Yesterday’s Sunshine

Source: Verne Morgan, Yesterday’s Sunshine: Reminiscences of an Edwardian Childhood (Folkestone: Bailey Brothers and Swinfen, 1974), pp. 122-126

Text: The Moving Pictures, as we called them, first came to Bromley when I was about seven. They made their début at the Central Hall, and the performances took place on Friday nights. There were two houses, one at five o’clock for the children and one at seven for the grown-ups. The programmes lasted approximately one hour, and consisted of a succession of short films. Indeed some of them would last no longer than three or four minutes and there would be an appreciable wait in between while the man in the box got busy threading the next reel.

The Central Hall was a vast place with a huge gallery encircling it. It was used mostly for political meetings and the like, and quite often a band concert would be held there too. But it also had a pronounced ecclesiastical leaning and the man who owned it belonged in some way to the church and was avidly religious. He was an elderly man and wore pince-nez spectacles to which were attached a long black cord. He was a man of extremely good intentions and loved to stand upon the platform making long speeches spouting about them. Unfortunately, he had the most dreadful impediment and it was quite impossible to understand a word he said. But I well remember the enthusiastic claps he got when he eventually sat down, not because we had appreciated what he said so much as the fact that he had at last finished. The film programme could then begin.

The operating box was a temporary affair, and was perched up at the rear of the gallery. I used to get a seat as close to it as possible so that I could see how it was all done. The lighting was effected by a stick of black carbon, about the size of a piece of chalk, which lit up the small box with a brilliant blueish-white light and had a blinding effect if you looked right at it. Occasionally it would burn low and the operator would push it up a bit; this would be reflected by the density of light on the screen. The screen itself was also of a temporary nature, it was in fact little more than a large white sheet weighted at the bottom to keep it taut. Any movement close to it would cause it to wobble, and the picture would go a little peculiar. We were not critical of such minor details. The very fact that the picture moved was enough to satisfy us.

As each small reel was finished the operator would place it outside for re-winding, his box being of limited dimensions. On account of this I was able to study the technique as to how the pictures appeared to move. It was so simple I could hardly believe it. I told my Brother about it; I told my Mother about it; I told lots of people about it. But no one believed me. So, to prove myself right, I set about editing a film on my own account. I drew a succession of pictures in pencil on the bottom of a hymn book in church. Each one was just that little bit different, so that when the pages were flicked over the overall picture appeared to move. This technique, in ‘flicker’ form, has, of course, been used in many ways since then, but at the time it was entirely my own idea, and I was middling proud of it. I can’t say that anybody was particularly impressed, but at the time it thrilled me beyond description. In due course I pictorialised all the hymn books I could lay my hands on, during the sermon and other breaks in the church service. They consisted mostly of football matches with someone scoring a goal. Or it might be a boxing match with someone getting knocked out. Or an exciting race with a hectically close finish. Anything that inspired my sporting instincts was in course of time recorded in the hymn books of St. Luke’s Church, Bromley. I have often wondered since what the effect must have been on the boy who eventually took my seat in the choir pew when he found what he had inherited. I can only hope that he had as much enjoyment out of watching animated pictures as I had got out of drawing them.

The Central Hall was situated close to the top of Bromley Hill, nearly three miles from where we lived. It was a long walk for small legs, and there was no public transport at that time. Yet, whatever the weather, we never missed. Every Friday, shortly after school hours, a swarm of happy-faced youngsters were to be seen all heading in the same direction. The Central Hall had become the centre of a new culture. But, as yet, only the school kids had caught on to it.

Then quite suddenly, the Grand Theatre in Bromley High Street, which up till then had housed nothing more spectacular than stage dramas of the “Maria Marten” and “Sweeney Todd” kind, put up the shutters and announced that in future Moving Pictures would take over. They would be put on once nightly with a full programme of films. A new firm moved in calling itself Jury’s. The old Grand was given a face-lift and transformed into a picture house.

This was revolutionary indeed.

The grown-ups were sceptical. But the programmes were of a higher standard than those at the Central Hall, and would sometimes have a two-reeler as the star attraction. The films began to take on a more realistic angle, with interesting stories, love scenes, cowboys and Indians, exciting battles and lots of gooey pathos.

