The Land of Haunted Castles

Source: Robert J. Casey, The Land of Haunted Castles (New York: The Century Co., 1921), pp. 239-255

Text: They don’t go to the opera.

Luxemburg has no opera.

They go to the cinema!

Luxemburg is by history and environment a cinema in itself,—in the midst of natural grandeur is the omnipresent conspiracy of the story-books.

The larger powers play for a great stake and the existence of this tiny duchy is tolerated for purely strategic reasons. A war is waged and a great army sweeps over it—confident of victory—and back, inglorious in defeat. A charming duchess plays politics and loses. Strangers sit in conference in a strange land and calmly determine the fate of her abandoned throne. The while petty conspirators plan revolutions, installing new governments, reinstating old, vacillating betwixt republic and monarchy, immensely proud of themselves and all unmindful of the exterior forces that work their ruin.

Had the novelists designed this country to suit themselves they could have done no better.

A gendarme—or was it a general?—surveyed all comers with a critical eye from a point of vantage in the shelter of a high battlemented building. There was snow in his cerise plume and frost upon the shoulders of his green overcoat that robbed his silver epaulets of their effect. But in his serene dignity he stood as Ajax might have stood in his celebrated dispute with the lightning.

He was impressive enough to have spoiled the business of many a European moving-picture house and brilliant enough to have attracted great quantities of dimes to the cinema palaces of the United States.

One had only to see the disdainful glance which he bestowed upon the Luxembourgeoise questing the joys of the film to see that he disapproved of such idle pursuits. The grown-ups passed him with haughty antagonism. The children hurried by with sidelong glances as if fearful that this splendid figure might interpose himself between them and the doorway behind which flickered the delectable movies.

Once one had braved the guardian at the gate, the way led up three little stone steps to a door common enough in American cottages of twenty years ago,—three panels of wood, a pane of glass, and a wealth of iron grating.

It didn’t look much like the entrance to a theater, but, for that matter, nothing in Graystork looks like what it’s supposed to be. The house was a narrow, three-story stone affair with slim windows and green shutters. A sign over the door proclaimed it to be a cafe. A second sign, obviously a generation or two younger, conveyed the added information that the cinema might be found here and that English was spoken.

I pushed down on the brass lever—there are no door-knobs in Luxemburg—and stepped in out of the blizzard.

There was an instant impression of bar glass, electric lights, tables, straight-backed chairs, and warmth, with an all-pervading atmosphere of hot rum. Some civilians in velour hats and tight-fitting overcoats looked up from their steaming drinks as we added ourselves to the party.

The Kellner, whose memory of Americans hadn’t been entirely obliterated by the long hiatus in the tourist business, came running over from the cage-like bar to bid us welcome.

But we hadn’t come to study the liquid nourishment of Ettelbruck. A book may be written on that particular subject some day, if some brave soul manages to live through the dangers of personal research. Meerschaart instantly removed Herr Kellner’s doubts concerning the cause of our visit with a question:

Ou est la cinema?

Herr Kellner looked shocked, then turned to me.

“You will find the moving pictures,” he said in a good brand of Minnesota English, “at the end of the hallway through that little door.” He indicated a door behind the bar, and added graciously as we started to follow his directions:

“For ten years I lived in the United States.”

We walked behind the bar, and a narrow squeeze it was between the porcelain counter and the shelf of glass-ware. With the venturesome air that befitted the circumstances, I opened the door and crossed the threshold into a cold corridor.

Here was a foyer unique in the world of theatricals. Meerschaart may have been prepared for it—for, after all, his country and this are half-sisters—but nothing in my experience had given me warning. Women’s clothes, some very intimate articles of wearing-apparel, hung upon a row of hooks along one side of the hall. I hesitated a moment.

“We’re breaking into somebody’s bedroom,” I declared.

“Maybe that’s where they have the cinema,” returned the Belgian, in a matter-of-fact tone. “Either there or in the kitchen.”

The atmosphere of the corridor, redolent of garlic and boiled cabbage, seemed to give assurance that supper was to be served somewhere soon, but as yet we had no right to leap at conclusions. Anything might happen before we came to the exit.

Beyond the clothes-hooks was another door. We passed through it into a big bare room with plain white walls hung with ancient champagne advertisements. On the side opposite the entrance was a double doorway curtained with red chenille hangings, and at one side of it was a table where a woman, probably the owner of the clothes in the hallway, sold tickets.

The entrance fee was three francs apiece. The original cost, however, was the only expense that had to be figured in the afternoon’s entertainment. No tip was expected by the “usherette” inasmuch as there was no “usherette,” and there was no charge for the program, that being salvaged from the floor in the vicinity of one’s seat.

