Red, Black, Blond and Olive

Source: Edmund Wilson, Red, Black, Blond and Olive: Studies in Four Civilizations – Zuñi, Haiti, Soviet Russia, Israel (London: W.H. Allen, 1956), pp. 72-73

Text: What draws people down to this vacuum? How do they amuse themselves here?

These vacationists look soft and vapid. You rarely see a really pretty girl, and the men do not give the impression of doing much fishing or swimming. You find them at the movies in the evening. The American ideal of luxury is in Miami carried to lengths that I have never encountered before. At my hotel, I had the annoyance of removing encasements of cellophane from the toilet-seat and the drinking tumbler. In the movie-house, the seats are the kind that swing noiselessly back and forth to let people get in and out, and their cushions melt beneath one like a featherbed. A subdued indirect lighting, like the sweet creamy liquid of an ice-cream soda, bathes a dove-gray and shrimp-pink interior, the walls of which are ornamented with large cameo-like white seashells framing naked mythological figures that seem to have been badly imitated from the bas-reliefs of Paul Manship in Rockefeller Center, and with branching white plaster exfoliations that remind one of the legs and defensive antennae of the crawfish in the Miami aquarium. The film – Oh, You Beautiful Doll – was a technicolor that covered the whole surface of a high and overpowering screen with a routine sentimental romance, trumped up to manufacture glamor from the career of an American song-writer whose songs were widely sung in my college days. They were commonplace enough then, and today they are simply sickly. These attempts on the part of Hollywood to exploit the immediate past – in which the fashions of the eighties and nineties are sometimes confused with those of the twenties – show the precipitous decline of the movies as purveyors of entertainment, since the producers, after wrecking such contemporary talent as their salaries have tempted to Hollywood, have now been obliged to fall back on the favorites, first, second or third rate, of the day before yesterday and yesterday, when it was possible for a producer or an actor, a composer or a dancer, to perfect an art of his own and create for himself a reputation. Yet this product has its steady customers: one finds oneself among them here. Comfortably padded in the muffled atmosphere that seems to smell of scented face-powder – one cannot tell whether the theater has been perfumed or the women are all using the same cosmetics – this inert and featureless drove that have been drifting through the bleached sunny streets now sit watching stereotyped characters that are made to appear impressive by being photographed in very bright colors and gigantically magnified. The three shorts that follow the first showing of the film all happen to deal with animals: a hunting number, an animated cartoon that gets some not ill-deserved laughs, and a picture about racing whippets. The commentator seems slightly embarrassed at the spectacle of the uniformed attendants who have a full-time job grooming the whippets. “You may think they work as hard as the dogs,” he propounds, with his microphone emphasis that gropes through time and space and can never drive any nails. “Well, they work a lot harder!” The truth is that so many Americans, specialized in operating machines or in transacting long-distance business, have deteriorated as animal organisms, that we now have a special pleasure in watching almost any agile animal. What the audience gets out of these animal shorts is the same thing that l have been getting out of looking out the window at the birds and contrasting them with the Miami vacationers.

Comments: Edmund Wilson (1895-1972) was an American writer and critic. This account of a film show in Miami occurs at the start of an account of a visit to Haiti in 1949. Oh, You Beautiful Doll (USA 1949) was directed by John M. Stahl and starred June Haver and Mark Stevens. It was a musical based on the life of the composer Fred Fisher.

British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 198-201

Text: AGE: 20 SEX: F. OCCUPATION: SHORTHAND-TYPIST NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: POLICE CONSTABLE MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HOUSEWIFE

I have not the time to be a habitual picturegoer, so when I get the chance to spend a few hours in the cinema, naturally I choose the film I wish to see. I often think that I have more enjoyment this way than if I were to visit a picture-house two or three times in a week.

