The Cinema in the Arena

Source: Extract from Joseph Roth (trans. Michael Hofmann), ‘The Cinema in the Arena’, in Report from a Parisian Paradise: Essays from France 1925-1939 (New York: W.W. Norton, 2004), pp. 38-40. Originally published in German in Frankfurter Zeitung, 12 September 1925

Text: The arena of Nîmes holds celebrated bullfights some afternoons, but in the evenings it houses a cinema, which is a rather more cultured thing than a bullfight. Currently. it is playing The Ten Commandments, that great American film that has already been shown in Germany. In the evening I take myself to the arena.

You have to hope it will stay dry, and in Nîmes the chances of that are good. It rains very rarely here, and never for long. The stones cool off in the evening. A couple of arc lamps light up half the arena. The other half is left in shade. The ghostly white forms of the huge crumbling blocks of stone loom up out of it. They have already been through so much, these stones. In the Middle Ages, two hundred families lived in the walls of the arena and built a church (in one of the spacious arches). In wartime the arena became a fortress. It survived the changing epochs, and time and again was emblematic of its era. Now, in 1925, it is no longer a church but a cinema, admittedly a cinema showing The Ten Commandments. At a time when these commandments are not much obeyed, that’s already saying something.

In the middle of the arena there’s the screen, like a white board in a classroom. In the archway opposite, the projector is purring away. The orchestra sits in front of the screen. The members of the audience (for fifty centimes) are free to wander about on the upper and lower stone seats. Some, who prefer to be cool and lofty, stand on the top edge of the wall, black against the blue sky. It’s a most marvelous cinema, cool, clean, without any danger of fire, and much more magnificent than a cinema has any need to be. If any Americans happen by, then surely by next year they’ll have put up a big concrete bowl, the largest in the world, with velvet trim, water closets, and glass roof.

Before the show the children play catch behind the screen, and hide-and-seek, and grandmother’s footsteps. All the children of Nîmes – and the people here have many children – go to the cinema. The mothers don’t forget to bring their infants. The youngest visitors are admitted free, though admittedly they don’t see anything but lie on their backs under the night sky, with open mouths as though to swallow the stars.

It seems almost feasible. Hereabouts the night sky is very open-handed with shooting stars. They fall not in an are, as they do in the North, but sideways, as if the heavens were rotating. There are several kinds of shooting stars. While the sentimental, ocean-diluted Bible is being shown on screen, the best thing to do is watch the shooting stars. Some are large, red, and lumpy. They slowly wipe across the sky, as though they were strolling, and leave a thin, bloody trail. Others again are small, swift, and silver. They fly like bullets. Others glow like little running suns and brighten the horizon considerably for quite some time.

Sometimes it’s as though the heavens opened and showed us a glimpse of red-gold lining. Then the split quickly closes, and the majesty is once more hidden for good.

From time to time a large, shooting star falls quite close. Then it’s like a silver rain. Each one vanishes in the same direction. Then the apparent quiet is restored to the deep blue, that everlasting fixity of the stars, of which we still manage to feel that they move, even if we didn’t know it.

There they are again, the old familiar constellations that remind everyone of childhood, because it was only as a child that one gazed at them so raptly. They are everywhere. There you are, so remote from your childhood, and yet you meet it again. That’s how small the world is.

And if you think some of it is foreign, you’re mistaken. Everywhere is home. The Great Bear is a little nearer, that’s all.

It was a good idea to put on a film in the old Roman arena. In such a cinema you come to comforting conclusions, as long as you look at the sky, rather than the screen.

Comments: Joseph Roth (1894-1939) was an Austrian journalist and novelist, best known for his novel Radetzky March. The Arena of Nîmes is a Roman amphitheatre built around AD 70 and is used today for public events, including concerts. The film mentioned is The Ten Commandments (USA 1923), directed by Cecil B. DeMille.

Yesterday’s Sunshine

Source: Verne Morgan, Yesterday’s Sunshine: Reminiscences of an Edwardian Childhood (Folkestone: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen, 1974), pp. 122-126

Text: The Moving Pictures, as we called them, first came to Bromley when I was about seven. They made their début at the Central Hall, and the performances took place on Friday nights. There were two houses, one at five o’clock for the children and one at seven for the grown-ups. The programmes lasted approximately one hour, and consisted of a succession of short films. Indeed some of them would last no longer than three or four minutes and there would be an appreciable wait in between while the man in the box got busy threading the next reel.

