Diversions of a Naturalist

Source: Sir Ray Lankester, Diversions of a Naturalist (New York: The Macmillian Company, 1915), pp. 29-31

Text: I recently was present at a lecture given to the Anthropological Institute in London by Professor Baldwin Spencer, of Melbourne, with whom I was closely associated when he was a student at Oxford thirty years ago. He has devoted many years to the study of the Australian natives, and ten years ago published a most valuable work describing his experiences amongst them, to which he has recently added a further volume. He has lived with them in friendship and intimacy in the remote wilderness of the Australian bush, and has been admitted as a member of one of their mysterious clans, of which the “totem,” or supposed spirit-ancestor, is “the witchety grub “—a kind of caterpillar. He has been freely admitted to their secret ceremonies as well as to their more public “corroborees” or dances, and has been able (as no one else has been), without annoyance or offence to them, to take a great number of cinema-films of them in their various dances or when cooking in camp or paddling and upsetting their canoes, and climbing back again from the river. Many of these he exhibited to us, and we found ourselves among moving crowds of these slim-legged, beautifully-shaped wild men. The film presented some of their strange elaborate dances, which soon will be danced no more. These wild men die out when civilized man comes near them. It appears that they really spend most of their time in dancing when not looking for food or chipping stone implements, and that their dances are essentially plays (like those of little children in Europe), the acting of traditional stories relating the history of their venerated animal “totem,” which often last for three weeks at a time! Whilst dancing and gesticulating they are chanting and singing without cessation, often repeating the same words over and over again. Here, indeed, we have the primitive human art, the emotional expression from which, in more advanced races, music, drama, dancing, and decorative handicraft have developed as separate “arts.”

The most remarkable and impressive result was obtained when Professor Baldwin Spencer turned on his phonograph records whilst the wild men danced in the film picture. Then we heard the actual voices of these survivors of prehistoric days—shouting at us in weird cadences, imitating the cry of birds, and accompanied by the booming of the bull-roarer (a piece of wood attached to a string, and swung rapidly round by the performer). A defect, and at the same time a special merit, of the cinema show of the present day is the deadly silence of both the performers and the spectators. Screams and oaths are delivered in silence; pistols are fired without a sound. One can concentrate one’s observation on the facial expression and movements of the actors with undivided attention and with no fear of startling detonations. And very bad they almost invariably are, except in films made by the great French producers. On the other hand, I was astonished at the intensity of the impression produced by hearing the actual voices of those Australian wild men as they danced in rhythm with their songs. To hear is a greater means of revelation than to see. One feels even closer to those Australian natives as their strange words and songs issue from imprisonment in the phonograph, than when one sees them in the film pictures actually beating time with feet and hands and imitating the movements of animals. To receive, as one sits in a London lecture-room, the veritable appeal of these remote and inaccessible things to both the eye and the ear simultaneously, is indeed the most thrilling experience I can remember. With a feeling of awe, almost of terror, we recognize as we gaze at and listen to the records brought home by Professor Baldwin Spencer that we are intruding into a vast and primitive Nature-reserve where even humanity itself is still in the state of childhood—submissive to the great mother, without the desire to destroy her control or the power to substitute man’s handiwork for hers.

Comments: Ray Lankester (1847-1929) was a celebrated British biologist and zoologist. The Anglo-Australian anthropologist Baldwin Spencer (1860-1929) studied Australian Aborigines over many years, using film and sound recordings (on wax cylinders) as part of his investigations. The film and sound were separate recordings, not designed to be played back in synchronisation. Those witnessed by Lankester were either made in 1901-02 or (more likely) 1911-12.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Working North from Patagonia

Source: Harry A. Franck, Working North from Patagonia; being the narrative of a journey, earned on the way, through southern and eastern South America (New York: The Century Co., 1921), pp. 357-358

Text: Long before the first session ended we had closed the inner doors and the lobby was threatening to overflow. For the first time in Brazil I had permitted other “special attractions” to be offered with our own; that is, in addition to the ordinary films Ruben had engaged two stray Italian females who howled through several spasms of what they and most of the audience seemed to think was music. As they had been hired before our contract was made, and their wages were nothing out of our pockets, I could only reasonably demand that the Kinetophone remain the head-liner …

Our first Sunday, in particular, was a busy day. It is the custom all over Brazil for the “excellentissimas familias” to go to the “movies” on Sunday afternoon or evening, and the habit is so fixed that they prefer to pack in to the point of drowning in their own perspiration, even at double prices, rather than see a better show on a week day. For managers naturally take advantage of this fad and offer their poorest attractions—just as Ruben withdrew his “imported artists” on this day—knowing they will fill their houses anyway. If only we could have taken Sunday with us, movable, transportable, and played on that day in every town, we would have made as great a fortune as if the World War had never cast the pall of a “brutal crisis” over Brazil.

