The Night Side of Europe

Source: Karl Kingsley Kitchen, The Night Side of Europe, as seen by a Broadwayite abroad (Cleveland: The David Gibson company, 1914), pp. 161-162

Text: Damascus boasts of three theatres — all cinemas, as the “movies” are called in the Orient. I chose the Palace Theatre, near the hotel, because on its billboards it announced a troupe of dancers in addition to its photo plays. Twenty piasters (80 cents) bought a box, which was located in the balcony overlooking one of the strangest audiences in the world. The entire lower floor was filled with turbaned Arabs and befezed Syrians smoking “hobble bobbles,” as the Turkish water pipes are called in Syria. When you take your seat in a Damascus theatre, you are asked by the usher if you want a “hobble bobble,” and if so one is provided for a trifling tip.

Nearly five hundred men were puffing away downstairs, while thirty or forty smart looking Turkish officers were in the tier of boxes when I took my place. The pictures — mostly French made films — were shown without musical accompaniment, and when the lights were turned on after forty minutes of darkness a third of the audience was asleep.

Under the guidance of my dragoman I visited two cafes chantants, where the few unattached European women in Damascus make their headquarters, and where the “night life” of the officers and higher officials centers. One of the cafes — known as the American bar — proved quite gay. Its guests were being entertained by a phonograph, and I was informed that there would be muscle dancing as soon as the performers could leave the Palace Theatre.

That sent me back to the Victoria Hotel in a hurry, where I found real “night life” under my mosquito bar. But that, as Kipling says, is another story.

Comments: Karl Kingsley Kitchen (1885-1935) was an American travel writer, newspaper columnist and bon viveur. His book The Night Side of Europe documents his experiences of theatres across Europe, Russia and the Near East. In 1914, Syria was part of the Ottoman empire.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Midweek Matinée

Source: Douglas Dunn, ‘Midweek Matinée’ in The Happier Life (London: Faber & Faber, 1972), pp. 35-36

Text:
The lunch hour ends and men go back to work,
Plumbers with long bags, whistling office boys
With soup on their ties and pee on their shoes,
Typists with a sandwich and a warm coke.

The indolent or lucky are going to the cinema.
There too go the itinerant heavy drinkers,
Who take the piss out of bus conductors
Or fall asleep in public reading rooms

Over unlikely learned periodicals.
They come in late, just after closing time
And sprawl in the cheap front seats
Dressed in the raincoats of a thousand wet nights.

Muttering with the lips of the unknown kisses.
Legendary, undeserving drunks, beggarly
And good for pity or laughter, you show
What happens to men who are not good at life,

Where happiness is demanded and lives are lived
For entertainment. I watch you sleep,
Grey humps in an empty cinema. You’re dangerous.
All wish you were no there, cramping the style.

You are very bad, you are worse than civilized,
Untouched by seriousness or possessions,
Treading the taxpayers’ roads, being found
Incapable in public places, always hungry,

Totally unlike what people should be – washed,
Happy, occupied, idle only in snatches
Of paid-for amusement or cynical truancies.
You have cut yourself off from barbers and supermarkets.

I don’t want you here on my page, pink faces
under spit and stubble, as fools or martyrs.
You are not new, you have nothing to sell.
You are walking evictions. You have no rentbooks.

You never answer telephones or give parties.
If you have a sense of humour, I want to know.
You claim the right to be miserable
And I can’t stand what you bring out into the open.

Comments: Douglas Dunn (1942 – ) is a Scottish poet. ‘Midweek Matinée’ comes from his second collection, The Happier Life, and presumably describes a Hull cinema, as he was then resident in the town.

Mazie

Source: Joseph Mitchell, extract from ‘Mazie’ in Up in the Old Hotel (London: Vintage, 1992), pp. 23-24 (original essay published in The New Yorker, 21 December 1940)

Text: … Mazie has presided for twenty-one years over the ticket cage of the Venice Theatre, at 209 Park Row, a few doors west of Chatham Square, where the Bowery begins.

The Venice is a small, seedy moving-picture theatre, which opens at 8 A.M. and closes at midnight. It is a dime house. For this sum a customer sees two features, a newsreel, a cartoon, a short, and a serial episode. The Venice is not a ‘scratch house.’ In fact, it is highly esteemed by its customers, because its seats get a scrubbing at least once a week. Mazie brags that it is as sanitary as the Paramount. ‘Nobody ever got loused up in the Venice,’ she says. On the Bowery, cheap movies rank just below cheap alcohol as an escape, and most bums are movie fans. In the clientele of the Venice they are numerous. The Venice is also frequented by people from the tenement neighborhoods in the vicinity of Chatham Square, such as Chinatown, the Little Italy on lower Mulberry Street, and the Spanish section on Cherry Street. Two-thirds of its customers are males. Children and most women sit in a reserved section under the eyes of a matron. Once, in an elegant mood, Mazie boasted that she never admits intoxicated persons. ‘When do you consider a person intoxicated? she was asked. Mazie snickered. ‘When he has to get down on all fours and crawl.‘ she said. In any case, there are drunks in practically every Venice audience. When the liquor in them dies down they become fretful and mumble to themselves, and during romantic pictures they make loud, crazy, derogatory remarks to the actors on the screen. but by and large they are not as troublesome as a class of bums Mazie calls ‘the stiffs,’ These are the most listless of bums. They are blank-eyed and slow-moving, and they have no strong desire for anything but sleep. Some are able to doze while leaning against a wall, even in freezing weather. Many stiffs habitually go into the Venice early in the day and slumber in their seats until they are driven out at midnight. ‘Some days I don’t know which this is, a movie-pitcher theatre or a flophouse,’ Mazie once remarked. ‘Other day I told the manager pitchers with shooting in them are bad for business. They wake up the customers.’

Most Bowery movie houses employ bouncers. At the Venice, Mazie is the bouncer. She tells intimates that she feels fighting is unladylike but that she considers it her duty to throw at least one customer out of the theatre every day. ‘If I didn’t put my foot down, the customers would take the place,’ she says. ‘I don’t get any fun out of fighting. I always lose my temper. When I start swinging, I taste blood, and I can’t stop. Sometimes I get beside myself. Also, a lot of the bums are so weak they don’t fight back, and that makes me feel like a heel.’ Mazie is small, but she is wiry and fearless, and she has a frightening voice. Her ticket cage is in the shadow of the tracks of the City Hall spur of the Third Avenue elevated line, and two decades of talking above the screeching of the trains have left her with a rasping bass, with which she can dominate men twice her size. Now and then, in the Venice, a stiff throws his head back and begins to snore so blatantly that he can be heard all over the place, especially during tense moments in the picture. When this happens, or when one of the drunks gets into a bellowing mood, the women and children in the reserved section stamp on the floor and chant,‘Mazie! Mazie! We want Mazie!’ The instant this chant goes up, the matron hastens out to the lobby and raps on the side window of Mazie’s cage. Mazie locks the cash drawer, grabs a bludgeon she keeps around, made of a couple of copies of True Romances rolled up tightly and held together by rubber bands, and strides into the theatre. As she goes down the aisle, peering this way and that, women and children jump to their feet, point fingers in the direction of the offender, and cry, ‘There he is, Mazie! There he is!’ Mazie gives the man a resounding whack on the head with her bludgeon and keeps on whacking him until he seems willing to behave. Between blows, she threatens him with worse punishment. Her threats are fierce and not altogether coherent.‘Outa here on a stretcher!‘ she yells. ‘Knock your eyeballs out! Big baboon! Every tooth in your head! Bone in your body!’ The women and children enjoy this, particularly if Mazie gets the wrong man. as she sometimes does. In action, Mazie is an alarming sight. Her face becomes flushed, her hair flies every which way, and her slip begins to show. If a man defends himself or is otherwise contrary, she harries him out of his seat and drives him from the theatre. As he scampers up the aisle, with Mazie right behind him, whacking away, the women and children applaud …

Comments: Joseph Mitchell (1908-1996) was an American journalist, best-known for his pieces in The New Yorker, of which Up in the Old Hotel is a collection. The Venice opened in 1914 and seated 650 people. The profile continues with its description of Mazie and the cinema operation, noting that she was quite uninterested in films themselves, saying ‘They make me sick’. My thanks to Deac Rossell for bringing this piece to my attention.