The Central Hall was a vast place with a huge gallery encircling it. It was used mostly for political meetings and the like, and quite often a band concert would be held there too. But it also had a pronounced ecclesiastical leaning and the man who owned it belonged in some way to the church and was avidly religious. He was an elderly man and wore pince-nez spectacles to which were attached a long black cord. He was a man of extremely good intentions and loved to stand upon the platform making long speeches spouting about them. Unfortunately, he had the most dreadful impediment and it was quite impossible to understand a word he said. But I well remember the enthusiastic claps he got when he eventually sat down, not because we had appreciated what he said so much as the fact that he had at last finished. The film programme could then begin.

The operating box was a temporary affair, and was perched up at the rear of the gallery. I used to get a seat as close to it as possible so that I could see how it was all done. The lighting was effected by a stick of black carbon, about the size of a piece of chalk, which lit up the small box with a brilliant blueish-white light and had a blinding effect if you looked right at it. Occasionally it would burn low and the operator would push it up a bit; this would be reflected by the density of light on the screen. The screen itself was also of a temporary nature, it was in fact little more than a large white sheet weighted at the bottom to keep it taut. Any movement close to it would cause it to wobble, and the picture would go a little peculiar. We were not critical of such minor details. The very fact that the picture moved was enough to satisfy us.

As each small reel was finished the operator would place it outside for re-winding, his box being of limited dimensions. On account of this I was able to study the technique as to how the pictures appeared to move. It was so simple I could hardly believe it. I told my Brother about it; I told my Mother about it; I told lots of people about it. But no one believed me. So, to prove myself right, I set about editing a film on my own account. I drew a succession of pictures in pencil on the bottom of a hymn book in church. Each one was just that little bit different, so that when the pages were flicked over the overall picture appeared to move. This technique, in ‘flicker’ form, has, of course, been used in many ways since then, but at the time it was entirely my own idea, and I was middling proud of it. I can’t say that anybody was particularly impressed, but at the time it thrilled me beyond description. In due course I pictorialised all the hymn books I could lay my hands on, during the sermon and other breaks in the church service. They consisted mostly of football matches with someone scoring a goal. Or it might be a boxing match with someone getting knocked out. Or an exciting race with a hectically close finish. Anything that inspired my sporting instincts was in course of time recorded in the hymn books of St. Luke’s Church, Bromley. I have often wondered since what the effect must have been on the boy who eventually took my seat in the choir pew when he found what he had inherited. I can only hope that he had as much enjoyment out of watching animated pictures as I had got out of drawing them.

The Central Hall was situated close to the top of Bromley Hill, nearly three miles from where we lived. It was a long walk for small legs, and there was no public transport at that time. Yet, whatever the weather, we never missed. Every Friday, shortly after school hours, a swarm of happy-faced youngsters were to be seen all heading in the same direction. The Central Hall had become the centre of a new culture. But, as yet, only the school kids had caught on to it.

Then quite suddenly, the Grand Theatre in Bromley High Street, which up till then had housed nothing more spectacular than stage dramas of the “Maria Marten” and “Sweeney Todd” kind, put up the shutters and announced that in future Moving Pictures would take over. They would be put on once nightly with a full programme of films. A new firm moved in calling itself Jury’s. The old Grand was given a face-lift and transformed into a picture house.

This was revolutionary indeed.

The grown-ups were sceptical. But the programmes were of a higher standard than those at the Central Hall, and would sometimes have a two-reeler as the star attraction. The films began to take on a more realistic angle, with interesting stories, love scenes, cowboys and Indians, exciting battles and lots of gooey pathos.

People began to go.

When they announced a showing of the famous story “Quo Vadis” in seven reels, all Bromley turned out to see it. Even my father condescended, and grumbled volubly because he had to “line up” to get it (the word “queue” had not yet come into circulation).