By one in the afternoon I was at the theater door in impresario full-dress and managerial smile, greeting the considerable crowd that came to the matinee, and disrupting the plans of those who had hoped to drag five or six children by in the shadow of their skirts or trousers. Then, with scarcely time for a meat-laden Brazilian supper in our disreputable hotel across the street, I came back to the most crowded theater I had seen in months. By 7:30 we had already closed the inner doors and the elite of Bahia continued to stack up in the lobby until that, too, had overflowed long before the first session ended. We were compelled to send policemen in to eject the first audience, and when the house had been emptied and the gates opened again, it flooded full from floor to “paradise” five stories up as quickly as a lock at Panama does with water. Even then all could not crowd in, and we herded them up once more in preparation for a third session, which, though not beginning until after ten, was also packed. Nothing so warms the cockles of a manager’s heart as to watch an unbroken sea of flushed and eager faces following his entertainment. By this time I had met most of the high society of Bahia, all her white and near-white “best families,” with now and then some physically very attractive girls among them, having marched at least once past my eagle eye. That night I carried off more money than had fallen to our lot since our first days in Rio and São Paulo.

Comments: Harry Alverson Franck (1881-1962) was an American travel writer, whose journeys took him China, Latin America, Europe and the USSR. For the journey through South America described in this book Franck served as an agent for the Edison Kinetophone, a film projection system synchronised with musical discs, and there are many descriptions of the operation of the Kinetophone and its mixed reception across the continent in Franck’s characteristically sardonic style. The show described took place at São Salvador, in Bahia state. Although the publication date of the book is 1921, the trip occurred around 1913-14.


Working North from Patagonia

Source: Harry A. Franck, Working North from Patagonia; being the narrative of a journey, earned on the way, through southern and eastern South America (New York: The Century Co., 1921), pp. 261-266

Text: The “Companhia Brazileira” advertized extensively, and the Kinetophone was well patronized from the start. Brazilians take readily to novelties, especially if they can be made the fashion, and our audiences of the second day included both priests and “women of the life,” which is a sure sign of popular success in Brazil. As our doubled entrance fee of two milreis was high for those times of depression, also perhaps because the “Cinema Pathé” was considered a gathering place of the élite, we entertained only the well dressed, or, perhaps I should say, the overdressed. They were blasé, artificial audiences, never under any circumstances applauding or giving any sign of approval; they always gave me the impression of saying, “Oh, rather interesting, you know, as a novelty, but I could do much better myself if I cared to take the time from my love-making and risk soiling my spats and my long, slender, do-nothing fingers.” But as they continued to bring us as our share of the receipts more than a conto of reis a day, it was evident that they found the performance pleasing.


The motion-picture having come after all the business part of Rio was built, there was no room to erect “movie palaces” which have elsewhere followed in the train of Edison’s most prostituted invention. All the cinemas along the Avenida Central are former shops, without much space except in depth, and as the temperature quickly rises when such a place is crowded, the screen often consists of a curtain across what used to be the wide-open shop door, so that one on the sidewalk may peep in and see the audience and even the orchestra, though he can see nothing of the projected pictures within an inch of his nose. Alongside the “movie” house proper another ex-shop of similar size is generally used as a waiting-room. Here are luxurious upholstered seats, much better than those facing the screen, and some such extraordinary attraction as a “feminine orchestra specially contracted in Europe.” For the waiting-room is of great importance in Rio. It takes the place in a way of a central plaza and promenade where the two sexes can come and admire one another, and it is often thronged immediately after the closing of the door to the theater proper, by people who know quite well they must sit there a full hour before the “section” ends. In fact, young fops sometimes come in and remain an hour or two ogling the feminine charms in the waiting-room and then go out again without so much as having glanced at the show inside. In contrast, many cinemas have “second-class” entrances, without waiting-room and with seats uncomfortably near the screen, where the sockless and collarless are admitted at reduced prices.

It does not require long contact with them to discover that Latin films are best for Latins, for both audience and actors have a mutual language of gestures and facial expressions. The lack of this makes American films seem slow, labored, and stupid, not only to Latins, but to the American who has been living for some time among them. It is a strange paradox that the most doing people on the earth are the slowest in telling a story in pantomime or on the screen. What a French or an Italian actress will convey in full, sharply and clearly, by a shrug of her shoulders or a flip of her hand, the most advertised American “movie star” will get across much more crudely and indistinctly only by spending two or three minutes of pantomimic labor, assisted by two or three long “titles.” The war quickly forced the “Companhia Brazileira,” as it did most of its rivals, to use American films; but neither impresarios nor their clients had anything but harsh words for the “awkward stupidity” and the pretended Puritanic point of view of those makeshift programs — with one exception, Brazilian audiences would sit up all night watching our “wild west” films in which there was rough riding. Curious little differences in customs and point of view come to light in watching an American film through South American eyes. For instance, there is probably not a motion-picture director in the United States who knows that to permit a supposedly refined character in a film to lick a postage stamp is to destroy all illusion in a Latin-American audience. Down there not even the lowest of the educated class ever dreams of sealing or stamping a letter in that fashion. An American film depicting the misadventures of a “dude” or “sissy”, was entirely lost upon the Brazilian audiences, because to them the hero was exactly their idea of what a man should be, and they plainly rated him the most “cultured” American they had ever met. Bit by bit one discovers scores of such slight and insignificant differences, which sum up to great differences and become another stone in that stout barrier between the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon divisions of the western hemisphere.


