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.

Newsreels

Source: Extract from Len England, Mass-Observation File Report 215: Newsreels (June), 19 June 1940, reproduced from http://bufvc.ac.uk/wp-content/media/2009/06/mo_report_215.pdf. Original file report held at Mass-Observation Archive, University of Sussex

Text: Mention was made in the last report of the horrifying effect that some newsreel sequences had upon members of the audience. This effect is becoming more obvious. An observer in Streatham heard one elderly working-class woman say ‘Gertie and I cried all through the newsreel. Those poor boys out there in all that. The pictures were terrible’. In a Watford cinema another observer heard one girl say to her friend ‘I don’t think they should show you this, do you?’ at shots of air raid havoc. In the Picturegoer (15.6.40) a letter was published as follows:

There has been much criticism in the past on newsreels showing us the horrors of modern warfare in China, Spain, etc., and although we felt strongly about these presentations they did not strike near enough to make us protest publicly. But the war newsreel of to-day is horrifying us. This week we went to our local cinema to see ADVENTURE IN DIAMONDS and SPATS TO SPURS, a light programme calculated to make us forget what might be happening ‘over there’. But did we enjoy our programme? No, because we viewed it through a haze of tears and the horrible quickening of nerves as we saw our boys moving up to the Belgian front.

As the war continues in all its fury, are we to be subjected to further horror, are we to watch our husbands bombarded, are we to see the shattered limbs of our brothers lying on the battlefield, the anguished bodies of our sons carried in on stretchers? No, unless the film distributors realise that we cannot sit in a luxury cinema watching these ghastly things, unless they relegate the war newsreel to its proper place, the New[s] Theatre, we will stay outside the cinema for the duration. This is our resolve and there are thousands of mothers and wives who feel the same.

A further letter commented on the same thing:

Some of the recent newsreels have been in very bad taste; an outstanding example being the showing of dead bodies lying outside a bombed Belgian hospital. Cannot the censor prevent the issue of these pictures which can only bring pain and suffering to those loved ones on active service. After all, we go to the cinema to be carried away from our troubles.

The main response to these shots continues to be a very high degree of comment and signs of horror at the most unpleasant shots. There is no indication in this that the shots are popular but they still constitute the bulk of newsreels and are accompanied by such remarks as ‘There are other sights too grim to show you’. To shots other than of air raids the response is increasing. In the British Movietone News, 13.6.40, an item called ‘The Italian Assassin’ began with close-ups of Mussolini. Obs watched this reel twice and on each occasion there was an immediate and widespread outburst of hisses, boos, catcalls and laughs. Obs has never seen this on any other occasion though twice at least the newsreels have contained shots of Hitler himself. The outcry lasted for nearly a minute on each occasion.

Response to political and military figures has increased; Reynaud, Weygand and Gort have been clapped every time they have appeared though none of the three have been applauded at all before the last two weeks. There has been very prolonged applause for Churchill every time, and at a West End theatre where response is usually very low a man called out ‘Well done’ when the Prime Minister appeared and clapping followed.

The royal family, however, receive less applause than before. The British Movietone reel mentioned above was observed with two very highly responsive audiences; the last item was a fairly long sequence of the King presenting medals at Buckingham Palace; the Queen was watching from the balcony. At the first showing of this the King was applauded for 2 seconds — Reynaud had received 5 seconds applause a minute before — at the second showing there was no clapping at all. On each occasion the shots of the Queen were greeted in dead silence.

The most important newsreel item in the last few weeks has been the Dunkirk evacuation; shots of this were obtained by cameramen on the spot, and by others lining the train route from the coast home. They could not, however, be released immediately and there was an opportunity by skilful cutting to exploit the dramatic possibilities of the situation. Paramount and Movietone in the main let the shots speak for themselves and did not give them much commentary; GB produced a patriotic commentary which will be mentioned further; and Pathe blended the shots into a sequence that gained a higher response of applause than anything else yet noted by an observer. The sequence began with soldiers marching into Dunkirk; then came a word of congratulation to the Navy and the Air Force for their assistance, this being illustrated with stock shots; the actual embarkation; then compliments to the French army, to the nurses and other women helpers, to the wounded, finally shots of the landing, the train journey, and a few words from the troops. The whole item lasted about four minutes; for nearly a quarter of that time, that is, a full minute, there was applause. Hitherto the loudest applause had been 10 seconds for the survivors of the Altmark.

Comments: Mass-Observation carried out a series of studies in 1930s and 1940s into how people in the UK lived, through a mixture of observation, diaries and invited comments. Cinema-going was included among its social surveys, and during 1939-1945 it paid particular attention to newsreels. Data from the original observers’ reports were collated into File Reports, and all of the film File Reports were compiled by Len England. This particular report is on audience reaction to newsreels in June 1940. The newsreels referred to are British Movietone News, Pathe Gazette, Gaumont-British News and British Paramount News.

