Speedsters Replace Cowboys

Source: Thomas Baird, ‘Speedsters Replace Cowboys’, World Film and Television Progress, vol. 2 no. 12 (March 1938), p. 20

Text: A little over twenty years ago, I started to go to the pictures. I was then a small boy
living in a provincial city. There was quite a ritual about this picture-going. The first requirement was a penny. Pennies only come on Saturdays and, strange coincidence, the “Penny Matinee” came on the same day. Part of the ritual was to forswear the sweetie shops on Saturday morning. This called for severe discipline. It is true that we children had watched the highly dramatic posters all the week. Early on Monday morning the bill poster had pasted them up opposite the school gate. At the eleven o’clock interval we hoisted each other up on to the school wall to see the new posters. From the top of the wall would come shouts of: “It’s a cowboy”, or “It’s about lions”, or “There’s a man in a mask”. Imagination eked out these brief abstracts, and by Saturday excitement was at fever pitch; many a Friday night was sleepless in anticipation. But still it was difficult to pass the sweetie shop and occasionally we succumbed to the temptation of toffee-apples and liquorice straps. Once the precious penny was broken there was nothing for it but to get the greatest value by spending in four shops. But Saturday afternoon was a misery without the matinee.

The second item of the ritual was to be at the picture house fully an hour before the programme commenced. We had to stand in a queue and fight periodically to keep our positions. In the quiet periods we read comics, Buffalo Bills, and Sexton Blakes. Part of the ritual was to swap comics. As a story was finished off a shout went up of: “Swap you comics”, and there was great reaching and struggling to pass the paper to someone else in the queue.

About fifteen minutes to three o’clock the queue grew tense. Comics were stuffed in pockets and the battle to retain a place in the queue started. The struggling and pushing continued for about five minutes. Then the doors opened and a stream of children spilled into the picture house. There was a fight for the best seats. The right of possession meant little, and many a well-directed push slid a small boy from a well-earned seat into the passage.

Occasionally the programme was suitable, and by that I mean interesting to us children. Often, however, the feature was quite meaningless to us. On rare occasions I can remember films like Last Days of Pompeii, Tarzan of the Apes, Cowboy films, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, and the war films, giving us unexpected thrills, but in the main we went for the more comprehensible shorts: Bronco Billy, John Bunny, the Keystone Kops, Ford Sterling, Fatty Arbuckle, then one day a funny little waiter who afterwards we learned to call “Charlie”. Newsreels with soldiers, guns and bursting shells we loved. But we went for one thing above all others — the serial. These were the days of the Clutching Hand, The Exploits of Elaine, The Black Box and The Laughing Mask. Many of the names have faded and been forgotten, but I can recall that the heroine par excellence of all small boys was Pearl White. As Elaine she triumphed week after week, and later, changing with the times, she was Pearl of the Army. The villain of villains was an oriental called Warner Oland and, if I remember rightly, he was the Clutching Hand Himself, but this I will not swear to because these old serials had already learned the trick of making the obviously bad man become good in the last reel. I can remember living through fifteen exciting weeks to learn who the Clutching Hand was: to-day I can’t remember whether it was Oland or not. I seem to be losing my sense of values. Week after week we followed Warner Oland through his baleful adventures. Later he became the malevolent Dr. Fu Manchu. Then for a while I missed him, but, joy of joys, he reappeared as Charlie Chan. It is sad news that he has, perhaps, made his last picture. He has been one of my symbols of a changing cinema; the evil and the nefarious Clutching Hand became in time a prolific and model parent and fought on the side of the angels.

The blonde hero and partner of Pearl White in so many of these episodes was Cr[e]ighton Hale. To us, twenty years ago, he was a superman. He could hang for a week to the edge of a cliff and on the next Saturday miraculously climb to safety. It is perhaps a greater miracle that we, who, in imitation, hung from the washing-house roof, escaped with our lives. But the master mind — the great detective — was Craig Kennedy. That is the name of the character. I doubt if I ever knew the actor’s name and can still remember my astonishment when he turned up as a naval officer in a feature picture. He existed only for us as a detective with no other function than to answer the plea of Cr[e]ighton Hale to discover the whereabouts of Pearl White, or, out of bubbling retorts, to distil the antidote to the bite of the beetle which Warner Oland had secreted in her bouquet of flowers.