A reel of post-war comedy showing the triumph of President Wilson over a caricature of the kaiser—an animated cartoon of the French school—was just flickering to a close as we entered. The spectators, whom we could not see in the gloom, were dutifully applauding. How much of this frantic enthusiasm was due to inward faith and how much to public policy it would be difficult to say.

National ideas in a country like Luxemburg are bound to change as conditions which affect the national existence are altered. Tastes in moving pictures as in governments are likely to be decided by artillery duels a hundred miles across the frontier.

The lights flashed up and we got a glimpse of what our three francs had brought us to.

We were standing in a sort of low balcony along one side of a rectangular room. The screen was stretched across the corner opposite the door. On the main floor the seating-facilities consisted of two benches and perhaps fifty straight-backed wooden chairs. A bar with china fixtures, similar to the one in the room through which we had passed, occupied one end of the room, leading one to suspect that this place had not always been a temple of the cinema.

It is not altogether correct to infer that all of this was immediately visible. For all the brilliance of perhaps a dozen incandescent lamps, we had been in the place some minutes before the salient features of it began to impress themselves upon us. The atmosphere was a vast, well-nigh impenetrable cloud of tobacco smoke.

We found some seats on a bench at the edge of the balcony and disposed ourselves as best we could. The seats in the pit were occupied mostly by children, little girls about ten years old predominating, with a scattering representation of adults. There was an incessant chattering among the youthful patrons, but no functionary in brass buttons came to interrupt them. There seemed to be any number of little black velvet bonnets in the house, some of them trimmed with pink ribbons, some with blue. A minority of small boys in the round cap of the French-marine type assisted in the manufacture of the din, making one notable contribution in the way of a fist fight before we had been in the place five minutes.

I took advantage of the wait between pictures to look at the red program.

The information conveyed in three assorted languages was little short of astonishing. I learned from the English part of it that there would be:

MOVING PICTURES
at Sunday
In the Afternoon at 3 o’Clock
at night 8 o’clock
at SATURDAY and MONDAY
at Evening at 8 o’clock

ECLAIR JOURNAL
The Kaiser and President Wilson

Sherlock Holmes
the greatest american detektiv in:
ON THE LINE OF THE FOUR
In 2 Parts

Casimir and the Fireman
Humorist in 1 act

THE BLACK CAPTAIN
Far West Drama

and
Flottes Orchester
1 Platz, 3 Fr.; 2 Platz, 2 Fr.; 3 Platz, 1.50 Fr.

And there were further words in German to the effect that children would be admitted to matinee performances at half-price.

It was in the French part of the bill of fare, however, that the true eloquence of the cinema management showed itself. To begin with, the pedigree of the films was presented to the attention of the public. To a stranger in the land, an itinerant who might be interested in the English program, a film would be merely a film. It was in the nature of the tourist to take what one gave him and pay well for the privilege. The native sons, how-ever, must be advised of the quality of the product that they were asked to purchase. Hence they were told with-out preliminary waste of space upon the topics of the pictures that the films were from Paris. To cinema-fanciers who for four long years had gazed upon flickerings from Prussia, the name Paris probably carried a magic appeal.

The kaiser and President Wilson, on this side of the dictionary, were passed over in small type. So was Sherlock Holmes, “the greatest american detektiv.” But Le Capitaine Noir came in for a great deal of publicity of the circus-poster variety.

This feature was billed as “A great drama of adventure in four acts and a prologue,—a number of sensational scenes: Chases on the Plains; the Ambush; The Mark of Fire; The Escape; The Burning Granary.” One would be a sensation-seeker indeed who could wish for more excitement for his three francs.

I suspected from the first that “On the Line of the Four,” however much it might promise as a war picture, was very likely our old friend and neighbor “The Sign of the Four,” and so it was.

The original nationality of the piece was a doubtful matter. There was hardly enough of it left to give one a consecutive idea of the plot, and the French captions were so worn that little was to be gained from them. It may have been an American film of that era when there were no stars. At any rate, no latter-day favorites appeared in it. It may have been English. Certain elements in the “locations” suggested England forcibly. But whatever its pedigree, its days of usefulness were nearly done.

The Anglo Saxons in the house, to whom the name Sherlock Holmes was a sufficient guaranty of story action and plot, could not get very far with the titles in French. Those who had mastered enough of the language to surmount this difficulty were certain to become hopelessly muddled in the aimless mixing of scenes that seemed to be the result of many years of “cut and patch.”

