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

Nights at the Alexandra

Source: William Trevor, Nights at the Alexandra (London: Hutchinson, 1987)

Text: People loved the Alexandra. They loved the things I loved myself – the scarlet seats, the lights that made the curtains change colour, the usherettes in uniform. People stood smoking in the foyer when they’d bought their tickets, not in a hurry because smoking and talking gave them pleasure also. They loved the luxury of the Alexandra, they loved the place it was. Urney bars tasted better in its rosy gloom; embraces were romantic there. Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers shared their sophisticated dreams, Deanna Durbin sang. Heroes fell from horses, the sagas of great families yielded the riches of their secrets. Night after night in the Alexandra I stood at the back, aware of the pleasure I dealt in, feeling it all around me. Shoulders slumped, heads touched, eyes were lost in concentration. My brothers did not snigger in the Alexandra: my father, had he ever gone there, would have at last been silenced. Often I imagined the tetchiness of the Reverend Wauchope softening beneath a weight of wonder, and the sour disposition of his wife lifted from her as she watched All This and Heaven Too. Often I imagined the complicated shame falling from the features of Mr Conron. ‘I have told her you are happy,’ Herr Messinger said.

Comments: William Trevor (1928-2016) was a Irish novelist and short story writer. His bittersweet novella Nights at the Alexandra concerns a young man who becomes involved with an Englishwoman and her older German husband as they build a cinema in Ireland during the Second World War. Urney chocolates were popular throughout Ireland. All This and Heaven Too is a 1940 American feature film.

Cocks and Bulls in Caracas

Source: Olga Briceño, Cocks and Bulls in Caracas; how we live in Venezuela (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1945), pp. 126-130

Text: Everyone is curious to know how we amuse ourselves in South America. What, they wonder, do those strange people do for fun? It’s simple enough. We amuse ourselves like anybody else, admitting the while, parenthetically, that the whole world is short on pastime, with popular imagination in this respect the victim of a pernicious anemia.

Our amusements are those of any other country, but with one peculiarity. Others find their fun outside; we find ours mostly within.

First of all, we have the movies. We are devotees of adjectives, superlatives, and dithyrambs. In certain individuals the harmless mania is particularly marked — in mothers speaking of their children, naturally, and in lovers proclaiming their devotion. Impresarios of public entertainment also suffer from it. This surprises no one. ‘You must blow your own horn’ has come to be, with us, a basic premise. As a result, any statement that is highly flavored with adjectives is automatically reduced by half in the mind of the listener. In the case of impresarios, especially of moving pictures, this drastic reduction falls far short of being enough. One should credit no more than half of half of what is claimed, or better, only half of that! The imagination of these good gentlemen is ultra-supercolossal.

No film is ever advertised in terms consistent with its quality. God forbid! If it were, no one would dream of going to it. After the customary discounting, it would appear an abstract minus quantity.

The time-honored grading of films that is regularly employed in the United States is practically unknown to us. It has been taken up to some slight extent in Caracas recently, but no one has bothered to explain the significance of it, and hence it conveys little or nothing. Venezuela is not grade-conscious like the United States. The only grades we know are the grades a student needs for his degree, the grades of fever shown by a thermometer, and the grades of — say, fervor, which no thermometer can show. The business of grading eggs or milk, for example, is not for us. Not yet.

Never is a film advertised merely by name, dates, and actors. Rather:

‘The most stupendous achievement of the Eighth Art. An unforgettable spectacle that will set you quivering with horror, joy, and anger. A veritable gem of modern moving pictures.’

‘The Downhill Donkey,’ let us say, is one such gay production which might be advertised, in fine print and parentheses, as ‘Grade F’ in North America. The announcement of it will fill a whole page in the daily papers, for in Venezuela, as everywhere else, fame is won by advertising, and impresarios spend real fortunes on publicity. Each strives to outdo the others, and their lives are spent in lawless rivalry, with magazines and papers the major beneficiaries. If all exhibitors were to agree to use a stipulated space, less money would be spent, and the result would be the same. But then the periodicals would be the losers, with sad results for us poor journalists.

When the public buys tickets to a movie, it is torn between the exhibitors’ publicity and its own skepticism. There is no telling what to expect. Hence any film is a surprise. Going to the movies is like roulette — you never know just where the ball will drop. Anyone who has been promised a sensation is bound to be surprised when he finds himself bored; if a sensation is not only promised but delivered, that is the biggest surprise of all.

Movies in Venezuela are not shown continuously. The admission fee buys a view of one film, regardless of grade; there is also a newsreel, but then — good night. This is not quite fair; I was forgetting that there is a fifteen-minute intermission too. At possibly its most exciting moment the film is stopped, the lights come on, gradually or with a flash, according to the impresario’s caprice, and boys come down the aisles to sell chocolate.

For many people the intermission is the high moment of the show. Think of it! Fifteen whole minutes in which to talk with friends, to see who has come with whom, to smoke a cigarette — but that must be done outside — to look at the women’s costumes and see how the men are looking. Fifteen minutes in which to emerge from the anonymity of darkness into the realm of light!

The showings at different hours are not equally important. The first is for children. The vespertina, at five o’clock, is for the formally engaged, who come accompanied by mother, aunt, sister, or little brother; that is also the time for well-bred girls of the old school, white, charming, distant, cool of manner. Altagracia prefers the vespertina. The intermediate showing, which begins at seven, is attended by people in mourning who do not wish to be conspicuous, by couples who may be shady or perhaps just not officially engaged as yet, and by families in good standing but reduced circumstances who have neither new clothes to show nor the five bolivares which are the price of the fashionable performances.

The last, at nine o’clock, is for family parties, the world of fashion, marriageable daughters who are not bespoken, night owls, and the generally emancipated, as well as for the wealthy and those supposed to be wealthy, since it is the most expensive. That is the time to display the new gown, the darling hat just received from Paris, the sweetheart, and financial affluence.

Different films are presented at any one day’s performances. The one shown at nine rates a whole page of publicity; from that peak a film descends to the vespertina, with a quarter page, and finally, in complete decadence, to the common grave which is the intermediate or the matinee performance and warrants only a stingy little epitaph of an advertisement that gives nothing but title and time. Vanitas vanitatum! as the disillusioned Preacher said.

In the smaller towns movies are far more enjoyable than in Caracas. Performances are usually presented out-of-doors, and the weather is always mild. Surrounded by low walls, the movie houses have the finest roof imaginable — a tropical sky of magic beauty, with moon, stars, Southern Cross, and all. One night Altagracia and I watched a raging Arctic blizzard with polar bears, ice-bound ships, seals, Eskimos, and all the frozen seasonings, while the heavens above seemed about to drop from the weight of stars, crickets chirped, and the intoxicating odor of magnolias filled the air. Grown blasé by travel, books, and fashion, we savored the incongruity and smiled in superiority, but the general public, farmers, muleteers, cowboys, travelers, Venezuelans all, exposed the virgin purity of their responsive souls to their emotions, and some even suffered a chill. A few dogs which had sneaked in among the seats barked at the polar bears. Several poor children who were watching, on horseback, outside, were excited by the snowstorm and produced a red one of their own with petals from the roses blooming on the wall; their perfumed shower caressed our faces. Suddenly, beside me, a thick but pleasant voice spoke with a countrified accent:

‘Will the young lady please shove over just a little?’

A farmer who had arrived late was looking for a seat. Frequently, in small-town theaters, the seats are only benches. The fellow must have hesitated a long time before venturing to bother us, but weariness at last had overcome timidity. Hat in hand, he waited for us to shove over and then sat down on the very end of the bench. When finally he had forgotten we were there, he gave free rein to his emotions. We watched him suffer, rejoice, worry, and laugh with the various episodes of the film. For him shouting children, barking dogs, the cries of vendors, stars, scents, had all ceased to exist.

Meanwhile, squeezed into her seat, Altagracia was grumbling about democracy and the absurd idea of rubbing elbows with anyone who came along. But all at once she stopped complaining and began to smile quietly. Her eyes had fallen on a pair of lovers, a half-breed muleteer and a dark-eyed country girl. They were holding hands in silence, and in their faces were reflected the beauty of the starlit night and all the fondness in the world. Southern Cross, rose petals, and magnolias seemed quite in keeping with that idyll unfolding on the bench of a country movie.

Comments: Olga Briceño (1925-1977) was a Venezuelan journalist, travel writer, novelist, lecturer and diplomat, who mostly wrote in Spanish. She was cultural attaché for her country in Cuba and the USA, and co-owner with her husband, Dr. Francis Threadgill, of the Washington modern art Gres Gallery, 1958-62. Her charming book Cocks and Bulls in Caracas, describing family life in her native land, was published in English in America.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

At a French Château

Cinema programme used as an illustration in At a French Château

Source: Miriam Irene Kimball, At a French Château (New York: The Lion Press, c.1915, printed for private distribution), pp.

Text: We were thrown into great excitement one night at dinner when the blowing of a horn and at the same time the ringing of the gate bell heralded the information that something of importance was about to take place. Ernest went on the run and soon returned with a flyer, announcing that the great success, “Barnum’s Cinema,” had arrived in town and that a performance would be given that evening, one representation only. That being the case, we could not afford to miss it, and we decided then and there to go en masse. We went early so as to get good seats, our Paris friends joining us on the way. We entered the hall, which was a very small one, its only furniture consisting of two rows of long benches, perhaps six or seven in a row. Having purchased our tickets, we appropriated to our use the three benches farthest back on the left. These seats were upholstered in black oilcloth, while others had either no covering at all or one of a very dirty and ragged coarse red-and-white cotton. The bare benches certainly did not have an inviting appearance, and the red and white were impossible; so for the time and place we felt that we had made a good choice. As yet we were the only spectators, and we now took time to examine the flimsy little slips of paper that served as tickets. To our surprise we found that some of our party had paid one-half franc, some three-fourths of a franc, some a franc, and Billie and I one franc and a half each, the ticket-seller having added in lead pencil the necessary figures to make our little yellow slips of paper of sufficient value.

However, we were allowed to sit together on the oil-cloth-covered seats, whatever the price of our tickets; and others, who came later, apparently had the like privilege of choosing of what was left, the latest comers sitting on the floor and leaning up against the bare, blank walls. I did not exactly understand their system; but it was evident that those traveling show-people were not at all particular what you paid or what seats you occupied. There was one advan[t]age, however, Billie and I had the satisfaction of knowing that we held reserved-seat tickets (there were none better), though we sat one on each side of Madame R. who had purchased a third class billet. The tickets were not demanded and I still have mine among my valued souvenirs.

Our early arrival at the show gave us an excellent opportunity to watch the country people come trooping in. They came by families, and having finally deposited themselves, awaited with expectant faces, the beginning of the great moving-picture show. There were blowzed peasants, young and old, in their coarse blue frocks and trousers, and clattering wooden sabots; fat, almost toothless and altogether corsetless old women, in their loose blouses, tied down by their coarse blue aprons; young women of generous figures, some of them rather good-looking, with babes in arms; frowzy-headed little girls, with front locks tightly braided, with perhaps a tiny, tiny bit of narrow ribbon by way of ornament; boys of all shapes and sizes, in their short socks, black cotton aprons, and wide-brimmed straw hats; and, last but not least, coquettish rusticity, revelling in the companionship of her bel amoureux, though in the eyes of the world he must appear but an “unlettered hind.” All the men, except those of our party, sat with their hats on, most of them vociferously puffing their tobacco throughout the entire performance. That they do otherwise seemed not to have been expected of them; and, as the women wore no hats, no polite invitation that they remove them was necessary. I have said that all the men except those of our party wore their hats during the performance, but that statement is not strictly true. I was pleased to see that our Ernest had not only dofifed his apron but sat with head uncovered, thus showing himself a little higher in the social scale than the gens de la campagne.

While the people were gathering, the operator, a dark, fat, greasy-looking individual, proudly marched up and down the aisles, smiling blandly upon his audience, with the air of one who is about to give them a great treat, which he is confident, must meet with their unqualified approval. His very attitude proclaimed in unmistakable words, “I would do anything for you.” Perhaps it was this attitude that gave Billie the assurance necessary to slip to the casement and swing it open, thinking that a breath of pure air would be quite agreeable and perhaps blow out a little of the smoke. But, behold! a change now comes o’er the man. With the intensest of excitement he leaps to the spot, with a “No, no. Monsieur! No, no. Monsieur!” and on the instant everything is made fast again. The windows must not be open, for there are rogues and rascals outside who might look in and get the show for nothing.

As for the show, well, it was quite like those given in America, no better, not much worse. There were the ascension of aviators, cosmopolitan dances. Biblical representations, elopements of fond lovers, with tyrannical parents, and the mischievous city kids, who go to grandfather’s farm to give their parents a rest, spill the ink on the parlor carpet, steal the jam, overturn milk pans, make bonfires of the haystacks, and let out all the live stock.

The operator seemed to think that the pictures needed a great deal of explication and kept up a flow of talk very amusing, both to those who understood and to those who partly understood. More than that he gave his opinion of what was being enacted before the eyes, and made jocular remarks concerning the deeds done on the screen, especially when they chanced to be all about love and the bel amoureux, all of which were highly appreciated by the audience. In fact, it was as responsive an audience as one often sees. Like Sir Roger de Coverly, they took the situations seriously and applauded where they approved, and talked over the scenes presented as though they were a part of real life. In fact all through the performance they discoursed with each other audibly.

One novel feature was an intermission of ten or fifteen minutes when the performance was about half accomplished. At this time a man smoking a cigarette passed through the hall selling little favors done up in twisted papers and loudly bawling out an urgent invitation for people to buy. It was then that I noticed for the first time our blanchisseuse in clean blouse and apron, looking radiantly happy. Then, too, that there might be no cessation of entertainment, a ruddy-faced old rustic, in clumsy wooden shoes, took it upon himself to get merry and jump over one of the benches. A roar of laughter rewarded the old chap for his pains. The Château party ate French lemon drops and peppermints from paper bags, and breathed deeply of the fresh air that was then entering, for during the recess there was no objection to open doors and windows.

The show lasted something over two hours. Even the franc-and-a-half people had had their money’s worth. Disregarding the Cinema, the real enjoyment had come from seeing the peasant class at a show. That was a novel experience and worth the price. As I went out the door, the ticket-seller said to me, “C’est bon, n’est-ce pas, Madame?” And I answered, “Oui, Madame, très amusant” using the same phrase that Mademoiselle L. had used in speaking of Billie. This seemed to give such entire satisfaction that I couldn’t help feeling quite a bit of pride in my proficiency in the French tongue.

Comments: Miriam Irene Kimball was an American teacher who spent the summer of 1913 at a chateau at Soisy-sur-Seine in France and produced a privately-printed account of her experiences, from which the above extract is taken. ‘Barnum’s Cinema’ would have had nothing to do with the deceased American impresario P.T. Barnum, except through appropriating his name to denote glamour. The programme reproduced in the book is curious, as the films it announces are from widely different dates, and it has some English text. It may not be genuine.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Dynamite in the Middle East

Source: Khalil Totah, Dynamite in the Middle-East (New York: Philosophical Library, 1955), pp. 146-147

Text: Before leaving the Syrian capital, I must relate the tale of American influence. The film of Hamlet was advertised and as I had been unable to see it in the United States, I asked myself in what better place could it be seen than in Damascus. I invited Miss Jane Hockett, whose parents I know in Whittier, to go with me. She is in the United States service as a librarian in the Information Center. People at the Semiramis Hotel advised against my going to that theatre because they thought it was cheap, noisy and dirty. I warned Miss Hockett about the probable undesirability of the place, but she was a good sport. The hall was down in a kind of cellar and full to overflowing. There were no reserved seats and one had to take his chance. I came to the theatre early and requested one of the ushers to save me a couple of seats as I was bringing a lady. He held the seats. The hall was crowded with a noisy lot of adults and children. How a film like Hamlet should attract so many “kids” was rather astonishing. Of course the film was in English, but on the side there was an Arabic translation. People were eating peanuts, pumpkin seeds and roasted peas. At the intermission Coca-Cola, lemonade and ice cream were hawked by boys in the aisles. The seats were crude and hard, but it was a unique experience to see Hamlet in Damascus. The crowds and goings on which are so unlike an American movie theatre were indeed worth the admission of fifteen cents.

Not far from my hotel was another ramshackle cinema house. The performance started at 9 p.m. There was bedlam at the door! It seemed as if half of the ragged bootblacks, porters and errand boys were there. There were hardly any women to be seen. The place looked more like a market place or an oriental street scene than a cinema house. Everything was being hawked. Boys were yelling at the top of their voices and selling everything — chewing gum, cakes, cigarettes and chocolates. People felt at home, shouted, yelled, visited, laughed and enjoyed themselves to the full. It was more like a circus or a baseball game in America. There was no reserve, no hushed tones, no restraint. The boys and young men just “let her go.” But when the curtain was up and those Hollywood beauties appeared in their underwear, you should have heard the exclamations of the crowd’s delight. “Ya salam! Ya Allah!” No wonder there was such a mob at the door and several performances. As to the admission fee, it was in two classes. First class on the balcony was 12¢. Second class for the riffraff was 8¢.

In the balcony, and therefore first class, was a rotund, corpulent gentleman. He took his seat and then ordered an usher to bring him a nargileh (a hubble bubble). While feasting his eyes on the Hollywood girls, he drew on his nargileh, the long pipe attached to a large bottle almost full of water. On top was a sort of tobacco called tunback, which was placed on some burning coals. The smoke passed through the water, through the pipe and to the mouth. This gentleman was relaxation itself. The bottle gurgled and laughed, he drew and drew and hugely enjoyed a rare smoke. What would Americans give to see that scene in an American movie house on Main Street? “Ya Allah! Ya salam!”

Comments: Khalil Totah (1886-1955) was a Palestinian author, lecturer and educationalist, who wrote books on Palestinian history and political development. He became an American citizen in 1946. The book from which this this extract comes was his final work, posthumously published, giving a view of Middle Eastern affairs for an American audience. The film he saw was Hamlet (UK 1948), directed and starring by Laurence Olivier.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

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.

The Crowd

Source: Extract from Louis Delluc, ‘The Crowd’ (originally ‘La Foule’, Paris-Midi, 24 August 1918, p. 2), reproduced and translated in Richard Abel (ed.), French Film Theory and Criticism: a History/Anthology, 1907-1939 – Volume I: 1907-1929 (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1988), p. 161

Text: Another audience. At the Saturday evening screening of the only cinema palace of the town, the Tout-Aurillac, a first-run and second-run house. Convalescents, billeted soldiers, respectable families, respectable young girls, the smoke from pipes, the ritornellos of an untuned piano, all in a deep, dark, cold cinema with Le Courrier de Washington on the marquee.

They also screened La Lumière qui s’éteint, an English film previewed in Paris last winter. Despite its almost unanimous lack of culture, the audience was deeply moved by the inner adventures of Maisie, Dick, and Torp. And you know what became of the great Kipling’s work on film. An ordinary anecdote, badly decorated and photographed, with a sad, heavy actor playing Dick – when will we see Douglas Fairbanks in the part? – a fop as Torp, a fool as Maisie, and unbelievable Arab battles, let’s be blunt, a cardboard Sudanese Khartoum. There is a film to do over again.

Why was this rough peasant audience affected in front of this artless and unauthorized gaucherie? Will it understand even more when the same drama becomes a quite beautiful film?

Comments: Louis Delluc (1890-1924) was a French film director and pioneering film critic, writing on diverse aspects of film culture for French newspapers from 1917 onwards. Le Courrier de Washington was the French title for the American serial The Perils of Pauline (1914). La Lumière qui s’éteint is presumably The Light That Failed (1916), an American rather than an English film, directed by Edward José and starring Robert Edeson as Dick, Claude Fleming as Torp and Lillian Tucker as Maisie. Aurillac is in the Auvergne region of south-central France.

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

Movie-going as Resistant Community

Source: Verónica Feliu, ‘Movie-going as Resistant Community [Chile]’, in Arthur Knight, Clara Pafort-Overduin, and Deb Verhoeven (eds.), ‘Senses of Cinema-Going: Brief Reports on Going to the Movies Around the World’, Senses of Cinema, issue 68, March 2011, http://sensesofcinema.com/2011/feature-articles/senses-of-cinema-going-brief-reports-on-going-to-the-movies-around-the-world

Text: Going to the movies in Chile in the 1980’s was a fundamental experience in my life, one that has certainly shaped not only my perspective on cinema, but also my aesthetic sensibility by and large. During that time in Chile all aspects of life, including every cultural expression, were molded by a military regime that had already lasted a decade. Nothing functioned outside the scope set by a permeating system of thought, order, and raison d’être. Conversations, movements, even clothes and hair styles were reflections of a time in which cultural identity was constantly harassed, questioned, prohibited, distorted, detained.

I was young and part of a generation that was avid and hopeful, yet hopelessly realistic – we had seen too much, we demanded the impossible.

The impossible turned out to be more than we expected, and definitely more than we can imagine retrospectively. In Santiago, the capital, we had five art theaters: Cine Arte Normandie, Teatro de la Universidad Católica, El Biógrafo, plus the theaters of two international cultural centers, the Goethe Institute and the Chilean-French Cultural Institute. These cinemas were created in the 80’s and they powerfully counterbalanced the absence of cultural production originated by the state. They were also vanguard endeavors whose contribution to the cultural scene could compete with that of the most advanced democratic societies in the world. The most memorable movies of my young adulthood will be forever linked to these theaters.

Being at one of these alternative cinemas was a whole event in itself. Except for Cine Arte Normandie, which was located in a big old building, they were all small theaters situated in bohemian neighbourhoods and did little to advertise themselves. They displayed classical or rare posters from acclaimed or avant-garde productions, some of which were for sale. There was no popcorn smell, nor sodas to buy. People would bring candies or ice cream bonbons bought elsewhere. There was always smoking before and after the movie. By far, the best part was the gathering of people at the end when everybody exchanged comments about the film. Moviegoers shared a sense of satisfaction that was triggered by the thought-provoking movie, and were thrilled to be surrounded by others they felt a strong connection to. It was this sense of belonging, of sharing a worldview with others, of living for some minutes in a space without enemies or threat, that made going to these theaters so special and remarkable. Even if the movie was disappointing or too obscure, the act was complete by just recognizing some faces and glimpsing others who would most likely be at the next demonstration in the main Plaza.

But there was something else that has remained with me after all these years. It was the subtle and yet firm conviction that movie-going was not really about fun. At least not what fun means nowadays. There was certainly a sense of cult, of something you share only with people you feel intellectually close to. But there was also the aesthetics of the small space, elitist if you want, secluded, almost prohibited, that made it so exhilarating. We knew we were doing something that was only partially permitted by the authorities, regarded as some sort of a safety valve for our political desires to change the system. In a way, we knew we were observed. That double sense of being part of something and feeling renegades at the same time transformed this into a unique act, almost a performance.

After dictatorship ended in 1990 and Chile was incorporated into global markets, most movie theaters became part of the big multi-cinema chains in which little room is left for the individuals to feel their own breath, let alone to reflect upon what the movie has left in their minds. However, wonderfully enough, all the 80’s art theaters not only remain, but have become essential to a new generation of moviegoers. These youngsters no longer fear that culture could be something that puts their lives at risk, but they nonetheless have inherited the sense of complicity and excitement that a small theater and a somewhat complicated movie with an open-ended resolution gives to the restless mind.

Comments: Verónica Feliu is a professor in the Foreign Languages Department at City College of San Francisco. Her recollections of cinema-going in Chile in the 1980s were originally published in a special issue of the online film journal Senses of Cinema. I am grateful for her permission to reproduce the piece here.

Links: Senses of Cinema-Going: Brief Reports on Going to the Movies Around the World

If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will

Source: Eric Sykes, If I Don’t Write It, Nobody Will (London: Fourth Estate, 2005), pp. 78-80

Text: If the world was not exactly our oyster, it was most definitely our winkle. Our main Saturday night attraction was the Gaumont cinema at the end of Union Street. As for the films, the question we first asked ourselves was, ‘Is it a talkie?’and the second ‘Is it in colour?’ This didn’t bother us a bit; it was Saturday night, hey, lads, hey and the devil take the hindmost.

The Gaumont cinema was a large, luxurious emporium showing the latest films and up-to-date news, not forgetting Arthur Pules at the mighty Wurlitzer. For many Oldhamers the perfect panacea for the end of a stressful working week was a Saturday night at the pictures. Just relaxing into the armchair-like seats was an experience to savour. Uniformed usherettes busily showed patrons to their seats; one usherette stood against the orchestra pit, facing the audience with a smile as she sold crisps, peanuts, chocolates and soft drinks from a tray strapped round her shoulders; another usherette patrolled the aisles, selling various brands of cigarettes and matches from a similar tray. There was a general feeling of content in the audience, excitement slowly rising under subdued babble of conversation. The audience were the same people who had gone off to work during the week in overalls, dustcoats, ragged clothing and slightly better garb for office workers, but at the Gaumont cinema they had all, without exception, dressed up for the occasion. All the man wore collars and ties and the ladies decent frocks and in many cases hats as well. What a turnaround from my dear-old Imperial days; no running up and down the aisles chasing each other and certainly no whistling, booing or throwing orange peel at the screen during the sloppy kissing bits. In all fairness, though, I must add that it was only at the Saturday morning shows and we were children enjoying a few moments not under supervision or parental guidance. In fact when I was old enough to go to the Imperial for the evening films the audience even then dressed up and enjoyed the films in an adult fashion.

Back to the sublime at the Gaumont cinema; as the lights went down, so did the level of conversation. A spotlight hit the centre of the orchestra pit and slowly, like Aphrodite rising from the waves, the balding head of Arthur Pules would appear as he played his signature on the mighty Wurlitzer. He was a portly figure in immaculate white tie and tails, hands fluttering over the keys and shiny black pumps dancing over the pedals as he rose into full view, head swivelling from side to side, smiling and nodding to acknowledge the applause; but for all his splendid sartorial elegance, having his back to the audience was unfortunate as the relentless spotlight picked out the shape of his corsets. Regular patrons awaited this moment with glee, judging by the sniggers and pointing fingers. We were no exception; having all this pomp and circumstance brought down by the shape of a common pair of corsets on a man was always a good start to the evening’s entertainment.

At this point the words of a popular melody would flash on to the screen – for instance, the ‘in’ song of the day, ‘It Happened on the Beach at Bali Bali’ – and, after a frilly arpeggio to give some of the audience time to put their glasses on, a little ball of light settled on the first word of the song. In this case the first word was ‘It’; then it bounced onto ‘Happened’; then it made three quick hops over ‘on the Beach at’; then it slowed down for ‘Bali Bali’. The women sang with gusto and the men just smiled and nodded.

Happily this musical interlude didn’t last too long. Arthur Pules, the organist, was lured back into his pit of darkness and the curtains opened on the big wide screen. The films at the Gaumont were a great improvement on the grainy pictures at the Imperial, and so they should have been: after all, the film industry had made great strides in the eight years since John and I had sat in the pennies, dry mouthed as the shadow moved across the wall to clobber one of the unsuspecting actors.

After two hours of heavy sighs and wet eyes ‘The End’ appeared on the screen and the lights in the auditorium came up, bringing us all to our feet as the drum roll eased into the National Anthem … no talking, no fidgeting, simply a mark of respect for our King and Queen.

Comments: Eric Sykes (1923-2012) was a British comic actor and writer, who wrote and performed widely over many years for film, television and radio, including the 1970s sitcom Sykes. He was born and raised in Oldham, Lancashire, and at the time of this recollection was in his mid-teens, having left school aged fourteen. John was his half-brother. The Gaumont cinema in Oldham was at corner the King Street and Union Street, having been re-built as a cinema in 1937 out of an earlier theatre.