Periodically, a rumour ran round. It was whispered in hushed tones in the waiting queue and passed from lip to lip along the rows of excited children. Pearl White was dead. Somebody’s uncle had read in a paper — not an ordinary paper, but an American paper — that she had been killed jumping from an express train on to a motor-cycle. But she kept turning up week after week and this continual resurrection was sufficient to discount each rumour.

Last week I attended a press view of a serial. All the old characters were there. A black-faced villain (Julian Rivero), a thin-lipped henchman (Jason Robarts [sic]), a beautiful schoolboy’s heroine (Lola Lane), a juvenile of strange intelligence and unerring instinct (Frankie Darro) and a hero, smiling, confident, wise, resourceful and athletic (Jack Mulhall). There they all were, and in episode after episode they romped through their tantalizing escapades. The hero leapt from certain death at the end of one reel to equally certain safety at the beginning of the next; falling in mid air at the end of part three, he easily caught hold of a beam at the beginning of part four; flung from a racing car at the end of part four, he landed safely, with never a scratch, in part five. The scream of the heroine in part one turned through tears to laughter in part two; the leer of certain triumph of the villain in part nine turned to a scowl of miserable defeat in part ten.

I was unable to sit through all the hours necessary to reach the satisfactory conclusion which must be inevitable in the final episode, but I am sure that Burn ‘Em Up Barnes kissed Miss Lane in the end, that Frankie Darro achieved his aim both of a college education and being an ace cameraman, that the villains met a sticky end, in a burning racing-car, that Miss Lane never signed that deed which would have ruined her, and which she threatened to sign at least ten times and would have signed, had not Mr. Mulhall, driving at 413.03 miles per hour, arrived in the nick of time. Of all these things I am certain, and who would have it otherwise?

But even with all these familiar items I felt a little strange in the face of this serial. The fatal contract was there; true, the evil leers; true, the heroic athletics; but it was all set in a strange new world. There was no oriental mystery, no cowboy horses, no swift smuggling of drugs, no torture chamber, no shooting, no labs, with fantastic chemistry, no death-ray. It was all set for the new generation of youngsters who read “Popular Mechanics” in the Saturday queues and not for me, with my world of Sexton Blake and Buffalo Bill. The hero is a racing driver. The vital document was not a faded parchment taken from an old sea chest but a cinematograph film taken on a Mitchell. The hidden wealth was not gold but oil. Death came not suddenly by poisoned arrow or slowly in the torture chamber, but fiercely in burning automobiles or lingeringly on the sidewalks after a crash.

Comments: Thomas Baird was a British film journalist and documentary film executive, who worked for the Ministry of Information in the 1940s as its non-theatrical film supervisor. There was no serial named The Clutching Hand in the 1910s or 20s. Instead ‘The Clutching Hand’ was Perry Bennett, the mystery villain played by Sheldon Lewis in The Exploits of Elaine (USA 1914). This was based on the writings of Arthur B. Reeve, whose Craig Kennedy detective character features in the serial, played by Arnold Daly. Pearl White starred as Elaine and Creighton Hale appeared as Walter Jameson in this and the subsequent New Exploits of Elaine (1915) and The Romance of Elaine (1915), the latter of which featured Warner Oland, who became best known for playing the Chinese detective Charlie Chan in the 1930s. The other serials mentioned are The Black Box (USA 1915), Pearl of the Army (1916) and Burn ‘Em Up Barnes (USA 1934). I have not been able to discover what serial is meant by The Laughing Mask. The reference to four shops is because there were four farthings to a penny, and some sweets could be bought for a farthing.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive (c/o Media History Digital Library)

Summer

Source: Edith Wharton, Summer: A Novel (New York: D. Appleton, 1917), pp. 138-139

Text: They had made no plans for the rest of the day, and when Harney asked her what she wanted to do next she was too bewildered by rich possibilities to find an answer. Finally she confessed that she longed to go to the Lake, where she had not been taken on her former visit, and when he answered, “Oh, there’s time for that — it will be pleasanter later,” she suggested seeing some pictures like the ones Mr. Miles had taken her to. She thought Harney looked a little disconcerted; but he passed his fine handkerchief over his warm brow, said gaily, “Come along, then,” and rose with a last pat for the pink-eyed dog.