The children, however, enjoyed the piece just as young America used to enjoy pictures of fleeting express-trains and dashing fire-engines. The doings of the “greatest american detektiv” as marvels of mental acrobatics appealed to them not a whit. But the doings of the East Indian murderer with his shiny black hide, his wicked eye, and his deadly poisoned dart, were truly delightful.

Der Schwarze,” as they nicknamed him, could not so much as twist a finger from the moment of his first entrance into the drama until the last ghostly glimmer of Dr. Watson’s romance, without arousing an excited hum throughout the house.

The children wildly applauded his capture and cast upon him any number of maledictions in German and French. They commented volubly upon the flashes supposed to show the theft of the rajah’s jewels in India, and stood up in their seats and yelled when the Black was shown in the act of shooting the fatal dart.

They may have gathered something from the torn film to give them an inkling of the motive of revenge that underlay the murderer’s desire to kill. But from their point of view the motives were immaterial. This Indian person was downright murderous. They had seen him in his deadly but interesting pastime of shooting poisoned arrows,—truly a reprobate. And he was chased and caught and turned over to the gendarmes. Served him right! A very excellent picture!

We learned, too, that the burghers are a romantic people, as befits their surroundings and traditions. They sighed with sympathy when Dr. Watson breathed words of love into the ear of Mary Marston. They murmured approbation when he put his protecting arm about her in that tense moment just before the discovery of the murder; and they howled with startling intensity, adults and infants alike, when the film snapped off short before the climacteric embrace.

The flottes Orchester was the greatest disappointment in the show. It failed to arrive. A small boy with a typical toy harmonica attempted to remedy the deficiency with plaintive notes that filtered unpleasantly through the other noises.

Between films we got another glimpse of our surroundings.

On the wall near the entrance there were yellowing posters of past feature pictures. They were uniformly German and slipshod, the type one used to see before the nickelodeons of a decade ago. One bore the title “Schwer Gepruft” and showed a Prussian villain staring through a brick wall at a blonde girl playing a piano. Another was a sketch in black and white advertising “Der Gestreifte Domino.” The domino was a doleful-looking person whose activities in the film were not described.

In a far corner was a French advertisement for “Deux Ames de Poupée” played by a “notable cast of three” from some theater in Paris. None of these posters looked new, though the theater undoubtedly had been in use during the German occupation. This led us to believe that any films shown in Luxemburg since the autumn of 1914 must have been worn-out stock, hastily salvaged from the waste-heaps to struggle through four years more of life. The conviction remained with us even after the proprietor had assured us that a Copenhagen distributor had given him a choice of first-run productions during the entire period in which the French supply was unavailable.

The adventures of the Black Captain started inauspiciously. The picture was improperly framed during the first few seconds and the lower half appeared on top and the upper half below, as is the universal custom with unframed cinema.

Immediately the ensemble of spectators yelled out, “Hoch!” with a unanimity that shook the ancient rafters.

The film presently slid into its proper groove, and, save for the normal clatter of the children and their parents, quiet was restored. To a visitor the incident was worthy of note as something odd in the system of communication between the house and the management.

It has its points of superiority over the good old American custom of kicking chair backs, whistling, and foot-stamping, as any one will admit. It is no easier on the ears, perhaps, but its effect is quicker. No operator, not even a German operator, can stand the concerted shrieking of half a hundred excited youngsters.

The prologue of this “adventurous picture”—the words are those of the opening caption—extended through about a reel and a half of the total four. Whether out of deference to an artistic color scheme or not we cannot say, but Monsieur Violet, a French actor, was cast in the role of Capitaine Black. The girl in the piece, whose name we have forgotten, and the deep-dyed villain who stole her love, were the only important figures in the story aside from the colorful captain. The lady appeared to be at least as old as the film, which was old enough, and had a sharp nose a trifle too long for her own good. But she suited the spectators in the seventy-five centime seats, and from that time forward we knew that the picture was going to be well received.

Monsieur Violet, as the Duke of Chablis, is in love with Miss Arabella, a circus rider. He marries her, much to the grief of his best friend,—another duke whom, for the purpose of identification, we shall call the Duke of Ornans.

After the inevitable elopement of Lady Arabella with the Duke of Ornans, Monsieur Violet meets the wrecker of his home and kills him in a duel. The two former friends become reconciled in the death scene and the wrecker, after the fashion of wreckers, warns the wronged husband to beware of the woman who is “the cause of it all.”

The husband encounters the faithless wife as he is carrying the body of the betrayer into the chateau whither the erring couple have fled. It is a strong scene in many ways, about as well acted as it is original, with many flashes of raised fists and kneeling supplication. Here the prologue ends in a hysterical burst of recrimination and anathema.