People began to go.

When they announced a showing of the famous story “Quo Vadis” in seven reels, all Bromley turned out to see it. Even my father condescended, and grumbled volubly because he had to “line up” to get it (the word “queue” had not yet come into circulation).

It was the beginning of a new era. Very soon a place was built in the High Street, calling itself a cinema. Moving pictures were firmly on the map, and shortly to be called films. We watched with astonishment as the new building reached completion and gave itself the high-flown title of “The Palaise [sic] de luxe”.

Most of us pronounced it as it was spelt, “The Palace de lux”, but my cousin Daisy, who was seventeen and having French lessons twice a week, pronounced it the “Palyay dee Loo”. And she twisted her mouth into all sorts of shapes when she said it.

That being as it may, the Palaise de Luxe put on programmes that pulled in the crowds from far and near, and it wasn’t long before they engaged a pianist to play the piano while the films were in progress. I remember him well. A portly gentleman who hitherto had earned a precarious living playing in local pubs. He soon got into his stride and began to adapt his choice of music to the particular film that was being shown. If it was a comedy he would play something like “The Irish Washerwoman”; if it was something sad, he would rattle off a popular number of the day like, “If your heart should ache awhile never mind”, and if it was a military scene, he would strike up a well-known march. The classic example came when a religious film was presented and we saw Christ walking on the water. He immediately struck up a few bards of “A life on the ocean wave”.

Later on, all cinemas worthy of the name included a small orchestra to accompany the films, and in due course, a complete score of suitable music would be sent with the main feature film so as to give the right effect at the right moment.

The Palaise de Luxe was indeed a palace as far as we were concerned. We sat in plush tip-up seats and there were two programmes a night. Further, you could walk in any old time and leave when you felt like it. Which meant, of course, that you could, if you so desired, be in at the start and watch the programme twice through (which many of us did and suffered a tanning for getting home late). It was warm and cosy, and there was a small upper circle for those who didn’t wish to mix!

The projector was discreetly hidden away behind the back wall up in the circle, and no longer could you see the man turning the handle. We became conscious for the first time of the strong beam of light that extended from the operating box to the screen. It was all so fascinating and mysterious. The screen, too, was no longer a piece of white material hanging from the ceiling, it was built into the wall, or so it appeared, and it was solid, so that no amount of movement could make it wobble.

It quickly became the custom to visit the cinema once a week. It was the “in” thing, or as we said in those days, it was “all the rage”.

We learnt to discriminate. My Brother and I became infatuated with a funny little man who was just that bit different from the others. His tomfoolery had a “soul” we decided, and whereas we smiled and tittered at the others comics, we roared our heads off with laughter whenever this one came on the screen. We went to a great deal of trouble to find out who he was, for names were not very often given in the early days.

“He’s called Charlie Chaplin”, the manager of the cinema told us, a little surprised no doubt that one so young could be all that interested.

Comment: Verne Morgan lived in Kent, and became a writer of pantomimes and theatre sketches. Palais de Luxe cinemas were a chain, run by Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. Jury’s Imperial Pictures was a producer and distributor, must did not manage cinemas. The period described is the early to mid-1910s: the Italian film Quo Vadis was made in 1913 and Chaplin’s first films were released in 1914. The mention of a piano player being introduced suggests that the earlier screenings had been watched without musical accompaniment.

Berlin Alexanderplatz

Source: Alfred Döblin (trans. Eugene Jolas), [Berlin] Alexanderplatz: The Story of Franz Biberkopf (London: Secker & Warburg, 1974 – orig. pub. 1929, English translation orig. pub. 1931), pp. 25-26

Text: MARKET DULL, LATER BEARS VERY ACTIVE, HAMBURG DEPRESSED, LONDON WEAKER

It was raining. To the left in Münzstrasse signs sparkled in front of the movies. At the corner he was unable to pass, the people were standing in front of a fence where there was a deep hole, the tram-car tracks ran on planks laid across the space, a car was just riding slowly over them. Aha, they are building an underground station, must be work to be had in Berlin. Another movie. Children under seventeen not allowed. On the huge poster a beet-red gentleman was standing on a staircase, while a peach of a young girl embraced his legs, she lay on the stairs, and he stood up above with a leering expression on his face. Undeneath was written: No Parents, Fate of an Orphaned Child, in Six Reels. Yes, I’ll take a look at that. The orchestrion was banging away. Price sixty pfennigs.