My animosity against the cinema is not strong – I know what I like and on the whole I am satisfied. Starting with the main feature, I like a good story that is essential and I like the producer to stick to the story, that is if he is making an adaption from a book. I really can’t see any reason for side-tracking into scenes alien from the general text. I can think on one film – Madame Curie – one I looked forward to seeing because I was familiar with her life story and thought it juicy material for the film world to knawe [sic]. I saw Madame Curie, or rather I saw Greer Garson, a dashing glamourised, good actress making me believe that she had known poverty! The film should have been called The Love Story of Pierre Curie and Marie Sklodovska – not Madame Curie. I wanted to see her when she was old, her work during the Great World War No. I – they did not have to employ battle scenes for that part of her life, it could have been portrayed in a field hospital – and it would have given colour (not technicolour) to that part of her life. What I did see of the ageing Madame Curie was a perfect Hollywood make-up addressing a hall of eager students, a perfect Hollywood ending. If the war had not been on, would it not have been a good experiment to make this film with an international film unit. I like a good scientific picture, but they are not good box office unless they are garlanded with Hollywood roses, and this seems to prevent a producer taking a chance. What excellent material these cautious men are missing, but what chances they are giving lesser known independent companies.

I like continental films in their original state, not remakes by our own studios. I like these films because they are sincere no matter how absurd the plot may be or trivial the dialogue. There is good honest down-to-earth work put into these films and I like to applaud their efforts.

I have enjoyed a few good adaptions from best-sellers, one in particular – Rebecca. More than once I have spent an evening in a cinema showing this film, in preference to a third rate at another hall. In my opinion this film was a ‘first’, almost perfect in acting, dialogue and scenery and the music, I must not miss out an important part of the film. They kept to the book as near as they could and I passed over the adaptions necessary in this case they helped the film.

Two films of a serious nature, that seems to be my taste. Comedy? Has to be a very good picture before I can let myself go. Irene Dunne’s pictures seem to be the answer, here I can see wit performed in a sophisticated manner, laughable fun as she canters through not always improbable situations. As for the other comediens [sic] on the screen, I snap my fingers at them, but that is just my taste.

I never did like war films and I still don’t like anything with the slightest flavour of war. My reason? I have no wish to relive the past in a cinema.

I come to the second features, usually what I look forward to. My first choice is James A. Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks. I bow to this man, and I thank him for his work which I am sure he enjoys thoroughly for bringing his country to my eyes. How often has one of his films superseded a highly coloured main feature. Another second feature series – Crime Does Not Pay. We don’t get enough of them and surely crime is just as rampant here as in the States. Couldn’t Scotland Yard co-operate with the English studios and start a series over here. Then on very rare occasions when I am lucky enough to see one, I enjoy the little cameos on medical research where silent acting predominates and the narrator in plain American explains the subject. Westerns I don’t dislike, but feel indifference towards them. The Stooges – a man threesome enjoyed by the children, but not by me. The Marx Brothers I do like, but I can count on one hand the times I have seen them!

Only once have I seen an experimental film made in America. It was badly made and the story was piecey, but there was enthusiasm oozing through the lens of the camera. The Seventh Victim was the title I have yet to find out who the second victim was. This film was trying to break away from the usual run of mysteries, to bring its art to the man in the street and if they failed, it was through no fault of trying. Taking all defects into consideration, I admired the work put into it and the acting of the unknown young actors and actresses who had been given a chance to show what they could do. That chance means a great deal when you are striking out for yourself.

On the whole, I don’t care where a film is made whether it is in China or over here, so long as it conveys to me that here is good material and here is a good film. What I would like is an international studio producing films of the world in general and isn’t there a saying about two heads being better than one, but in this case, it would be much more.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘A Study in Film Preferences’. The films mentioned are Madame Curie (USA 1943), Rebecca (USA 1940), the Crime Does Not Pay series (USA 1935-1948), and The Seventh Victim (USA 1943, a horror film but not experimental as such). James A. FitzPatrick’s TravelTalks was a series of travelogues (USA 1930-1954) characterised by its cheerful but bland tone.

Mass-Observation at the Movies

Source: John W. Woodhead, quoted in Jeffrey Richards and Dorothy Sheridan (eds.), Mass-Observation at the Movies (London/New York: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1987), p. 80

Text: John W. Woodhead, 37 Stanley Rd (aged 18), regular cinema-goer (6 times amonth), preference – American films.

Comments. First of all I should like to thank the Films for the many entertaining hours I have spent watching them. I sincerely hope that the high rate of entertainment which has been raised in present-day Films will be maintained. Also, a word of praise for modern cinemas – their luxurious interiors certainly increase one’s enjoyment of a show. But must we have:-

1 Worn-out film plots?
2 Inane ‘shorts’?
3 Depressing ‘psychological’, films.
4 Lady-patrons in front of us wearing eccentric head-gear?