Sunday is the big theater or “movie” day in Brazil, for then the families of the “four hundred” turn out in full force. On our seventh day they were standing knee-deep in the waiting-room most of the afternoon and early evening. The congestion increased that part of my duties which had to do with auditing, for the head of a family often paused to shake hands effusively with the door-keeper, after which the entire family poured boldly in, and it became my business to find out whether there had been anything concealed in the effusive hand, and if not, why the box-office had been so cavalierly slighted.

One afternoon the Senhor Presidente da Republica came to honor the fourth performance of the day with his patronage, and to give us the official blessing without which we had been forced to open. A corps of policemen was sent first to hang about the door for nearly two hours — giving passers-by the impression that the place had been “pinched.” There followed a throng of generals, admirals, and unadmirables in full uniform, who waited in line for “His Excellency.” The president came at length in an open carriage, his girl wife beside him, two haughty personalities in gold lace opposite them, and a company of lancers on horseback trotting along the Avenida beside them. The waiting line fawned upon the leathery-skinned chief of state, bowed over the hand of his wife, then the whole throng surrounded the loving pair and, pushing the humble door-keeper scornfully aside, swarmed into the cinema without a suggestion of offering to pay the entrance fee. Luckily the doors were not high enough to admit the lancers, who trotted away with the red of their uniforms gleaming in the afternoon sunshine. It was my first experience with the official “deadheads” of Brazil, but by no means my last.

We quickly found, too, that the official gathering was bad for business. Surely any American theater holding 510 persons would fill up when the President of the Republic and his suite were gracing it with their presence! Yet here there was only a scattering of paying audience as long as the “deadheads” remained, which, thanks perhaps to a film showing them in the recent Independence Day parade, was until they had heard the entire program once and the Kinetophone twice. The president, it seemed, was hated not only for his political iniquities, but the élite looked down upon him for marrying a girl little more than one-fourth his own age and letting her make the national presidency the background for her social climbing; and to enter the theater while the president and his retainers were there was to risk losing both one’s political and social standing as a high class Brazilian.

Comments: Harry Alverson Franck (1881-1962) was an American travel writer, whose journeys took him China, Latin America, Europe and the USSR. For the journey through South America described in this book Franck served as an agent for the Edison Kinetophone, a film projection system synchronised with musical discs, and there are many descriptions of the operation of the Kinetophone and its mixed reception across the continent in Franck’s characteristically sardonic style. Although the publication date of the book is 1921, the trip must have occurred around 1913-14. The president of the Brazilian republic referred to is Hermes da Fonseca.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Little Wilson and Big God

Source: Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God (London: Heinemann, 1987), pp. 103-106

Text: But, in 1929, the fascination with radio was nothing to the great innovation in the cinema. ‘Have you heard The Singing Fool yet?’ Eric Williams asked me. That heard was operative; we took for granted that we could see. My nearest talking cinema was the Claremont, and my father, aware of the importance of the new phenomenon, took me to see and hear Al Jolson. After an eternity of titles in the old style, though with a canned score moaning and bitching underneath, Jolson spoke: ‘You ain’t heard nothin’ yet, folks’ (this, rightly, has got into the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations). And then, to the night club pianist, ‘This is a ballad.’ – ‘You can’t sing a ballad’ (which I took to refer to the form, not the singer’s competence) and the revelation of throaty American-Jewish melody: ‘I can be humble, I can be proud, / I can be just the man in the crowd:/It all depends on you.’ And, towards the end, the tinned orchestra pointed Johnson’s Pagliacci situation – going onstage blacked up though Sonny Boy was dead – with Vesti la guibba. Finally, ‘Friends may forsake me,/ Let them all forsake me – / I still have you, Sonny Boy.’ It was a great experience, but it had its sinister aspects. The pit orchestra had disappeared; musicians were joining the industrial unemployed. Under the screen were pot plants on soap boxes.

Our local cinemas, the Princess and the Palace, were sullen and kept to silence. Rewiring and installing the new equipment cost dear, and the depression was on. The Princess showed a silent version of The Jazz Singer, with amplified gramophone records of Al Jolson’s voice, very imperfectly synchronised. And then it showed silent films with its own canned accompaniments: the coming of the talkies seemed primarily a chance to fire the orchestra. Jakie Innerfield did not fire his. He even brought in the dance band as an intervallar treat. The band leader put a cap and muffler on and sang ‘My wife is on a diet,/ And since she’s on a diet, / Home isn’t home any more.’ Innerfield, despite his shrinking audiences, wanted to believe the innovation would not last. ‘Never Mind the Talkies,’ shouted his posters. ‘We Will Make You Talk.’