A man to the woman cashier: “Say, Fraulein, is it any cheaper for an old territorial without a belly?” “No, only for children under five months with a teat.” “Good. That’s our age. New-born on the instalment plan.” “All right, make it fifty then, get along in.” Behind him there meandered a young chap, slim of build, with a muffler on: “Hey, lady, I’d like to get in free.” “You’d like a lot. Does your mother know you’re out?” “Well, can I get in?” “In where?” “The movie.” “There’s no movie here.” “You really mean it, there’s no movie here?” She called through the window of the ticket-office to the watchman at the door: “Say Max, come here a minute. Here’s a fellow wants to know if there’s a movie here. He’s got no money. Go ahead and show him what we’ve got here.” “What we’ve got here, young fellow? You ain’t noticed it yet? This is the poor-box, Münzstrasse division.” He pushed the slim fellow out of the ticket-office, showed him his fist: “If you want me to, I’ll give you what’s comin’ to you right off the bat.”

Franz pushed on in. It just happened to be an intermission. The long room was packed full, 90 per cent men with caps on, they don’t take them off. The three lamps on the ceiling are covered with red. In front, a yellow piano with packages on top of it. The orchestrion makes a continuous racket. Then it gets dark and the film starts. A goose-girl is to be turned into a lady, just why, is not made so clear, at least not right in the middle. She wiped her nose with her hand, she scratched her behind on the staircase, everybody in the movie laughed. Franz thought it was quite wonderful, when the tittering began around him. Just people, free people, amusing themselves, nobody has a right to say anything to them, simply lovely, and I right here among ’em! It went on. The high-toned Baron had a sweetheart who lay in a hammock and stretched her legs vertically in the air. The girl had drawers on. That’s something. Wonder why people get so excited about that dirty goose-girl and her licking the platters clean? Again the girl with the slim legs flashed by. The Baron had left her alone, now she toppled out of the hammock, and flopped into the grass, lay there a long time. Franz stared at the screen, there was already another picture, but he still saw her toppling out and lying there for a long while. He gnawed his tongue, cripes, what was that? But when finally the one who had been the goose-girl’s lover embraced this fine lady, the skin of his chest felt hot as if he had been embracing her himself. It went all over him and made him weak.

Comments: Bruno Alfred Döblin (1878-1957) was a German doctor and novelist, famed for his modernist novel Berlin Alexanderplatz, which was filmed in 1931 and 1980. It follows the fortunes of Franz Biberkopf, a murderer released from prison, as he experiences Berlin amid the rise of Nazism. An orchestrion was a machine that played multi-part music automatically by means of a cylinder or music rolls. No Parents is a fictitious title.

Youth at the Gate

Illustration from Youth at the Gate

Source: Ursula Bloom, Youth at the Gate (London: Hutchinson, 1959)

Text: On Tuesday, August the fourth, when we were already halfway through the evening programme at the White Palace, Mr. Clements returned and started to talk again. He said that he wanted the national anthems of all countries who would be our allies to be played in a kind of pot-pourri at the end of the evening, ours as the final one.

I did not think it was a good idea. Already innumerable countries were involved, some with very long national anthems, and it would take a time to compose and to play, when all the audience asked was to be allowed to go home.

He looked at me with gaunt dark eyes on either side of a big nose which was like an eagle’s beak He was horribly worried, we knew that because his finger-nails were bitten to the quick (one of his nastier habits) and last week one of the girls had noticed that they were actually bleeding.

Mr. Clements was on the Stock Exchange (the cinema being merely a hobby), and with war coming he saw disaster ahead It is pathetic that at the time I did not realize that his wife had a daughter by a previous marriage to a German, a girl born deaf and dumb, and both of them were in agony lest Olga would be taken from them and put into a detention camp. I had never heard of such a place.