It was the beginning of a new era. Very soon a place was built in the High Street, calling itself a cinema. Moving pictures were firmly on the map, and shortly to be called films. We watched with astonishment as the new building reached completion and gave itself the high-flown title of “The Palaise [sic] de luxe”.

Most of us pronounced it as it was spelt, “The Palace de lux”, but my cousin Daisy, who was seventeen and having French lessons twice a week, pronounced it the “Palyay dee Loo”. And she twisted her mouth into all sorts of shapes when she said it.

That being as it may, the Palaise de Luxe put on programmes that pulled in the crowds from far and near, and it wasn’t long before they engaged a pianist to play the piano while the films were in progress. I remember him well. A portly gentleman who hitherto had earned a precarious living playing in local pubs. He soon got into his stride and began to adapt his choice of music to the particular film that was being shown. If it was a comedy he would play something like “The Irish Washerwoman”; if it was something sad, he would rattle off a popular number of the day like, “If your heart should ache awhile never mind”, and if it was a military scene, he would strike up a well-known march. The classic example came when a religious film was presented and we saw Christ walking on the water. He immediately struck up a few bards of “A life on the ocean wave”.

Later on, all cinemas worthy of the name included a small orchestra to accompany the films, and in due course, a complete score of suitable music would be sent with the main feature film so as to give the right effect at the right moment.

The Palaise de Luxe was indeed a palace as far as we were concerned. We sat in plush tip-up seats and there were two programmes a night. Further, you could walk in any old time and leave when you felt like it. Which meant, of course, that you could, if you so desired, be in at the start and watch the programme twice through (which many of us did and suffered a tanning for getting home late). It was warm and cosy, and there was a small upper circle for those who didn’t wish to mix!

The projector was discreetly hidden away behind the back wall up in the circle, and no longer could you see the man turning the handle. We became conscious for the first time of the strong beam of light that extended from the operating box to the screen. It was all so fascinating and mysterious. The screen, too, was no longer a piece of white material hanging from the ceiling, it was built into the wall, or so it appeared, and it was solid, so that no amount of movement could make it wobble.

It quickly became the custom to visit the cinema once a week. It was the “in” thing, or as we said in those days, it was “all the rage”.

We learnt to discriminate. My Brother and I became infatuated with a funny little man who was just that bit different from the others. His tomfoolery had a “soul” we decided, and whereas we smiled and tittered at the others comics, we roared our heads off with laughter whenever this one came on the screen. We went to a great deal of trouble to find out who he was, for names were not very often given in the early days.

“He’s called Charlie Chaplin”, the manager of the cinema told us, a little surprised no doubt that one so young could be all that interested.

Comment: Verne Morgan lived in Kent, and became a writer of pantomimes and theatre sketches. Palais de Luxe cinemas were a chain, run by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. Jury’s Imperial Pictures was a producer and distributor, must did not manage cinemas. The period described is the early to mid-1910s: the Italian film Quo Vadis was made in 1913 and Chaplin’s first films were released in 1914. The mention of a piano player being introduced suggests that the earlier screenings had been watched without musical accompaniment.

Gone to the Pictures

Source: Hilda Lewis, Gone to the Pictures (London: Jarrolds, 1946), pp. 23-27

Text: Suddenly Lena stopped. Here was another of those blacked-in shops like the one opposite Mr. Dicks. The window was pasted all over with bills; but they were so dirty and dilapidated, it was impossible to read what they said. A dark and dirty boy was standing and yelling, All the latest … all the lat-est! Every time he bawled late he gave the open door of the shop a thwack with his stick. When he caught sight of Lena and me he changed his tune, bawling out that there was No waiting – ebserlootly no waiting … ending with an invitation to Walk in, walk in. …

We walked in.

It was very dark inside the shop and the smell was horrid. If it had not been for Lena, in spite of all my joyous anticipation I believe I should have turned tail – especially as we had not yet paid.

I stopped at the front row, but Lena said you could see better at the back so we pushed our way through the darkness, stumbling here and there over people’s outstretched legs and finally sat down on two rickety kitchen chairs.

“We haven’t paid yet,” I reminded Lena.

“Don’t you worry” she said, “they’re not here for love!”