The Social Function of the Cinema

Source: P. Morton Shand, extract from ‘The Social Function of the Cinema’, in Modern Theatres and Cinemas [The Architecture of Pleasure series] (London. B.T. Batsford, 1930), pp. 9-10

Text: The soured and aged declare that the spread of the picture-going habit is responsible for the decay of home-life. Probably the reverse is nearer the truth: that it is just because home-life has lost so much of its spaciousness and. attractiveness that the cinema-going habit continues to find fresh adherents. For the experts assure its that even with the present phenomenal rate of construction, “saturation point” is not yet within sight; and that there still remains “an untapped clientèle of more cultivated [we hope they mean “more modern”] taste.”

The cinema, whether tacitum or chattersome, fills a need in our lives which no preceding age has ever felt. This need the theatre can never hope to answer, while broadcasting only does so partially and without satisfying our gregarious instincts. There is something formal and ceremonious about going to the theatre. It is an occasion, an event. It implies more careful attire, if not evening dress. We do not say casually “Let’s go to the theatre?” as we say “Let’s go to the pictures?” if only because we are most of us in the habit of booking seats in advance for some particular play. Few of us are indiscriminate enough to sally forth at the last moment to see which theatres have still tickets available. On the other hand we are ready to drop into any old cinema on any old pretext, at any old time, and in any old clothes. The cinema may, and often does, show eminently “serious,” and so-called “educational,” films – “Young Crocodiles’ Teething Troubles,” “The Life-History of a Cake of Soap,” and what not – but we do not go to the pictures in a serious spirit, or with a thirst for acquiring improving knowledge. On the other hand, grotesquely sentimental or crudely anachronistic films can be openly derided as (in deference to the physical presence of their actors) a bad play can hardly be. The studied decorum, the polite social gathering atmosphere, of the theatre and concert hall are wholly lacking at a spectacle in which the players only appear as photographic shadows of their corporeal selves.

The cinema is primarily a sort of public lounge. It is a blend of an English club and a continental café; at once the most public and the most secluded of places. It has affinities with both church and alcove. One can go alone, à deux, en famille, or in bands. One can take one’s children there to keep them quiet; or one can take one’s girl there to be quiet oneself. Punctuality and decorum are of little or no consequence. One can drop in and out at will. In England, though in practically no other country, one can smoke there. One can chew sweets, or peel oranges, or manicure one’s nails. One can proverbially filch ideas for a new dress, or “get off” with one’s neighbour. One can enjoy a little nap as easily as the luxury of a good laugh or a good cry. In wet weather it is an escape from the rain; in winter a means of keeping warm. Sehoolboys, whose holidays are drawing to a close, know that prevalent epidemics can often be caught there. The cinema is a pastime and a distraction, an excuse for not doing something else or sitting listlessly at home. A dinner party misses fire, expected visitors suddenly telephone their inability to come to tea – “What about a cinema?” One had a spare hour or so on one’s hands; just time enough not to be able to do anything else comfortably. So one goes to the nearest picture-house, which is seldom very far away except in the country, and lets a few hundred feet of film unwind before one with casual or rapt attention as the case may be. As a building, therefore, the cinema should be as informal, impersonal and devoid of unnecessary pretensions as a public-house – which is really what it is, alcoholic associations apart.

Thus the cinema clearly requires a type of architectural expression utterly different from the theatre. The theatre – abroad at least – has a certain civic dignity which is must live up to as “a public edifice.” Whereas the cinema is an undress, workaday sort of optical lucky-dip. The theatre has its traditions, and they are on the whole formal ones. The cinema, an essentially democratic institution for all its brave show of royal splendour, has as yet as good as none. It is at one with the socially go-as-you-please age we live in: a symptom and symbol of it…

Comments: Philip Morton Shand (1888-1960) was a British architecture critic (and grandfather of Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall). Modern Theatres and Cinemas was his first book and looks at cinemas in a number of countries. The above passage, from a chapter on cinema’s social function, focusses on British cinemas and their audiences.

Out of the Darkness

Source: Allan Morley, ‘Our Cinematographic Cartoons, no. 50 – Out of the Darkness’, Pictures and the Picturegoer, 13 February 1916, p. 475

Comments: Allan Morley is probably the comic artist of that name (1895-1960) who worked for DC Thomson magazines from the 1920s to the 1950s, including work for such children’s comics as The Beano and The Dandy. The legend that accompanies the cartoon reads: “Pictures are often amusing, but the conversations of picturegoers are very often more so. Our cartoonist presents a sample of what he has overheard at sundry cinemas”. The use of speech bubbles to reveal the conversations of a film audience in the dark is also employed in the postcards ‘The Bioscope‘ and ‘In the Cinema‘ previously featured on this site. Pictures and the Picturegoer was a British film trade journal. My thanks to Maria Velez for having first tweeted this image.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

At the Movies

Source: Harold B. Allen and Joseph Upper, At the Movies: A Farcical Novelty in One Scene (New York: Samuel French, 1921)

Text:
CAST
The Man in the Aisle Seat.
Mr. Griggs, who has seen the picture before.
Mrs. Griggs.
Clarice, a devotee of the pictures.
Nell, her cousin from up-state.

SETTING
Any back drop or plain curtain will serve as a set, as the action takes place in the subdued light, as in a motion picture theatre. A row of common chairs will serve as the seats, but if a row of regular theatre chairs can be procured, the realism will be heightened. The light, while subdued, should be sufficient to reveal the features of the several actors. The music of the piano, or piano and drums, is off stage, and should be at all times incidental to the dialogue.

CHARACTERS
The Man in the Aisle Seat, a middle-aged person, ordinarily well dressed. He is essentially a suburban type, as is evidenced by his shopping bag and numerous bundles. As this character is developed through pantomime almost entirely, the details of the type must be worked up through the ingenuity of the actor to a great measure.

Mr. Griggs, a typical, well-dressed, prosperous, middle-class business man, who is bored throughout the entire performance and who takes only a listless interest in the development of the plot of the motion picture story.

Mrs. Griggs, of the same general class represented by her husband. She should be dressed either in a suit, or in a house dress, adapted for informal evening wear, and should wear a hat and rubbers and gloves. Her attitude through the action is in direct contrast to her husband, as she maintains a lively interest throughout.

Clarice, a typical boarding school girl, about i8 years of age, very well dressed and stylishly in a street suit, hat, furs, etc.