Links: Copy of full file report at News on Screen

This is a movie that ends in the middle…

Source: Terry Gallacher, “This is a movie that ends in the middle…”, from Terence Gallacher’s Recollections of a Career in Film, http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com/2010/12/29/”this-is-a-movie-that-ends-in-the-middle-“/, published 29 December 2010

Text: In the thirties, forties and fifties, there was always visual entertainment available in the cinemas. In Tottenham and Edmonton in London, we had a number of cinemas at our disposal.

There was the Tottenham Palace, which was almost opposite Chestnut Road, Tottenham, which had, originally, been a theatre from 1908 and a cinema from 1926. There was the Bruce Grove Cinema which was just up Bruce Grove Road on the right hand side past the railway bridge. This was built in 1921 as a cinema, then, of course running silent movies.

Then there was the Pavilion which was a very old single story cinema and was situated opposite Argyle Road next to what was Charrington’s Brewery, in Tottenham.

The cinema was partially demolished around 1937 and rebuilt as the Florida, a bright new cinema which opened in 1938. It held 529 people. However, it, too, has been demolished. In Edmonton at the junction of Fore Street, Silver Street (now called Sterling Way) and Angel Road, there were three cinemas. The Regal Edmonton, was opened in 1934 and was extremely well designed. It was to operate as a theatre as well as a cinema. It had sixteen dressing rooms and the largest revolving stage in Europe. It had an audience capacity of almost 3,000.

In contrast to that was the Hippodrome which was just up Angel Road on the right. It was very old, run down and known as the “flea-pit” or “The Hip”. An original theatre , it would have opened for the movies at a very early stage. It was an extremely awful place which had not been given any attention since the silent days. Then there was the Alcazar, another of the exotic names used for cinemas in those days. It would take me forty years to discover what it meant. Al Casr is Arabic for “The Castle”. This was a medium sized cinema located in Fore Street, just north of the Silver Street junction. The frontage was built in the style of an Arab fort. It had glass doors all along its forty yard frontage. The foyer ran the full width of the building and on the dividing wall between the foyer and the auditorium were huge mirrors about six feet wide and from ceiling to floor.

The Alcazar was destroyed by a bomb in August 1940. Two days before War was declared, I was evacuated to Mildenhall in Suffolk with my elder brother. The local cinema in Mildenhall was the Comet and it only showed old films. We returned home for Christmas 1939. While we were away, the Tottenham cinemas were showing the latest films. My brother and I missed them, particularly Gunga Din and The Four Feathers.

We discovered that The Ritz at Turnpike Lane were showing both films in one showing. Off we went. In April, we had returned home and when the bomb went off at the Alcazar, I was woken up. It was the next day that we found out where the bomb had struck. We went off to see the damage. All the glass was blown out of the front and the foyer looked in a very bad state. There was no doubt that it would be a long time before it would re-open. In fact, it never did. There was a theory that the German bomber crew mistook the junction of Fore Street, Silver Street and Angel Road, together with the three cinemas, Alcazar, Regal and Hippodrome, to be an airbase. The cinemas might have looked like hangers. However, such theories abounded in those days.

While attending the cinema, at that time, if there should there be an air raid warning, it would show on the screen that the siren had sounded. I do not recall anyone leaving the cinema as a result of that information.

In the Spring of 1946, my friends and I went to the site where they were clearing away the bomb damage. We knew that there were some good things to collect from there. At the time, we were building a canoe and raw materials were extremely hard to come by. In the Alcazar, the Foyer mirrors had been backed by half-inch laminated plywood. Such material had not been seen since before the War. We bought a complete sheet for 10/- (50 pence).

Finally, there was the Edmonton Empire which was on a hill which had been built to take a bridge over the railway which ran underneath and connected the Edmonton – Southbury line to the Angel Road – Ponders End line. Now the railway line, the hill, the bridge and the Empire are long gone and the site forms the South East corner of Edmonton Green.

There were advantages in having all these cinemas. The Palace, the Bruce Grove and the Pavilion (Florida) all showed different programmes, but the Regal showed the same as the Palace, the Alcazar the same as the Bruce Grove. The Edmonton Empire seemed to be different to all of them. As for the Hippodrome, it showed whatever the distributors would allow it to have. Probably a set of films they did not need to pass on to another cinema somewhere.

Programmes ran from Monday to Wednesday, Thursday to Saturday with another film, usually an old one, showing on Sunday. With the combination of the various cinemas, it was possible to go to a different cinema every night.

While visiting these cinemas, I was able to watch newsreels provided by a variety of producers, such as Gaumont British, Movietonews, Pathe News and Paramount News.