In front of us, against the blacked-in window, hung a small greyish sheet on rollers, like a blank and crumpled map. “You keep your eyes on that!” Lena said.

I kept my eyes on that, and since nothing seemed to happen, or even to be about to happen, I looked about the dark shop. I could make out the shapes of people sitting here and there, with sometimes as much as an empty row of chairs between them.

We seemed to be sitting there a long, long time. My chair got harder and harder.

“They say continuous,’ I said fretfully. “It hasn’t begun yet, let alone continue. …”

“Got to wait till it fulls a bit,” Lena said cheerfully and diving into her handbag she produced a twisted paper of fruit-drops. I amused myself by trying to recognize the flavours on my tongue. I recognized lemon, orange, blackcurrant and possibly greengage, and then my palate being somewhat jaded, I turned my attention once more to my surroundings.

“Why don’t they light the gas?” I was bored with the darkness.

“Film might catch fire.” Lena explained.

“Oh,” I said. “Then why do people smoke?” I was coughing a little.

“Not supposed to,” Lena informed me.

“Oh,” I said.

“Shan’t be long now,” she promised after what seemed hours. “Going to collect now.”

The dingy curtain that hung in front of the open door was pushed aside by a man carrying an open cigar-box. He shoved his way through the now-full rows and the fall of clanking coppers went with him.

He retired. And with his retiring came silence. For as though it were a signal, a ray of silver light fell upon the hanging sheet.

I sat there forgetting to breathe, forgetting to finish the sweet that lay unheeded upon my tongue. I sat entranced. I remember how I kept saying to myself, I don’t believe it!

And all the time upon the silver screen people ran and walked and laughed and cried.

Living Pictures. Alive.

I remember every incident of that day. Even now, as I write, if I choose to shut my eyes and send my thoughts backwards, I am again that child sitting in the darkness of Cohen’s shop; and I see every shot in my first living pictures.

The first film is very sad. An old man lies in bed and he is very ill. The room is almost bare except for the bed and a chair and there is no doubt at all that he is very poor. An old lady who is presumably his wife goes to the cupboard and opens it. Empty. Nothing but bare boards. She wrings her hands. She points to the old man. The tears run down her thin old cheeks.

It is all terribly sad. The blurring of the screen is not entirely due to bad projection.

But stay. All is not lost! In the depths of her apron pocket the old lady finds a few coppers. Now she is going out. She is in the street.

It is, I think, a French street. Now the old lady is in the market. She is buying flowers. Why on earth flowers when there isn’t a thing to eat?

Oh, clever! She is going to sell them!

She stands at the corner of the street holding out her flowers. No one will buy them. No one will even stop to look at them. It is a cold day. People hurry by in their good boots, or in their handsome carriages. The old lady in her thin shawl shivers on the pavement.

It begins to rain. The pavements grow greasy. The old lady goes on holding out her bunches; the flowers are beginning to look bedraggled. The rainy street gets emptier and emptier. Rain falls upon the old woman standing in the deserted street holding out her unwanted flowers.

At last she sees it is hopeless. With a sad and helpless gesture she drops the flowers into the gutter. She hurries home. The old man is dying. I have never seen death before, but I know he is dying.

I try to turn my face away. Death is so frightening. But I must look. I have to look. These Living Pictures are so much stronger than my fears… they drag my fascinated eyes from the safety of my hands.

I look again. The old man is still a-dying. His thin chest jerks up and down; in and out it goes like a concertina. Suddenly his head falls backwards.

Dead.

His eyes are staring, staring in his head.

Do dead people’s eyes stare?

I turn to ask Lena. I am hoping she will say No. But we have started on a new picture. I must try to put those dead eyes out of my mind.

This time it is “a comic.” There are two gentlemen and a lady and they all look what Mamma calls “common.” Lena is smiling already.

The two gentlemen have each a bunch of flowers for the lady. The lady is very fat; she is as tall as a grenadier. She takes the flowers from each of the gentlemen.

But do dead people’s eyes …?

The fat lady invites the two gentlemen to have a piece of an enormous melon that is on the sideboard. She cuts a huge slice for the fat gentleman, a huge slice for the thin gentleman; and then she takes the biggest slice for herself.