Yet, like most cinema owners, Innerfield had difficulty with silent rentals. He brought in a larger number of German films, of a strong expressionist tendency, including the early Freudian Secrets of the Soul. There were heavy comedy films about Vienna, full of brilliant montage effects. I was watching, without knowing it, the twilight phase of the art of the Weimar Republic. Nowadays aesthetic historians would flock to such showings. I dimly saw their significance – they were more subtle and serious than the all-talking, all-singing, all-dancing extravaganzas we got at the Claremont – but I despised Jakie Innerfield’s parsimony, disguised as a reactionary conviction. It was not long before he yielded, as he had to, and his first talking film was Broadway, with Regis Toomey. I could hardly understand a word the characters were saying, or moaning, or nasaling: the Innerfield equipment was not good. Soon the Princess too succumbed to the talking age, and any Manchester cinema still silent was probably a locale for the fencing of stolen goods or the fixing of assignations.

The talking films gave us new heroes and heroines. One lad in Upper Three Alpha, MacKinnon, adored Maurice Chevalier in Innocents of Paris, dressed his hair in the Chevalier style, thrust out his lower lip, and spoke English with a French accent, though French with an English one. We loved Renate Muller in Sunshine Susie and worshipped Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel.


I have shameful total recall of all the theme songs of the time, no film, however, non-musical, being considered an authentic talkie without such an appurtenance. even The Doctor’s Secret, with Ruth Chatterton, had a song entitled ‘Half an Hour’ (after the J.M. Barrie one-acter on which the film was based). The Pagan, with Ramon Novarro, had ‘Pagan Love Song’; Weary River, with Richard Barthelmess, had ‘Weary River.’ But the great songs were from The King of Jazz (‘The Song of the Dawn’), Paramount on Parade (‘Painting the Clouds with Sunshine’) and the Fox Movietone Follies of 1929. I bought a record of songs from this last, and I wore it out on our portable gramophone. Madge, not yet confined, or recovered, took down the words of ‘Breakaway’ on shorthand. I sang ‘Walking with Susie’:

She leads me, she feeds me
Beauty and charm.
I’m goosey when Susie
Touches my arm.

(‘Goosey’ seems to have disappeared from Anglo-American demotic. There was a song that went ‘How do you feel/ When you’ve married your ideal?/ ever so goosey, goosey, goosey, goosey.’ The death of a usage is another nail in the coffin of the past.)

Very few of these early talking films seem to have survived, even in the ever open cinematic museum which is American television. We never see Gold Diggers of Broadway, which had ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’, or Syncopation, with Morton Downey, or even Broadway Melody, with Charles King and Bessie Love and Anita Page and ‘You Were Meant for Me’. Probably the Vitaphone process, sound-on-disc, was too primitive to be compatible with electronic techniques. Probably we would be appalled to revisit old delights. We all, young as we were, recognised that sound pushed back the art of film to the infantile. We missed the old biblical epics – The Ten Commandments, Noah’s Ark (Cecil B. De Mille, like his master D.W. Griffith, knew the appeal, before James Joyce, of a compound of myth and contemporaneity) – and such apocrypha as Moon of Israel, Ben-Hur and Quo Vadis?. Some of these came back with talk and high colour, but speech killed the magic by over-localising. Gore Vidal has only to camp up Ann Bancroft saying, with flapping hands of dismissal, ‘Oh, Moses, Moses,’ for us to hear the impossibility of a talking Bible. And I have always taken the impossibility of a talking Metropolis for granted.

Comments: Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was a British novelist and literary critic, whose book A Clockwork Orange was filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. His childhood was spent in Manchester. His 1986 novel The Pianoplayers features a pianist who plays for silent films, based on Burgess’ father who played the piano in pubs and cinemas. Madge was his step-sister. Al Jolson’s words ‘You ain’t heard nothin’ yet’ come from The Jazz Singer (USA 1927), not the Singing Fool. The films referred to are The Singing Fool (USA 1928), Geheimnisse einer Seele [Secrets of a Soul] (Germany 1926), Broadway (USA 1929), Innocents of Paris (USA 1929), Sunshine Susie (GB 1931), Der blaue Engel [The Blue Angel] (Germany 1930), The Doctor’s Secret (USA 1929), The Pagan (USA 1929), Weary River (USA 1929), King of Jazz (USA 1930), Paramount on Parade (USA 1930), Fox Movietone Follies of 1929 (USA 1929), Gold Diggers of Broadway (USA 1929), Syncopation (USA 1929), Broadway Melody (USA 1929), The Ten Commandments (USA 1923), Noah’s Ark (USA 1928 – directed by Michael Curtiz, not Cecil B. De Mille), Die Sklavenkönigin [Moon of Israel] (Austria 1924), Ben-Hur (USA 1925), Quo Vadis? (presumably Italy 1923) and Metropolis (Germany 1927). Syncopation is considered to be a lost film; Broadway Melody survives, as does Gold Diggers of Broadway in an incomplete form.