Earlier this evening Brooker the commissionaire had gone. A policeman had come for him, which alone caused some perturbation, but he was an old soldier on the Reserve. We wished him well, and those who could gave him something ‘for luck’, there seemed little time for goodbyes. This had brought the war considerably closer. Brooker, a very ordinary little man, who had never even been particularly brave with the drunks, suddenly glittered into something of a hero.

‘God only knows what’ll happen,’ said Mr. Clements in anxiety. ‘It’ll be the end of the world as we know it. One thing is certain, England’ll never be quite the same again.’

I was contemptuous. I thought he was cowardly, something to be despised in this moment of thrill. If we went to war (and oh, how I hoped we should!), England would rise with a glory never before achieved.

‘Maybe it’ll be nicer than you think?’ I suggested as I wrestled with ‘Poet and Peasant’ on the cottage piano.

‘You’re just a silly little girl! You don’t know a thing about it, and you’d better hold your tongue,’ he snapped, then swept out through the curtains, which at the start had been second-hand, leaving me with a haze of their dust and facing the nastier bits of ‘Poet and Peasant’.

The ‘Pathé Gazette’ flickered across the screen with pictures of the Reserves being called up, to be greeted with violent applause from the twopennies. A destroyer put out from Harwich harbour. A slide told the audience that so far – my tin clock told me it was nine o’clock, just before the ‘big picture’ – Germany had not replied to our ultimatum, and the twopennies booed.

The cinema darkened again, just above me lights played on to the screen, and the tin clock (one-and-sixpence) on the piano top began to tick away the last vital minutes of the old regime. At the dramatic moments of one’s life one does not recognize the tensity of emotional crisis. Sitting there playing for Mary Pickford was just another night in my life. No more.

When the end came I played the national anthems, but the audience did not stay, for they were eager to rush out and hear if we were really at war or not. Not yet. I closed the piano lid, and pushed the borrowed music into a box, for at all costs we had to keep that clean or the shop on Hollywell Hill wouldn’t take it back next Monday. I went through the deserted foyer, up shoddy stairs to where Teddy was waiting with his chocolate tray to get it checked. As nobody else came to do it, he and I achieved this together.

The two girl attendants pulled on coats which hung on a wall hook, the only attempt at a ladies’ room that we had. There was no lavatory of any kind and in emergencies one had to go up to the station which was a considerable way off. Any natural need of this kind was vulgar and could not be mentioned. Mother always said it was better than in the eighties when one was prepared to die rather than admit that nature could no longer contain itself, and some people had died, she vowed.

I went downstairs again into the foyer which advertised next week’s programme in big colourful posters to catch the eye. We should be running Les Miserables, a picture I had selected. Montie was waiting, in the green suit of the era, and with a stick.

‘Have we gone to war?’ I asked.

He didn’t know.

Comments: Ursula Bloom (1892-1984) was a highly-prolific British novelist. In her various memoirs, of which Youth at the Gate is only one, she provides detailed accounts of the time she spent as a pianist at the White Palace cinema in Harpenden, just before the First World War.

A Japanese Cinema

Source: ‘A Japanese Cinema’, New Zealand Herald, 25 March 1933, supplement p. 10

Text: A JAPANESE CINEMA

ENTHUSIASM OF AUDIENCE

NO KISSES IN FILMS

An interesting description of a visit to a Japanese cinema theatre is given by an English traveller in a recent issue of “Film Weekly.” Flaming banners and photographs of Japanese film stars denoted that this was the place I sought, (he wrote). I paid my money and entered, my progress to the seat being accompanied by deep bows from the daintily clad and elaborately coiffured usherettes. Next came a coy little lady bearing an ash tray and matches and a cushion for my greater comfort. By my side were two giggling little dolls, who every now and again cast surreptitious and demure glances in my direction.

The programme was nearing the end of the “comic,” in which two Oriental prototypes of Laurel and Hardy were competing for the affections of a lovely geisha. The audience literally screamed with merriment as, while they were indulging in mirthful altercation, another competitor stole her away under their very noses.

Let, no one talk to me of inscrutable, unsmiling Japanese. They form the most responsive and vocal audiences in the world. If they are amused they laugh – and they are easily amused – and their laugh is not just a refined gurgle, but a whole-hearted roar. If they are thrilled, an audible shiver runs through the audience.