Nell, a small-town type, neatly dressed, but not so stylishly as her cousin Clarice. Her costume should be slightly out of style to contrast to her more elegant cousin.

“At the Movies”

Scene: A row of chairs in any motion picture theatre.

The action of the piece takes place in a row of chairs in a motion picture “palace” during the presentation of a five-reel picture, “The Rose of Romany.” Any plain drop will serve as the back drop for the shallow stage required, as the action takes place in a subdued light as in a theatre. A row of five theatre chairs are required. The music, which accompanies the conversation, paralleling the course of the picture, should follow the story, but should at all times be secondary to the dialogue, it being introduced merely to heighten the realism of the scene.

The row of chairs is empty when the action starts. A man, carrying a net shopping bag, filled with bulky parcels, and with his arms filled with other bundles, enters at the right, and takes the aisle seat at the right, placing his shopping bag under the seat and holding the other bundles in his lap. He wipes his face with his handkerchief, sighs with relief, and settles down to an hour and a half of enjoyment, when Mr. and Mrs. Griggs, a typical middle-aged couple, enter. He pilots her to the row of seats.

Mrs. Griggs. It’s so dark in here … I can’t see a thing.
Mr. Griggs. Here you are. This is all right.
Mrs. Griggs. (Indicating back of row) Here?
Mr. Griggs. (Pushing her forward) No. Here.
Mrs. Griggs. I can’t see a thing. (She puts her hand on the head of the man in the aisle seat) Oh, I beg your pardon. It’s terribly dark.
Mr. Griggs. Right in here. That’s it. (He hands her past the man, who has to pick up his shopping hag, lift it out into the aisle, and then step out himself, clinging all the while to the other bundles. When Mr. and Mrs. Griggs have passed in, he moves back, and settles himself again)
Mrs. Griggs. Oh, George, there are two seats, just a little way ahead. (Indicating seats ahead) Don’t you think … ?
Mr. Griggs. No, no, this is all right.
Mrs. Griggs. I know, but … Oh, do let’s take those two.
Mr. Griggs. (Rising) Oh, all right.

(The man on the aisle is compelled to rise once more, and move his excess baggage and himself out into the aisle. Mr. and Mrs. Griggs start forward to take possession of the other two seats.)

Mrs. Griggs. (Stopping short with an exclamation of disappointment) Oh, isn’t that horrid. That young couple has taken them. (To Mr. Griggs. who has pointed out some other seats) No, I won’t go any further forward. We’ll just stay where we were.
Mr. Griggs. But, my dear … (He looks helplessly from her to the man in the aisle seat. The latter is used to it, however, and once more moves himself and his many bundles to allow them to pass in) I’m sorry. Sir, I’m sure.
The Man. ‘S all right.
Mrs. Griggs. Yes, we’re awfully sorry to have to trouble you. (She takes the third seat from the aisle, as Mr. Griggs takes the second) Is there anybody behind us? I suppose I’ll have to take off my hat. (She does so grudgingly, and arranges her hair)

(Enter Clarice and Nellie. Clarice is a boarding school girl, and Nellie is her small town cousin, each about 18 years.)

Clarice. In here, Nell, there’s two. That’s just about right, not too far front or anything. (To the man) Excuse us, please.

(Again the weary occupant of the aisle seat is compelled to move, together with his property. The girls pass in.)

Mrs. Griggs. (Who has to stand) Oh, dear. Clarice. (Sweetly to Mr. Griggs) Thank you. All right, Nell. (They take the fourth and fifth seats, Clarice the fourth and Nell the fifth from the aisle) We’re just in good time. The feature hasn’t started yet. I wonder what they’re showing? Oh, they’re the announcements for next week — Special Added Attraction. Fatty Arbuckle in “Heavier Than Thou.” Oh, I’ll bet he’ll be funny in that. “Heavier Than Thou” instead of “Holier Than Thou,” don’t you see, Nell? “Elsie Ferguson in Repenting at Leisure.” Oh, she’s wonderful, Nell. I just love her. You know she made a great success in the legitimate before she went into the pictures. There was a long article about her in the Weekly Flicker last week. She’s married, you know. There was a picture of her with her husband. I’ve seen her on the stage, too. The whole class at school went one afternoon to see her play “Portia” … you know, in the “Merchant of Venice.” It was a special performance. Benefit, I think. Oh, “Pauline Frederick in La Tosca, Wednesday and Thursday.” Oh, she ought to be good in that. It’s French, you know, and it means … I can’t think just now what Tosca does mean. The something-or-other.

Mrs. Griggs. (Reading) “Grace Geary in the Rose of Romany in Five Parts.” It just seems as if I had seen this before. It was the Rose of Something, but it couldn’t have been this, for Grace Geary wasn’t in it.
Clarice. Oh, “Grace Geary in the Rose of Romany.” I’m so glad you’re going to see her, Nell. She is simply wonderful in emotional roles. I saw her last Saturday with Kensington Dreadnaught in “Ashes of Fate.” She was wonderful. She is going to do serials next year for Pathe. I’m just crazy to see her in them.
Nell. “The Rose of Romany, the Pride of the Gypsies, Grace Geary.” Oh, I know I am going to like it. She’s got such a wonderful face. (Confidentially) Is that her real hair, Clarice?
Clarice. Yes, isn’t it lovely? I just love the way she wears it.
Mr. Griggs. I have seen this thing before.
Mrs. Griggs. You have, dear. Where?
Mr. Griggs. Oh, one day last week. After lunch. Had a customer on my hands and had to do something.
Mrs. Griggs. Is it good, George?
Mr. Griggs. Oh, pretty fair. I don’t especially care for her.
Mrs. Griggs. Oh, I think she is a dear little actress. (Reading) “Lord Edgemont, Earl of Bellefair, the Last of An Old Family, Wallis Fairfield.”
Clarice. Wallis Fairfield. Oh, I’m so glad he’s back again.
Nell. (Innocently) Where’s he been?
Clarice. Why, didn’t you know he was almost killed when his automobile ran off a cliff?
Nell. I think I saw that in a picture at the Wonderland Theatre at home. In the “Tiger’s Claw,” wasn’t it?
Clarice. Heavens, no. Wally Fairfield doesn’t play in serials like that. It was on his honeymoon.
Nell. He’s married, then.
Mrs. Griggs. “The Honorable George Dorsay, a friend of the Earl’s, Thomas Hannibal.” Oh, George, doesn’t he look something like your Uncle Horace Griggs? Don’t you think so? Of course, your uncle is an older man. He doesn’t look so young himself, though, does he?
Mr. Griggs. You can’t tell anything about it in the pictures.
Mrs. Griggs. (Weakening) But I think he does. The eyes …
Clarice. (Reading) “Led by the Hand of Fate, Lord Edgemont, the Master of Bellefair, and his Friend, the Honorable George Dorsay, ride through the Wooded Paths of the Earl’s Estate.”
Nell. Isn’t that lovely, Clarice? Where do you suppose that’s taken? In England?
Clarice. No, in Jersey probably.
Nell. You mean in New Jersey State?
Mrs. Griggs. They ride well, don’t they, George? And such pretty horses! Bays, aren’t they? That’s what they call brown horses, isn’t it?
Mr. Griggs. Yes, yes.
Mrs. Griggs. (Reading) “Fate in the Guise of a Gypsy Girl Crosses Their Paths,”
Nell. Oh, she’s going to tell their fortunes. (Pause) I don’t believe she’s telling anything good,
though, do you, Clarice?
Mrs. Griggs. (Reading) “The Gypsy Foresees Dorsay’s Death.” Oh, this starts out awfully sad.
Mr. Griggs. You’ll see she was right. It’s his heart.
Mrs. Griggs. Well, he doesn’t look a bit strong. Your Uncle Horace’s heart was affected, too. My, this man does look like him, George.
Clarice. (Reading) “In Edgemont’s Palm the Gypsy Reads Coming Happiness.”
Nell. He doesn’t look as if he believed her, Clarice. Of course, she really doesn’t know.
Clarice. Oh, but they do. We had our fortunes told at school last Hallowe’en by a real palmist, and she told one of the girls that she would be married before the term was over, and you know she would have been if her people hadn’t found out, and made her wait until she had finished school.

