A Death in the Family

Source: James Agee, A Death in the Family (London: Peter Owen, 1965 – orig. pub. 1957), pp. 11-14

Text: At supper that night, as many times before, his father said, “Well, spose we go to the picture show.”

“Oh, Jay!” his mother said. “That horrid little man!”

“What’s wrong with him?” his father asked, not because he didn’t know what she would say, but so she would say it.

“He’s so nasty!” she said, as she always did. “So vulgar! With his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty little walk!”

His father laughed, as he always did, and Rufus felt that it had become rather an empty joke; but as always the laughter also cheered him; he felt that the laughter enclosed him with his father.

They walked downtown in the light of mother-of-pearl, to the Majestic, and found their way to seats by the light of the screen, in the exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume and dirty drawers, while the piano played fast music and galloping horses raised a grandiose flag of dust.

And there was William S. Hart with both guns blazing and his long, horse face and his long, hard lip and the great country rode away behind him as wide as the world. Then he made a bashful face at a girl and his horse raised its upper lip and everybody laughed, and then the screen was filled with a city and with the sidewalk of a side street of a city, a long line of palms and there was Charlie; everyone laughed the minute they saw him squattily walking with his toes out and his knees wide apart, as if he were chafed; Rufus’ father laughed, and Rufus laughed too. This time Charlie stole a whole bag of eggs and when a cop came along he hid them in the seat of his pants. Then he caught sight of a pretty woman and he began to squat and twirl his cane and make silly faces. She tossed her head and walked away with her chin up high and her dark mouth as small as she could make it and he followed her very busily, doing all sorts of things with his cane that made everybody laugh, but she paid no attention. Finally she stopped at a corner to wait for a streetcar, turning her back to him, and pretending he wasn’t even there, and after trying to get her attention for a while, and not succeeding, he looked out at the audience, shrugged his shoulders, and acted as if she wasn’t there. But after tapping his foot for a little, pretending he didn’t care, he became interested again, and with a charming smile, tipped his derby; but she only stiffened, and tossed her head again, and everybody laughed. Then he walked back and forth behind her, looking at her and squatting a little while he walked very quietly, and everybody laughed again; then he flicked hold of the straight end of his cane and, with the crooked end, hooked up her skirt to the knee, in exactly the way that disgusted Mama, looking very eagerly at her legs, and everybody laughed very loudly; but she pretended she had not noticed .Then he twirled his cane and suddenly squatted, bending the cane and hitching up his pants, and again hooked up her skirt so that you could see the panties she wore, ruffled almost like the edges of curtains, and everybody whooped with laughter, and she suddenly turned in rage and gave him a shove in the chest, and he sat down straight-legged, hard enough to hurt, and everybody whooped again; and she walked haughtily away up the street, forgetting about the streetcar, “mad as a hornet!” as his father exclaimed in delight; and there was Charlie, flat on his bottom on the sidewalk, and the way he looked, kind of sickly and disgusted, you could see that he suddenly remembered those eggs, and suddenly you remembered them too. The way his face looked, with the lip wrinkled off the teeth and the sickly little smile, it made you feel just the way those broken eggs must feel against your seat, as queer and awful as that time in the white pekay suit, when it ran down out of the pants-legs and showed all over your stockings and you had to walk home that way with people looking; and Rufus’s father nearly tore his head off laughing and so did everybody else, and Rufus was sorry for Charlie, having been so recently in a similar predicament, but the contagion of laughter was too much for him, ang he laughed too. And then it was even funnier when Charlie very carefully got himself from the sidewalk, with that sickly look even worse on his face, and put his cane under one arm, and began to pick at his pants, front and back, very carefully, with his little fingers crooked, as if it were too dirty to touch, picking the sticky cloth away from his skin. Then he reached behind him and took out the wet bag of broken eggs and opened it and peered in; and took out a broken egg and pulled the shell disgustedly apart, letting the elastic yolk slump from one half shell into the other, and dropped it, shuddering. Then he peered in again and fished out a whole egg, all slimy with broken walk, and polished it off carefully on his sleeve, and looked at it, and wrapped it in his dirty handkerchief, and put it carefully into the vest pocket of his little coat. Then he whipped out his cane from under his armpit and took command of it again, and with a final look at everybody, still sickly but at the same time cheerful, shrugged his shoulders and turned his back and scraped backward with his big shoes at the broken shells and the slimy bag, just like a dog, and looked back at the mess (everybody laughed again at that) and started to walk away, bending his cane deep with every shuffle, and squatting deeper, with his knees wider apart, than ever before, constantly picking at the seat of his pants with his left hand, and shaking one foot, then the other, and once gouging deep into his seat and then pausing and shaking his whole body, like a wet dog, and then walking on; while the screen shut over his small image a sudden circle of darkness: then the player-piano changed its tune, and the ads came in motionless color. They sat on into the William S. Hart feature to make sure why he had killed the man with the fancy vest – it was as they had expected by her frightened, pleased face after the killing; he had insulted a girl and cheated her father as well – and Rufus’ father said, “Well, … this is where we came in,” but they watched him kill the man all over again; then they walked out.