None of this was in keeping with the moral code of Luxemburg, where marriages are pretty sure to be permanent. But it was romantic, passionate, bombastic, and was applauded with shouts.

The next scene showed the arrival in America of the Lady Arabella, who had journeyed into the Far West to claim an estate left her by the traitorous friend.

And it was truly a wonderful America in which she found herself.

An official with a uniform like that of a milkman carried her suit-cases from an unfamiliar railway platform to a stage-coach. The coach was a long, slim thing like the French army’s “Fourgon, Mile. 1887.” It was drawn by three horses and greatly resembled the American vehicle it was supposed to represent in that both of them had wheels.

In the meantime the Duke of Chablis had become the chief of a band of Mexican outlaws, and, under the name of the Black Captain, was spreading terror along the borders of the United States,—a splendid revenge for a husband whose home had been wrecked, but a bit hard on Texas or New Mexico.

The Luxemburgers could not understand this idea of vengeance. But theirs not to question why. It was action they wanted and action they got.

The bandits attacked the stage-coach.

Artful bandits they were. They kept themselves informed of the movements of the coach by a clever system of espionage. If the girl had only noted the dark figure at the corner of the station platform, what excitement she might have saved herself! She would have recognized him at once for a foe. For he was attired in a fedora hat with a feather in it, and even a timid European knows that the Indians who have for their tribal insignia the fedora hat are the most bloodthirsty of all.

Of course there was a battle. It wasn’t a very good battle at first, because both sides failed to show any marksmanship until they warmed up to their work. But after about a kilometer of chase things were different. Nearly everybody on both sides dropped dead at once. It was a thrilling climax.

The few passengers left alive clambered out of the coach to permit themselves to be robbed, the Lady Arabella confronting the mysterious Black Captain. And the house actually approached silence. One could have heard an anvil drop, so quiet was that tense moment when he lifted his mask and showed the once trusted but treacherous love, his sneering lips and hate-filled eyes.

He was very deliberate about it,—always the gentleman, the duke, outlaw or not. He was so deliberate that he turned his back upon her momentarily and she escaped.

The outlaws held a brief conference and leaped to horse in pursuit as she sped down the glistening road.

The house had a wild time about it.

American moving-picture men used to hold long news-paper debates concerning the propriety of applauding the silent drama. But I have never yet seen a decision relative to the etiquette of starting a riot at a thrilling moment. The young Luxemburgers stood up in their chairs and howled.

The people of the grand duchy are not so volatile as those of France. Superficially they bear a closer resemblance to their German neighbors. But they stand proved a race apart to one who has ever seen them at the cinema. They feel deeply and express themselves energetically regardless of time or place. They leap from stolidity to intense animation with the quickness of a flash of light.

The girl outdistanced all the bandits save the Black Captain, and this relentless pursuer chased her through a few Italian villas and other little-known parts of Mexico. Just as he caught up with her the film broke and the cheering spectators subsided with a deep sigh.

That gave us a chance to escape without being trampled upon and we made the best of our opportunity.

It was snowing when we reached the street. The braided gendarme stood as we had left him, his silver epaulets glistening like diamonds with the frost.

Comments: Robert Joseph Casey (1890-1962) was an American journalist and soldier, who served during the First World War and went on to write several books on his travels around the world. The Land of Haunted Castles documents a tour of Luxembourg not long after the war, with this visit to a film show taking place in the town of Ettleburck. The Sherlock Holmes film referred to is unclear but it may have been the American film Sherlock Holmes Solves The Sign of Four (1913), produced by Thanhouser and featuring Harry Benham as Holmes. The French film may be Le capitaine noire (1917), though this did not feature a M. Violet in the cast. However it was produced by the French Éclair company, as was the Éclair Journal newsreel and the ‘Casimir’ series of comedies listed on the programme. There was an Éclair series of Sherlock Holmes films, but none was based on ‘The Sign of the Four’.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Seats in All Parts