Little Wilson and Big God

Source: Anthony Burgess, Little Wilson and Big God (London: Heinemann, 1987), p. 55

Text: Still, social mobility is built into women and may be an aspect of their biology. Madge remained refined, though ill-informed, and she dressed elegantly in the bosomless style of the day, going off to her stenography in a cloche hat and with exposed pretty knees. She was well informed only about the cinema, in which she had a professional stake. She fed me for a time with a dream of Hollywood, of which we were all learning more, not only from film magazines but from the screen itself. I had seen at Jakie Innerfield’s cinema a movie with the title Hollywood, which memory confuses with another movie called Sodom and Gomorrah. The film capital was already cannibalising itself, and there was one expressionist scene in which this happened literally: a huge human head with HOLLYWOOD burnt into its brow swallowed pigmy aspirants to film fame. This did not impair our fascination with the place, which was more magical silent than talking. The first squawk on the Vitaphone disc was a great disillusionment. In 1925 Rudolph Valentino still had a year of life ahead of him, and he was lucky to die voiceless. There was nobody like Valentino, so Madge thought, and she was right. I remember a party of friends of hers, all knees and cigarettes and no bosoms, in the upstairs drawing-room, and they were discussing a film in which Valentino appeared in white wig with a beauty spot. I said knowledgeably: ‘It’s called Monsewer Bewcare.’ I was corrected and left the room in humiliation, hearing Madge says: ‘Poor kid.’

Comments: Anthony Burgess (1917-1993) was a British novelist and literary critic, whose book A Clockwork Orange was filmed in 1971 by Stanley Kubrick. His childhood was spent in Manchester. His 1986 novel The Pianoplayers features a pianist who plays for silent films, based on Burgess’ father who played the piano in pubs and cinemas. Madge was his step-sister. The films he refers to are Hollywood (USA 1923), Sodom und Gomorrha (Germany/Austria 1922) and Monsieur Beaucaire (USA 1924). The Vitaphone sound-on-disc film, used for many short subjects before supplying sound for some of the first talkies, was introduced in 1926. Jakie Innerfield’s cinema was on Princess Road, in the Moss Side of Manchester, close to the family’s tobacconist shop.

Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918

Source: Extract from interview with Joseph Flower, C707/321/1-3, Thompson, P. and Lummis, T., Family Life and Work Experience Before 1918, 1870-1973 [computer file]. 7th Edition. Colchester, Essex: UK Data Archive [distributor], May 2009. SN: 2000, http://dx.doi.org/10.5255/UKDA-SN-2000-1

Text: Q: Cinemas while you were still at school?

A: Yes. Now then. This is where the’ fun starts. We had – tickets. Now wait a moment – the shop where I lived was a tailor’s shop of course. Well now in the window we used to display these – advertisement – bills for these different things you see. And – there was – a picture house opened in Shakespeare Street called Hibberts. Well used to get a ticket – given us by – with, you know, with these – chaps that brought the bills , and that entitled you to go in for – abou[t] a penny. And you’d see the whole – programme you see for a penny. Well – we’d take advantage of this and – these fellows – that brought the bills, they weren’t particular just giving you one, they’d give you a dozen, to get rid of ’em. Well we used to dish ’em around to our friends and so on you see. Well we used to go to those pictures, and become a bit of a nuisance sometimes. Used to play – bits of tricks, like everybody else, yes. There was a fellow there that – well of course they were silent pictures of course. And – there was this fellow used to sit behind the curtain – with a – these coconut shells during these – horse – clip-clop, well we should – we should take – get – cut down reeds, open the centres – take all the pith out the centre, and use – hawthorn hips, and – sit over in the balcony over this end and keep – pipping ’em down to him and he’d got a bald head you know and it –

Q: Could you aim straight?

A: Oh yes, hit him plenty of times. ‘Til eventually we got turned out of course. And then – at this particular – picture house, they first started to synchronise a gramaphone [sic] record with the picture. And of course then we changed our seating, from the – balcony onto the front row of all. Now they had this gramaphone [sic] on a stand, and they’d start it off and it was pretty good, for a time it was pretty good. But of course – we could always stretch a hand out and just put a finger on the turn table for a second which would throw the whole thing all – haywire. That went on for a bit and then of course they rumbled us and we were – thrown out.

Q: I should think it was very funny wasn’t it?

A: Well it was to see the picture – you know, going along and then the – all of a sudden the – the sound and the – picture – was all – distorted all sorts. But it – that was a – these were – these are the kind of tricks we used to get up to. We never did any real damage like vandalism, it were just sheer devilment. You see, and it – gradually the – these people that – that run these places, they got to know us and – sometimes they’d let us in and sometimes they’d just say, well now look, let’s have no – bother with you lot today and that kind of thing. There was no real hardship, they didn’t knock us about or anything like that you see.