Mr. Miles’s pictures had been shown in an austere Y.M.C.A. hall, with white walls and an organ; but Harney led Charity to a glittering place — everything she saw seemed to glitter — where they passed, between immense pictures of yellow-haired beauties stabbing villains in evening dress, into a velvet-curtained auditorium packed with spectators to the last limit of compression. After that, for a while, everything was merged in her brain in swimming circles of heat and blinding alternations of light and darkness. All the world has to show seemed to pass before her in a chaos of palms and minarets, charging cavalry regiments, roaring lions, comic policemen and scowling murderers; and the crowd around her, the hundreds of hot sallow candy-munching faces, young, old, middle-aged, but all kindled with the same contagious excitement, became part of the spectacle, and danced on the screen with the rest.

Comments: Edith Wharton (1862-1937) was an American novelist. Summer is a novel about small town librarian Charity Royall and her affair with architect Lucius Harney. The confusion she feels in the cinema reflects her confused state in the early stages of her relationship with Harney. Wharton was antagonistic towards the cinema, but makes numerous references to filmgoing and film culture in her work.

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

An Entertaining Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 60 -61

Text: AGE: 37 SEX: F. OCCUPATION: Housewife NATIONALITY: British

Films have been my hobby for years, I’m now 37.

The first film I can remember clearly was one of which the comedian Pimple made as a Scotch Soldier leading others, I know it was very funny to me at the time. We used to pay a 1d. Saturday afternoons and as we came out we were given a bag of sweets.

Then a few years after, I can remember Jack Mulhall in light comedian roles in which he was perfect, I still catch glances of him in small parts now at the movies. Then I was in the flapper age when Rudolph Valintino [sic] was the hero, and when his picture was on The Shiek [sic]. I know we girls had to stand to get in and we were saying ‘Isn’t he marvellous’, ‘I wish I was Agnes Ayers’ [sic]. I bought every photo I could possibly get of him, and my bedroom was surrounded with him, so you see there were pin-up-boys in those times too.

Even now when I see old pictures of him in your magazine I still get a little romantic feeling, silly isn’t it how a picture does effect [sic] you of anyone.

His picture The Four Horsemen was one of his greatest, but when I went to see that, it was dark when I came out and being young, I was terrified all the way home. ‘The Horsemen* were following me all the way. I ran as hard as I could. I think the silent pictures effected [sic] people more than the talkies, as I think hearing them talk makes it less creepy. I know ‘Lon Chaneys’ always upset me.

Sometimes I wish they would show one of the old silent ones occasionly as I’m sure the children of today don’t realize the wonder of the film worlds [sic] progress through the years, I still go very often to the pictures in fact I’d like to go more often. I like to go on my own and get carried away by the acting especially when it is an actor you have a little warm spot for, for I’m sure youngsters aren’t the only ones who go because they like the ways and actions and little mannerisms of their favourite actors.

I like Ralph Bellamy because he reminds me of someone years ago.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘Films and the Pattern of Life’. Contributors were asked to trace the history of their interest in films, the influence films had on them (including if they were ever frightened by films), what they imitated from films, if films made them more receptive to love-making, if films made them want to travel or to be dissatisfied with their way of life or neighbourhood, and if films gave them vocational ambitions. The Sheik (USA 1921) starred Agnes Ayres and Rudolph Valentino, who also starred in The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (USA 1921). ‘Pimple’ was a character played by British comedian Fred Evans. The film referred to is probably Pimple in the Kilties (UK 1915)

Seeing Stars

Source: Alan Bennett, extract from ‘Seeing Stars’, London Review of Books, vol. 24 no. 1, 3 January 2002, pp. 12-16, reproduced with slight emendations in Untold Stories (London: Faber and Faber, 2005), pp. 160-173

Text: In the 1940s within a mile or so of where we lived in Armley in Leeds there were at least half a dozen cinemas. Nearest was the Picturedrome on Wortley Road but others were just a walk or a tramride away – the Lyric down Tong Road, the Clifton at Bramley, the Palace off Stanningley Road and the Western a bit further on. And without ever being a dedicated filmgoer I could have graded them all from fleapit upwards in their degree of comfort and sophistication just as, a little later, I would be able to grade the neighbourhood churches in terms of high and low, many of the churches and cinemas since sharing a common fate, conversion to carpet warehouses, second-hand furniture marts and, nowadays, health clubs.