Comments: James Agee (1909-1955) was an American novelist, journalist and film critic. The passage above is the opening to chapter one of his posthumously-published novel A Death in the Family, which is set in 1915 in his home town of Knoxville, Tennessee. Despite the great detail given, the Charlie Chaplin film described is imaginary. The family had attended a continuous show, which is why the William S. Hart western comes round again. Player-pianos were not infrequently used in early cinema shows.

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.

The Raven

Source: Harris Merton Lyon, extract from ‘The Raven’, in Graphics (St. Louis: William Marion Reedy, 1913), pp. 40-42

Text: “Where yuh going?” said the one brought up as a lady.

“To the movin’ pitcher show. It’s only five cents.

“I aint’ got it just now.”

“Well, go get a nickel from your ma and come along.”

So Alicia went back and got the nickel. Her mother never even asked her what it was for.

A cheap, tinsel edifice, formerly a shoe store. Inside, a pitch dark, low-ceilinged box of a room. Wooden benches. A disgusting smell of multiple-breathed human breath, ammoniac reek of perspiration on the unbathed. A dim red light to the left, indicating a doubtful and rusty exit. In front the dingy screen upon which the mottled and galvanized pictures rippled off the story of some classic sweetheart carried away at dawn by her passionate lover. The heroine threw a riding-cloak over her night dress and was borne down a ladder from the window of a castle. The hero wore doublets, hose, sword, a feather in his hat, spurs. A great iron-grey horse awaited them. They mounted, wheeled and started off. The chase began. Lure! Romance! Adventure! Dare and do! Love! Passion! Lure!

Others followed.

It was all action, feverish action, cut to the very quick and kept there. No explanations were offered, save those which each unskilled brain in the rapt audience could give itself. Men whipped out revolvers, shot each other; women suddenly kissed men; and so on. Act followed act rapidly without leaving time for digestion, even if those who watched had any powers of digesting such miraculous scenes. Thus for three-quarters of an hour the fantastic, dazzling display gave them sensation after sensation; and the gaping crowd, absorbed, forgot them; absorbed new ones, immediately forgot them—craving endlessly more. More bowing, smiling, kissing, shooting, trickery, disguises, thievery, pantomime passion, slapstick comedy, runaways. The grotesque. The ignoble. The dramatic.

Then, with a violent final click the machine stopped. Lights were turned on. The two front doors thrown open. Voices bawled: “Out this way, ladies and gents. This way out!” The show was over.

Comments: Harris Merton Lyon (1882-1916) was an American short story writer. His moralistic short story ‘The Raven’, originally published in a newspaper, centres around a visit to a New York moving picture show and the dangers that ensue for a naive young girl seeing films for the first time (she ends up a victim of White Slavery and commits suicide). Many ‘nickelodeons’ in the early years of cinemagoing were shop conversions, as here.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

British Cinemas and their Audiences

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

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

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

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

Children of the Green

Source: Doris M. Bailey, Children of the Green: A true story of childhood in Bethnal Green 1922-1937 (London: Stepney Books, 1981), pp. 75-77

Text: Besides taking me to Woolworths, she [her aunt Rose] sometimes took me to the pictures, and what a thrill that was. I had only been with the penny rush before that. The penny rush was held on a Saturday afternoon in a cinema just off Roman Road, and it was just what its name implied. My cousins made it a regular Saturday treat, and Eva often went along with them, but none of them liked taking me. As we hurried along, clutching our orange or bag of peanuts, they would talk between them of Norma and Richard Talmadge and lots of other stars, but all I did was to pray like mad that no one would kill anyone or fire any guns.