In those days, we had what was known as “continuous performance” which meant that the cinema would start showing a film at around one o’clock in the afternoon to be immediately followed by the main film, which was immediately followed by the first film and the shorts and newsreel. The screen was showing moving pictures from one o’clock until the close of programmes at ten-thirty at night. In effect this meant that people would come in whenever they could. They would pick up the story and see the programme through until they reached the point when they entered. They would then leave. Hence the amusing song by Danny Kaye which had a line which said “This is a movie that ends in the middle for the benefit of the people who came in the middle”.

I would not think these casual comings and goings were by complete choice, I imagine that the picture goers had a good reason to go into a cinemas to be confronted, on arrival, with a film that only had another ten minutes to run.

Of course the result was that throughout the performance, people were coming in and going out. Other disturbances occurred when the ice-cream girl came down the centre isles, in the circle and the stalls, to take up station prior to a short interval. She would arrive before the end of a film and would still be selling when the next film started. During the running of the films, she would still be walking up and down the aisles selling ice creams.

The system of “continuous performance” also allowed that a person could go in at the afternoon start and stay in the cinema until it closed, provided they were not discovered. People were only thrown out of the cinema if they misbehaved.

If a film was showing that had had good reports, it was quite common for the cinema to become full and there would be a queue formed outside. There would be a separate queue for each price range of ticket. We all became experts at judging whether it was worthwhile joining the queue or whether to come back another day.

From the late thirties, cinema entrance fees ranged from 1/3d (6 pence) to 1/9d (9 pence) and later from 2/6d (12.5 pence) to 3/6d (17 pence). In 1940, the price of a ticket to the Bruce Grove cinema was 1/9d, but, when they showed “Gone with the Wind”, which runs four hours, they put up the price of a ticket to 2/6d.

For a while, and from time to time, the Regal in Edmonton provided a live variety show. I remember seeing a Music Hall act called “The Seven Eliots” perform, they were musicians and, I think, acrobats. At the organ there would be Sidney Torch who would appear, playing, out of the depths. Later he made a name for himself as an all round musician, conductor and music arranger.

When I see, on television, some of the old films that we paid to go to see, and even queued up for, I often wonder what we saw in them, and yet we enjoyed them at the time. Unlike today’s television schedule, there was always something to look forward to.

Comments: Terence Gallacher is a former newsreel and television news manager and editor who now documents his career through his website http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com. The post is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author.

Loitering with Intent

Source: Peter O’Toole, Loitering with Intent: The Child (New York: Hyperion, 1992), pp. 2-3

Text: Modestly sized and a comfortable little spot was my long ago, well-remembered news cinema. Near to the front as could be, Daddy and I would plushily park our bottoms. Chocolate would be eagerly chewed, chatter would be eagerly heard or joined, but presently all the jaws would still and darkness would quietly enter the small auditorium ushering all our eyes towards the colourfully lighted curtained screen, and then the curtains would part. Music bombasted mightily out, a huge cockerel ecstatically crowed, a grand camera spun whirlingly around, time marched to drums and trumpets, Chinese junks sailed into blood-red sunsets, skippered perhaps by the great and good Popeye, champagne bottles swung to smash and froth on the sterns of huge ships as the ships, in turn, majestically glided down their chutes and plunged into the rude, foaming sea.

Will the elephant with the blaring trunk, the winged ears, the looming tusks and the immense feet come thundering out of the splintering screen, pursued maybe by the Ritz brothers? Will Donald Duck be on today? Or a king or a cricketer, or a boxing match or the Three Stooges, or a hurricane or a Zulu? Who’s this? A uniformed fat man with a big chin, all wobble and posture and rant. The audience is booing him. It’s Mussolini and he’s being booed; cheerfully and vulgarly and ripely booed; but booed in the way you’d boo the Demon King in a pantomime. Comical villainy to be encouraged with a raspberry jeer.

Shortly after, in that cinema, Hitler and I met for the first time. It is impossible to tell you what I felt because, other than being temporarily unhappy, I cannot remember what I felt. When that profoundly strange, mincing little dude from Linz came all unexpectedly onto my screen, not his hideous mouth nor his noise nor his moustache nor his forelock, swastika, salute, eyes or frenzy disturbed my mind; it was the look on his face. The audience boos, though, were of another colour; a grimmer lowing, an ugly note not for pantomime villains capering about banana skins, though there was to the concatenation merry laughter and choked damnations of the man.

Comment: Peter O’Toole (1932-2013) became a notable screen actor. His childhood was peripatetic and the location of this memory is uncertain, though it may be Leeds. He writes that he was ‘aged 5 or so’. O’Toole’s book (the first of two volumes of autobiography) uses this encounter as the trigger for the author to trace his childhood in parallel with that of Hitler. News cinemas, which showed a combination of newsreels, comedy shorts and cartoons, were a common feature in major UK towns and cities from the 1930s to the 1950s. A cockerel crowing featured in the opening sequence of the Pathé Gazette newsreel.