Source: Leslie Halliwell, Seats in All Parts (London: Granada, 1985), pp. 59-60

Text: When at last the Odeon was ready, the family in its various ways prepared for the excitement of another premiere performance. We were all there, but I went with Mum and Dad and my sisters with their boyfriends. Report had it that, over in Ashburner Street, there was a dogged determination to outshine the Lido, which we thought could hardly be difficult. Again a Saturday night was chosen, and half our acquaintance dutifully put on best clothes and trooped proudly into that vast auditorium, having first made our choice of seats at sixpence, ninepence or one shilling, and no half price. Memory suggests that, despite arriving more than an hour early, we had to pay ninepence, which must have been unique for us; at any rate we sat a long way back, and although I couldn’t see very well I was prepared to put up with the handicap because this was an occasion. But at the interval Mum miraculously found three seats on the aisle, from which I had an uninterrupted view not only of the giant proscenium arch but of several less fortunately placed friends near the front, to whom I waved in an unforgivably superior manner. The décor was undeniably sumptuous. My first impression, after I got my breath back, was of rounded corners everywhere, without a right-angle in sight. The immensity of the red velour curtains; the cunningly concealed lighting; the great golden honeycomb grills on each side of the screen; the green octagonal clocks in which the letters THE ODEON took the place of numerals; all these played their part in the magnificence oft hat massive decorated space. It was more overwhelming than being in St Mark’s Church, or even Manchester Cathedral. But as I later discovered to be the case with all Odeons, the design was in fact simple to the point of austerity. There was nothing that could catch dust. The foyers and corridors were laid with rubber tiling in green and black abstract designs, with just a touch of red; and even the toilets had a smooth severity which counterpointed the general grandeur. Henceforth, Bolton’s older halls with their plaster cupids and decorated pillars would seem tawdry indeed.

Each seat on opening night had a gilt-edged programme waiting upon it, and no sooner had we absorbed this dazzling piece of showmanship than a mammoth all-glass Compton organ rose from the orchestra pit, changing colour as it came and radiating ‘The Entry of the Gladiators’ through a dozen strategically placed loudspeakers. Where was the Lido now? The premiere attraction, following a Mickey Mouse and the news, Dark Journey, a moderately adult spy melodrama with Conrad Veidt and a new young star called Vivien Leigh. There were absolutely no complaints about it, except that we would have preferred a happier ending, but some of us wondered why it had been chosen in preference to the great backlog of spectaculars which the Odeon was known to have held in reserve. But after this comparatively mild start, the spectaculars came at us in legions, with a colour film at least once a month. The Trail of the Lonesome Pine, The Garden of Allah, Her Jungle Love, Vogues of 1938, The Goldwyn Follies, ]esse James, Hollywood Cavalcade, these were some of the items which brightened our lives by their sheer splendour, even though Technicolor seemed oddly to drain their drama of vitality. However, we felt we had achieved a great bargain in getting full colour at no extra price.

Comments: Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) was a film historian and programme buyer for ITV and Channel 4. Seats in All Parts is his memoir of cinemagoing, including his Bolton childhood. The cinema described is the Odeon in Ashburner Street, Bolton, which seated 2,534 and which opened on 21 August 1937.

Germs

Source: Richard Wollheim, Germs: A Memoir of Childhood (London: The Waywiser Press, 2004), pp. 40-46

Text: At about the time when I came of an age to notice novelty, and no longer assumed that the world as I now looked out on it had witnessed all the events recounted in the history books which I was just beginning to devour, the first new thing to break in on my vision was the cinema. At one moment the cinema did not exist, and, the next moment, these generally square buildings were all over. Made of the thin, dark red bricks of the period, they were faced with white stucco grooved to look like stone, which, with great artificiality, introduced the bright look of the seaside into land-locked suburbia. Behind the cinema was the car-park reserved for the patrons – cinema, car-park, patron, all being new words – but soon there were few more familiar, more welcome, sights than the string of small coloured lights looped over the entrance to the car-park, or the two chromium-plated boxes that were screwed to the brickwork of the cinema, through the glass fronts of which, when they were not too dirtied by the rain, passers-by could make out from the sepia-tinted stills, the high points in the movie that was currently showing: when one of these shots came up in the course of the movie, a low gasp of recognition was involuntarily released into the crowded darkness of the hall. If the film was a western, or a war film, another form of preview, which I loved, was a sand table that would be set out in the foyer of the cinema, re-creating the high sierras and canyons of some unknown land, or the battlefields of Flanders with their water-filled trenches and blasted trees, or the skies above them where fearless aviators were locked in single combat.

In every cinema, a patrons’ book was placed next to the kiosk where tickets were sold, and those who signed their names in the book would then receive free a monthly programme, printed in violet ink on shiny paper so that the lettering was always slightly blurred. Each double bill had a page devoted to it, and it was a rule of our family, originating probably from my mother, who liked rules without reason, that only on a Thursday morning, and then with her permission, and under her direct supervision, could the programme be picked up, and the page turned, turned and then very precisely folded back onto itself. When my mother turned the page of the programme, she let out a low hiss. Ordinarily the programme lay on my father’s bedside table, along with the miscellaneous books he brought back from his travels: some Tauchnitz volumes, a work of Freud’s in German, a novel by Joseph Kessel in French. My mother had no need for a bedside table.

