as it has done in the towns. The only leisure-time entertainment for the young in the rough winters it is not a vital part of their lives. Perhaps it is as important to them as it was to most people twenty years ago; a way of passing an evening, a place to go to, a chance to see places, people and events occasionally. They live under conditions that have changed but little in external environment; they are tied to ways of life and of thought much more than are the young in the towns.

It should be emphasised too that there is a community of life and of interest in places like Lyme which is not found in the towns. Chapel-going, the gossiping in the streets and in the neighbour’s house — in the quiet, warm summer evenings the streets are alive with groups of men and women gossiping — and a common dependance [sic] upon summer “lets.” Life in these places is harder, more in contact with natural dangers, more built around the seasons and the tides, more bound up with the past, its thinking and living, and less affected by the new and the novel, than in the urban district.

In any case much of the youth is drawn away to brighter employment prospects in neighbouring towns; those left find their occupation around the parasitical job of providing for visitors. Yet these people have a character and strength that prevents them from ever becoming a race of boarding-house keepers. If they ever get the cinema-going habit, not any film will get by. Circumstances, environment, plus a deeply critical nature, a hatred of artifice and showyness — these factors will prevent the movie which is unreal and false being successful among these people.

Comments: Richard Carr was a film journalist. The Marine cinema at Lyme Regis was built as a drill hall in 1894, and started showing films in the 1920s. It continued showing films into the 1940s but a larger cinema, the Regent, was built in 1937 (it burnt down in 2016). The building continues as the Marine Theatre. The films shown during Carr’s visit were the British feature film Men of Yesterday (1936), directed by John Baxter; one of the 1922-1933 Secrets of Nature documentaries made by British Instructional Films; and a cinemagazine and a newsreel.

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