A newsreel with a Japanese commentary showed the exploits of the representatives of the Land of the Rising Sun in the Olympic Games. This was greeted with extraordinary enthusiasm. The whole aim of Japanese pictures seems to be the glorification of Japan and things Japanese. Never was there a country so intensely nationalistic.

The feature picture was the synchronised version of Ben-Hut, from which, as the kiss in Japan is looked upon as a most disgusting affair, most of the love scenes had been eliminated. Ben-Hur’s caresses were left to the imagination. Every time the lovers showed signs of offending the Japanese moral code by coming to gags, the referee. in the form of a quick fade-out, would order them to break away, whilst the two coy maidens on my left would cover their faces with opened fingers and give a shocked “chi-chi.”

I soon tired of transatlantic Romans, and wandered forth into the gaily bannered streets in search of more film fare. I entered a second “shinema” for the modest sum of 10 sen, about 11⁄2d. All the seats being full, I stood at the back and watched a thrilling drama of the Shanghai conflict. Japan is passing through a period of intense chauvinism, and it is perhaps natural that such a proud and self-reliant nation should mirror its military prowess upon the screen. An elocutionist who commented on the story was much in evidence, in spite of lengthy Japanese captions. The story, if indeed it can be dignified by that, name, was of the slightest. The main theme was the heroism of the soldiers of Nippon.

We then went back to the days of sho-guns and samurai in an historical drama. Our worthy elocutionist, had obviously exhausted himself in his previous effort, and the complicated story slowly unfolded itself to a rapidly dwindling audience. With no English captions to guide me, the picture was almost totally incomprehensible, but I gathered that it dealt with the adventures of a lovely “Broken Blossom,” whose heart still retained its snow-white purity in spite of her sinister environment, a theme very dear to the Japanese mind.

Her handsome lover, sword in hand, after encountering incredible opposition, effects her escape, but dies in her arms. Then the story goes off at another angle with an entirely different set of characters.

Comments: This article was originally published in the British film journal Film Weekly. The silent film Ben-Hur (USA 1925) was reissued in 1931 with a music score and sound effects.

Links: Copy at Papers Past

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

Candles, Carts & Carbolic

Source: Jim Callaghan, Candles, Carts & Carbolic: A Liverpool Childhood Between the Wars (Lancaster: Palatine Books, 2001), pp. 35-36

Text: The Saturday afternoon visit to the pictures was our one and only treat, twopence in the Balcony, penny in the Pit. Balcony patrons, as befitted their status, queued under a covered walkway, the Pit rabble submitting themselves to the open air. Attired in an ankle-length coat, adorned with brass epaulettes and a gold~braided cap held in place by his ears, Old Soupy-Eyes, armed with a long cane, stands at the top of the steps, guarding the entrance to the Pit, now and then administering a thwack to some youngster attempting to break ranks. Up and down the queue shuffles the Chewing Gum man, ‘Ere y’ar now; he intones, ‘everybody’s doing it, everybody’s chewing it, Wrigley’s spearmint, five sticks a penny,’ his doleful litany drowned in a rousing cheer as the projectionist is seen climbing the iron ladder to his box. Sounds of doors opening reach the ears of the waiting mob. Soupy-Eyes braces himself for the rush but he is swept aside, overwhelmed.

I honestly believe that no generation ever enjoyed the pictures much as we did. Wrapped in the warmth of hundreds of young bodies, the tang of peeling oranges in our nostrils, we sat under the dust-laden beam of the projectionist’s lamp in total darkness and in complete harmony with our idols on the screen. The airless cinema became a place of wonder: no sweet-wrappers rustled, no ice-cream sellers broke the spell; howls of derision greeted the occasional breakdown and when at times the screen appeared to dissolve in flames we knew it was all part of the magic.

Art Accord, William S. Hart, Hoot Gibson, Tom Mix, Lou Tellegan, J. Farrell McDonald (trapped in the miner’s shack at the head of the canyon and aware that the posse was getting closer: ‘Where was Moses when the light went out? he said, dropping his smouldering corncob into the barrel of dynamite). These were our heroes. Then there was Mary Miles Minter, Nazimova of whom we sang rather a rude song, Louise Fazenda, Polly Moran and once a glimpse of the Divine Sarah Bernhardt, her wooden leg tucked out of sight and the Queen of them all, Pearl White, who had a song written about her:

My little pearl of the army,
Pearl of the picture screen
You’re the Queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a pearl of a girl like you.