Programmes changed twice a week and we generally went on a Monday and a Saturday. Comedies were best, particularly George Formby, but we took what was on offer, never knowing whether a film had any special merit. Some came with more of a reputation than others, Mrs Miniver for instance with Greer Garson, Dangerous Moonlight (with the Warsaw Concerto) and Now, Voyager with the famous cigarettes. But I’m sure I must have seen both Citizen Kane and Casablanca on their first time round with no notion that these were films of a different order from the usual twice-weekly fare. It was only towards the end of the war that more of a fuss started to be made over forthcoming films, so that I remember reading in Picture Post (and probably at the barber’s) about The Way to the Stars with the young Jean Simmons, and the making of Michael Powell’s A Canterbury Tale, and the first Royal Command Performance, another Powell film, A Matter of Life and Death.

Suburban cinemas were often pretty comfortless places. While the entrance could be quite imposing, with the box-office generally at the top of a flight of white marble steps, presumably to accommodate the rake, the auditorium itself was often not much more than a hangar, the aisle carpeted but the seats on lino or even bare concrete. Wartime meant there was no ice-cream but en route to the cinema we would call at a sweet shop and get what Dad called ‘some spice’, provided, of course, we had the points, sweet rationing the most irksome of wartime restrictions and still in force as late as 1952, when I went into the Army.

As a family we always went to the first house, which ended around 8.10, with the second-house queue waiting as we came out, scanning our faces for a clue to the experience we had just had, much as, I imagine, soldiers did when queuing outside a brothel. The second-house crowd seemed to me more loose-living than we were, raffish even. It certainly included more courting couples and folks who liked a drink (and who might even have had one already), none of whom minded rolling home at the to us unheard-of hour of half-past ten.

The waiting (and the Second World War involved a good deal of waiting in every department) was generally done up the side of the cinema in a grim open-sided arcade that today would be drenched in urine but wasn’t then. If the cinema was full and the performance continuous the commissionaire would come down the queue shouting: ‘Two at 1/9;’ ‘A single at 2/3.’ Or (very seldom): ‘Seats in all parts.’

We always called it ‘the pictures’, seldom ‘the cinema’ and never ‘the movies’. To this day I don’t find it easy to say ‘movies’, ‘going to the pictures’ still the phrase that comes to me most naturally, though nowadays I’m not sure that ‘the pictures’, like ‘the wireless’, aren’t among the self-consciously adopted emblems of fogeydom, the verbal equivalent of those smart Covent Garden establishments that do a line in old luggage. But calling the pictures ‘the movies’ went with calling cigarettes ‘fags’, beer ‘booze’ or girls ‘birds’. It signalled a relaxed, unbuttoned approach to things, life led with more of a dash than I was ever going to manage.

Picture-going was generally a family affair, but when we were still quite young, at eight or nine, say, we were allowed to go to U films by ourselves and (with a bit of nagging) to A films too. Since the A signified that a child could only see the film when accompanied by an adult this meant hanging about outside the cinema accosting congenial-looking cinema-goers, preferably women, with ‘Can you take us in, please?’ Warning us often, every time we left the house it almost seemed, against ‘stopping with strange men’, my mother never liked my brother and me to go to the pictures on our own, but only once did I come to any harm and then not really.

In 1944 we had moved, disastrously as it turned out, from Leeds to Guildford, where we stayed for a year, so at that time I would be ten, and had persuaded my mother one afternoon to let me go see Errol Flynn in The Sea Hawk, which I’d seen in Armley but was now showing at the Palace in Onslow Street (closed in 1956 to become a bingo hall and currently a nightclub called The Drink). I hung about for a bit until a genial middle-aged man in glasses came along with one boy in tow already. This seemed to indicate respectability and I was about to ask him if he would take me in when he got in first, even taking my hand before shepherding us both past the box-office; he may even have paid.

The film had already started, Errol Flynn flirting with Flora Robson as Queen Elizabeth while the usherette showed us down the aisle and before we had even sat down the man was pinching me and remarking on my nice chubby legs. This seemed fairly boring to me as, so far as I was concerned, they were just legs, but I put up with it for the sake of Errol Flynn, who soon after we sat down was away on the Spanish Main. However, the clutching and the pinching was getting more urgent until, innocent though I was, it dawned on me that this must be what Mam’s mysterious warnings had been about.

The sight of Errol Flynn now chained to an oar in the Spanish galleys seemed to bring these claspings to a new pitch of urgency and I decided, as they moved higher up my legs, that I ought to make a break for it. So I got up and, foolishly, headed not up the aisle to the foyer but down the aisle to the Gents where, not surprisingly, my admirer followed. Once there, I didn’t hide in a cubicle but just stood waiting, not knowing what to do.

I see myself standing in that cinema lavatory and hearing the bang of the swing-door as this kindly, bespectacled man, now suddenly sinister, comes through the door in pursuit. The entrance to the Gents was also the back door to the Exit and my admirer stood there for a second, obviously wondering if I had fled the cinema altogether. There was a moment, which in a film would hardly seem credible, when he stood with his back to me trying to decide if I’d gone. Had he turned and looked down the steps to the lavatory he would have seen me. But he didn’t turn, and obviously deciding it would be prudent to leave, he pushed the bar and went out through the exit door.

I wish I could record that I went back and watched the finish of the film but I just hung about for a few minutes until the coast was clear, then (though nothing had happened to me) ran home in mild distress. I told my mother, who became satisfyingly hysterical, but Dad, a shy and fastidious man who I knew regarded me as a liar and a show-off, was just made angry, refusing even to believe anything had happened and, if it had, ‘It was all nowt.’ Certainly I hadn’t been damaged, and if damage was done at all it was only in Dad’s refusal to acknowledge the situation. As it was, the only lasting effect of the incident was to put paid to any further lone visits to the cinema and to teach me to keep quiet. One’s legs often got felt up as a child. Dad’s old headmaster, Mr Alexander, used to give us lessons in algebra and he was a great stroker and clutcher, though only of the legs and not the parts appertaining. Vicars did it too, without seeming to want to take it further. It was something I came to expect, and just another of the ways in which grown-ups were boring.

Comments: Alan Bennett (born 1934) is a British playwright, screenwriter, essayist and actor. Untold Stories is a collection of essays and memoir, including the section entitled ‘Seeing Stars’, on his memories of cinemagoing, from which this extract comes. The films mentioned are Mrs Miniver (USA 1942), Dangerous Moonlight (UK 1941), Now Voyager (USA 1942), Citizen Kane (USA 1941), Casablanca (USA 1942), The Way to the Stars (UK 1945), A Canterbury Tale (UK 1944), A Matter of Life and Death (UK 1946) and The Sea Hawk (USA 1940).

Links: Full article at London Review of Books

Just William

Source: Richmal Crompton, extract from Just William (London: George Newnes, 1922), pp. 13-17

Text: It all began with William’s aunt, who was in a good temper that morning, and gave him a shilling for posting a letter for her and carrying her parcels from the grocer’s.

“Buy some sweets or go to the Pictures,” she said carelessly, as she gave it to him.

William walked slowly down the road, gazing thoughtfully at the coin. After deep calculations, based on the fact that a shilling is the equivalent of two sixpences, he came to the conclusion that both luxuries could be indulged in.

In the matter of sweets, William frankly upheld the superiority of quantity over quality. Moreover, he knew every sweet shop within a two miles radius of his home whose proprietor added an extra sweet after the scale had descended, and he patronised these shops exclusively. With solemn face and eager eye, he always watched the process of weighing, and “stingy” shops were known and banned by him.

He wandered now to his favourite confectioner and stood outside the window for five minutes, torn between the rival attractions of Gooseberry Eyes and Marble Balls. Both were sold at 4 ounces for 2d. William never purchased more expensive luxuries. At last his frowning brow relaxed and he entered the shop.

“Sixpennoth of Gooseberry Eyes,” he said, with a slightly self-conscious air. The extent of his purchases rarely exceeded a penny.

“Hello!” said the shopkeeper, in amused surprise.

“Gotter bit of money this mornin’,” explained William carelessly, with the air of a Rothschild.

He watched the weighing of the emerald green dainties with silent intensity, saw with satisfaction the extra one added after the scale had fallen, received the precious paper bag, and, putting two sweets into his mouth, walked out of the shop.

Sucking slowly, he walked down the road towards the Picture Palace. William was not in the habit of frequenting Picture Palaces. He had only been there once before in his life.

It was a thrilling programme. First came the story of desperate crooks who, on coming out of any building, glanced cautiously up and down the street in huddled, crouching attitudes, then crept ostentatiously on their way in a manner guaranteed to attract attention and suspicion at any place and time. The plot was involved. They were pursued by police, they leapt on to a moving train and then, for no accountable reason, leapt from that on to a moving motor-car and from that they plunged into a moving river. It was thrilling and William thrilled. Sitting quite motionless, he watched, with wide, fascinated eyes, though his jaws never ceased their rotatory movement and every now and then his hand would go mechanically to the paper bag on his knees and convey a Gooseberry Eye to his mouth.