Half turning the page, or looking round the corner into the future, was, without some very special excuse, forbidden, and not until I was 14 or 15, by which time I was grappling in my mind with the ideas of Raskolnikov, did it seriously occur to me to breach this rule.

For each film, the programme gave the title, listed the characters and the actors who played them, said whether the film was a U certificate or A certificate, and provided a brief synopsis of the plot. I loved the words “character”, “cast”, “plot”, “synopsis”, and I wanted to learn the precise distinctions that they embodied. I did well with some of these words, but with the last of them I made the least headway. The word itself was obscure, and so were many of the synopses themselves, particularly so when the film was “A” certificate, or was judged unsuitable for children to see, for the management went on the assumption that the synopsis, though it had to be fair, must be suitable for all to read, with a result that was very far from that intended. Even as I began to read the three or four lines, I fell into a state of dread that I had read, or was just about to read, something that, innocuous enough in itself, would nevertheless inform me, particularly if I allowed my mind to wander, of something that I was not supposed to know about, and, though I had no desire to preserve my innocence, what I did not want was to lose it through someone else, and least of all through someone else’s carelessness or oversight, for then I would inadvertently be tied for ever to the shame from which I desired to escape.

The regime under which I grew up reserved the cinema for two sorts of occasion: winter, and rainy afternoons.

Winter came round with its own relentlessness […] Rain, by contrast, was unpredictable, and it remained all my childhood the object of a deep conflict.

On the one hand, there was the knowledge that only the sight of rain spitting against the windows, or battling with the wipers as they raced across the windscreen, could convert what was a shadowy promise written in violet ink into the warm reality of the cinema. Entry into this reality was gradual, and it was the richer, the darker, the more deliciously oppressive, for the three or four stages into which it was broken up. First, the car had to be parked. My mother, like many drivers of that period, had some difficulty in “backing-back”, as it was called, and often I could feel my bladder fill in response to her slowness. Then there was the run across the car park in Wellingtons and a stiff mac, crunching the cinders underfoot as I went, and already feeling that the world in which anything might happen was taking me over. Jumping the puddles, I was a horse leaping a swollen stream as we, the cavalry, moved up into the attack, or I was a steeplechaser taking in its stride a particularly vicious hurdle, or, cut out the horse, and now I was my own awkward self who hadn’t seen the puddle, and waded straight through it, or who had seen it but hadn’t noticed how deep it was, and slammed down, first one foot, then the other, to make the water splash up over the top of my boots. For a minute or so, I became the rough boy I never wanted to be. Next there was the delay as the tickets had to be bought, and the small violet or cherry-coloured pieces of paper curled up through the carefully etched slab of steel that lay just the other side of the ornamental grille, and were torn off and handed to us. Certainty descended, and we progressed through the foyer, up the steps, into the cinema itself, unless there was a necessary detour through the long curtains into the chamber grandiosely marked ‘Gentlemen’. My prayer was always the same: it was that we should arrive just before the lights went down, and the torches of the usherettes, flickering like fireflies in the night, were needed to direct us to our seats. For, once darkness fell, couples who had nowhere else to meet started to find comfort in the warm smell of each other, and, for me to be certain that I could withstand the excitement with which the cinema began to creak, it was best to have looked on the faces of the audience while they were still distinct under the ceiling lights. Indeed I could see no reason why my mother should not imitate the punctuality that my governess showed every Sunday when she took me to church, and why we should not time our entry to perfection so that we would walk down the aisle at the very moment when the organ, which always gave me a headache if I had to listen to it for any period of time, had stopped, and the organist had taken his bow, and organ and organist had descended into some uncertain depths. If only my mother would co-operate with my wishes, then no sooner would I have been got into my seat, and my mac folded on a neighbouring chair, than the great miraculous event, half sunset, half sunrise, with the intervening night displaced, would start to unfold. The lights dimmed, a hush, like the end of the day, fell on the audience, and the first titles came up on the screen, and they could, just for a moment, be seen on the far side of the gauze curtains, as clear as pebbles through still water. Then, as the curtains slid open, and the gauze was gathered up into pleats, it was as though a light wind had started up before dawn, and made ripples on the surface of the stream, and now, from one second to the next, as fast as that, the lettering became blurred, until the curtains passed across it, and then, one by one, the words again became legible, and the screen took on the unbounded promise of a book first opened.