(The man on the aisle loses consciousness and rests his head on Mr. Griggs’ shoulder. Mr. Griggs seeks to rid himself of the burden by pushing the sleeping man back into his chair, but in doing so he distracts Mrs. Griggs’ attention from the screen.)

Mrs. Griggs. What’s the matter, George?
Mr. Griggs. The man on the aisle.
Mrs. Griggs. (In a stage whisper) Has he been drinking?
Nell. Oh, what beautiful horses. They’re going hunting.
Clarice. (Reading) “Edgemont promises Dorsay that He will be a Father to the Latter’s Only Son, Should Misfortune Overtake Dorsay.” You see, Nell, he’s afraid that the gypsy told the truth about misfortune overtaking him. You know.
Nell. You mean when the gypsy told his fortune?

(There is a lull of a moment. The piano plays a hunting song, and the drummer imitates the hoofs of horses.)

Mrs. Griggs. (Jumping) Oh, oh, oh, I hope he isn’t killed.
Mr. Griggs. Sh-h-h-h. You’ll wake up our friend here.
Nell. Oh, Claire, do you suppose that is what the gypsy meant?
Clarice. Didn’t I tell you she knew? (Reading) “The Gypsy’s Grim Prophecy is Fulfilled.”

(Slow funeral music follows.)

Nell. I like the music here, don’t you? It’s what they call a dead march, isn’t it?
Mrs. Griggs. (Reading) “The Party Seeks the Aid of the Gypsies.”
Nell. Isn’t that the same gypsy that told the fortunes?
Clarice. No, that’s Grace Geary.
Mrs. Griggs. Lovely large eyes, hasn’t she, George ?
Mr. Griggs. What’s that?
Mrs. Griggs. I say she has lovely large eyes, hasn’t she?
Mr. Griggs. Yes-s.
Clarice. (Reading) “In the Daughter of the Gypsy Chieftain Edgemont Discovers for the First Time the Meaning of Love.”
Nell. But, she’s a gypsy …
Clarice. Oh. Donald Dundeen is playing the gypsy chief. He is so virile and everything.
Nell. Isn’t he, though? I think I’ve seen him, too — in something.

Clarice. He always plays such strong characters. I love his face. It’s so manly. (Reading) “Under the Pretext of Asking Rose to Dance for His House Guests the Earl Invited the Gypsy Maid to Bellefair Manor.”

(Dance music follows, to which everyone unconsciously beats time. The man on the aisle wakes and watches the picture with great interest.)

Mrs. Griggs. She dances well, doesn’t she, dear? Very pretty and graceful.
Mr. Griggs. Yeah.
Mrs. Griggs. (Reading) “The Earl Seeks the Seclusion of the Garden to Tell Rose of His Great Love.”
Nell. (Raving) I love this.

(The three women sit wrapt in the ecstasy of a love scene. The man on the aisle goes to sleep again. The music is soft and ingratiating.)

Clarice. (Breaking the silence) “The Marriage of the Earl to the Gypsy Maid at the Parish Church Provides Gossip Aplenty for the Villagers.”
Nell. They’re going to the church now, aren’t they ? In the family carriage. I don’t think he looks very happy, though, do you?
Mrs. Griggs. This is a very pretty picture, George, but I don’t think the marriage will be a happy one. Those kind never are.
Mr. Griggs. It isn’t, you’ll see.
Mrs. Griggs. (Satisfied) I knew it wouldn’t be.
Nell. Oh, he’s giving her some beads.
Clarice. Pearls, you mean. Aren’t they lovely, though? I love pearls.
Nell. Oh, yes, Mrs. Graham at home has got a lovely string of real pearls.
Clarice. (Reading) “The Earl Bestows On His Young Bride the Edgemont Pearls, the Heritage of Generations.”

(The piano plays the “Rosary,” and everyone is impressed by the timeliness of the music.)

Nell. “The Rosary.” We’ve got that on the Victrola at home.
Mrs. Griggs. (Reading) “In the Months That Follow One After Another, Rose Learns That the Earl is Tiring of Her Charms.” That’s just what I said, isn’t it, George, it wouldn’t be happy!
Nell, Oh, who’s that, Clarice?
Clarice. That’s the gardener. Just a minor role. You see he is trying to sympathize with her now that the Earl …
Nell. She looks so sad, doesn’t she? Even when the gardener brings her roses.
Mrs. Griggs. There’s a lot to this picture, George ; don’t you think so ? It shows that riches don’t bring happiness after all. (She sighs)
Nell. Oh, what lovely dresses.
Mrs. Griggs. (Reading) “Another Hunting Season Rolls Around and London Society is Again the Guest of Bellefair Manor.” I don’t see his wife — Rose — anywhere. Has she left him or anything?
Mr. Griggs. You’ll see in a minute.
Mrs. Griggs. Oh, there she is in her boudoir. (Reading) “Goaded to Despair By the Snubs of the House Guests, Who Cannot Forget That She is a Gypsy, Rose Refuses to Play the Role of Hostess at Dinner On the Eve of the Hunt.” Well, you can’t really blame her, can you? Right in her own house, too.
Nell. She doesn’t seem very happy, does she? But I do like that dress.
Clarice. No, you see … (Reading) “The Earl, After Upbraiding Her for Her Attitude Toward the Guests, Leaves Her in Displeasure.”
Mrs. Griggs. He’s a perfect brute, isn’t he? (Reading) “Lady Edgemont is Indisposed, and Begs to Be Excused.” What a lie!
Nell. I don’t see what he said that for, though, she isn’t …
Clarice. Don’t you see, he couldn’t very well come right out and say that she refused to come to dinner, because she was angry at the way they had treated her.
Nell. She’s going to write a note. What a pretty writing desk!
Clarice. Oh, did I tell you that father has promised to get me a writing desk for my room for a graduation present. Isn’t that lovely, Nell?
Nell. Yes. Oh, look.
Mrs. Griggs. (Reading) “Good-bye, forever. You will be happier when I am gone.”
Nell. (Simultaneously with Mrs. Griggs) “Good-bye, forever. You will be happier when I am gone. I hope you may forget and forgive. We will never meet again. Rose.”
Mrs. Griggs. (Continues reading) “I hope you will forget and forgive. We will never meet again. Rose.”

(Tosti’s “Good-bye” is played. There is a pause.)