Anyway, that’s what it sounded like in 1917.

Comments: Jim Callaghan (1911-2001), one of eleven children, grew up among the working-class, Irish-Catholic neighbourhood of Scottie Road, Liverpool. In adult life he became a personnel officer. My thanks to Jenny Callaghan (his daughter, I believe) for having once recommended this passage from his memoirs on my Bioscope site.

New York

Source: Paul Morand (trans. Hamish Miles), New York (London: William Heinemann, 1931 [orig. pub. 1930]), pp. 198-199

Text: As for the Roxy, that surpasses the impossible. Find a way through those dense crowds queued up there all day long; pass the tall gold-laced ushers, at once door-keepers and custodians of order; enter this Temple of Solomon. The overheated air is unbreathable, the din of the mechanical orchestra, which one failure in the electricity could bring to a standstill, is merciless; amid palm-trees and gigantic ferns one moves forward into the Mexican palace of some Spanish governor whom the tropics have turned stark mad. The walls are of a reddish rough-cast, treated with a liquid to give a semblance of age, and the brazen doors of the Ark of the Covenant open into a hall with golden cupolas, in old style, and a ceiling with storied panels. Satan has hung this disused sanctuary with scarlet velvet; a nightmare light falls from bowls of imitation alabaster, from yellow glass lanterns, from branching ritual candlesticks; the organ-pipes, lit from beneath by greenish lights, make one think of a cathedral under the waves, and in the wall are niches awaiting sinful bishops. I find a seat in a deep, soft fauteuil, from which for two hours I witness giant kisses on mouths like the crevasses of the Grand Canyon, embraces of titans, a whole propaganda of the flesh which maddens, without satisfying, these violent American temperaments. It is more than a Black Mass; it is a profanation of everything – of music, of art, of love, of colours. I vow I had there a complete vision of the end of the world. I saw Broadway suddenly as one vast Roxy, one of those unsubstantial treasures, one of those joy-baited traps, one of those fleeting and illusory gifts won by the spells of wicked magicians.

Comments: Paul Morand (1888-1976) was a French author and intellectual. He made trips to New York between 1925-1929, resulting in his travel book New York, published in French in 1930. The Roxy Theatre was located at 7th Avenue and 50th Street, off Times Square in New York City. It seated 5,920 (originally 6,200), and opened on 11 March 1927. It was named after its manager, the cinema impresario Samuel L. ‘Roxy’ Rothafel.

What's It All About?

Source: Michael Caine, What’s It All About? (London: Century, 1992), pp. 10-11

Text: When I was a teenager used to read a lot of biographies of actors to see if I had anything common with them, because by now I had dreams of becoming one as well. My avid reading as a teenager taught me that I had little in common with any actor – particularly the British stage greats. In fact they sounded as though they actually came from another plane. All their stories seemed to start from the same point: the first time that they ever saw an actor was when their nanny took them to the theatre, and as the curtain rose and the lights went up on the stage they just knew the theatre was going to be their life’s work.

In stark contrast to this, the first actor that I ever saw was the Lone Ranger and it was at a Saturday morning matinée for kids, which in my area was a cross between an SAS training camp and the St Valentine’s Day Massacre. The first obstacle in the assault course was the queue, which developed into a full-scale riot as some of the bigger kids who came late tried to push in front of others. Once inside, another riot started as everybody rushed for the front seats. And even when we were all seated comfortably and it seemed that our troubles were over missiles started hurtling around and an orange hit me on the back of the head. My friends had told me that after the lights went out and the picture started everything would be all right, but when I was plunged into darkness it turned out to be an overcoat which had been thrown down from the balcony above on top of me. It was finally dragged off me and thrown back up. accompanied by a lot of words that I did not understand but had heard before when my father stubbed his toe on the bed legs.

