How to Enjoy the Movies

Source: Anon., ‘How to Enjoy the Movies’, Peterborough Examiner, Oct. 12, 1921, p.14

Text: You think you will drop in to the “movies” for a few minutes, and if happens to be the [theatre where] they have those luxurious wicker chairs, you choose a handy one, right near the aisle, and settle back. There is a nasty rain outside, but in here it is nice and warm and comfortable.

Presently a party of young people come in and settle directly behind you. They appear to be a great many of them. They make a loud noise and spend some time selecting seats. After two or three bumps, you sit forward until they are all settled. A cautious look around reveals that there are only four, two of each sex. One of the girls is powdering her nose and the other seems to be looking for something on the floor. She wriggles around, finally locates it, and settles down. Then they begin in earnest. The girls read the titles aloud and make remarks about them in half-whisper. They giggle about every little while and tell all they know about the actors in various pictures. It is a good deal. The vaudeville arrives, and they recognise one of the performers as an old acquaintance who visited the town some years ago. They know a good deal about his private life and tell each other. The young man directly behind you appears to have some difficulty with his knees. Every once in so often he changes their position and makes you get it in the back. He makes no excuse however. You look around. There are no other aisle seats vacant, so you resolve to endure to the bitter end. The young fellow at the farther end is very silent. The girls decide that he has gone to sleep and start to “kid” him. Their voices are louder now, and they giggle at every remark. Suddenly something descends upon your head. You have been contemplating the picture, and it is rather a shock. You are surprised. No excuse is made. Then whispering ensues. Then the young man directly behind proffers some information about the dancer, but is contradicted immediately by the girl next him who says she knows all about that young lady. He subsides into a morose silence, and gives you another vicious jab in the rear with his replaced knee. You shift your chair a little. The girls think they want some place to rest their feet, so turn to two vacant chairs around and in doing so knock your elbow. No excuse is made. They arrange their two pairs of feet on the cushioned chairs, and another era of whispering, giggling, fussing, conversation starts in. The comedy provides some situations which give them a chance to snicker. They do so. The young man re-adjusts his feet once more, and nearly capsizes your chair. No excuse is made. You move a couple of feet, and quiet down a bit. Then the girl says she wants to go and sit beside “Jack,” who is at the farther end, and the other one won’t let her. A slight scuffle ensues. The young men say nothing. You can hear him just behind re-arranging his feet once more, but this time you are out of range, so it doesn’t matter. The feature unrolls its romantic story, and the girls whisper and giggle some more. They are talking about another girl now, and enjoying themselves immensely. Finally the hero embraces the heroine, the young man changes his position for the last time, and you all go home.

Comments: This article appears in a Canadian newspaper, but may originate from another source. My thanks to Robert Clarke for bringing this piece to my attention.

He Sees Wings

Source: Cathleen McCarthy (‘Jeanette’), ‘He Sees Wings’, Peterborough Examiner, 28 February 1928, p. 3

Text: He was a little boy, not more than seven years of age. He was watching along with his brother and another small lad, the picture of ‘Wings’ at the Saturday afternoon matinee at the Opera House. Half the time he was on his feet, that is, in the air scenes. The sentimental episodes left him cold. He sat quietly through them, evincing little interest. “There’s the girl” was his only comment when the lady appeared. And he clung steadfastly to the belief that David and Jack were brothers. That’s why they were such pals, in his opinion.

He knew instantly what would come later on. “Watch the girl,” he said. “She’s going to climb under the car.” She did. “Now they’ll hit the car.” They did, with one of their bombs.

The Germans were “bad guys” and the two heroes of the picture were “good guys.” They were also Canadians, instead of Americans, as the producers intended. “Watch the Canadians win,” he said, every time that the camera depicted a triumphant advance.

“There’s one of the good guys in the wee, white car,” he announced triumphantly. “He’s going to get the bad guy’s balloon. Watch him get it – oh, lady, lady!” (as the flames consumed the big gas bag). He read the sub-titles rapidly. “Weeks pass.” His brother: “What passed?” Little boy (impatiently): “Any weeks.” They all subside, to brighten up again when the planes ‘strafe’ the German trenches.

“Oh boy, look at ’em run! Look at the good guys smash the bad guys. Hurray!” (as the tanks rumble over an energetic machine gun nest). “They’re all Canadians in that tank. It goes that way because they’re all drunk inside. Look at the rest of the Canadians coming along behind the tank so they won’t get killed.”