Nell. She is taking her last look. What’s she going back for? Oh. the pearls.
Mr. Griggs. (Shrugging his shoulders) You never catch a woman forgetting her jewelry.
Mrs. Griggs. Oh, of course, he’ll come back when the bird is flown.
Nell. The note is right in plain sight. D’you suppose he sees it?
Clarice. Of course. See, he’s picking it up now. (Reading) “Good-bye, forever. You will be happier when I am gone. I hope you may forget and forgive.”
Mrs. Griggs. Serves him right.
Nell. She’d be sorry now if she could see him.
Clarice. What a wonderful actor, I think. So restrained.
Mrs. Griggs. This is very much like a picture I saw this afternoon. Only in that the wife didn’t leave her husband, but she was tempted to. It was Constance Conner, and she is so emotional. The husband in that is a broker or a banker, on Wall Street, you know, and he neglected his wife for business. It was a splendid picture, George, very clean and moral. I know you would have enjoyed it, George.
Mr. Griggs. Probably.
Clarice. (Reading) “The Passing of Remorseful Years.”
Mrs. Griggs. Well, I should think they would be remorseful.
Clarice. (Continues reading) “The Earl’s Sole Consolation for the Loss of His Wife is the Guardianship of His Late Friend’s Son.”
Nell. Oh, Clarice, isn’t he handsome?
Clarice. Perfectly stunning, I think. That’s Austin Hobbs. The Flicker says he is a potential star.
Nell. The gardener is the same one who was there before his wife left, isn’t he?
Mrs. Griggs. Why, that young man must be the son of the one who was killed out hunting, you know, In the first part of the picture. He does look like his father — something — don’t you think so, George?
Clarice. (Reading) “There Are Two Men Waiting to See You, Sir. Gypsies, I Should Say, Sir.”
Nell. Oh, do you suppose, Clarice …
Mrs. Griggs. Likely as not, George, these gypsies are of the same tribe as the Earl’s wife.
Mr. Griggs. Of course, they are, but they don’t know anything about him. You see they just want to camp on his land, on the manor, or whatever you call it.
Mrs. Griggs. Oh, I see. (Reading) “In the Absence of the Earl, Edgar Dorsey Allows the Gypsies the Privilege of Camping on the Estate.” But where is the Earl all this time?
Mr. Griggs. Oh, he’s away somewhere, I suppose.
Clarice. (Reading) “Lola, the Daughter of the Tribe, Grace Geary.”
Nell. But I don’t understand. I thought Grace Geary was the wife.
Clarice. She was; but she is playing a dual part.
Nell. Dual?
Clarice. Yes, you see she plays both the mother and the daughter. Lola is the daughter of Rose and the Earl.
Nell. Oh, I see. She must be a wonderful actress to do that. Oh, she’s going to tell his fortune now.
Mrs. Griggs. It don’t seem as if these gypsies do anything but tell fortunes.
Mr. Griggs. She doubles pretty well.
Mrs. Grigg. (Perplexed for the moment)
Doubles? Oh, you mean she plays both parts well. Yes, I think she is just fine.
Clarice. (Reading) “Under the Witchery of the October Moon Edgar Falls a Prey to the Charms of the Gypsy Girl.”
Mrs. Griggs. I suppose this is all going on without the Earl knowing anything about it.
Mr. Griggs. He’ll hear all about it. You’ll see.
Mrs. Griggs. Does it end happily, George?
Mr. Griggs. Sure, they all do.

(In the scene that follows the three women watch with greatest interest the love scene on the screen. Nell grasps her hands tightly together and sighs deeply. Mr. Griggs picks his teeth, and the man on the aisle watches the picture pathetically.)

Mrs. Griggs. (Breaking the silence by reading) “To-morrow I Will Ask the Earl for His Consent to Our Union. If He Should Refuse, I Will Leave All for You.” I can just about expect what the Earl will say.
Mr. Griggs. He comes through all right when he finds out who she is.
Nell. Oh, there’s the Earl now. He certainly does look stern. If I was Edgar, I wouldn’t want to ask him.
Clarice. (Reading) “Consent to Your Union With a Gypsy. Never!”
Nell. Where’s he going? The Earl, I mean.
Clarice. You’ll see if he isn’t going to order the gypsies off the estate. There, see. (She reads) “The Earl Goes to the Gypsy Camp to Order Their Departure From the Manor.”
Nell. Oh, see now. My, he is mad.
Mrs. Griggs. And he meets his own daughter there probably. There, I told you. See how he drops his cane the moment he sees her.
Clarice. You see, he recognizes Lola as his daughter. (Reading) “In the Eves of Lola, the Wandering Gypsy Girl, the Earl Sees the Eyes of Rose. His Girl Wife.”

Mrs. Griggs. (Moved to tears) This is a lovely picture; very touching.
Nell. There’s Edgar. Oh, he’s going to consent to it.
Clarice. Why, of course. Isn’t she his own daughter?
Nell. I think it is lovely the way it came out.
Clarice. (Reading) “Once Again the Villagers Flock to Their Doors to See the Carriage of the Earl Drive to the Parish Church, Bearing a Lovely Bride.”
Mrs. Griggs, It’s a lovely ending, too. I wonder if I wore rubbers, George; do you remember?
Mr. Griggs. You always do.
Mrs. Griggs. I thought I did. Oh, here they are. (She fishes them out from under the seat in triumph just in time to read) “In the Twilight of Life the Earl Sees in the Lives of Lola and Edgar the Happiness of Which He Dreamed.” (Pause) “The End.”
Clarice. Aw, “Rice Culture in Japan.” Let’s go. (She rises hastily)
Nell. Don’t you want to see it? (She gets up reluctantly)
Clarice. No, come on.

(They go out, compelling Mrs. Griggs, who is putting on her rubbers, to rise, and the man on the aisle to move out laboriously. When the man is just settled, Mrs. Griggs speaks.)

Mrs. Griggs. Probably this is an educational picture, George. Let’s not stay.
Mr. Griggs. All right.

(She puts on her hat, and he takes his from under the seat, and again the man on the aisle is obliged to surrender his seat, and allow them to pass. He moves back, and settles himself to become engrossed in the intricacies of rice culture, when the curtain falls.)

Comments: This is one of several comic sketches from this period written for amateur dramatic performance which mock the habits of movie audiences, in particular talking while the film is going on. Other examples are Minnie at the Movies and Maisie at the Movies. Fatty Arbuckle, Elsie Ferguson and Pauline Frederick were genuine film performers. The film titles are imaginary, but Pauline Frederick did appear in a film version of Tosca (in 1918),

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

The little Madeleine

Source: Mrs Robert Henrey, The little Madeleine: the autobiography of a young French girl (New York: Dutton, 1953), pp. 199-200, 204-205

Text: Mme Maurer, grateful and generous, found a charming way to say thank you. Immediately after lunch on my half-holiday she, my mother, and I would go to the cinema in the Avenue de Clichy, where the programme included a film in several episodes, with Pearl White, and a Max Linder comedy. The programme started at two, and as soon as I heard the bell announcing the approach of the great moment my excitement was immense. Pathé Journal began with a flickering news-reel. Weary soldiers in long files marched down the lines. Lloyd George and Clemenceau danced across the screen with unbelievable speed. King George V and his good-looking son, the Prince of Wales, shook hands with soldiers and climbed over trenches and barbed wire. The cinema seemed to soak all these famous men and incidents with an oblique and incessant rain.