Q: Was your lot all roughly your age?

A: Oh yes.

Q: Did it have an actual leader or did you all sort of things these things up together?

A: Well, no, there was no leader. It was just a matter of – someone might suggest a new idea you see and – we’d – we should – try it out once and if it was a success well of course that’d carry on ’til we got stopped.

Q: Any other things you can remember like that?

A: Well we’d go to the Albert Hall on a Saturday evening and – I don’t know how much we used to pay there, I don’t know whether it was a penny or tuppence, and – it’d open out – with a – the parson – saying a prayer, and we’d probably sing a hymn. Then the – picture would start. And then –

Q: S[o] this was pictures too was it?

A: This was pictures, yes, on a Saturday evening. And then of course – we should start our little bit of devilment, kicking up noises and things like that, generally trying to upset things and which we in those days thought funny, you see. And this went on for a time until the – we’d get thrown out of there, and – we’d go back the next week and it was all right again, but it – they – they never bore any malice or anything, they just put it down to boys – high spirits, that was all. And of course at the – interval we – we would help, you see, as a kind of a – retribution we would – they used to sell – chocolate, and things like that, and we should – take it round on the trays and – and sell it for them, amongst the – people that were gathered – you know, went to the pictures. But – I think by doing that and – trying to help what we could – part of the – time, they’d – it made up for the devilment and trouble.

Comments: Joseph Flower (1899-?) was one of six children of a Nottingham pavier but was brought up by foster parents and saw little of his own family. He lived in the Sneinton suburb of Nottingham. He was one of 444 people interviewed by Paul Thompson and his team as part of a study of the Edwardian era which resulted in Thompson’s book The Edwardians: The Remaking of British Society (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1975). Nottingham’s Albert Hall was a Methodist mission which put on concerts, film screenings and other entertainments. Hibbert’s Pictures operated in Shakespeare Street 1910 to 1920 before becoming the Lounge Picture Theatre. Films synchronised with gramophone recordings (usually to depict a song being sung) were common in the early 1910s but are seldom mentioned in memoir evidence for the period.

This City has over 500 Moving Picture Shows; Do YOU Know WHY?


Illustration that accompanies the original article

Source: Charles Darnton, ‘This City has over 500 Moving Picture Shows: Do YOU Know WHY?’ The Evening World [New York], 16 January 1909, p. 9

Text: “I like to see a story.”

A long tramp bad led to a short answer. And the woman with a shawl about her head and a wide-eyed child clutching her hand was probably right about the appeal of the moving picture.

How wide this appeal has become may be judged from the fact that there are more than 500 moving picture shows in New York. From one end of the town to the other the “manager,” with little more than a lantern to his name, is holding the screen up to nature and occasionally turning a trick that goes nature one better. Although vaudeville audiences take the moving picture as their cue to move toward home, true lovers of art in action take all they can get for five or ten cents and then come back for more next day.

They like to see a story.

That’s the explanation – thanks to the woman with a shawl over her head. They feed upon mechanical fiction. They read as they look. Sensational melodrama, with the villain doing his worst in a plug hat, is an old story to them. They know it by heart. And so, theatres in which virtue used to take a back seat until the last act have felt the power of moving pictures. Only one remains to tell the blood-and-thunder tale in all Manhattan and it was obliged to get down to “workingmen’s prices” before it could compete with its noiseless rivals. From the start the moving picture show had a double advantage – lower prices and a daily change of bill. Then it went further and produced “talking pictures,” but in most cases this feature has been done away with audiences preferring to take their plays in peace and not be disturbed by the man behind the megaphone. What they want is action. Their attitude goes to show that it is always well to leave something to the imagination. They like to see a story from their own point of view.

In New York nearly every neighborhood has its “show,” and the craze has spread throughout the country until no town is too small to do the moving picture honor. Here, according to the word of a Sixth avenue showman, “picture fiends,” who keep a record of what they have seen and protest against “repeaters,” are an outgrowth of the craze. Their criticism of the Sunday exhibitions at which only educational pictures may be shown, in accordance with the stupid law, is often expressed in the simple term “Rotten!” They insist upon getting action for their money. The pictures must get “a move on” to win success. Patrons of the picture-drama want to see a story with plenty of action in it. From the Bowery to the Bronx tastes and pictures are much the same.

Bowery Wants Bank Robberies

But hero and there of course individual taste asserts itself. The proprietor of a little hall on the Bowery confessed that while his clientele showed a due appreciation of comedy and tragedy they had from time to time expressed a deep yearning for bank robberies. Unfortunately safe-cracking is not included in the picture-maker’s repertoire, and so the regretful “manager” has not been able to supply the demand for that particular form of art. However his audience made the best of things on a recent afternoon and seemed rather pleased with “A Corsican Revenge.”

The Corsican who caused all the trouble by killing a fellow fisherman and then got knifed by his victim’s wife, a husky lady with a fine stroke, looked like Caruso in “Cavalleria Rusticana.” According to the hospitable custom of the country, she was obliged to entertain her husband’s slayer when he sought refuge in her home. But once she got him outside she made short work of him. The lively little tragedy was worked out with neatness and dispatch. Five or six Chinamen who could qualify as Broadway first-nighters without putting on boiled shirts watched “A Corsican Revenge” without the slightest change of expression. In fact, the audience made no sign until two energetic gentlemen were flashed upon the scene and began kicking each other in the stomach. This light comedy was received with roars of laughter. The drummer emphasized each kick with a thump and the “professor” came down hard on the piano. “Comedy” won the occasions.

A placard on the wall warned the visitor to “Beware of Pickpockets.” Another made this polite request: Gentlemen Will Please Refrain from using Profane Language. The gentlemen did.

Accordion Breathes Hard.

In front of another temple of art across the street was the sign: “Positively No Free List During This Engagement.” You had to have a nickel to get inside. Down in front sat a Bowery artist with an accordion that was drawing its breath with great difficulty. During the overture he addressed facetious remarks to the audience.

“Hey, there!” yelled one of the crowd. “Cut out that comedy and give us some music.”

“Anyt’ing doin’?” inquired the performer, holding out his hat. “Come on, now,” he urged, ” trow in a little sumt’in fer de dear ones wot are dead and gone.”

“Ferget it!” yelled the unsympathetic mob.

“The Gallant Guardsman” presently drew attention from the accordion artist. At the first appearance of a Spanish soldier on the screen the accordion began wheezing “Die Wacht am Rhein.” When the guardsman rescued a dancing girl from the embraces of a low-browed citizen the tune changed to “Marching Through Georgia.” A dash of “Trovatore” cheered the guardsman on his way. The low-browed citizen waited behind a wall and killed the first soldier that came along. But he got the wrong man and the hero was about to be shot when the barefooted dancing girl ran to the rescue and explained the situation in a few hand-made gestures.

The audience followed the story with intense interest, and only the accordion was heard until a picture showing a young man who was carried off in a wardrobe appealed to the Bowery sense of humor. The hero of this adventure found himself in the bedroom of a loving couple who finally accepted his explanation and then had him sit down to supper with them.

French but Chaste.

All of the pictures seen on the lower east and west sides were French but chaste. Nothing more shocking than a murder occurred in any of them.

At a place in Grand street “The Peasant’s Love” was the chief feature of the bill. All went well until the peasant’s sweetheart promised to meet a newly arrived sailor “down by the pond.” His note to her was revealed on the screen. But the jealous peasant got to the pond first and when the girl came along he sneaked up behind her and threw her into the pond. The inevitable gendarmes first arrested the sailor, of course, but after a long chase they nabbed the guilty peasant.

Nearly all of the pictures showed gendarmes in pursuit of somebody. The principal figure was usually obliged to “run for it,” and suspense was kept up until the capture of the fugitive. The “story” was kept on the jump.

In “The Magic Boots” a happy individual was seen eluding his pursuers by walking on water, telegraph wires – wherever his fancy led him. His wonderful boots defied the French and all other laws. But down in Grand street it was the serious pictures that gripped the spectators.

“Dremma,” answered one manager when asked what appealed to his patrons most of all. And a woman whom he described as one of his best customers said: “I like to see a story. The funny pictures – they are funny, yes, but you don’t remember them. I like to remember what I see. You don’t forget a story – it goes home with you.”

Take Them Seriously.

This serious interest in story-pictures was apparent in other halls along Grand street. But a desire to be cheerful under all circumstances was suggested by this announcement over the door of one place: “The Bride of Lammermoor – A Tragedy of Bonnie Scotland.”

In a Mulberry street “theatre,” conducted under Italian auspices, the pictures were similar to those in Grand street. A coal stove filled the place with gas but no one seemed to notice it. Another Italian place in West Houston street sported this sign: “Caruso Moving Pictures.” But Caruso wasn’t among those present on the screen. The name, apparently, was merely a delicate tribute to the Metropolitan’s sobbing tenor.

Bessie Wynn’s name was prominently displayed in front of an imposing theatre in Fourteenth street. But Bessie was there only in voice and picture. You could recognize her picture but her voice had to be taken for granted. When they canned Bessie’s voice they evidently forgot to screw down the lid, and so it had soured and curdled and lost its flavor.

“The Wild Horse” filled up on oats at the Manhattan Theatre and developed from a weak skinny nag into a fat and fearful animal that kicked everything to pieces. It was the “big laugh.”

Harlem Likes to Laugh.

But here as elsewhere serious pictures with now and then a shooting or stabbing incident for excitement outnumbered the comic subjects. Harlem showed the greatest fondness for funny pictures. The Bronx appeared to be more serious minded.

Some of the places open their doors as early as 9 in the morning and keep going until after 11 at night. The shows are continuous and so are the privileges that go with a ticket. Only the pictures are compelled to move.

Comment: Among the films described are Âmes corses [The Corsican’s Revenge] (France 1908 p.c. Eclair) and Le galant garde français [The Gallant Guardsman] (France 1908 p.c. Pathé Frères). Bessie Wynn was an American singer and stage comedienne. The mention of ‘talking pictures’ presumably refers to a short vogue in a few theatres for having actors speak behind the screen rather than synchronised sound films (i.e. films, usually of singers, synchronised to a gramophone recording).

Links: Available online at Chronicling America

My Last Breath

Source: Luis Buñuel, My Last Breath (London: Flamingo, 1985), pp. 31-33

Text: I think I was about eight years old when I discovered the cinema, at a theatre called the Farrucini. There were two doors, one exclusively for exiting, one for entering, set in a beautiful wooden facade. Outside, a cluster of lemonade sellers equipped with a variety of musical instruments hawked their wares to passersby. In reality, the Farrucini was little more than a shack; it had wooden benches and a tarpaulin for a roof.

I wasn’t allowed to go to the movies alone, but was always accompanied, as everywhere, by my nurse, even when I only went across the street to play with my friend Pelayo. I remember how enthralled I was by my first cartoon; it was about a pig who wore a tricolor sash around its waist and sang. (The sound came from a record player hidden behind the screen.) I’m quite sure that it was a color film, which at that time meant that each image had been painted by hand.

Movies then were little more than a curiosity, like the sideshow at a country fair. They were simply the primitive products of a newly discovered technique. Apart from trains and streetcars, already habitual parts of our lives, such ‘modern’ techniques were not much in evidence in Saragossa. in fact, in 1908, there was only one automobile in the entire city, an electric one.

Yet movies did signify a dramatic intrusion into our medieval universe and soon several permanent movie theatres appeared, equipped with either armchairs or benches, depending on the price of admission. By 1914, there were actually three good theatres: the Salon Doré, the Coyne (named after the famous photographer), and the Ena Victoria. (There was a fourth, on the Calle de los Estebanes, but I’ve forgotten the name. My cousin lived on that street, and we had a terrific view of the screen from her kitchen window. Her family finally boarded it up, however, and put in a skylight instead; but we managed to dig a small hole in the bricks, where we took turns watching soundless moving pictures.)

When it comes to the movies I saw when I was very young, my memory grows cloudy; I often confuse them with movies I saw later in Madrid. But I do remember a French comedian who kept falling down; we used to called him Toribio. (Could it have been Onésime?) We also saw the films of Max Linder and of Méliès, particularly his Le Voyage dans la lune. The first American films – adventure serials and burlesques – arrived later. There were also some terribly romantic Italian melodramas; I can still see Francesca Bertini, the Greta Garbo of Italy, twisting the long curtain at her window and weeping. (It was both wildly sentimental and very boring.) The most popular actors at the time were the Americans Conde Hugo (Count Hugo) and Lucilla Love (pronounced Lové in Spanish). They were famous for their romances and action-packed serials.

In addition to the traditional piano player, each theatre in Saragossa was equipped with its explicador, or narrator, who stood next to the screen and ‘explained’ the action to the audience. ‘Count Hugo sees his wife go by on the arm of another man,’ he would declaim, ‘And now, ladies and gentlemen, you will see how he opens the drawer of his desk and takes out a revolver to assassinate his unfaithful wife!’

It’s hard to imagine today, but when cinema was in its infancy, it was such a new and unusual narrative form that most spectators had difficulty understanding what was happening. Now we’re so used to film language, to the elements of montage, to both simultaneous and successive action, to flashbacks, that our comprehension is automatic; but in the early years, the public had a hard time deciphering this new pictorial grammar. They needed an explicador to guide them from scene to scene.

I’ll never forget, for example, everyone’s terror when we saw our first zoom. There on the screen was a head coming closer and closer, growing larger and larger. We simply couldn’t understand that the camera was moving nearer to the head, or that because of trick photography (as in Méliès’s films), the head only appeared to grow larger. All we saw was a head coming towards us, swelling hideously out of all proportion. Like Saint Thomas the Apostle, we believed in the reality of what we saw.

Comment: Luis Buñuel (1900-1983) was one of the world’s great filmmakers. This extract is taken from his autobiography. Toribio was the given Spanish name for the French comic actor André Deed, best known under his Italian name of Cretinetti. Onésime was a different actor. The film with the expanding head may be Georges Méliès’s L’homme à la tête en caoutchouc (1901). I have not been able to identify Conde Hugo or Lucilla Love, who might possibly have featured in Spanish serials, of which there were a number in the late 1910s.