At last the lights went down, the film started, and on came the Lone Ranger. I sat there as entranced as those privileged actors before me with their nannies and I knew that this was what I wanted to be. A half eaten ice cream cone suddenly landed in my lap but even this could not break the spell; I just wiped it up, without taking my eyes off the screen.

After a while I got cramp, so I put my feet upon the back of he seat in from of me and stretched my legs. At this point the entire row of seats that we were sitting on tilted back on to the knees of the kids in the row behind. Yells of pain and indignation filled the air as the unfortunate patrons behind us tried to extricate themselves, but we were lying in our seats half over backwards with our feet flailing in the air. The lights went up, the picture stopped and the usherettes came rushing down to sort things out. I was pointed out as the culprit (there was no mention of the boys who had unscrewed the seats from the floor before we came in) and given a hefty whack round the ear. The lights went down, the picture started again and I sat there and watched through a veil of tears as my future profession unfolded before my eyes. I wonder what nanny would have made of that outing.

Comments: Michael Caine (b. 1933) is a British film actor, born Maurice Joseph Micklewhite. This part of his memoirs concerns his childhood in London before the Second World War.

When the Viewing had to Stop

Source: Peter Ackroyd, ‘When the Viewing had to Stop’, in Peter Ackroyd (ed. Thomas Wright), The Collection: Journalism, Reviews, Essays, Short Stories, Lectures (London: Chatto & Windus, 2001), pp. 140-142 [orig. pub. The Spectator, 7 March 1987]

Text: There comes a time when Mr Pickwick, bewildered by the horrors of the Fleet Prison, announces that ‘I have seen enough … My head aches with these scenes, and my heart too. Henceforth I will be a prisoner in my own room.’ These are very much the sentiments of your film critic on abandonning his generally undistinguished and no doubt ineffective career; enough is enough. No more films set in what journalists call ‘Thatcher’s England’; no more tearful tributes to the elderly starring Katharine Hepburn; no more masterpieces with the subtitles in Americanese. And no more questions from the only mildly curious, on the lines of ‘What film is worth seeing?’ I never really knew. Yesterday I turned back to the pages of the Spectator in 1979 when I began to write film criticism, and I could recall nothing of the films I then either praised or damned. They had gone, vanished, disappeared. I usually find it difficult to recall even the film I saw in the previous week, so effortlessly to the images slip or slide away.

[…]

Perhaps more memorable than the films have been the cinemas themselves. There were ghastly places in north London, where health food was sold over the counter; there were dank crypts off the Tottenham Court Road which people used as refuges rather than as places of entertainment. But there were also some agreeable little spots, somehow removed from this world: the Minema is generally billed as the smallest cinema in London but it is also one of the most comfortable, and those who have a taste for macabre interiors should visit one of the auditoria of the Cannon Haymarket. And I regret the passing of the Academy, Oxford Street, which curiously resembled a toy theatre blown up out of all proportion.

And of course the cinema itself was always as important as any of the films being shown in it. The queuing, the buying of undrinkable coffee, the harridans bearing trays of ice-cream, the advertisements for Levi’s jeans and the Electricity Board, the warnings about one’s handbag, all furnished the slow and cosy passage into the filmic world. And yet even as I enjoyed these simple pleasures I was aware of the fact that they were essentially of an old-fashioned and even anachronistic sort – not ones, perhaps, which will survive the end of the century in their present form. I seemed to be participating in a social activity that was already past; I was still part of the audience that first went to the silent cinema in the twenties and I was certainly not part of that unimaginable future populace to whom the cinema will mean no more than the penny gaff or the diorama do to us.

Comments: Peter Ackroyd (1949 – ) is a British novelist, biographer and critic. He was film critic for the Spectator magazine from 1979 to 1987. The essay from which the above extracts are taken was written upon his giving up being a film critic.

Im Kino

Source: ‘Im Kino’ series of chocolate cards, dated c.1916, from the Nicholas Hiley collection

Comments: Gartmann was, and still is, a German chocolate manufacturer, based in Hamburg. These cards were given out with chocolate from vending machines. The series depicts various scenes in a typical cinema of the period: the barker, the ticket office, the musicians, the manager, a drink-seller, and the audience. Each is described in verse on the back of the cards.