The next play was a simple country love-story, in which figured a simple country maiden wooed by the squire, who was marked out as the villain by his moustachios.

After many adventures the simple country maiden was won by a simple country son of the soil in picturesque rustic attire, whose emotions were faithfully portrayed by gestures that must have required much gymnastic skill; the villain was finally shown languishing in a prison cell, still indulging in frequent eye-brow play.

Next came another love-story — this time of a noble-hearted couple, consumed with mutual passion and kept apart not only by a series of misunderstandings possible only in a picture play, but also by maidenly pride and reserve on the part of the heroine and manly pride and reserve on the part of the hero that forced them to hide their ardour beneath a cold and haughty exterior. The heroine’s brother moved through the story like a good fairy, tender and protective towards his orphan sister and ultimately explained to each the burning passion of the other.

It was moving and touching and William was moved and touched.

The next was a comedy. It began by a solitary workman engaged upon the re-painting of a door and ended with a miscellaneous crowd of people, all covered with paint, falling downstairs on top of one another. It was amusing. William was riotously and loudly amused.

Lastly came the pathetic story of a drunkard’s downward path. He began as a wild young man in evening clothes drinking intoxicants and playing cards, he ended as a wild old man in rags still drinking intoxicants and playing cards. He had a small child with a pious and superior expression, who spent her time weeping over him and exhorting him to a better life, till, in a moment of justifiable exasperation, he threw a beer bottle at her head. He then bedewed her bed in Hospital with penitent tears, tore out his hair, flung up his arms towards Heaven, beat his waistcoat, and clasped her to his breast, so that it was not to be wondered at that, after all that excitement, the child had a relapse and with the words “Good-bye, Father. Do not think of what you have done. I forgive you,” passed peacefully away.

William drew a deep breath at the end, and still sucking, arose with the throng and passed out.

Once outside, he glanced cautiously around and slunk down the road in the direction of his home. Then he doubled suddenly and ran down a back street to put his imaginary pursuers off his track. He took a pencil from his pocket and, levelling it at the empty air, fired twice. Two of his pursuers fell dead, the rest came on with redoubled vigour. There was no time to be lost. Running for dear life, he dashed down the next street, leaving in his wake an elderly gentleman nursing his toe and cursing volubly. As he neared his gate, William again drew the pencil from his pocket and, still looking back down the road, and firing as he went, he rushed into his own gateway …

Comments: Richmal Crompton (1880-1969) was a British writer, best known for her series of Just William books, featuring the 11-year-old schoolboy William Brown. The first volume, Just William, from which the above extract comes (the opening to chapter one, ‘William Goes to the Pictures’) was published in 1922. The description of a picture palace show reads more like a pre-war programme of short films than a standard 1922 film show. The story continues with William applying the lessons he has learned from seeing the films to real life, with chaotic results. My thanks to Adam Ganz for suggesting this entry.

Links: Copy at Project Gutenberg

Autobiographical Note

Source: Vernon Scannell, ‘Autobiographical Note’, Collected Poems 1950-1993 (London: Faber & Faber, 2010)

Text:
Beeston, the place near Nottingham;
We lived there for three years or so,
Each Saturday at two o’clock
We queued up for the matinee,
All the kids for streets around
With snotty noses; giant caps,
Cut down coats and heavy boots,
The natural enemies of cops
And schoolteachers. Profane and hoarse
We scrambled, yelled and fought until
The Picture Palace opened up
And then, like Hamelin children, forced
Our bony way into the Hall.
That much is easy to recall;
Also the reek of chewing-gum,
Gob-stoppers and liquorice,
But of the flickering myths themselves
Not much remains. The hero was
A milky, wide-brimmed hat, a shape
Astride the arched white stallion.
The villain’s horse and hat were black.
Disbelief did not exist
And launched virtue always won
With quicker gun and harder fist
And all of us applauded it.
Yet I remember moments when
In solitude I’d find myself
Brooding on the sooty man,
The bristling villain, who could move
Imagination in a way
The well-shaved hero never could,
And even warm the nervous heart
With something oddly close to love.

Comments: Vernon Scannell (1922-2007) was a British poet. His impoverished family lived for a time in Beeston, Nottinghamshire in the late 1920s.

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.