Later: “Gee, he killed his brother. Look at him yellin’ at the good guy and he can’t hear. Gosh, he killed him. Look at the lady cryin’. That’s their mother. She liked the dead one best.” They quiet down. The killing is all finished and the “good guy” is dead. As far as they care concerned, the picture is over.

Comments: Cathleen McCarthy (1889-198?) was a Canadian journalist and film reviewer who wrote from the Ontario newspaper Peterborough Examiner under the name of Jeanette. Peterborough cinema historian Robert G. Clarke writes about this delightful record of children watching the 1927 First World War movie Wings at Peterborough’s Grand Opera House on his website www.peterboroughmoviehistory.com. I am grateful to him for providing me with a copy of the full article and his OK to reproduce it here.

Links: ‘Watching a Movie at the Grand Opera House, 1928’ (from Robert G. Clarke’s site)

Children of the Green

Source: Doris M. Bailey, Children of the Green: A true story of childhood in Bethnal Green 1922-1937 (London: Stepney Books, 1981), pp. 75-77

Text: Besides taking me to Woolworths, she [her aunt Rose] sometimes took me to the pictures, and what a thrill that was. I had only been with the penny rush before that. The penny rush was held on a Saturday afternoon in a cinema just off Roman Road, and it was just what its name implied. My cousins made it a regular Saturday treat, and Eva often went along with them, but none of them liked taking me. As we hurried along, clutching our orange or bag of peanuts, they would talk between them of Norma and Richard Talmadge and lots of other stars, but all I did was to pray like mad that no one would kill anyone or fire any guns.

When the doors opened we all rushed in, and for some reason that I could never fathom at the time, they all made for the seats near the back and only the late comers sat in the front rows. As soon as the film started, the piano would start to play, the pianist dressed in a long black skirt with a white fancy thing on her head a bit like a Lyons nippy.

As soon as things got going, the piano would play loud banging music and I’d grip my hands on the seat and shut my eyes tight. Just in case anyone fell down dead. When a car came towards me on the screen, I was dead scared in case it came right out and ran me over, and when the cowboys and horses galloped in my direction, I would shoot under the seat and stay there.

If however the picture was sad, I would burst into tears and have to be taken outside in disgrace for making a noise. Mum and Dad once took us to see Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Gold Rush’ as a very special treat, but I broke my heart over the poor little man having to stew his boots for food.

“Oh, please, please,” I cried, “please can’t anyone give him some food?” So, all in all, no one was very keen on taking me to the pictures. But when I grew a bit older and learnt to control my emotions, nothing delighted me more than being taken to the pictures by aunt Rose. Even the cinema she frequented as different, it didn’t smell of smoke and oranges and sweat; there was a smartly dressed young lady who walked around spraying something into the air, and it smelt more like the perfume department of a big store.

The pictures we saw were nicer too: we never saw cowboys and Indians there, but there were ladies and gentlemen kissing each other and holding hands and getting married and riding in lovely carriages. Or else they were dying gently in big beautiful beds, even better than aunt Kate’s. “Kiss me Charles, and be good to baby,” would flash on the screen, and the audience in aunt’s type of cinema would read quietly, and just sob gently, if it was very sad. I would keep putting out my tongue to catch the tears as they rolled down my cheek, lest aunt should see me crying and not take me again. The piano played soft haunting music that made you want to keep on swallowing hard, and when you eventually came out into the bright sunshine, you could pretend you had something in your eye and keep on wiping it.

But aunt had developed a sudden cold too, and had to keep on sniffing, so we’d sniff and wipe our way home, where the two dogs would give us a boisterous welcome and aunt would make tea, talking all the time about what she’d have done, had she been the heroine. “She was too soft with him, don’t you think, Dol,” she would call from the kitchen and, thrilled to be talked to as an equal, I would discuss with her the merits of the film. At the penny rush, everyone read the captions out loud.

“Oh leave me sir,” we would all call out, as the maiden struggled with the villain. Oh, we had incentives to become fast readers in those days. Perhaps today’s children would become better readers if the T.V. went back to the old silent days for its stories and children had to use their brain to read, instead of being spoon fed with all their entertainment.

It was not until the era of the ‘talkie’ that people like aunt Kate and Janet went to the pictures and I’ll never forget when Mum and auntie Liz persuaded aunt Kate to go and see her very first film, ‘The Singing Fool.’

Everyone was singing ‘Climb upon my knee, Sonny boy,’ and aunt Kate set off in joyful expectancy. What a scene they had with her when she came home! She cried and cried all night, and half the next day too, standing at the corner and wiping her eyes on her apron, the tears making rivulets sown her powdered face.

“Oh my Gawd, it was lovely. I haven’t slept all night for thinking about it.”

‘When aunt Kate went to the pictures’ became a talking point all through the family for weeks after that.

Comments: Doris M. Bailey (1916-?), daughter of a french polisher, was born in Bethnal Green in London’s East End and lived there until the late 1930s. Norma and Richard Talmadge were not related. The films referred to are The Gold Rush (USA 1925) and The Singing Fool (USA 1928).

Just Like it Was

Source: Harry Blacker, Just Like it Was: Memoirs of the Mittel East (London: Vallentine, Mitchell, 1974), pp. 27-30

Text: On some Saturday evenings my mother would say, ‘Wash your face and hands quick – we are going to the pictures’. In a flurry of soap and water my sister and I would comply with her request and then, with coats buttoned to the neck, walk down the dark stairway that led from our second-floor flat to the street’. The cinema we usually patronised was in Chicksand Street, a narrow dingy turning diagonally opposite Flower and Dean Street, still shuddering from the memory of Jack the Ripper. We crossed Bethnal Green Road at Haltrecht’s corner and walked through the odiferous Brick Lane market …

… Eventually Chicksand Street came into sight and we rushed off to take our place in the queue. My mother would recognise old friends and chat away in Yiddish whilst my sister and I exchanged our spending money for massive bags of peanuts, still warm from their on-the-spot roasting. By twos and threes, the queue dwindled as room became available in the auditorium, and soon it was our turn to be ushered in. On the diminutive screen, the ‘big picture’ had already started. Under it, curtained off from the main audience, Miss Daniels, a heavily made up brunette, played a piano accompaniment to the tragic drama that flickered overhead. The heat was terrific. A perpetual buzz of conversation mingled with the crackle of peanut shells that littered the floor like snow in winter. Every step in any direction crunched.

Having found three seats together, we removed our coats and sat back to enjoy the programme. Nearby, children were reading the titles out loud for the benefit of their foreign parents. Some even translated the words directly into Yiddish. Babies cried, kids were slapped, and an endless procession to the ‘ladies and gents’ was greeted by outraged cries of ‘Siddown’. Only the screen was silent. It was here, and in other cinemas like it, that I saw Pearl White, Eddie Polo (in person), Houdini, Charlie Chaplin, Fatty Arbuckle, Buster Keaton, Ben Turpin, Pola Negri, Chester Conklin, The Keystone Cops, Nazimova, Louise Fazenda, Harold Lloyd, The Gish Sisters, Mary Pickford, and a host of other luminaries in a fast-developing cinema world.

No air-conditioning disturbed the fug of cigarette smoke and perspiring humanity. From time to time an usher would walk up and down the aisles spraying the air with a perfumed disinfectant that made you smart if you got an eyeful. At the end of each reel, a slide appeared stating ‘end of part one’, or whatever it happened to be. Resuming projection, the operator usually missed the screen by a foot or so above or below. This was greeted with loud cries of ‘Higher’ and ‘Lower’ until all was well. The peanut crackle and general hubbub was resumed, and the audience settled back in their seats for further enjoyment.

When it was all over and ‘the end’ faded out Miss Daniels played a very spirited National Anthem, somehwat drowned out by the noise of shells crackling underfoot as we stood in respect before the portraits of George V and Queen Mary spanning the silver screen. Attendants walked round and woke up those customers who, still under the influence of the post-Chollant barbiturate, had comfortably snored through the complete programme. Still excitedly chattering about Cowboys or Comedians we had seen in the show, my mother, sister and I would arrive home where father had prepared hot cocoa and buttered cholla for us so that we could go to bed soon after.

Comment: Harry Blacker (1910-1999) was a cartoonist and illustrator. His memoirs describe Jewish life in London’s East End in the 1910s and onwards, for which he defines his ‘Mittel East’ as being Bethnal Green, Hackney, Shoreditch, Whitechapel and Stepney. His memories of cinemagoing cover both the 1910s and 1920s. Chollant was a traditional Sabbath meal; cholla a type of bread.