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).

Down Second Avenue

Source: Es’kia Mphahlele, Down Second Avenue (New York: Penguin, 2013 – orig. pub. 1959), pp. 48-49

Text: Soon, however, we forgot our hunger, weariness, everything else, lost in the exciting moments of the movies. We always had a large bill for fourpence. Often they showed four pictures and a serial chapter on one programme. Those were the days of silent films: the days of Hoot Gibson, Tom Tyler, Frankie Darro, Buck Jones, Tex Maynard, Tim McCoy; the days of funny actors like Harold Lloyd, Richard Talmadge, Larry Simon [sic i.e. Semon], Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton and a host of others.

We stood on chairs to cheer our screen heroes. A piano played a medley of noisy tunes which, however, made superb background music. The other boys relied on me to read the dialogue and titles on the screen aloud so that they might all follow the story. I felt really big and important and useful because I could read fast – as fast as the slow tempo of life in those years made it necessary.

‘But how do you read so fast?’ Moloi would ask me.

‘Just like that’ I would answer, smiling mysteriously.

‘No use asking you anything,’ he would say, genuinely disgusted.

The truth of it was that I used to pick up any piece of printed paper to read, whatever it was. It became a mania with me. I couldn’t let printed matter pass. I felt inferior to most of my class at school. I was pretty poor in English, which was the medium of instruction. I read, and read, till it hurt. But I also got a good deal of pleasure out of it. And I felt proud because I was overcoming my backwardness.

Often I didn’t have money for the movies. Then one of the boys would pay for me, just so that I should read for them. I managed to be heard above all the din from the audience accompanied by the klonk-onk of the piano, which was constantly playing during the performance.

Comments: Es’kia Mphahlele (1919-2008) was a black South African writer and activist, one of the leading figures in modern African literature. At the time of this anecdote (1920s) from his 1959 memoir he was living in Pretoria. Hoot Gibson, Tom Tyler et al were stars of American westerns.

Little Wilson and Big God

Source: Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God (London: Heinemann, 1987), pp. 30-31

Text: At the age of six a social function was imposed upon me that had everything to do with entertainment, though not necessarily of the comic kind. On Queen’s Road there were two cinemas – the Rex and the Electric. They faced each other, like the Globe and the Rose playhouses on the Elizabethan South Bank, but not in true rivalry. Going to one on a Monday and Thursday (the day the programme changed) did not prevent your going to the other on a Tuesday and Friday, if you could afford it. The cinemagoer’s criteria had more to do with hygiene than with the quality of the entertainment offered. The Rex was called a bughouse and the Electric not. The Electric used a superior disinfectant like a grudging perfume; the Rex smelt of its patrons and its lavatories. With the Rex, it was said, you went in in a blouse and came out with a jumper. So it was to the Electric that the children of Lodge Street went, clutching their pennies, on a Saturday afternoon. Because I lived at the Golden Eagle I was called Jackie Eagle, and ten or twelve boys would, after midday dinner, cry out for Jackie Eagle from the verge of the public bar the law forbade them to enter. They would hold on to me in their redolent jerseys all the way down Lodge Street and left and over on Queen’s Road. I was the only one of them who could read.

The manager of the Electric did not wish too many even of his front rows to be defiled by children, and so we were jammed three to a seat, with a gaping black auditorium behind us clean for the evening’s two houses. So I began a lifetime’s devotion to the cinema, a one-sided love affair in which I was more bruised than caressed. In those old silent days the art was almost an aspect of literature. I hear my little treble voice crying the text aloud for the benefit of even big louts whom the reading mystery had passed by. ‘Kiss me, my fool’, mouths the Spanish gipsy siren, and the cabellero who proposed knifing her trembles so that his knife silently clatters to the floor, ‘Came the dawn’, a regular cliché. We saw Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik and Ben Turpin in The Shriek. There was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (‘What’s that mean, kid?’), with artistic camera-masks that varied the shape of the frame. There was a Chester Conklin comedy which began with lovers kissing on a doorstep. ‘The end’, the legend said. There were roars of kids cheated. ‘Of a perfect day.’ That was all right, then, but the humour was too adult for relief: the buggers were clearly not to be trusted. There was one frightful shock for me. A character with a dirty beard and gabardine spoke, and then the black screen filled with unintelligible letters. I know now it was Hebrew; I even remember a beth and a ghimel. To my illiterates it was all one, and there was bafflement and then anger at my failure to twang it off. ‘Thought you said the bugger could read.’ So I improvised a flight of suitable invective. No piano played in the pit: we were too cheap for music.