They rub their stomachs, they roll their eyes, they grin all over their faces to show how good the melon is. Then they all have another slice. And then another and another. There is no melon left.

They don’t look so happy now. The fat lady gets up and steals away. The thin gentleman gets up and follows her. Then the fat gentleman follows them both.

Now the two gentlemen are standing outside a shed at the bottom of the lady’s garden. There is French writing on the door of the shed. I am not good at French but for all that I know perfectly well that this is a lavatory and the fat lady is inside.

I am beginning to feel uncomfortable; and all the time there is a pricking in my mind…. Do dead people’s eyes …?

The lady is still inside the lavatory and the two gentlemen are walking up and down quickly as if they dare not stand still. And all the time they are holding their stomachs and making uncomfortable faces. Now they begin to thump upon the lavatory door.

It is queer seeing the thumps and yet not hearing them… .

Tt is all rather horrid and quite stupid. I begin to think that perhaps Mamma is right. And yet everyone else is enjoying it.

Someone behind me is stamping on the rungs of my chair and jarring my spine. And Lena, even Lena is laughing … and … Do dead people’s eyes …?

There are three or four more pictures. There is no writing to explain, and no one to tell you what is happening. But then the stories are so simple.

There is one that I like best of all. It is another French one and very exciting. It is about the Devil; and it has the most lovely colours.

The Devil in a gorgeous red cloak and long black tights does magic tricks; and it is a thousand times more mysterious than Maskelyne’s. He sprinkles magic powder in a bowl and great flames leap up. He waves his hands over the flames and there are tiny people dancing — fairies and elves.

The Devil keeps walking about and his red cloak flows out behind him. Suddenly he begins to walk towards us and all the time he gets larger and larger; and nearer and nearer … it begins to look as if he will walk right out of the picture, right into the dark shop where I sit clutching hold of Lena. …

The earliest close-up in the world! I know that now. And it wasn’t accidental, either. Old Méliés who made it knew all the tricks.

It is absolutely terrifying seeing the Devil walk straight towards us – possibly my guilty conscience has something to do with it. I sit there, clutching, until the Devil moves slowly backwards, getting smaller and smaller as he goes … I am not at all sorry when he proves himself too clever and, pop—up he goes in flames himself!

And that is the end of the show. The screen goes dark. Lena says that when it lights up again it will start with the dying man in the place that perhaps is France: if we stay, Lena says, we shall have to pay again.

Pay or not, I don’t want to see that one again … and the question is back again, teasing at me, Do dead people’s eyes …?

Comments: Hilda Lewis (1896-1974) was a London-born author of children’s and historical fiction. Her 1946 novel Gone to the Pictures tells of a young girl growing up in London’s East End, where she is entranced by motion pictures. The film show described (recalled?) here is set in the East End (‘east of Aldgate’); from the description of the films the date would be the early 1900s. The novel has several subsequent accounts of film exhibition in London, as the heroine goes from film fan to cinema owner and then film director and producer in the period before the First World War. Méliés is the French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliés. Lewis’s 1947 novel The Day is Ours was adapted into the feature film Mandy (1952) about the education of a deaf child (Lewis’s husband Michael Lewis specialised in the education of the deaf at the University of Nottingham).

Bad Blood

Source: Lorna Sage, Bad Blood (London: Fourth Estate, 2000), pp. 42-43

Text: Grandma eked out her visits with other fantasy gratifications. She could hoard wherever she was and, although Shrewsbury and Chester were in her view not a patch on Cardiff, they would help recapture the security of streets, and their cafés and cinemas would cocoon her against the hostile whispers of the trees and the whiffs of manure. These outings were all-female, too, and involved hours of getting ready, then a lift to the train from a blaspheming Grandpa, or sometimes a taxi, all so that she’d be able to repose in the life-giving fug of a matinée at the Gaumont or the Majestic. The plush seats, the dimming of the lights and the sheen they caught on the swagged curtain as it rose, the box of chocolates, were as important as the film itself, almost. Although she loved the whole thing and entered into the spirit of the illusion so enthusiastically that she swept aside the dimension of fiction altogether. The latest Ava Gardner movie was just the most recent report on what promiscuous Ava had been up to since you saw her last: the changes of costume and setting and name were feeble disguises, and didn’t fool Grandma for a minute. She was there to witness when Joan Fontaine, for all her icy blondness, fell for Harry Belafonte and would (she said) never trust Joan again. Grace Kelly she watched like a hawk for signs of similar leanings and was semi-confirmed when Grace married an Eye-tie (She herself wouldn’t touch dark chocolates, even, and anyone who acquired a suntan was suspected of a touch of the tar brush.) Once television arrived in our lives she became an addict of soap operas and in particular Emergency Ward 10, which saved her life day after dreary rural day. The box eventually became her babysitter, the last, many times removed substitute for her mother. By then I was treating her with contempt, as a senile infant, although she scared me a lot, in truth, because she represented the prospect of never growing up.

Comments: Lorna Sage (1943-2001) was an English literary academic and writer. Her memoir Bad Blood includes a description of her childhood in a Welsh borders village with grandparents who loathed one another. Joan Fontaine and Jamaican-American actor Harry Belafonte appeared together in Island in the Sun (US 1957), which caused some controversy on account of its inter-racial love scenes. Grace Kelly married Prince Rainier of Monaco in 1956. British medical soap opera was broadcast by ITV 1957-1967.

Brother Robert

Source: Annye C. Anderson (with Preston Lauterbach), Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson (New York: Hachette Books, 2020), pp. 51-52

Text: Once I got to go to Beale Street, I’d tag along with Brother Robert, Brother Son, and Sister Carrie to the movies at the Palace Theater. They liked to see Mae West and Bette Davis, and I was a nuisance, always running to the bathroom and wanting popcorn.

Most of the movies we saw at the Palace were Westerns. Buck Jones and Tom Mix were Brother Robert’s favorite cowboys. He wore that big Stetson, like them. All of the young men in our family wore Stetson—that was on the go. My father and Uncle Will wore Dobbs.

At the Palace, Son and Brother Robert saw Gene Autry in Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Gene and another guitar player did a song called “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.”

That piece became a part of Son and Brother Robert’s repertoire whenever they entertained.

All the top bands, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, and Jimmie Lunceford played at the Palace. We could see big entertainment for a small price. These acts also played the Orpheum, the grand opera theater on Main Street at Beale, one of the few integrated venues in the city, though blacks sat in the balcony.

It’s my understanding that Brother Robert would hang out at the Palace while waiting on his next gig. Mr. Barrasso, the owner, let you stay all day on one ticket price. Brother Robert would sleep while the movie played over and over, and the Looney Tunes, shorts, and newsreels ran. He’d sit with the guitar across his chest, watching the old-time cowboy movies. He’d cool off in there on a hot day or warm up on a cold day until the time to meet up with his friends or return to Sister Carrie’s.

Comments: Annye C. Anderson (1926 – ) is the step-sister of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the legendary American blues guitarist and singer. Her memoir provides much personal detail of the life of the step-brother, who was murdered when she was twelve years old, as well as a vivid account of black lives in the American south in the 1930s. Charles ‘Son’ Spencer was his (and her) musician step-brother and Carrie Spencer his (and her) step-sister.

Damon Runyon Finds Some Foreign-Made Pictures Make Him Forget His Patriotism

Source: Damon Runyon, ‘Damon Runyon Finds Some Foreign-Made Pictures Make Him Forget His Patriotism’, The Miami Herald, 7 January 1939, p. 6

Text: As a cash customer of the movies, we are such a rooter for the American pictures as opposed to the foreign-made films that the latter have to be even better than stupendous or colossal to win a decision from us over the home growns. The best we usually give them is a draw. We are 100 per cent patriotic to Sam Goldwyn.

We sometimes think the seats may prejudice us to some extent against the foreigners. The seats in some of those hideaway side street theaters where the foreigners generally show in New York are harder than a politician’s heart. Against those seats a picture has to be practically a miracle to gain our grudging approval.

The larger theaters where the American pictures are shown have nice soft-cushioned seats. The way we like to look at a picture is to slump down in one of those seats until our head is slightly below the level of the back of the seat. That puts us reclining on our spinal column, a most restful attitude, indeed.

Then with our knees propped against the seat in front of us and our sack of candy in our lap, we can really enjoy the screen proceedings. You try propping your knees against the back of a seat in one of the hard-seat theaters and you will get your shin bones all skinned up. Besides the occupant of the seat in front of you is thrown out of plumb by the pushing at his back, and sometimes he, or she, as the case may be, gets right stuffy about the matter.

Thus figuring in the discomfort we generally have two strikes called on a foreign film before it even starts unraveling. Add to that our patriotism to Sam Goldwyn, you can see that we are a dead tough audience. en we go out admitting that the foreigner was a fair picture it must have been a regular lily.

On several occasions during the past semester after seeing a foreign picture in a hard-seat theater we realized that we were thinking, not of the hard seats, but of the picture. It was a symptom that alarmed us. It indicated that the picture must have had many points of excellence to act as an anesthesia to our memory of those seats.

We saw some of the pictures a second time to teat this reaction, and all the while the films were unwinding we forced ourself to keep repeating “Remember old Sam,” that our patriotism might remain flaming throughout the display. The result was the same as before. We not only forgot our discomfort in the hard seats, but there were periods when we could not keep Sam in mind.

We have decided that they must have been good Pictures—so good, in fact, that we are wondering if it is not a portent of some nature to Hollywood. When those foreign picture makers can smack us cash customers between the eyes with at least half a dozen good pictures in a season, it may be time for Hollywood to investigate and see what makes them tick.

“Pygmalion,” “The Lady Vanishes,” “The Citadel,” “The Beachcomber,” “To the Victor,” “Grand Illusion,” “Pearls of the Crown,” “Carnet De Bal” and “Professor Mamlock” are among the foreigners and some of our fellow cash customers say that five of them are entitled to place among the 10 best pictures of the year. We are not so sure of that, but we are sure that “Pygmalion” and “Grand Illusion” are as good as any pictures we saw during 1938, if not better.

As we have said before, Hollywood still has a pretty neat answer to a number of these pictures, which is they will not make a white quarter in this country. They are just artistic triumphs and artistic triumphs are no good for the bankroll. However, we are wondering what is going to happen if those foreign picture makers eventually hit the combination of popular American appeal with the artistic excellence they have already attained?

We are told that most of the foreign pictures lack the technical perfection of the Hollywood pictures, but we have been inquiring around among our fellow cash customers and we find that few of them pay much attention to technique if the picture has a good story, well told. The strength of the foreigners, as we gather from the cash customers, is story, and, of course, direction of story.

Comments: Damon Runyon (1880-1946) was an American journalist and short-story writer, best known for the musical adaptation of his stories, Guys and Dolls. The films he mentions are Pygmalion (UK 1938), The Lady Vanishes (UK 1938), The Citadel (UK 1938), Vessel of Wrath (UK 1938), Owd Bob (UK 1938), La Grande Illusion (France 1937), Les Perles de la couronne (France 1937), Un carnet de bal (France 1937) and Professor Mamlock (USSR 1938). My thanks to Carol O’Sullivan for bringing this piece to my attention.

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)

A Pound of Paper

Source: John Baxter, A Pound of Paper: Confessions of a Book Addict (London: Doubleday, 2002), pp. 103-106

Text: But then, around 1965, whatever it was that made the Sixties such a distinctive decade began to work its liberating magic on Australia. Hints of other lifestyles and different points of view drifted across our skies like UFOs. Some saw them in the literature of the Beat Generation, others in rock music, but for me the vehicle of revelation was the movies.

Most Saturdays, I’d stop book hunting around noon, buy a slab of roast pork-belly at the Chinese takeaway on Campbell Street, watch the owner hack it into slices with his cleaver, then carry it with a bottle of Coke across the road to the Capitol Cinema. There I would pay, in those pre-decimal days, 2s 6d for a ticket and search the empty circle for a seat without protruding springs to spike my backside, and where I could munch the deliciously greasy spiced meat with no risk of being rousted by some officious usher.