My mother found in these visits to the cinema her first moments of genuine pleasure. We would discuss what we had seen, thinking all the week about the next episode. A little later the great Gaumont Palace was opened in the Place Clichy. Then it was a different matter. The most famous cabaret singers in Paris were engaged to appear in the intervals, and the auditorium, full of soldiers and officers of every nation, made our hearts beat with patriotism.

[…]

When my father was on a night shift my mother, Marguerite Rosier (we had now forgiven her for running away from the man with the knife), and I went to a cheap cinema in the Boulevard National, arriving half an hour before the performance started, to be sure of having the best seats.

Our cinema smelt of garlic and peppermint drops. Palm-trees stood on either side of the stage, their branches casting uneven shadows on the white screen like giant spiders. Excitedly we waited. In spite of our love for Pearl White we had not quite cured ourselves of thinking of the cinema in terms of the age-old theatre, and we had gone instinctively to the front of the stalls where, after a while, we would see appear from behind a curtain a little hunchback woman with a big white head surmounted by a number of diamanté spangled combs. She would slip her rheumatic knees under an upright piano and begin a Strauss waltz. The apache boys from the fortifications who were here in large numbers whistled the accompaniment, while putting an arm round the shoulder of a girl, getting into position to unbutton the blouse and fondle her breasts. These were the girls who worked for them as prostitutes on the outer zone, drawing men with alluring gestures, like Circes, near to the wall where the apache lay in waiting with his knife. All the boys wore their caps and sometimes their red scarves. A few moments later came a small dark man holding a violin case tightly under his arm, and as he made his way towards the hunchback his journey was followed by loud whistles and exclamations of ‘Hurry up, maestro! You’re late, brother! Let’s go and sleep with his wife while he scratches a tune on his fiddle!’ The fiddler, pale and without any sign of fluster, removed a black hat, placing it carefully on the edge of a chair, folded his overcoat, took up the hat which he would then place on top of the folded overcoat, and delicately brush the dandruff from his narrow shoulders. At last he opened the case, holding the violin under an arm whilst he put a handkerchief under his chin. The audience invariably cried out: ‘The little old man is going to weep!’ Then dolefully: ‘Don’t worry, daddy, you’ll see her again, your girl friend!’ Now at last, with a sign of his bow to the hunchback, he would begin to play. The lights would go out. The screen flickered.

By the time the big film started this chaffing audience was settling down to the charms of Mary Pickford with her blonde curls. The love-story was getting the better of these boys and girls from the fortifications who, for all their naughtiness, were just sentimental children. At this magnificent moment, after all the fatigues of the long day, after school, after queueing, after playing in the street, exhausted, I fell fast asleep on my mother’s shoulder! This happened every time we went to the cinema. Before setting out in the evening I would say: ‘If I go to sleep you will wake me up, won’t you, mother?’ She promised. Indeed she did wake me, but after rubbing the sand out of my eyes and trying to unravel the plot, I fell asleep again, and my mother, transported to a land of make-believe, was far too interested in the romance to keep on pinching my arm. I would sulk on the way home, and childishly threaten to tell my father where we had been. My mother answered patiently: ‘To-morrow I will describe the whole episode to you while you are sewing, and next time you really must try to keep awake!’

Comments: Madeleine Henrey (1906-2004), who mostly published as Mrs Robert Henrey, was a French author of popular memoirs. Her son, Bobby Henrey, played the child lead in the film The Fallen Idol (UK 1948). The Gaumont Palace, located at Place Clichy, Paris, opened in December 1907, ahead of Henrey’s First World War period memories. It was the largest cinema in Europe, seating over 6,000.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Front Rows

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Peformance VII: The Front Rows’, Close Up vol. II no. 1, January 1928, pp. 59-64

Text: As the heavy drops fell and the first cannonade rumbled through the upper layers of the heatwave I saw close at hand garish placards and wide open doors. Entering, following the torch on and on through the darkness until we could go no further was for retreating and spending the hour elsewhere. But as the torch-bearer stood aside for me to pass to a seat, the light of the screen fell full upon the occupants of the front row: three small boys, one collapsed in the attitude of sleep, and indeed, I saw as I sat down, soundly sleeping, propped against the shoulder of my neighbour whose thin face, sheened by nervous excitement, lifted a foolish gaze towards the glare. Here was the worst. Here indeed was “the pictures” as black villainy. I remembered all I had heard and tried to forget on the subject of the evils of the cinema, as it is, for small children and especially for the children in the front rows. All the week these boys were penned in stuffy class-rooms. And this was their Saturday afternoon, their time to reverse engines and go full steam backwards into savagery, make their street a jungle and learn from each other the lessons of the jungle. Or perhaps their time for becoming boy scouts. And here they were, “ruining nerves and eyesight and breathing stifling air” and learning either less than nothing or more than was good.

But the air was not stifling. In spite of the weather the place had a certain coolness and when I raised my eyes to the screen I had no sense of blinding glare or effort to focus. There was indeed no possibility of focussing a scene so immense that one could only move about in it from point to point and realise that the business of the expert front-rower is to find the centre of action and follow it as best he can. Of the whole: as something to hold in the eye he can have no more idea than has the proverbial fly of the statue over which he crawls. But at least as far as I could tell there was no feeling of glare or of eyestrain. Though it may be that the interest of making discoveries put the censor off guard. It seemed at any rate that unless it be bad for young eyes to gaze for three hours at a large mild brilliance close at hand, the eye-strain alarmists were disposed of. And if indeed it is bad, it is for the public health people to legislate for an increase of the distance between the screen and the front rows. But supposing the worst to exist only in the imaginations of the officiously fussy, what I wanted if possible to discover was just what it was these three boys got from the discreet immensity so closely confronting us. The one nearest to me certainly nothing more than unhealthy excitement, but he poor soul whether pent in school or ramping in alley, called for special help before he could get anything anywhere and was therefore disqualified to act as a test. Left to himself the poor moth was fated merely to gravitate.

The enormous bears moved in foolish gravity upon their cliffs in a scene too dispersed to be impressive. But they were of course bears, real bears. Bears in movement. They passed and soon we were looking at the deck of a ship in mid-ocean. Crew, deeds, drama, a centre of action moving from point to point. Suddenly, before the weight of a funny man in difficulties and at bay, a portion of the gunwale swung round in the manner of a gate upon its hinges and held him dangling in mid-air above the seething main. From the endmost boy, the one beyond the sleeper, came a shriek I can never forget. It filled the silent hall, one pure full high note that curved swiftly up to the next and ceased staccato; blissful terror in a single abrupt sound. People behind craned forward hoping for a happy glimpse of the face of a child in transport. The man on the ship swung back to safety and out again and again the cry pealed forth. This time I caught sight of the blood-thirsty little villain. A perfect gamin, rotund. Clear-eyed, clean-skinned, bolt upright with pudgy fists on knees to watch the event. We had that yell four times, the outflung utterly unselfconscious being of a child attained, the kind of sound Chaplin listens for when he is testing a film.

It changed the direction of my meditation on the front rows.

Since that far-off incident I have seen and heard a good deal of the front rows and much as I should like to see widened the gap between them and the screen I no longer desire to send the juvenile front rowers to amuse or bore themselves elsewhere. Thinking them back into a filmless world and particularly into filmless winters, I am glad of their presence on the easy terms that are compensation for their inconveniences. Presently no doubt there will be children’s cinemas with films provided by the good folks who like to believe they know both what children need and what they like. Before this prospect I hesitate thinking of the children’s hour upon the wireless. But such films, any films put together for children regarded as dear little darlings, inviting their own fate will have their little day and cease to be. Most children unless forcibly excluded from all other films, will refuse to sit them out. There are plenty of people about whose love for children is tinctured with a decent respect. Let us hope that some of them are even now meditating possible films.

