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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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).
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.
Source: Anon., ‘How to Enjoy the Movies’, Peterborough Examiner, Oct. 12, 1921, p.14
Text: You think you will drop in to the “movies” for a few minutes, and if happens to be the [theatre where] they have those luxurious wicker chairs, you choose a handy one, right near the aisle, and settle back. There is a nasty rain outside, but in here it is nice and warm and comfortable.
Presently a party of young people come in and settle directly behind you. They appear to be a great many of them. They make a loud noise and spend some time selecting seats. After two or three bumps, you sit forward until they are all settled. A cautious look around reveals that there are only four, two of each sex. One of the girls is powdering her nose and the other seems to be looking for something on the floor. She wriggles around, finally locates it, and settles down. Then they begin in earnest. The girls read the titles aloud and make remarks about them in half-whisper. They giggle about every little while and tell all they know about the actors in various pictures. It is a good deal. The vaudeville arrives, and they recognise one of the performers as an old acquaintance who visited the town some years ago. They know a good deal about his private life and tell each other. The young man directly behind you appears to have some difficulty with his knees. Every once in so often he changes their position and makes you get it in the back. He makes no excuse however. You look around. There are no other aisle seats vacant, so you resolve to endure to the bitter end. The young fellow at the farther end is very silent. The girls decide that he has gone to sleep and start to “kid” him. Their voices are louder now, and they giggle at every remark. Suddenly something descends upon your head. You have been contemplating the picture, and it is rather a shock. You are surprised. No excuse is made. Then whispering ensues. Then the young man directly behind proffers some information about the dancer, but is contradicted immediately by the girl next him who says she knows all about that young lady. He subsides into a morose silence, and gives you another vicious jab in the rear with his replaced knee. You shift your chair a little. The girls think they want some place to rest their feet, so turn to two vacant chairs around and in doing so knock your elbow. No excuse is made. They arrange their two pairs of feet on the cushioned chairs, and another era of whispering, giggling, fussing, conversation starts in. The comedy provides some situations which give them a chance to snicker. They do so. The young man re-adjusts his feet once more, and nearly capsizes your chair. No excuse is made. You move a couple of feet, and quiet down a bit. Then the girl says she wants to go and sit beside “Jack,” who is at the farther end, and the other one won’t let her. A slight scuffle ensues. The young men say nothing. You can hear him just behind re-arranging his feet once more, but this time you are out of range, so it doesn’t matter. The feature unrolls its romantic story, and the girls whisper and giggle some more. They are talking about another girl now, and enjoying themselves immensely. Finally the hero embraces the heroine, the young man changes his position for the last time, and you all go home.
Comments: This article appears in a Canadian newspaper, but may originate from another source. My thanks to Robert Clarke for bringing this piece to my attention.
Source: William Trevor, Nights at the Alexandra (London: Hutchinson, 1987)
Text: People loved the Alexandra. They loved the things I loved myself – the scarlet seats, the lights that made the curtains change colour, the usherettes in uniform. People stood smoking in the foyer when they’d bought their tickets, not in a hurry because smoking and talking gave them pleasure also. They loved the luxury of the Alexandra, they loved the place it was. Urney bars tasted better in its rosy gloom; embraces were romantic there. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shared their sophisticated dreams, Deanna Durbin sang. Heroes fell from horses, the sagas of great families yielded the riches of their secrets. Night after night in the Alexandra I stood at the back, aware of the pleasure I dealt in, feeling it all around me. Shoulders slumped, heads touched, eyes were lost in concentration. My brothers did not snigger in the Alexandra: my father, had he ever gone there, would have at last been silenced. Often I imagined the tetchiness of the Reverend Wauchope softening beneath a weight of wonder, and the sour disposition of his wife lifted from her as she watched All This and Heaven Too. Often I imagined the complicated shame falling from the features of Mr Conron. ‘I have told her you are happy,’ Herr Messinger said.
Comments: William Trevor (1928-2016) was a Irish novelist and short story writer. His bittersweet novella Nights at the Alexandra concerns a young man who becomes involved with an Englishwoman and her older German husband as they build a cinema in Ireland during the Second World War. Urney chocolates were popular throughout Ireland. All This and Heaven Too is a 1940 American feature film.
Source: Bill Cullen, It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples (Cork: Mercier Press, 2001), pp. 155-156
Text: The Rotunda Cinema had a fourpenny entrance fee for the kids. Sixpence for adults. All sitting on wooden benches. And a shilling for a plush individual cushioned swivelled seat in the back. With five plusher rows up in the balcony for two shillings each. Lovers’ Row, the balcony was called. Privacy guaranteed.
When you paid your money at the ticket box you got a two-inch square of light metal with a half-inch circular hole in the centre. The metals were stamped with the price. Four pingin, six pingin, scilling, florin. You went to the usher, who took the metal token and slid it on to a long iron poker which was notched in tens. Held a hundred tokens, the poker did, so the ushers knew how many people were in the picture house. Simple, yes. Foolproof, no.
Wide open to fiddles it was. Sure, a little chiseller’s hand could reach through the glass slit when the cashier’s attention was distracted and grab a handful. The chiseller got into the pictures plus his Da and the pals. And it went further than that. The lads in Smith and Pearson Iron Foundry made the tokens. Some for the Rotunda Cinema order. And some for themselves. But they killed the golden goose.
The usher, Patsy MeCormack, was demented. ‘The bleedin’ picture house is jammed to the rafters. Standing at the back an’ all, they are. We had nine hundred people and Maureen only sold six hundred and twenty tokens.’
The boss arrived. Mister Johnston. Big meeting in the manager’s office. New system brought in. Patsy McCormack was plonked right beside the cashier’s ticket box. When a punter bought tokens, Maureen shouted the order.
‘Two fourpenny and two sixpenny,’ she’d shout, and wait until Patsy echoed the order, as he took the tokens, before serving the next customer.
‘Two two shillings,’ she’d shout. ‘Two of the best in Lovers’ Row,’ Patsy would shout back, pointing the red-faced couple to the staircase. And so the fiddle was silenced. For a while.
Comments: William ‘Bill’ Cullen (1942- ) is an Irish businessman whose memoir of his impoverished Dublin childhood It’s a Long Way from Penny Apples was a best seller. The Rotunda Round Room in Parnell Street, originally built as part of a hospital, had shown films since the 1890s. In 1954 it was renamed the Ambassador Cinema and continued in business until 1999. Triangular or square metal tokens were employed in some cinemas for a while. The writer goes on to describe other cinema fiddles and how they were countered by pre-printed numbered tickets.