Comments: Mass-Observation carried out a series of studies in 1930s and 1940s into how people in the UK lived, through a mixture of observation, diaries and invited comments. This comment comes from Mass-Observation’s research programme into cultural life in Bolton, Lancashire. The study began in 1938, and this comment is a response to a questionnaire issued in March 1938 asking Do you go to the cinema regularly? How many times a month do you go? Do you go regularly on the same day, if so which day? Do you think you see people on the screen who live like yourself? Which are the best films, British or American, or do you think both are the same? People were also asked to number the types of films they best, and to list what they would like to see more of in films. This respondee was a regular of the Odeon, Ashburner Street.

Seats in All Parts

Source: Leslie Halliwell, Seats in All Parts (London: Granada, 1985), pp. 17-18

Text: On the whole, however, the Hippodrome brings back only the happiest of memories. There was something very satsifying about seeing music-hall comedy in an old music-hall. We always sat in the fourpenny stalls, which meant entry through a little side street pay box. The cashier was a maiden lady of uncertain age; she had tight marcelled hair, and repeatedly told us (and presumably everybody else) how terrified she was of a recurrence of the night she was attacked by ‘footpads’ while the commissionaire was inside. I liked to pay for my own ticket, using pennies handed to me by Mum as we walked briskly through the back streets from Victoria Square; but when an ‘A’ film was the attraction, the law said she must get the tickets for both of us and hand them to the doleful old doorkeeper, the one with the drooping moustaches and the dirty white gloves. He would then lift the dust-filled red velour curtain which allowed us to enter the inner sanctum by the doorway to the left of the screen. Invariably we arrived towards the end of the shorts, but sometimes there was a cartoon just before the news, and of course I always insisted on seeing that through twice. The shorts in fact were very often the best part of the programme. Since main features then seldom ran more than 75 minutes, there was room in a two-hour programme not only for a two-reel comedy and a cartoon but often for a couple of ‘interests’ as well, selected from such series as Stranger than Fiction, Speaking of Animals, Sportslight (with Grantland Rice), Screen Snapshots and Unusual Occupations. Then there was the news. World events at my age were a bit of a bore and I often went for a stroll to the Gents as they unfurled, but I did like Gaumont British News for its cheerful signature tune and its fancy title sequence where a gallery of rapidly changing news items centred on a bell-ringing town crier whom I used to insist was the comedian Sidney [sic] Howard in disguise. (Perhaps it was.)

The best vantage-point for a small boy was obviously the middle of the front row, and Mum sometimes agreed to sit there; although it can’t have done her eyes any good, and people making their way to the toilets used to tread on her feet, which were tender at the best of times. There was now rowdyism, however: the front stalls at the Hippodrome were occupied chiefly by respectable middle-aged couples or family parties, and any hooligan elements would have been quickly and firmly dealt with by the patrons themselves if the commissionaire had chosen to be otherwise engaged. Wherever we sat, it was always a thrilling moment when the lights dimmed and the censor’s certificate for the main feature flashed on to the dividing, floodlit red curtain, to be laboriously and audibly deciphered by an eager audience.

The stars whose adventures we watched on the Hippodrome’s milky-textured screen seemed always more real, more vital, than those observed elsewhere. This may have been partly because it was such an intimately shaped hall, but mainly I suspect because low vaudeville comics most easily found a level on which to meet audiences whose roots were in cotton spinning and who had lived, generation after generation, in the long shadow of the mills. In Lancashire they worked hard, and they liked to laugh hard, sometimes at subjects which southerners might have thought in poor taste, like drunkenness, underwear, and funerals. Beefy Leslie Fuller might have been my uncle, George Formby a comical cousin and Gracie Fields a young spinster aunt. It required no effort of imagination for us to be interested in their doings; they were only a slight exaggeration of our everyday life.

Comment: Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) was a film historian and programme buyer for ITV and Channel 4. Seats in All Parts is his memoir of cinemagoing, including his Bolton childhood. Bolton had 47 cinemas in the 1930s; the Hippodrome was a former music hall and existed as a cinema until the 1940s, being demolished in 1961. ‘A’ certificates were introduced in 1912 and stood for ‘Adult’; from 1923 a child attending an ‘A’ film had to be accompanied by an adult.