When the doors opened we all rushed in, and for some reason that I could never fathom at the time, they all made for the seats near the back and only the late comers sat in the front rows. As soon as the film started, the piano would start to play, the pianist dressed in a long black skirt with a white fancy thing on her head a bit like a Lyons nippy.

As soon as things got going, the piano would play loud banging music and I’d grip my hands on the seat and shut my eyes tight. Just in case anyone fell down dead. When a car came towards me on the screen, I was dead scared in case it came right out and ran me over, and when the cowboys and horses galloped in my direction, I would shoot under the seat and stay there.

If however the picture was sad, I would burst into tears and have to be taken outside in disgrace for making a noise. Mum and Dad once took us to see Charlie Chaplin in ‘The Gold Rush’ as a very special treat, but I broke my heart over the poor little man having to stew his boots for food.

“Oh, please, please,” I cried, “please can’t anyone give him some food?” So, all in all, no one was very keen on taking me to the pictures. But when I grew a bit older and learnt to control my emotions, nothing delighted me more than being taken to the pictures by aunt Rose. Even the cinema she frequented as different, it didn’t smell of smoke and oranges and sweat; there was a smartly dressed young lady who walked around spraying something into the air, and it smelt more like the perfume department of a big store.

The pictures we saw were nicer too: we never saw cowboys and Indians there, but there were ladies and gentlemen kissing each other and holding hands and getting married and riding in lovely carriages. Or else they were dying gently in big beautiful beds, even better than aunt Kate’s. “Kiss me Charles, and be good to baby,” would flash on the screen, and the audience in aunt’s type of cinema would read quietly, and just sob gently, if it was very sad. I would keep putting out my tongue to catch the tears as they rolled down my cheek, lest aunt should see me crying and not take me again. The piano played soft haunting music that made you want to keep on swallowing hard, and when you eventually came out into the bright sunshine, you could pretend you had something in your eye and keep on wiping it.

But aunt had developed a sudden cold too, and had to keep on sniffing, so we’d sniff and wipe our way home, where the two dogs would give us a boisterous welcome and aunt would make tea, talking all the time about what she’d have done, had she been the heroine. “She was too soft with him, don’t you think, Dol,” she would call from the kitchen and, thrilled to be talked to as an equal, I would discuss with her the merits of the film. At the penny rush, everyone read the captions out loud.

“Oh leave me sir,” we would all call out, as the maiden struggled with the villain. Oh, we had incentives to become fast readers in those days. Perhaps today’s children would become better readers if the T.V. went back to the old silent days for its stories and children had to use their brain to read, instead of being spoon fed with all their entertainment.

It was not until the era of the ‘talkie’ that people like aunt Kate and Janet went to the pictures and I’ll never forget when Mum and auntie Liz persuaded aunt Kate to go and see her very first film, ‘The Singing Fool.’

Everyone was singing ‘Climb upon my knee, Sonny boy,’ and aunt Kate set off in joyful expectancy. What a scene they had with her when she came home! She cried and cried all night, and half the next day too, standing at the corner and wiping her eyes on her apron, the tears making rivulets sown her powdered face.

“Oh my Gawd, it was lovely. I haven’t slept all night for thinking about it.”

‘When aunt Kate went to the pictures’ became a talking point all through the family for weeks after that.

Comments: Doris M. Bailey (1916-?), daughter of a french polisher, was born in Bethnal Green in London’s East End and lived there until the late 1930s. Norma and Richard Talmadge were not related. The films referred to are The Gold Rush (USA 1925) and The Singing Fool (USA 1928).

An Entertaining Life

Source: Harry Secombe, An Entertaining Life (London: Robson Books, 2001), pp. 37-38

Text: Another influence on me was the local cinema, which went through various transformations in my boyhood. At first it was called the Pictorium, or the ‘Pic’, and then it was refurbished and became the Scala, a name we kids could never pronounce properly. It was a dream factory for the neighbourhood and stood at the confluence of two roads, Foxhole and Morris Lane, a very steep hill which led to the council estate. We would come roaring down the lane on a Saturday afternoon, Ronnie Jones and I, to join the queue for the ‘twopenny rush’. The first task was to buy sweets to take in with us from the little sweet shop at the bottom of Morris Lane. There we were faced with an agonizing choice. A sherbert dab? A lucky packet? (This usually contained fibrous twigs of raw licorice and tiger nuts.) Or a pennorth of unshelled peanuts? I usually plumped for a bullseye, which would at least last most of the main feature, although there were would not be the satisfaction of watching it change colour when the lights went out.

Inside the cinema the smell of wet knickers, orange peel and carbolic flowed over us like a warm, sticky bath and the ravaged plush seats held all sorts of perils – old chewing gum underneath, and the odd stain from a previous tenant’s over-excitement. The din before the lights went out was indescribable, and sometimes the manager in his boiled shirt and dickie bow would come out in front of the curtains and threaten us with mass explusion if we didn’t calm down. This normally did the trick, and the curtains would eventually jerk back and the projectors would clatter into life, and a collective sigh would go up as the titles appeared on the screen.

Cowboy films and African jungle epics were may favourites when I was very small, and then I progressed to a fondness for ‘Andy Hardy’ and gangster films. When the exit doors were flung open – always before the end of the serial, so that the screen became blank – I would emerge from the cinema as James Cagney or Mickey Rooney. All the way back up the hill I’d be reliving the film, firing imaginary bullets at unheeding old ladies behind their lace curtains in Morris Lane, or swinging precariously from the lower limb of the dead tree at the end of Grenfell Park Road. My parents never knew who would come home from the pictures on a Saturday afternoon.

Sometimes at the evening performance children were allowed in with an adult, because in those days there were no ‘X’ rated films. Mam and Dad rarely went to the ‘Pic’: Dad because he;d have to leave half-way through the performance with an attack of hyperventilation, and Mam because she preferred going to the Plaza on a Wednesday afternoon with her friend, Mrs Beynon, who live[d] opposite us in Pen-ys-acoed Avenue.

However, there was one person who was always good-natured enough to take other people’s children with her on these occasions. Her name was Mrs Bayless, and she lived a couple of doors up from our house at the top of St Leger Crescent. She came from the Midlands and had about six children of her own. Thus, when we all trooped up the step behind her, she would demand one ticket for herself and sometimes as many as twelve half-price tickets would spew out of the machine in the booth for the rest of us. The manager, unable to do anything about it, would tear the stubs in half with controlled fury and pass us through into the cinema. In the evenings it was a completely different place from the scene of the ‘twopenny rush’ – discreet organ music would be playing and an overpowering perfumed disinfectant concealed the unspeakable odours of the matinée.

Comments: Harry Secombe (1921-2001) was a Welsh singer, actor and comedian, best known for being one of the Goon Show radio comedy team. His childhood was spent in Swansea, Wales. The Andy Hardy series of MGM feature films starred Mickey Rooney.

Magic Hour

Source: Jack Cardiff, Magic Hour (London: Faber and Faber, 1996), pp. 237-238

Text: One day soon afterwards I asked Michael Todd what news he had about the smells. I knew there was a man in Switzerland, Professor Hans Laube, who was working on the various smells outlined in the script and I asked Michael if he had received any samples yet. I was shocked when Michael answered that he hadn’t seen anything yet. I suggested that Laube should send some samples to us – of the sea, tobacco, apricots, etc. – as soon as possible. I took out a bottle labelled ‘apricots’ and inhaled excitedly. It smelled of cheap eau-de-Cologne. Every sample smelled the same: a third rate perfume, nothing at all like they were supposed to smell.

Michael and I were horrified. Michael telephoned Professor Laube who assured him that everything would be perfectly alright on the night of our big test in Chicago in two months’ time. All we could do was trust the professor and pray.

Our big night duly took place in Chicago. The cinema had a thousand seats and most of the audience were trade people. On the back of each seat a tiny pipe was fitted with a spray to project smells to the viewer seated behind. The pipes ran under the floor where an enormous dispensing machine had been installed acting as a ‘smell brain,’ having stored every aroma to be projected during the film. In addition to the eight tracks on our 70mm film, there was an extra track carrying the smell signal. As the film travelled through the projector an electric signal triggered a mechanism which projected a small quantity of aroma-laden air on-cue to every seat in the audience.

Well, the magnificent machinery worked wonderfully. The only trouble was, the smells that were projected towards the eager nostrils were exactly like cheap eau-de-Cologne…

The film was released in New York where the critics all had wrinkled noses and acerbic tongues.

Then came a bathetic coup de grâce. In a nearby cinema, a few days before the New York opening, an enterprising gent showed an awful ‘B’ film and installed incense in the air conditioning, triumphantly advertising his film as ‘the first smellie’.

Comments: Jack Cardiff (1914-2009) was a British cinematographer and director. Magic Hour is his autobiography. The feature film Scent of Mystery (USA 1960), whose test screening is described here, was the first and last film to be produced in Smell-o-Vision. It was directed by Cardiff, and starred Denholm Elliott, Beverly Bentley and Peter Lorre. It opened in February 1960 in specially rigged-up theatres in Chicago, New York and Los Angeles. Technical problems with the smells, combined with poor reviews, condemned the film, which was subsequently re-issued in Cinerama, without the smells, as Holiday in Spain. Smell-o-Vision involved a belt holding a sequence of perfume containers which connected to a motorised reel, synchronised through a system of markers to the projector. The smells would be released when their cue came on the film, and were emitted through pipes under the seats of the audience.

The Mexican Touch

Source: Edwa Moser, The Mexican Touch (New York: Duell, Sloan and Pearce, 1940), pp. 110-114

Text: If one was to patronize the movies, Monday was the day to choose, preferably Monday afternoon. Every Monday morning, the Cine Morelos was cleaned and disinfected. The Cine Morelos, once known as the Teatro Diaz, had been built on the colonial plan, with a pit that scarcely sloped at all, surrounded by tier upon tier of boxes. Hänsel had what he called his own box, though he let us sit in it. It was his because he always managed to arrive twenty minutes before the calliope announced the opening, and as soon as he got into his box, he put his booted foot against the door so that no one else could come in. His box faced the center of the screen and was situated on the first and most desirable tier. There were six hard, stiff chairs in it. We were rather crowded as none of us could risk sitting too close to the rail for fear someone above might become excited and absent-mindedly spit. On our hard chairs, we huddled together, the fumes of iodoform writhing, I could have sworn visibly, about us. Hänsel sat straight as a ramrod, his monocle gleaming above a thick handkerchief tied about his nose. Gretel ignored the smell, saying placidly, “Better it should stink a bit than swarm with fleas.” Above us, tier upon tier, the seats would fill, until sometimes … as when Jungle Jim was showing in serial … the whole place became a solid mass of dark, intent faces. The theater was always packed.

It was a good theater. The sound effects carried well and the screen was in good condition. It is true that the electricity sometimes failed, but that was not the fault of the management. At such times, we bought peanuts from the venders [sic] and smoked and chatted pleasantly together until the lights came on again. I recollect only one occasion when the film broke, just at its most thrilling moment, of course, and I remember when the lights were turned on how startled I was that most of the men in the audience had, in the excitement of the story, drawn their revolvers. I remember how unconcerned they looked as they stood up or squirmed about in their seats to put their revolvers away again.

The pictures shown were of all kinds and from all countries. Indeed, at the little Cinema Palace of Cuernavaca, the children and I saw more French and British and German, not to mention Argentinian, films than we had ever seen at home. There were also Mexican movies.

Usually the Mexican movies were clumsy and hard to follow. But I found, after I considered the matter a bit, that the difference was owing not to inferior production, but to their unique technique. The focal point of the action seemed to be, not conveniently in front of me along the “footlights,” but somewhere else, farther off. Then I recollected the Abbey Players from Dublin, who maintain that the center of interest should be the center of the stage itself, as if the audience were included with the actors. And after that, I saw, too, that there was yet another resemblance to the Irish theater: the plots of the Mexican movies need not come to any definite conclusion. After that I enjoyed the good films immensely.

I particularly enjoyed the fact that the Mexicans could create drama without the glamourizing that Hollywood thinks essential. The houses were houses, ineptly furnished but adequate. On the screen they looked somehow innocent and appealing. They might have been any of the houses we passed every day. The heroines were seldom beautiful. Their clothes would not set a fashion. None of them had had their teeth straightened, much less filed and capped. But when they could act, they could act; and without “glamour,” they became urgent and important because they were human beings appealing to human beings in terms of mutual humanity. Some of the heroes were cross-eyed. (Crossed eyes are still considered a mark of beauty by those who appreciate Aztec art.) They behaved … as men behave. They spat, they got drunk, they left their shirttails out or tucked them in in public, they cried on their mothers’ shoulders, they cut off an unfaithful sweetheart’s pigtail. And they continued with apparent satisfaction to everyone the life that went on everywhere, every day.

This method was immensely satisfactory to me, for as there.was no attempt at “build-up,” I could believe that the films represented Mexican life, which we foreigners might otherwise never know. Ken liked the Mexican films. He would go again and again to roar with laughter over El Chaflan and Don Catarino, who were so funny, so naturally funny, it was hard to know if they knew themselves that they were funny. Don the films left cold. He preferred swapping yarns with Alberto or Pedro. Molly would, to Hansel’s delight, emit a succession of disgusted “Ooo’s” every time Rafael Falcón had occasion to weep, as he often had — for he wept beautifully, the tears streaming across his pale, shapely cheeks — while all the girls in the audience could be heard sniffing in sympathy. And Conchita, when we had got home, would sigh at mention of his name, and wiggle her hand inside her dress above her heart to show what palpitations she suffered on his account. But not my Molly. …

There was one picture that impressed us all — as successful a piece of work as we ever saw anywhere. Its name was La Mujer de Nadia (Nobody’s Wife) and it was produced by a woman. It was the story of three young students, none of them particularly attractive, who lived together in a one-room house amid the agreeable harmony of music, painting, and poetry, and who, returning one night from a comradely spree, found a woman unconscious by heir door. They took her in, feeling sorry for anyone who was unhappy and alone while they were so gay, so secure in their fellowship. She, poor drab! could hardly be distracting to that. But with food, and a home and friendship, the girl changed. She became young and beautiful. They all fell in love with her. The painter’s best picture was her portrait. The musician’s best composition had love of her for its theme. The poet’s best verses wooed her. But with love came jealousy. They began hating. It was a tragic moment when the little waif determined she must not destroy the structure on which her happiness was built. Silently, she told the little house good-by and went away, knowing her absence would unite again the spirit that had let her live.

We still remember that picture as one of the merriest, as well as saddest, we ever saw. There was about it the quality of a Strauss waltz that echoes after the party’s over and the guests have gone, and the sky grows gray. It was the only movie I have ever seen that I should like to have for my own.

Comments: Edwa Moser was an American magazine writer and novelist, who wrote this book on a 1930s visit to Mexico. Ken and Molly were her children. Hänsel and Gretel were names she gave to their German neighbours. El Chaflan was a character played by Mexican actor Carlos López; Don Catarino may be a reference to a comic strip character who was filmed. Rafael Falcón was a Mexican film actor. La Mujer de Nadia (La mujer de nadie) was directed by Adela Sequeyro in 1937. Iodoform is a disinfectant.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Blanche Sweet: Moving-Picture Actress

Source: Vachel Lindsay, ‘Blanche Sweet: Moving-Picture Actress (After seeing the reel called “Oil and Water”)’ in The Congo, and other poems (New York: Macmillan, 1918 – orig. pub. 1914), pp. 108-110

Text:
Beauty has a throne-room
In our humorous town,
Spoiling its hob-goblins,
Laughing shadows down.
Rank musicians torture
Ragtime ballads vile,
But we walk serenely
Down the odorous aisle.
We forgive the squalor
And the boom and squeal
For the Great Queen flashes
From the moving reel.

Just a prim blonde stranger
In her early day,
Hiding brilliant weapons,
Too averse to play,
Then she burst upon us
Dancing through the night.
Oh, her maiden radiance,
Veils and roses white.
With new powers, yet cautious,
Not too smart or skilled,
That first flash of dancing
Wrought the thing she willed:-
Mobs of us made noble
By her strong desire,
By her white, uplifting,
Royal romance-fire.

Though the tin piano
Snarls its tango rude,
Though the chairs are shaky
And the dramas crude,
Solemn are her motions,
Stately are her wiles,
Filling oafs with wisdom,
Saving souls with smiles;
‘Mid the restless actors
She is rich and slow.
She will stand like marble,
She will pause and glow,
Though the film is twitching,
Keep a peaceful reign,
Ruler of her passion,
Ruler of our pain!

Comments: Nicholas Vachel Lindsay (1879-1931) was an American poet with a particular interest in the cinema. He wrote several poems on film stars, and a somewhat high-flown work of early film theory, The Art of the Motion Picture (1915). Blanche Sweet was an American film actress, best known for her performances in the films of D.W. Griffith, including Oil and Water (USA 1913).

Links: Copy of The Congo, and other poems 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