A few moments usually remained before the start of the first film in the day’s double bill to contemplate John Eberson’s flaking midnight-blue ceiling, and wonder how it would look with its tiny stars illuminated — a feature rusted up long before I discovered the place. Since then, the Capitol has been restored and even its stars shine once more, but in those days its greatest appeal resided in its shabbiness, offering as it did both cheapness and anonymity. One could lose oneself in the warm dark — ‘lie low,’ as Leonard Cohen said, ‘and let the hunt go by’.

But what drew me back every week was the films. Mostly black and white and Italian or French, invariably dubbed into English, cut down to a jerky ninety minutes, and further hacked by the film censor, they reflected lives utterly alien to someone who’d never eaten an olive, seen a subtitled film, spoken to a Frenchman or kissed a girl, let alone slept with one.

Occasionally, during my adolescence, a foreign film had reflected back some flashes of my own experience — a 1954 movie called The Game of Love, for instance (a title attached by British distributors to almost anything French where the heroine removed a garment more intimate than a cardigan). Two teenagers, friends since infancy, meet at the same resort every year. They’re too shy to do anything about their mutual attraction until an older woman seduces the boy. The experience frees him to see his childhood friend for the first time, but undermines their uncomplicated love. An adaptation, in short, of Colette’s Le Blé en herbe — Ripening Seed. But its world of the beach and holidays was familiar enough to hint at lessons I might put into practice, some time, with some woman, if I ever got to know any.

Anybody in Australia hoping to learn about life from the cinema faced an uphill struggle in the Sixties. Nudity, violence, horror, obscenity, blasphemy and sedition — the censors cut them all. In the film of John O’Hara’s Butterfield 8, Liz Taylor, explaining to Eddie Fisher how she came to be a ‘party girl’ — i.e., part-time prostitute — traces it back to childhood, when a boyfriend of her mother’s, whom she regarded as a sort of uncle, took her on his knee and ‘interfered with’ her. Liz goes on, ‘But the worst thing was…’ At which point the film hiccuped, the sure sign of a cut. The next shot was of Fisher, looking bemused. Only much later did we discover that Liz said, ‘But the worse thing was, I enjoyed it.’ Enjoying sex? Obviously that had to go.

Interesting as I found the occasional flashes of eroticism in foreign films, the one that got me thinking most had no sex at all. The version presented at the Capitol was known as The Bandit’s Revenge, though it was actually called Salvatore Giuliano. Set in the rocky landscape of Sicily, it was a half documentary / half drama about a young man — face never seen — who, dressed in an incongruous grey dustcoat and with a World War II machine gun over his shoulder, led his gang against … who exactly? I couldn’t make that out. It would be years before I decoded the film, but Francesco Rosi’s darting direction remade my sense of how a story is told, as did the near-operatic behaviour of the characters – the old man who walks to a hilltop, for instance, and apostrophizes his native land like a character from Greek tragedy. Above all, the ink black and lime white of Gianni di Venanzo’s photography prepared me for Antonioni and the French new wave, just as the content lured me to history, politics, and, above all, to Europe.

Comments: John Baxter (1939- ) is an Australian writer of science fiction, film criticism and memoir. The cinema to which he refers is the Capitol Theatre, Sydney. The films he mentions are Le Blé en herbe (France 1954), Butterfield 8 (1960) and Salvatore Giuliano (Italy 1954).

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Hugh Smith, C707/393/1-2, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q. Did you ever manage to go to the town to go to the theatre, music halls or concerts or the cinema? Nothing at all, not even a cinema?

A. Well you – I you go back – when I left school I used to – I had this bicycle you see and I used to to go into Braintree. And I’ll tell you this as I think I told you before, the first time I went to the cinema, you went in, you paid your sixpence and they sat you in the front. Sat you at the back, away from the picture then. The next time I went they sat you in the front. You see, they thought that – they thought that – that’s in the ordinary con – concert hall you used to – the – the – the highest prices were in the front if you remember, nearest the – nearest the people, and they thought the same thing was in the cinema but that – that didn’t act that way.

Q. The first time they’d shown the film you mean?

A. Yes. Yes. Yes.

Comments: Hugh Smith (1898-19??) was the son of a farmer from Kelvedon, Essex. A number of venues in the early days of cinema organised pricing in line with theatre practice before realising that the optimum seats were to the back rather than to the front. His memory probably dates from the late 1900s. Smith was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975).

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