Comments: Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was a British novelist and literary critic, whose book A Clockwork Orange was filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. His childhood was spent in Manchester. His 1986 novel The Pianoplayers features a pianist who plays for silent films, based on Burgess’ father who played the piano in pubs and cinemas. His memoir is of particular interest for providing evidence of silent films in some places being shown without music into the 1920s. It was common practice in some cinemas of the 1910s and 20s to cram three children onto two seats; three per seat sounds improbable. The films mentioned include The Sheik (USA 1921), The Shriek of Araby (USA 1923) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921).

Little Wilson and Big God

Source: Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God (London: Heinemann, 1987), pp. 30-31

Text: At the age of six a social function was imposed upon me that had everything to do with entertainment, though not necessarily of the comic kind. On Queen’s Road there were two cinemas – the Rex and the Electric. They faced each other, like the Globe and the Rose playhouses on the Elizabethan South Bank, but not in true rivalry. Going to one on a Monday and Thursday (the day the programme changed) did not prevent your going to the other on a Tuesday and Friday, if you could afford it. The cinemagoer’s criteria had more to do with hygiene than with the quality of the entertainment offered. The Rex was called a bughouse and the Electric not. The Electric used a superior disinfectant like a grudging perfume; the Rex smelt of its patrons and its lavatories. With the Rex, it was said, you went in in a blouse and came out with a jumper. So it was to the Electric that the children of Lodge Street went, clutching their pennies, on a Saturday afternoon. Because I lived at the Golden Eagle I was called Jackie Eagle, and ten or twelve boys would, after midday dinner, cry out for Jackie Eagle from the verge of the public bar the law forbade them to enter. They would hold on to me in their redolent jerseys all the way down Lodge Street and left and over on Queen’s Road. I was the only one of them who could read.

The manager of the Electric did not wish too many even of his front rows to be defiled by children, and so we were jammed three to a seat, with a gaping black auditorium behind us clean for the evening’s two houses. So I began a lifetime’s devotion to the cinema, a one-sided love affair in which I was more bruised than caressed. In those old silent days the art was almost an aspect of literature. I hear my little treble voice crying the text aloud for the benefit of even big louts whom the reading mystery had passed by. ‘Kiss me, my fool’, mouths the Spanish gipsy siren, and the cabellero who proposed knifing her trembles so that his knife silently clatters to the floor, ‘Came the dawn’, a regular cliché. We saw Rudolph Valentino in The Sheik and Ben Turpin in The Shriek. There was The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (‘What’s that mean, kid?’), with artistic camera-masks that varied the shape of the frame. There was a Chester Conklin comedy which began with lovers kissing on a doorstep. ‘The end’, the legend said. There were roars of kids cheated. ‘Of a perfect day.’ That was all right, then, but the humour was too adult for relief: the buggers were clearly not to be trusted. There was one frightful shock for me. A character with a dirty beard and gabardine spoke, and then the black screen filled with unintelligible letters. I know now it was Hebrew; I even remember a beth and a ghimel. To my illiterates it was all one, and there was bafflement and then anger at my failure to twang it off. ‘Thought you said the bugger could read.’ So I improvised a flight of suitable invective. No piano played in the pit: we were too cheap for music.

Comments: Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was a British novelist and literary critic, whose book A Clockwork Orange was filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. His childhood was spent in Manchester. His 1986 novel The Pianoplayers features a pianist who plays for silent films, based on Burgess’ father who played the piano in pubs and cinemas. His memoir is of particular interest for providing evidence of silent films in some places being shown without music into the 1920s. It was common practice in some cinemas of the 1910s and 20s to cram three children onto two seats; three per seat sounds improbable. The films mentioned include The Sheik (USA 1921), The Shriek of Araby (USA 1923) and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921).

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.