All this I longed for, but, against this, there was another sight, and the deep-seated dread I had of it. It was that when, at the end of the film, still blinking at the light, still trying to resolve the loyalties that the film had stirred up in me, who was good, who was bad, and, as a separate issue, which side was I on, I would find myself standing by the heavy glass doors that led back to reality, and not only would the rain have stopped, but the sun would have come out. By now the water that had clung to the trees, or that had collected on the lampposts and on the tiled roofs and on the undersides of the gutters, would, at first slowly, but with gathering momentum, have dripped down, and now lay on the road, where the first rays of pale sunlight hit it, so that, looking out, I could see the tarred surface glint and sparkle in the late, departing glory of the evening. To many a natural cause of joy, this sight stirred in me the deepest, darkest melancholy […]

Someone might ask why could I not have wanted the rain to come down enough that I could go to the cinema, but to clear up enough that, the film over, I would look out on dry streets? I convey nothing about my childhood if it is not clear that I could never have formed such a desire, for I always found one thing worse than having too little, and that was having too much. To a superstitious child, which I was, it was like being God. To a young boy unruly with socialism, which I was soon to be, it was like being rich. It handed life over to boredom.

Comments: Richard Wollheim (1923-2003) was a British philosopher whose posthumously published memoir Germs is a considered to be modern classic. At the time of this memory (early 1930s), his family was living in Walton-on-Thames in Surrey. ‘U’ and ‘A’ certificates were introduced by the British Board of Film Censors from its inception in 1912.

Seeing Stars

Source: Alan Bennett, extract from ‘Seeing Stars’, London Review of Books, vol. 24 no. 1, 3 January 2002, pp. 12-16, reproduced with slight emendations in Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 160-173

Text: In the 1940s within a mile or so of where we lived in Armley in Leeds there were at least half a dozen cinemas. Nearest was the Picturedrome on Wortley Road but others were just a walk or a tramride away – the Lyric down Tong Road, the Clifton at Bramley, the Palace off Stanningley Road and the Western a bit further on. And without ever being a dedicated filmgoer I could have graded them all from fleapit upwards in their degree of comfort and sophistication just as, a little later, I would be able to grade the neighbourhood churches in terms of high and low, many of the churches and cinemas since sharing a common fate, conversion to carpet warehouses, second-hand furniture marts and, nowadays, health clubs.

Programmes changed twice a week and we generally went on a Monday and a Saturday. Comedies were best, particularly George Formby, but we took what was on offer, never knowing whether a film had any special merit. Some came with more of a reputation than others, Mrs Miniver for instance with Greer Garson, Dangerous Moonlight (with the Warsaw Concerto) and Now, Voyager with the famous cigarettes. But I’m sure I must have seen both Citizen Kane and Casablanca on their first time round with no notion that these were films of a different order from the usual twice-weekly fare. It was only towards the end of the war that more of a fuss started to be made over forthcoming films, so that I remember reading in Picture Post (and probably at the barber’s) about The Way to the Stars with the young Jean Simmons, and the making of Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale, and the first Royal Command Performance, another Powell film, A Matter of Life and Death.

Suburban cinemas were often pretty comfortless places. While the entrance could be quite imposing, with the box-office generally at the top of a flight of white marble steps, presumably to accommodate the rake, the auditorium itself was often not much more than a hangar, the aisle carpeted but the seats on lino or even bare concrete. Wartime meant there was no ice-cream but en route to the cinema we would call at a sweet shop and get what Dad called ‘some spice’, provided, of course, we had the points, sweet rationing the most irksome of wartime restrictions and still in force as late as 1952, when I went into the Army.

As a family we always went to the first house, which ended around 8.10, with the second-house queue waiting as we came out, scanning our faces for a clue to the experience we had just had, much as, I imagine, soldiers did when queuing outside a brothel. The second-house crowd seemed to me more loose-living than we were, raffish even. It certainly included more courting couples and folks who liked a drink (and who might even have had one already), none of whom minded rolling home at the to us unheard-of hour of half-past ten.

The waiting (and the Second World War involved a good deal of waiting in every department) was generally done up the side of the cinema in a grim open-sided arcade that today would be drenched in urine but wasn’t then. If the cinema was full and the performance continuous the commissionaire would come down the queue shouting: ‘Two at 1/9;’ ‘A single at 2/3.’ Or (very seldom): ‘Seats in all parts.’

We always called it ‘the pictures’, seldom ‘the cinema’ and never ‘the movies’. To this day I don’t find it easy to say ‘movies’, ‘going to the pictures’ still the phrase that comes to me most naturally, though nowadays I’m not sure that ‘the pictures’, like ‘the wireless’, aren’t among the self-consciously adopted emblems of fogeydom, the verbal equivalent of those smart Covent Garden establishments that do a line in old luggage. But calling the pictures ‘the movies’ went with calling cigarettes ‘fags’, beer ‘booze’ or girls ‘birds’. It signalled a relaxed, unbuttoned approach to things, life led with more of a dash than I was ever going to manage.

Picture-going was generally a family affair, but when we were still quite young, at eight or nine, say, we were allowed to go to U films by ourselves and (with a bit of nagging) to A films too. Since the A signified that a child could only see the film when accompanied by an adult this meant hanging about outside the cinema accosting congenial-looking cinema-goers, preferably women, with ‘Can you take us in, please?’ Warning us often, every time we left the house it almost seemed, against ‘stopping with strange men’, my mother never liked my brother and me to go to the pictures on our own, but only once did I come to any harm and then not really.

In 1944 we had moved, disastrously as it turned out, from Leeds to Guildford, where we stayed for a year, so at that time I would be ten, and had persuaded my mother one afternoon to let me go see Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk, which I’d seen in Armley but was now showing at the Palace in Onslow Street (closed in 1956 to become a bingo hall and currently a nightclub called The Drink). I hung about for a bit until a genial middle-aged man in glasses came along with one boy in tow already. This seemed to indicate respectability and I was about to ask him if he would take me in when he got in first, even taking my hand before shepherding us both past the box-office; he may even have paid.

The film had already started, Errol Flynn flirting with Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth while the usherette showed us down the aisle and before we had even sat down the man was pinching me and remarking on my nice chubby legs. This seemed fairly boring to me as, so far as I was concerned, they were just legs, but I put up with it for the sake of Errol Flynn, who soon after we sat down was away on the Spanish Main. However, the clutching and the pinching was getting more urgent until, innocent though I was, it dawned on me that this must be what Mam’s mysterious warnings had been about.

The sight of Errol Flynn now chained to an oar in the Spanish galleys seemed to bring these claspings to a new pitch of urgency and I decided, as they moved higher up my legs, that I ought to make a break for it. So I got up and, foolishly, headed not up the aisle to the foyer but down the aisle to the Gents where, not surprisingly, my admirer followed. Once there, I didn’t hide in a cubicle but just stood waiting, not knowing what to do.

I see myself standing in that cinema lavatory and hearing the bang of the swing-door as this kindly, bespectacled man, now suddenly sinister, comes through the door in pursuit. The entrance to the Gents was also the back door to the Exit and my admirer stood there for a second, obviously wondering if I had fled the cinema altogether. There was a moment, which in a film would hardly seem credible, when he stood with his back to me trying to decide if I’d gone. Had he turned and looked down the steps to the lavatory he would have seen me. But he didn’t turn, and obviously deciding it would be prudent to leave, he pushed the bar and went out through the exit door.

I wish I could record that I went back and watched the finish of the film but I just hung about for a few minutes until the coast was clear, then (though nothing had happened to me) ran home in mild distress. I told my mother, who became satisfyingly hysterical, but Dad, a shy and fastidious man who I knew regarded me as a liar and a show-off, was just made angry, refusing even to believe anything had happened and, if it had, ‘It was all nowt.’ Certainly I hadn’t been damaged, and if damage was done at all it was only in Dad’s refusal to acknowledge the situation. As it was, the only lasting effect of the incident was to put paid to any further lone visits to the cinema and to teach me to keep quiet. One’s legs often got felt up as a child. Dad’s old headmaster, Mr Alexander, used to give us lessons in algebra and he was a great stroker and clutcher, though only of the legs and not the parts appertaining. Vicars did it too, without seeming to want to take it further. It was something I came to expect, and just another of the ways in which grown-ups were boring.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Seeing Stars’, on his memories of cinemagoing, from which this extract comes. The films mentioned are Mrs Miniver (USA 1942), Dangerous Moonlight (UK 1941), Now Voyager (USA 1942), Citizen Kane (USA 1941), Casablanca (USA 1942), The Way to the Stars (UK 1945), A Canterbury Tale (UK 1944), A Matter of Life and Death (UK 1946) and The Sea Hawk (USA 1940).

Links: Full article at London Review of Books

Come and See the Pictures

Source: Donald McGill, ‘Come and See the Pictures’, postcard (not sent), 1910s, from the Nicholas Hiley collection

comeandsee

Comments: Donald McGill (1875-1962) was a British postcard artist who became famous (and at times notorious) for his ‘saucy’ seaside postcards. Postcards in the 1910s often portrayed the cinema as a place suggestive of sex, though not usually involving cinema staff.