Meanwhile the front rowers of all ages, the All-out responsive pit and gallery of the cinema are getting their education and preparing, are indeed already a little more than prepared for the films that are to come. Anyone visiting from time to time a local cinema whose audience is almost as unvarying as its films, cannot fail to have remarked the development of the front rowers, their growth in critical grace. Their audible running commentary is one of the many incidental interests of a poor film. It is not only that today the lingering close-up of the sweet girl with tragically staring tear-filled eyes is apt to be greeted with jeers, and the endless love-making of the endless lovers with groans. It is not only that today’s front rowers recognise all the stock characters at a glance and can predict developments. It is that the quality of the attention and collaboration that almost any stock drama can still command is changed. For although attention never wavers and collaboration is still hearty and still the sleek and sleekly-tailored malefactor is greeted at his first and innocent seeming entry as a wrong’un and the hero, racing life in hand through a hundred hairbreadth escapes to the rescue is still loudly applauded and applause breaks forth anew when the villain is flung over the cliff, the front rows are no longer thrilled quite as they were in their earlier silent days by all the hocus-pocus. They come level-headed and serenely talking through drama that a year ago would have held them dizzy and breathless. Even a novel situation does not too much disturb them. They attend, refuse to be puzzled, watch for the working out. And films “above their heads”, if the characters are fairly convincing, the acting fairly good and the whole fairly well-knit, do not bore them. They see, possibly not all that is intended, but if quality is there, they see and assist. It is never the goodish to good film that produces fidgets, giggles, audible yawns, waitings and gnashings of teeth. Only to the film that is halt maimed and blind, no matter what magnificence it may present, will these tributes be paid. In the film as in life, the what matters less than the how. All this of course within reasonable limits. There are certain films the front rows prefer above all others. And of some kinds they can apparently never have too much. Comics for instance. And family drama of all kinds. Family drama must be very feeble indeed to fail to capture. This is hardly surprising. There is very little about family life the front rows do not know. Animals too, tame or wild, are greatly beloved though there is no longer a thrill to be got from the seedy old lion trotting half-heartedly from room to room after prey known to be in no danger. And the American language. Once it was part of the puzzles and bewilderments of “the pictures”, but is there now a child in London who cannot at the right moment say: “Oh, boy” and read and delightedly understand each idiom, and grin through the Hollywood caption that is metaphor running amuk and crammed with facetiousness?

They are there in their millions, the front rowers, a vast audience born and made in the last few years, initiated, disciplined, and waiting.

Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves. This entry has been posted to mark the very welcome addition of Close Up to the Internet Archive by the Media History Digital Library.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

Wake Up Little Susie

Source: Felice and Boudleaux Bryant, ‘Wake Up Little Susie’, song recorded by the Everly Brothers, 1957. Lyrics reproduced from http://www.metrolyrics.com/wake-up-little-susie-lyrics-everly-brothers.html

Text: Wake up little Susie, wake up
Wake up little Susie, wake up
We both fell sound asleep
Wake up little Susie and weep
The movie’s over, it’s four o’clock
And we’re in trouble deep

Wake up little Susie, wake up little Susie
Well, what are we gonna tell your mama?
What are we gonna tell your pa?
What are we gonna tell our friends
When they say “Ooh la la”?

Wake up little Susie, wake up little Susie
Well I told your mama that we’d be in by ten
Well Susie baby looks like we goofed again
Wake up little Susie, wake up little Susie
We gotta go home

Wake up little Susie, wake up
Wake up little Susie, wake up
The movie wasn’t so hot
It didn’t have much of a plot
We fell asleep, our goose is cooked
Our reputation is shot

Wake up little Susie, wake up little Susie
Well, what are we gonna tell your mama?
What are we gonna tell your pa?
What are we gonna tell our friends
When they say “Ooh la la”?

Wake up little Susie
Wake up little Susie
Wake up little Susie

Comments: Felice (1925-2003) and Boudleaux Bryant (1920-1987) were an American husband and wife song-writing team. ‘Wake Up Little Susie’ was recorded by the Everly Brothers and topped the US Billboard pop and country charts, and reached number 2 in the UK pop charts. The lyrics refer to two teenagers falling asleep at an American drive-in and breaking a ten o’clock curfew. Phil Everly died on 3 January 2014, aged 74.

So Laugh a Little

Source: Molly Picon, So Laugh a Little (New York: Julian Messner, 1962), pp. 136-142

Text: If someone were to write a history of the movies from the fan’s point of view, he would have to include my grandmother. From the day she walked in to see her first nickelodeon, she was completely captivated by Hollywood. She might not have gone to the nickelodeon if my grandfather hadn’t used every argument he could muster to get her there – what did she need it for, she cried, the first time the subject came up, she had a million things to to around the house, she didn’t feel like getting all dressed up, if he wanted to go, she wouldn’t stand in his way. My grandfather patiently outwaited all her cogent reasons for not leaving the house and eventually bore her off triumphantly to witness the marvel of moving pictures. Afterwards he used to complain that a man didn’t know when he was well off, why hadn’t he left well enough alone, if he had known how she would react he would have had his head examined before he talked her into it. My grandmother would smile and wave her hand at him and tell him not to get excited, at least she wasn’t a gambler or a drinker. My grandmother didn’t need alcoholic stimulation; she was intoxicated by the silver screen. Although she loved the theatre, she never responded to it the way she did to the movies. I have often thought that the plays she saw on the Yiddish stage hit too close to home; the situations were exaggerated, perhaps, but always contained nuggets of reality; the people were too easily identified with. They were, after all, her own people. But up there on the screen, magnified out of all contact with her world, scenes would unfold before her that would transport her into a never-never land. Even when she didn’t understand what was happening – and this occurred more often than not – she still loved every minute of it.

When I would ask her what she had seen, she would shrug her shoulders and say, “Do I know? They were hitting and fighting, and the girl didn’t like the good-looking one, and then she did like him, and then she changed her mind again. I don’t know what’s the matter with the girls today. In my time nobody asked you. You got married and that finished it.”

“Then you didn’t care for the picture?” I asked.

“Didn’t care for it?” she repeated incredulously. “With all that fighting and hitting and that poor boy up there eating his heart out for her? Why didn’t I like it?”

She became such an avid movie fan that Helen and I had to sit and read every little bit of gossip we could find in the papers to her, up to and including the blurbs of coming attractions. To my grandmother this wasn’t gossip, but gospel. She never for a moment doubted that every word was true. After all, it was printed, right there, in black and white. In those days, we lost my grandmother regularly once a week. For this was the era of the weekly serial, and Pearl White was its human sacrifice in fifteen installments. In spite of my grandmother’s shrieking warnings, Pearl White always managed to get herself into utterly hopeless situations. She would be huddling in some dank cellar while up above the villain would be peering down at her through a convenient hole in the floor, threatening to flood the cellar and drown poor Pearl unless she immediately and forthwith yielded what my grandmother always called her “good name.” Both Pearl White and my grandmother rejected these advances haughtily, no matter what the consequences. And the villain, of course, would then promptly turn on the waterworks.

