The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama

Source: Joseph Medill Patterson, ‘The Nickelodeons: The Poor Man’s Elementary Course in the Drama’ The Saturday Evening Post, 23 November 1907, pp. 10-11, 38.

Text: Three years ago there was not a nickelodeon, or, five-cent theatre devoted to moving-picture shows, in America. To-day there are between four and five thousand running and solvent, and the number is still increasing rapidly. This is the boom time in the moving-picture business. Everybody is making money- manufacturers, renters, jobbers, exhibitors. Overproduction looms up as a certainty of the near future; but now, as one press-agent said enthusiastically, “this line is a Klondike.”

The nickelodeon in tapping an entirely new stratum of people, is developing into theatregoers a section of population that formerly knew and cared little about the drama as a fact in life. That is why “this line is a Klondike” just at present.

Incredible as it may seem, over two million people on the average attend the nickelodeons every day of the year, and a third of these are children.

Let us prove up this estimate. The agent for the biggest firm of film renters in the country told me that the average expense of running a nickelodeon was from $175 to $200 a week, divided as follows:

Wage of manager $25
Wage of Operator 20
Wage of doorman 15
Wage of porter or musician 12
Rent of film (two reels changed twice a week) 50
Rent of projecting machine 10
Rent of building 40
Music, printing, “campaign contributions,” etc. 18
Total $190

Merely to meet expenses then, the average nickelodeon must have a weekly attendance of 4000. This gives all the nickelodeons 16,000,000 a week, or over 2,000,000 a day. Two million people a day are needed before profits can begin, and the two million are forthcoming. It is a big thing, this new enterprise.

The nickelodeon is usually a tiny theatre, containing 199 seats, giving from twelve to eighteen performances a day, seven days a week. Its walls are painted red. The seats are ordinary kitchen chairs, not fastened. The only break in the red color scheme is made by half a dozen signs, in black and white, NO SMOKING, HATS OFF and sometimes, but not always, STAY AS LONG AS YOU LIKE.

The spectatorium is one story high, twenty-five feet wide and about seventy feet deep. Last year or the year before it was probably a second-hand clothiers, a pawnshop or cigar store. Now, the counter has been ripped out, there is a ticket-seller’s booth where the show-window was, an automatic musical barker somewhere up in the air thunders its noise down on the passersby, and the little store has been converted into a theatrelet. Not a theatre, mind you, for theatres must take out theatrical licenses at $500 a year. Theatres seat two hundred or more people. Nickelodeons seat 199, and take out amusement licenses. This is the general rule.

But sometimes nickelodeon proprietors in favorable locations take out theatrical licenses and put in 800 or 1000 seats. In Philadelphia, there is, perhaps, the largest nickelodeon in America. It is said to pay not only the theatrical license, but also $30,000 a year ground rent and a handsome profit.

To-day there is cutthroat competition between the little nickelodeon owners, and they are beginning to compete each other out of existence. Already consolidation has set in. Film-renting firms are quietly beginning to pick up, here and there, a few nickelodeons of their own; presumably they will make better rates and give prompter service to their own theatrelets than to those belonging to outsiders. The tendency is early toward fewer, bigger, cleaner five-cent theatres and more expensive shows. Hard as this may be on the little showman who is forced out, it is good for the public, who will, in consequence, get more for their money.

Who the Patrons Are

The character of the attendance varies with the locality, but, whatever the locality, children make up about thirty-three per cent. of the crowds. For some reason, young women from sixteen to thirty years old are rarely in evidence, but many middle-aged and old women are steady patrons, who never, when a new film is to be shown, miss the opening.

In cosmopolitan city districts the foreigners attend in larger proportion than the English speakers. This is doubtless because the foreigners, shut out as they are by their alien tongues from much of the life about them can yet perfectly understand the pantomime of the moving pictures.

As might be expected, the Latin races patronize the shows more consistently than Jews, Irish or Americans. Sailors of all races are devotees.

Most of the shows have musical accompaniments. The enterprising manager usually engages a human pianist with instructions to play Eliza-crossing-the-ice when the scene is shuddery, and fast ragtime in a comic kid chase. Where there is little competition, however, the manager merely presses the button and starts the automatic going, which is as apt as not to bellow out, I’d Rather Two-Step Than Waltz, Bill, just as the angel rises from the brave little hero-cripple’s corpse.

The moving pictures were used as chasers in vaudeville houses for several years before the advent of the nickelodeon. The cinemetograph or vitagraph or biograph or kinetoscope (there are seventy-odd names for the same machine) was invented in 1888-1889. Mr. Edison is said to have contributed most toward it, though several other inventors claim part of the credit.

The first very successful pictures were those of the Corbett-Fitzsimmons fight at Carson City, Nevada, in 1897. These films were shown all over the country to immense crowds and an enormous sum of money was made by the exhibitors.

The Jeffries-Sharkey fight of twenty-five rounds at Coney Island, in November, 1899, was another popular success. The contest being at night, artificial light was necessary, and 500 arc lamps were placed above the ring. Four cameras were used. While one was snapping the fighters, a second was being focused at them, a third was being reloaded, and a fourth was held in reserve in case of breakdown. Over seven miles of film were exposed, and 198,000 pictures, each 2 by 3 inches, were taken. This fight was taken at the rate of thirty pictures to the second.

The 500 arc lamps above the ring generated a temperature of about 115 degrees for the gladiators to fight in. When the event was concluded, Mr. Jeffries was overheard to remark that for no amount of money would he ever again in his life fight in such heat, pictures or no pictures. And he never has.

Since that mighty fight, manufacturers have learned a good deal about cheapening their process. Pictures instead of being 2 by 3 inches are now 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches, and are taken sixteen instead of thirty to the second, for the illusion to the eye of continuous motion is as perfect at one rate as the other.

By means of a ratchet each separate picture is made to pause a twentieth of a second before the magic-lantern lens, throwing an enlargement to life size upon the screen. Then, while the revolving shutter obscures the lens, one picture is dropped and another substituted, to make in turn its twentieth of a second display.

The films are, as a rule, exhibited at the rate at which they are taken, though chase scenes are usually thrown faster, and horse races, fire-engines and hot-moving automobiles slower, than the life-speed.

How the Drama Is Made

Within the past year an automatic process to color films has been discovered by a French firm. The pigments are applied by means of a four-color machine stencil. Beyond this bare fact the process remains a secret of the inventors. The stencil must do its work with extraordinary accuracy, for any minute error in the application of color to outline made upon the 5/8 by 1 1/8 inches print is magnified 200 times when thrown upon the screen by the magnifying lens. The remarkable thing about this automatic colorer is that it applies the pigment in slightly different outline to each successive print of a film 700 feet long. Colored films sell for about fifty per cent. more than black and whites. Tinted films – browns, blues, oranges, violets, greens and so forth – are made by washing, and sell at but one per cent. over the straight price.

The films are obtained in various ways. “Straight” shows, where the interest depends on the dramatist’s imagination and the setting, are merely playlets acted out before the rapid-fire camera. Each manufacturing firm owns a studio with property-room, dressing rooms and a completely-equipped stage. The actors are experienced professionals of just below the first rank, who are content to make from $18 to $25 a week. In France a class of moving-picture specialists has grown up who work only for the cameras, but in this country most of the artists who play in the film studios in the daytime play also behind the footlights at night.

The studio manager orders rehearsals continued until his people have their parts “face-perfect,” then he gives the word, the lens is focused, the cast works rapidly for twenty minutes while the long strip of celluloid whirs through the camera, and the performance is preserved in living, dynamic embalmment (if the phrase may be permitted) for decades to come.

Eccentric scenes, such as a chalk marking the outlines of a coat upon a piece of cloth, the scissors cutting to the lines, the needle sewing, all automatically without human help, often require a week to take. The process is ingenious. First the scissors and chalk are laid upon the edge of the cloth. The picture is taken. The camera is stopped, the scissors are moved a quarter of an inch into the cloth, the chalk is drawn a quarter of an inch over the cloth. The camera is opened again and another picture is taken showing the quarter-inch cut and quarter-inch mark. The camera is closed, another quarter inch is cut and chalked; another exposure is made. When these pictures so slowly obtained we run off rapidly, the illusion of fast self-action on the part of the scissors, chalk and needle is produced.

Sometimes in a nickelodeon you can see on the screen a building completely wrecked in five minutes. Such a film was obtained by focusing a camera at the building, and taking every salient move of the wreckers for the space, perhaps, of a fortnight. When these separate prints, obtained at varying intervals, some of them perhaps a whole day apart, are run together continuously, the appearance is of a mighty stone building being pulled to pieces like a house of blocks.

Such eccentric pictures were in high demand a couple of years ago, but now the straight-story show is running them out. The plots are improving every year in dramatic technique. Manufacturing firms pay from $5 to $25 for good stories suitable for film presentation, and it is astonishes how many sound dramatic ideas are submitted by people of insufficient education to render their thoughts into English suitable for the legitimate stage.

The moving-picture actors are becoming excellent pantomimists, which is natural, for they cannot rely on the playwright’s lines to make their meanings. I remember particularly a performance I saw near Spring Street on the Bowery, where the pantomime seemed to me in nowise inferior to that of Mademoiselle Pilar-Morin, the French pantomimist.

The nickelodeon spectators readily distinguish between good and bad acting, though they do not mark their pleasure or displeasure audibly, except very rarely, in a comedy scenes by a suppressed giggle. During the excellent show of which I have spoken, the men, woman and children maintained steady stare of fascination at the changing figures on the scene, and toward the climax, when forgiveness was cruelly denied, lips were parted and eyes filled with tears. It was as much a tribute to the actors as the loudest bravos ever shouted in the Metropolitan Opera House.

To-day a consistent plot is demanded. There must be, as in the drama, exposition, development, climax and denouement. The most popular films run from fifteen to twenty minutes and are from five hundred to eight hundred feet long. One studio manager said: “The people want a story. We run to comics generally; they seem to take best. So-and-so, however, lean more to melodrama. When we started we used to give just flashes- an engine chasing to a fire, a base-runner sliding home, a charge of cavalry. Now, for instance, if we want to work in a horse race it has to be as a scene in the life of the jockey, who is the hero of the piece – we’ve got to give them a story; they won’t take anything else – a story with plenty of action. You can’t show large conversation, you know, on the screen. More story, larger story, better story with plenty of action- that is our tendency.”

………

Civilization, all through the history of mankind, has been chiefly the property of the upper classes, but during the past century civilization has been permeating steadily downward. The leaders of this democratic movement have been general education, universal suffrage, cheap periodicals and cheap travel. To-day the moving-picture machine cannot be overlooked as an effective protagonist of democracy. For through it the drama, always a big fact in the lives of the people at the top, is now becoming a big fact in the lives of the people at the bottom. Two million of them a day have so found a new interest in life.

The prosperous Westerners, who take their week or fortnight, fall and spring, in New York, pay two dollars and a half for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Broadway theatre. The stokers who have driven the Deutschland or the Lusitania from Europe pay five cents for a seat at a problem play, a melodrama, a comedy or a show-girl show in a Bowery nickelodeon. What in the difference?

The stokers, sitting on the hard, wooden chairs of the nickelodeon, experience the same emotional flux and counter-flux (more intense is their experience, for they are not as blase) as the prosperous Westerners in their red plush orchestra chairs, uptown.

The sentient life of the half-civilized beings at the bottom has been enlarged and altered, by the introduction of the dramatic motif, to resemble more closely the sentient life of the civilized beings at the top.

Take an analogous case. Is aimless travel “beneficial” or not? It is amusing, certainly; and, therefore, the aristocrats who could afford it have always traveled aimlessly. But now, says the Democratic Movement, the grand tour shall no longer be restricted to the aristocracy. Jump on the rural trolley-car, Mr. Workingman, and make a grand tour yourself. Don’t care, Mr. Workingman, whether it is “beneficial” or not. Do it because it is amusing; just as the aristocrats do.

The film makers cover the whole gamut of dramatic attractions. The extremes in the film world are as far apart as the extremes in the theatrical world- as far apart, let us say, as The Master Builder and The Gay White Way.

If you look up the moving-picture advertisements in any vaudeville trade paper you cannot help being struck with this fact. For instance, in a current number, one firm offers the following variety of attractions:

Romany’s Revenge (very dramatic) 300 feet
Johnny’s Run (comic kid chase) 300 ”
Roof to Cellar (absorbing comedy) 782 ”
Wizard’s World (fantastic comedy) 350 ”
Sailor’s Return (highly dramatic) 535 ”
A Mother’s Sin (beautiful, dramatic and moral) 392 ”
Knight Errant (old historical drama) 421 ”
Village Fire Brigade (big laugh) 325 ”
Catch the Kid (a scream) 270 ”
The Coroner’s Mistake (comic ghost story) 430 ”
Fatal Hand (dramatic) 432 “

Another firm advertises in huge type, in the trade papers:

LIFE AND PASSION OF CHRIST
Five Parts, Thirty-nine Pictures, 3114 feet Price, $373.78
Extra for coloring $125.10

The presentation by the picture machine of the Passion Play in this country was undertaken with considerable hesitation. The films had been shown in France to huge crowds, but here, so little were even professional students of American lower-class taste able to gauge it in advance, that the presenters feared the Passion Play might be boycotted, if not, indeed, indeed, in some places, mobbed. On the contrary, it has been the biggest success ever known to the business.

Last year incidents leading up to the murder of Stanford White were shown, succeeded enormously for a very few weeks, then flattened out completely and were withdrawn. Film people are as much at sea about what their crowds will like as the managers in the “legitimate.”

Although the gourdlike growth of the nickelodeon business as a factor in the conscious life of Americans is not yet appreciated, already a good many people are disturbed by what they do know of the thing.

Those who are “interested in the poor” are wondering whether the five-cent theatre is a good influence, and asking themselves gravely whether it should be encouraged or checked (with the help of the police).

Is the theatre a “good” or a “bad” influence? The adjectives don’t fit the case. Neither do they fit the case of the nickelodeon, which is merely the theatre demociatized.

Take the case of the Passion Play, for instance. Is it irreverent to portray the Passion, Crucifixion, Resurrection and Ascension in a vaudeville theatre over a darkened stage where half an hour before a couple of painted, short-skirted girls were doing a “sister-act”? What is the motive which draws crowds poor people to nickelodeons to see the Birth in the Manger flashed magic-lanternwise upon a white cloth? Curiosity? Mere mocking curiosity, perhaps? I cannot answer.

Neither could I say what it is that, every fifth year, draws our plutocrats to Oberammergau, where at the cost, from first to last, of thousands of dollars and days of time, they view a similar spectacle presented in a sunny Bavarian setting.

It is reasonable, however, to believe that the same feelings, whatever they are, which drew our rich to Oberammergau, draw our poor to the nickelodeons. Whether the powerful emotional reactions produced in the spectator by the Passion Play are “beneficial” or not is as far beyond decision as the question whether a man or an oyster is happier. The man is more, feels more, than the oyster. The beholder of the Passion Play is more, feels more, than the non-beholder.

Whether for weal or woe, humanity has ceaselessly striven to complicate life, to diversify and make subtle the emotions, to create and gratify the new and artificial spiritual wants, to know more and feel more both of good and evil, to attain a greater degree of self-consciousness; just as the one fundamental instinct of the youth, which most systems of education have been vainly organized to eradicate, is to find out what the man knows.

In this eternal struggle for more self-consciousness, the moving-picture machine, uncouth instrument though it be, has enlisted itself on especial behalf of the least enlightened, those who are below the reach even of the yellow journals. For although in the prosperous vaudeville houses the machine is but a toy, a “chaser,” in the nickelodeons it is the central, absorbing fact, which strengthens, widens, vivifies subjective life; which teaches living other than living through the senses alone. Already, perhaps, touching him at the psychological moment, it has awakened to his first, groping, necessary discontent the spirit of an artist of the future, who otherwise would have remained mute and motionless.

The nickelodeons are merely an extension course in civilization, teaching both its “badness” and its “goodness.” They have come in obedience to the law of supply and demand; and they will stay as long as the slums stay, for in the slums they are the fittest and must survive.

Comments: Joseph Medill Patterson (1879-1946) was an American journalist and newspaper publisher, founder of the New York Daily News. Nickelodeons (a nickname given in America to the shop-conversions that preceded purpose-built cinemas) came to the interest on general newspapers and magazines in 1907. The illustrations come from the original publication.

Links:
Copy at Hathi Trust
Transcribed copy at The Silent Bookshelf (archived site)

The Lawless Roads

Source: Graham Greene, The Lawless Roads: A Mexican Journey (London: Longmans & Co., 1939), p. 77

Text: I went my first night to Fritz Lang’s Liliom, a naïve and rather moving film of heartlessness on earth and repentance in heaven. The audience were more interesting than the film; they accepted the sentiment just as any European audience would have done, but when the two messengers from God – dressed in sinister seedy clerical black – appeared beside the body and lifted Liliom’s soul between them into the sky, legs trailing like stuffed dolls through the firmament, they hooted and cat-called. Many got up and went out: they were not going to have anything to do with heaven or hell; only later, when that they found out that heaven was to be treated with whimsicality and a touch of farce, did they settle down into their seats. When I came out the streets were dark, and the air at seven thousand feet felt cold and thin and lifeless.

Comments: Graham Greene (1904-1991) was a British novelist, many of whose works were filmed and who was a notable film critic in the 1930s. The Lawless Roads is an account of his visit to Mexico in 1938. Liliom (USA 1934) was based on the play by Ferenc Molnár about a fairground barker who commits suicide after taking part in a robbery. He is sent to Purgatory and then returned to earth to perform one good deed.

The Legion of Decency

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

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

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

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

[…]

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

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

Links: Full article at The Toast

Benares, the Stronghold of Hinduism

Man swallowing rat, from National Media Museum collection

Source: C.[harles] Phillips Cape, Benares, the Stronghold of Hinduism (Boston: R.G. Badger, 1910), pp. 209-210

Text: A night or two after our arrival, a magic-lantern entertainment was given outside the tent. It can hardly be called a lantern service, as some of the slides had a secular tendency. When the well-known moving picture of the rat-swallowing sleeper appeared on the sheet, the evangelist, thinking it must have a moral, explained to the wondering audience that this was the fruit of drunkenness.

But on another night, when this same slide was shown for the amusement of the children, one of our younger preachers informed the listeners that the swallower of rats was a victim of the opium habit! All the slides were not of this nature, for we followed with ‘Probable Sons,’ ‘The Pilgrim’s Progress,’ and finished with some scenes in the life of our Lord, which seemed to impress the people deeply. We thought we had been generous enough in allowing all to come without charge or collection, and were not a little surprised by a man asking next day how much we would give him if he attended the entertainment!

Comments: Charles Phillips Cape (1874-?) was a British Christian missionary. His book on Hindusim and Benares (now Varansi) is a mixture of missionary endeavour and travel writing. The incident described took place in a village outside the city. The set of images showing a sleeping man appearing to swallow a rat was one of the most popular of all magic lantern slide sets.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 97-99

Text: AGE: 30 SEX: F
OCCUPATION: CLERK NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: COMMERCIAL TRAVELLER
MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HOUSEWIFE

I started film-going at the early age of eight and adored Bebe Daniels from then, until now; custard pies, Keystone Police, and most of all, the Western films of silent days! I went always with my Grandmother, and, although we could afford the better seats, always had on account of her sight, to sit well to the front among the whistling stamping orange-eating patrons a thing which has made me dislike and despise the smelly poor for all time. I adored the noisy out of tune piano, and always tried to emulate the noisy thumping that passed as musical accompaniment, never having patience to practice scales and my ‘show-piece’ Mignosiette(?) as I should have done so to this day I only play by ear. I fell in love with Ken Maynard a dark rather saturnine man who rode a beautiful white horse, and collected everything I could find printed about him, begged his show posters, and treasured every picture I found of him anywhere. At twelve I wondered what sort of films they were that I was never allowed to see, and played truant from school one afternoon with another small and curious-minded friend to see my first ‘sex’ film. It was of the trials and temptations of a rather blowsy continental actress, and puzzled us for weeks, setting us wondering about things we had never before bothered about. Did men kiss women like that, and did babies come unwanted, from such episodes and behaviour? So my curiosity aroused, from Ken Maynard at eight I sneaked off at twelve now unescorted to see all the extravagant and unreal epics of sex and high living I could find. Did it do me any harm? Yes – I’m afraid so. Children should never be allowed to see at such an early age, the ugly side of life and I have only myself to blame. When I am asked to ‘take me in lady, its an “A” film’ my refusal is always firm. Now boys seemed tame who couldn’t hug and kiss like the exaggerated figures on the screen, and being silent films, I always imagined the dialogue to be more fiery than any the censor would pass. The Hunchback of Notre Dame frightened me to death and to this day I hate the shudder that passes through me at the sight of an ugly or deformed person. Frankenstein kept me awake at night and gave me nerves. The fresh notes Al Jolson sang filled me with wonder, and with these musicals the morbid faded from my film-going entertainment, both horror and sex. There wasn’t time to think about exotic love-making or blood-drinking vampires when you could hear clever people singing see dancing more wonderful than you ever imagined, and above all listen to all these wonderful people talking! Yes, talkies and above all musicals, cleared the air for me! Films with a story were now clever and interesting, and what if I did try to look like Joan Crawford – I tried to look like Norma Shearer too – so it all balanced itself out. Anyway I was often better dressed than before (I am now in my teens), and my hair looked more cared for and more attractively arranged. Films definitely did make me more receptive to love-making and I expected it to be a more experienced job than I would have done had I not seen on the films how love should be made! Leslie Howard made love kindly, Clark Gable was tough and a go-getter, Gary Grant gay but rather dangerous, Ronald Colman ministerial, Errol Flynn impossibly venturesome and Bob Montgomery the ideal gentleman etc. etc. etc. I looked for all these qualities in my friends and measured them up by it. Once I fell in love desperately with a man who was the absolute double of Gary Grant. He wanted me to elope and although everyone warned me against him – I nearly did so – blinded with the glamour of his likeness to the screen star. Luckily my father found out a week before they arrested him as an embezzler so that was that! Films where the heroine is poor but beautiful, have come by wealth and adventure by choosing the primrose path in life have always in a submerged urge sort of way tempted and fascinated me. The situation has never risen in my life – but the outlook on it is there. I have always had great ambition – fed by films – to be a journalist. I don’t suppose that it is much like its prototype in N. York or the idea we get of it on the screen, but how I’d love to find out. I’ve wanted to travel, yes, but not so much the world as to cross America from N. York to the Pacific Coast, in one of those stream-lined buses, seeing the towns and villages en route and meeting the people who live in them. I’d like to see Honolulu too, even though they tell me most of the natives have tuberculosis. This all reads as if films have made me very pro-American, and I’m afraid that is so. I am not dissatisfied with home life or environment, one meets the same class of people in every station of life, in any country. Suburban life here is dull, but so would it be in New England, as in London or New York one would find a more mixed and bohemian crowd. By saying that I mean I have no urge to roam, through film-going, and to travel the world is, more or less, the ambition of everyone who uses the brains they were endowed with. British films have never in all my life, made the slightest impression on me. They are dull, ugly and uninspired – generally a stage success filmed because it was that or a poorly produced musical. There are very few real British film stars, and those stars of the stage who grace the screen at intervals are too old to photograph well, poor dears. The inanities of George Formby leave me cold, the American sense of humour I adore. I once studied Christian Science because Mary Pickford believed in it, I truly believe in the survival of souls, since I saw Topper takes a trip. Bing Crosby singing ‘Holy Night’ gives me more religious uplift than all the dull sermons of our snobbish Vicar, and I’d rather hear Jimmy Durante’s croak than Barbara Mullens silly little squeaking whisper. The greatest thing that has come out of my film-going was the ability it gave me to understand and see the viewpoint of the men from America who came here to fight with us. It also gave me an earlier understanding of the facts of life than I would have had, and made me dissatisfied and impatient with the inferior in entertainment. Not – at thirty – I choose my film going carefully, never just ‘go to the pictures’ and whether it is Carmen Miranda or Bette Davis, Micky Rooney or Humphrey Bogart, Walter Disney or Shakespeare. I am a discriminating picturegoer. From custard pies to Orson Welles is a long way, but it has been a happy and worthwhile journey.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘Films and the Pattern of Life’. Contributors were asked to trace the history of their interest in films, the influence films had on them (including if they were ever frightened by films), what they imitated from films, if films made them more receptive to love-making, if films made them want to travel or to be dissatisfied with their way of life or neighbourhood, and if films gave them vocational ambitions. Topper Takes a Trip (USA 1938) is a comedy about a ghost.

Mexico: the Wonderland of the South

Source: W.E. Carson, Mexico: The Wonderland of the South (New York: Macmillan, 1914 – orig. pub. 1909), pp. 139-140

Text: Being 7091 feet above sea-level, — somewhat lower than the capital, — Puebla is a little more removed from the “northers,” but when one is blowing, the temperature at night is far from tropical. When I reached the city, the day was as warm‘as a fine June day in New York; but when the sun went down there was a sudden change to November, and a good blazing fire would have been a welcome addition to the comforts of my hotel. To while away the time, I went to a cinematograph show, but the cold pursued me even there. In order to ward off chills and pneumonia, I had to wear my overcoat in the hall, and even then I was unable to sit through the performance without going out now and then to get a hot drink. The Indians in the audience wrapped their blankets tightly about them and sat watching the pictures, grimly defying the cold. It was Christmas week, and a large number of these swarthy natives had come in from the country to do their marketing and see the sights. I witnessed an amusing example of their superstition.

An Indian family sat in front of me, and it was evident that they were seeing a cinematograph show for the first time. The worthy peon, his wife and children, seemed bewildered with amazement, and frequently crossed themselves. At last some French colored pictures were flashed on the screen. The figure of a magician appeared, looking very much like Mephistopheles, and in front of him was a pumpkin. This he touched with his wand, and immediately it was transformed into six sprightly ballet girls. After several transformations the wizard touched the figures, which disappeared in a cloud of smoke and flame. This was too much for the Indians. The man rose, muttering “Diablo, magio, no mas, no mas” (the Devil, magic; no more, no more), crossed himself repeatedly and, followed by his wife and family, all apparently very much terrified, hurried from the hall. It is safe to say that these Indians had a horrible story to tell their padre when they went to confession the next Sunday.

Comments: The writer was American and his full name was William English Carson, but I have found no further information about him. The coloured films would either have been hand-painted or used a stencil colouring process.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

In the South Seas

Source: Robert Louis Stevenson, In the South Seas: Being an Account of Experiences and Observations in the Marquesas, Paumotus and Gilbert Islands in the Course of Two Cruises on the Yacht ‘Casco’ (1886) and the Schooner ‘Equator’ (1889) (New York: Scribner’s Sons, 1896), pp. 277-279

Text: Saturday, July 27. – We had announced a performance of the magic lantern to-night in church; and this brought the king to visit us. In honor of the Black Douglas (I suppose) his usual two guardsmen were now increased to four; and the squad made an outlandish figure as they straggled after him, in straw hats, kilts and jackets. Three carried their arms reversed, the butts over their shoulders, the muzzles menacing the king’s plumb back; the fourth had passed his weapon behind his neck, and held it there with arms extended like a backboard. The visit was extraordinarily long. The king, no longer galvanized with gin, said and did nothing. He sat collapsed in a chair and let a cigar go out. It was hot, it was sleepy, it was cruel dull; there was no resource but to spy in the countenance of Tebureimoa for some remaining trait of Mr. Corpse the butcher. His hawk nose, crudely depressed and flattened at the point, did truly seem to us to smell of midnight murder. When he took his leave, Maka bade me observe him going down the stair (or rather ladder) from the verandah. ‘Old man,’ said Maka. ‘Yes,’ said I, ‘and yet I supposed not old man.’ ‘Young man,’ returned Maka, ‘perhaps fo’ty.’ And I have heard since he is most likely younger.

While the magic lantern was showing, I skulked without in the dark. The voice of Maka, excitedly explaining the Scripture slides, seemed to fill not the church only, but the neighborhood. All else was silent. Presently a distant sound of singing arose and approached; and a procession drew near along the road, the hot clean smell of the men and women striking in my face delightfully. At the corner, arrested by the voice of Maka and the lightening and darkening of the church, they paused. They had no mind to go nearer, that was plain. They were Makin people, I believe, probably staunch heathens, contemners of the missionary and his works. Of a sudden, however, a man broke from their company, took to his heels, and fled into the church; next moment three had followed him; the next it was a covey of near upon a score, all pelting for their lives. So the little band of heathen paused irresolute at the corner, and melted before the attractions of a magic lantern, like a glacier in spring. The more staunch vainly taunted the deserters; three fled in a guilty silence, but still fled; and when at length the leader found the wit or authority to get his troop in motion and revive the singing, it was with much diminished forces that they passed musically on up the dark road.

Meanwhile inside the luminous pictures brightened and faded. I stood for some while unobserved in the rear of the spectators, when I could hear just in front of me a pair of lovers following the show with interest, the male playing the part of interpreter (like Adam) mingling caresses with his lecture. The wild animals, a tiger in particular, and that old school-treat favourite, the sleeper and the mouse, were hailed with joy; but the chief marvel and delight was in the gospel series. Maka, in the opinion of his aggrieved wife, did not properly rise to the occasion. ‘What is the matter with the man? Why can’t he talk?’, she cried. The matter with the man, I think, was the greatness of the opportunity; he reeled under his good fortune; and whether he did ill or well, the exposure of these pious ‘phantoms’ did as a matter of fact silence in all that part of the island the voice of the scoffer. ‘Why then,’ the word went round. ‘why then, the Bible is true!’

And on our return afterwards we were told the impression was lively, and those who had seen might be heard telling those who had not, ‘O yes, it is all true; these things all happened, we have seen the pictures.’ The argument is not so childish as it seems; for I doubt if these islanders are acquainted with any other mode of representation but photography; so that the picture of an even (on the old melodrama principle that ‘the camera cannot lie, Joseph,’) would appear strong proof of its occurrence. The fact amused us the more because our slides were some of them ludicrously silly, and one (Christ before Pilate) was received with shouts of merriment, in which even Maka was constrained to join.

Comments: Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894) was a Scottish novelist and travel writer. In the South Seas is a posthumously-published accounts of two cruises through the Pacific Ocean visiting the Hawaiian islands, the Gilbert Islands, Tahiti, New Zealand and the Samoan Islands. This passage relates to his second cruise and his visit to the Gilbert Islands in 1889. My grateful thanks to Artemis Willis for bringing this text to my attention.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Autobiography of a Yogi

Source: Paramahansa Yogananda, Autobiography of a Yogi (New York: The Philosophical Library, 1946)

Text: The motion picture art can portray any miracle. From the impressive visual standpoint, no marvel is barred to trick photography. A man’s transparent astral body can be seen rising from his gross physical form, he can walk on the water, resurrect the dead, reverse the natural sequence of developments, and play havoc with time and space. Assembling the light images as he pleases, the photographer achieves optical wonders which a true master produces with actual light rays.

The lifelike images of the motion picture illustrate many truths concerning creation. The Cosmic Director has written His own plays, and assembled the tremendous casts for the pageant of the centuries. From the dark booth of eternity, He pours His creative beam through the films of successive ages, and the pictures are thrown on the screen of space. Just as the motion-picture images appear to be real, but are only combinations of light and shade, so is the universal variety a delusive seeming. The planetary spheres, with their countless forms of life, are naught but figures in a cosmic motion picture, temporarily true to five sense perceptions as the scenes are cast on the screen of man’s consciousness by the infinite creative beam.

A cinema audience can look up and see that all screen images are appearing through the instrumentality of one imageless beam of light. The colorful universal drama is similarly issuing from the single white light of a Cosmic Source. With inconceivable ingenuity God is staging an entertainment for His human children, making them actors as well as audience in His planetary theater.

One day I entered a motion picture house to view a newsreel of the European battlefields. World War I was still being waged in the West; the newsreel recorded the carnage with such realism that I left the theater with a troubled heart.

“Lord,” I prayed, “why dost Thou permit such suffering?”

To my intense surprise, an instant answer came in the form of a vision of the actual European battlefields. The horror of the struggle, filled with the dead and dying, far surpassed in ferocity any representation of the newsreel.

“Look intently!” A gentle voice spoke to my inner consciousness. “You will see that these scenes now being enacted in France are nothing but a play of chiaroscuro. They are the cosmic motion picture, as real and as unreal as the theater newsreel you have just seen – a play within a play.”

My heart was still not comforted. The divine voice went on: “Creation is light and shadow both, else no picture is possible. The good and evil of maya must ever alternate in supremacy. If joy were ceaseless here in this world, would man ever seek another? Without suffering he scarcely cares to recall that he has forsaken his eternal home. Pain is a prod to remembrance. The way of escape is through wisdom! The tragedy of death is unreal; those who shudder at it are like an ignorant actor who dies of fright on the stage when nothing more is fired at him than a blank cartridge. My sons are the children of light; they will not sleep forever in delusion.”

Although I had read scriptural accounts of maya, they had not given me the deep insight that came with the personal visions and their accompanying words of consolation. One’s values are profoundly changed when he is finally convinced that creation is only a vast motion picture, and that not in it, but beyond it, lies his own reality.

Comments: Paramahansa Yogananda (1893-1952) was an Indian guru, renowned for his 1946 book Autobiography of a Yogi through which he spread the idea of yoga and meditation worldwide. This distinctive memory of cinemagoing comes from the First World War period, when he was living in India. Maya means ‘cosmic delusion.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

The Picturegoers

Source: David Lodge, The Picturegoers (London: Penguin, 1993 [orig. pub. 1960]), pp. 18-20

The Picturegoers (from Wikipedia) Text: ‘Take us in, Mister?’

The question startled him.

‘I beg your pardon?’ he said politely, and peered down through his spectacles at the group of rough dirty children who surrounded him.

‘G’orn, guv, take’s in.’

Father Kipling smiled uncertainly, and decided on an I’m-in-the-same-boat-as-you-fellows approach.

‘Well, really, you know, I don’t think that I can afford it.’ Things had come to a pretty pass when children begged unashamedly on the streets for money to indulge in luxuries such as the cinema. He glanced meaningfully at his companions, and began to explain.

‘We don’t want you to pay for us, Mister. We just want you to take us in.’

‘Jus’ say we’re wiv yer,’ backed up another.

”Ere’s the money, Guv.’ A grimy, shrivelled paw held up some silver coins.

‘But why?’ asked Father Kipling, bewildered.

The leader took a deep breath.

‘Well yer see, Mister, it’s an “A” and you can’t get into an “A”….’

Father Kipling listened carefully to the explanation. At the end of it he said:

‘The really, you’re not allowed to see this film unless accompanied by a parent or guardian?’

‘That’s right, Mister.’

‘Well then, I’m afraid I can’t help you, because I’m certainly not your parent, and I can’t honestly say I’m your guardian. Can I now?’ He smiled nervously at the chief urchin, who turned away in disgust, and formed up his entourage to petition another cinema-goer. Father Kipling stared after them for a moment, the hurriedly made good his escape.

Inside the foyer he was faced with a difficult decision: the choice of seats. The prices all seemed excessively high, and he was conscious of a certain moral obligation to go in the cheapest. On the other hand, this was a rare, if not unique occasion, and as he had few enough treats, he was perhaps entitled to indulge himself to the extent of a comfortable seat. He couldn’t choose the middle price, because there were four. As he hesitated he caught the eye of the commissionaire staring at him, and he hastily purchased a ticket for the second most expensive seat.

For the next few minutes he seemed to be in the grip of a nightmare. When the young woman at the swing door had rudely snatched the ticket from his hand, and just as rudely thrust a severed portion of it back again, he was propelled into a pit of almost total darkness and stifling heat. A torch was shone on his ticket, and a listless voice intoned:

‘Over to your left.’

In the far recesses of the place another torch flickered like a distant lighthouse, and he set out towards it. When he couldn’t see it he stopped; then it would flicker impatiently again, and he would set off once more. Beneath his feet he crunched what appeared to be seashells; he gasped in an atmosphere reeking of tobacco and human perspiration. Dominating all, the screen boomed and shifted. At last he reached the young woman with the torch. But his ordeal was not over. She indicated a seat in the middle of a full row. The gesture was treacherously familiar. Horror of horrors! He had genuflected! The usherette stared. Blushing furiously he forced his way into the row, stumbled, panicked, threshed, kicked his way to the empty seat, leaving a trail of execration and protest in his wake. He wanted to die, to melt away. Never again would he come to the cinema. Never again.

Comments: David Lodge (born 1935) is a British novelist and academic, who often writes on Roman Catholic themes. The Picturegoers is his first novel. The novel follows the visits to a London cinema in the late 1950s of a group of characters, using their thoughts and experiences to comment on religion and a changing society, reflected in the decline of cinema itself. Father Kipling has gone to the cinema under the misapprehension that he is to see The Song of Bernadette. Children asking adults to accompany them into the cinema so that they could see ‘A’ certificate films was a common activity in the 1950s.

Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa

Source: David Livingstone, Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. Including a sketch of sixteen years’ residence in the interior of Africa, and a journey from the Cape of Good Hope to Loanda on the west coast; thence across the continent, down the river Zambesi, to the eastern ocean (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1898), pp. 322-323

Text: Shinte was most anxious to see the pictures of the magic lantern; but fever had so weakening an effect, and I had such violent action of the heart, with buzzing in the ears, that I could not go for several days; when I did go for the purpose, he had his principal men and the same crowd of court beauties near him as at the reception. The first picture exhibited was Abraham about to slaughter his son Isaac; it was shown as large as life, and the uplifted knife was in the act of striking the lad; the Balonda men remarked that the picture was much more like a god than the things of wood or clay they worshiped. I explained that this man was the first of a race to whom God had given the Bible we now held, and that among his children our Savior appeared. The ladies listened with silent awe; but, when I moved the slide, the uplifted dagger moving toward them, they thought it was to be sheathed in their bodies instead of Isaac’s. “Mother! mother!” all shouted at once, and off they rushed helter-skelter, tumbling pell-mell over each other, and over the little idol-huts and tobacco-bushes: we could not get one of them back again. Shinte, however, sat bravely through the whole, and afterward examined the instrument with interest. An explanation was always added after each time of showing its powers, so that no one should imagine there was aught supernatural in it; and had Mr. Murray, who kindly brought it from England, seen its popularity among both Makololo and Balonda, he would have been gratified with the direction his generosity then took. It was the only mode of instruction I was ever pressed to repeat. The people came long distances for the express purpose of seeing the objects and hearing the explanations.

Comments: David Livingstone (1813-1873) was a Scottish missionary and explorer of Africa. Livingstone took a magic lantern with him on his transcontinental journey across Africa, 1852-56. On his return to Britain he became famous following the publication of his Missionary Travels and Researches in South Africa. This account records a magic lantern show late January 1854 in the upper Zambezi area. Shinte was chief of the Balonda people. This entry has been classified under Zambia, but in 1854 there was no country with national borders.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive (American edition)