All week long, my grandmother would worry and fret and strain for the days to pass so she could see how Pearl was doing. Pearl would escape from drowning only to wind up, at the end of that particular installment, in an even more precarious position, maybe tied to the railroad tracks, or about to be evenly distributed in a sawmill, or hanging by her fingertips from a cliff whilst the villain carefully and painstakingly lifted her fingers, one by one. I remember one time my grandmother was ill and unable to attend the next showing. She went into an absolute frenzy. I couldn’t go, because I was involved in a rehearsal. Helen was out of town. My mother had to stay home and take care of my grandmother. That left only my grandfather, who regarded the whole thing as bordering on simple insanity. “I should spend a beautiful day in the dark to watch a girl make a fool of herself,” he scoffed. “This week she’ll hang by the neck, and next week she’ll hang by the toes, and after the fifteen weeks is up, she’ll only start all in again with the foolishness. You would think with all the trouble she gets into that she would learn something.”

“Aaron, I beg you,” my grandmother pleaded. “I left her last week the house was burning down, and she was choking … such choking she was purple in the face. Like this she was, Aaron …” And my grandmother went into a graphic illustration that almost purpled her own face, but my grandfather remained unmoved.

“So what are you so worried?” he replied indifferently. “You think they’ll let anything happen to her? And for her I should miss my checkers?”

Even my grandmother couldn’t expect my grandfather to give up a checker game for Pearl White. All week she brooded. A whole episode missed and gone forever. When she would return to the theatre, Pearl would be facing a completely new peril. It was too much for flesh and blood to stand, my grandmother complained. As soon as she was well, she hurried off to the theatre and cornered the manager.

“Mr. Brody,” she panted. “From you I can have an answer. Tell me what happened last week. One foot I don’t put outside this office till I hear what happened.”

“God love you, Mrs. Ostrow,” said Mr. Brody, who had come to know my grandmother very well, in weekly installments, “how would I be knowing that? I’ve more adventures of my own keeping an eye on the little devils that come to watch her than she’ll ever be having.”

My grandmother couldn’t believe it. She herself would sit through both showings of the serial, just in the hope that it might come out differently at the end the second time, and here was Mr. Brody, with such a golden opportunity, who didn’t even care!

“Do you have any idea what the little monsters do here of an afternoon?” Mr. Brody warmed up to his subject as one who had had much practice. “I won’t mention the condition of the floors, with the boxes and papers and bags filled with banana peels and apple cores,” he said, waving an angry finger under my grandmother’s nose. “Nor do I care to mention the state of the bathrooms in front of a lady. But do you have any idea what happens to the seats?” He clutched his head. “The black plague on him that invented chewing gum!”

“I ask him about last week and he gives me chewing gum. Mr. Brody. A whole week I’m dying …”

“It’s the back of my hand to the next whippersnapper I see with a mouthful of the stuff.” Mr. Brody, my grandmother could understand, was too full of his own woes to be concerned with hers. She left his office, muttering to herself angrily. Fortunately she ran into an usher who was as much enraptured with Pearl White as my grandmother.

“Ya dint see ut?” he whispered, aghast.

“I was sick. Please. I’m dying. How did she get out of the fire?”

“It was the cat’s pajamas,” the usher said. “Ya know how she dint see no way outa there, an thuh fire gettin’ closer alla time, and she was kinda chokin’ up from the smoke …?”

“Yeh, yeh, I know the fire and the smoke … what did she do?”

“Well, just when it looked like she was a goner, she noticed a little door she never seen before and …”

And turned the knob and escaped into the clean, outside world to start running from the villain in Chapter Ten, to be seen at this theatre next week, don’t miss this exciting episode.

When talking pictures came in, my grandmother became an even more ardent fan. She would come home beaming and repeat the story to us whether we wanted to hear it or not. Since the plot suffered considerably in the retelling, it was like trying to solve a puzzle with half the pieces missing. For some reason or other, my grandmother would identify the actor or actress with the role he was playing, so that if John Gilbert’s name in the story was Henry, he would remain Henry to her.

I’ll never forget the day she saw Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. She sobbed so hard through this performance that even after the curtain swished across the screen and the house fights were put on, she sat in her seat and cried vigorously. She came home with a bagful of sodden handkerchiefs, convinced that Al Jolson had sustained a terrible loss. In the picture, he sang a tearjerker called Sonny Boy to an angelic-faced child who subsequently died. Nothing could persuade my grandmother that this boy was not Al Jolson’s child. For weeks she would walk around the house, heaving racking sighs and wiping tears from her eyes.

“Bubba. For heaven’s sake,” I said, annoyed. “It was only a picture! That boy will be in a dozen new pictures before the year is over.”

“What do you know how a father’s heart can break? Wait. When you’re a mother, you’ll understand what it is to have love for a child.”

“But, Bubba. That child did not die. It was just a story.”

“Malkele,” she replied sorrowfully. “I know you mean well and you’re trying to make me feel better. But you’re young yet. You don’t know what real suffering is.”

From that time on, she became especially interested in Al Jolson’s career. If she heard gossip that was good, she felt considerably cheered. If she heard comments that were unfavorable, she would shake her head gravely and say, “That poor man hasn’t been the same since he lost his little boy.”

As she became older, she preferred stories with modern settings. When we took her to see a picture depicting early days in man’s history, she would turn to me or to Yonkel and say disapprovingly, “Why do you take me to see a picture made in olden days?”

“Bubba,” I would answer. “The picture wasn’t made in those days. The movies are practically brand new. That is a picture that just came out this year from Hollywood.”

“Go on,” she denied unbelievingly, “don’t I see with my own eyes what they’re wearing and how they are living?”

We discovered, after a while, that my grandmother would go to the movies for still another reason than to see what was playing. It was so dark and cozy and relaxing, my grandmother found it ideal for sleeping. The music would crash through the theatre; sirens would wail; heroines would shriek. My grandmother would doze blissfully through it all, awaken refreshed, and remark that she didn’t remember when she had enjoyed a picture more.

Finally my grandmother took to going to see foreign films. This was somewhat of a puzzle to me, since she had rough going with American films. One day I spoke to her as she was busily preparing to go to a Spanish movie.

“Bubba,” I protested. “A Spanish movie you want to see? Do you understand Spanish?”

She looked at me, and her eyes crinkled with amusement as she answered, “And who understands English?”

My grandmother was constantly amazed at the new innovations in the motion picture field, but I think there was never a time to equal, for her, the Pearl White days. Once, when I took her to see some mystery film, remembering how she loved the suspense in the old-time serials, she turned to me and said, “You think she is suffering?” – pointing scornfully to the quaking heroine on the screen – “you should have seen little Pearlie White. She was a real wreck.”

Comments: Molly Picon (1898-1992) was a renowned American star of Yiddish theatre and film. The above is a chapter from her memoir (‘as told Eth Clifford Rosenberg’) of her family and upbringing. Her Ostrovsky (later Ostrow) grandparents came from Rizshishtchov in Russia, where Picon’s mother was born. Molly Picon herself was born in New York. Al Jolson’s song ‘Sonny Boy’ comes from the film The Singing Fool (USA 1928), not The Jazz Singer (USA 1927). Pearl White starred in the serial The Perils of Pauline (USA 1914).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust