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)

Indirect Journey

Source: Harold Hobson, Indirect Journey: An Autobiography (London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1978), pp. 99-102

Text: I have very dim memories of having seen at least one film before I became lame. This was at a place called the Phoenix Theatre, immediately opposite the Hillsborough barracks. I seem to remember a dove, a wigwam pole, and an inscrutable Red Indian with feathered head-dress, but it is all extremely vague. Certainly the first entertainment I went to in Sheffield after my illness was a film. We accompanied Mrs Sheen and her daughter, who had assured themselves that there was nothing in the film, Kent the Fighting Man, to shock or disturb. It featured the boxer Bombardier Billy Wells, and has made no mark in the history books. I have forgotten even the boxing matches that must have been a prominent part of it, but there still remains with me a sense of wholesome pleasure.

We were very selective in what we saw. From 1915 onwards serials like The Exploits of Elaine and The Perils of Pauline (which featured Pearl White) were shown at our local cinemas. I learned later that these films aroused great enthusiasm among French intellectuals, like André Breton and Louis Aragon, the same Aragon who, fifty years later, was heartbroken and aghast when, in May 1968, the working classes of Paris refused the support of the Communist weekly, Les Lettres Françaises, of which he was the vigorous and sensitive editor. Louis Delluc exclaimed excitedly that when you come out of one of Pearl White’s serials you are filled with an expansive feeling that there is nothing beyond your powers. You become a thing of wings, a veritable god. ‘You want to drive automobiles and fly aeroplanes, race on horseback, dance, skate, swim, dive’, there is no limit to your joyous exhilaration. That may be so, but we in Sheffield had no knowledge of French intellectuals until long after serials had become only a memory of the past. We knew plenty of people who enjoyed serials as much as Delluc, but they by no means belonged to the intellgensia, and my father and mother would as soon have visited one as have gone in a public house. So all these wonders are treasures that I missed.

The Cinema House in the centre of Sheffield, and the Star Picture Palace not far from our home, were held by my parents to be immensely respectable, and I went to both places, which did not show serials, fairly often. They were a source of great pleasure, but few of the films I saw contributed anything to the art of the cinema. They are as completely forgotten by historians as they are by me. I carry with me today little more than a memory of the joy they gave. One of them, Ultus and the Grey Lady, struck us as having a rather sinister title; the name Ultus seemed full of foreboding, and I cannot think why, in these circumstances, we went to see it. Nevertheless, that is what we did, and we enjoyed it, too. There was nothing in it to frighten a mouse. I have never been able to find anything about it, but it was probably directed by George Pearson. At any rate Basil Wright in his book The Long View records that Pearson made another filmed called Ultus, the Man from the Dead; Georges Sadoul also mentions something called Ultus. Beyond that I have discovered nothing.

I have slightly clearer recollections of Herbert Brenon’s aquatic Daughter of the Gods. The star in this was the world-famous swimmer Annette Kellermann. I remember wonderful watery caves and spectacular dives from a great height, and also the breathless whisper of a boy of my acquaintance, ‘Annete Kellermann is completely bare,’ the last word being uttered with awed excitement. There was nothing of this erotic element in the films of the Hepworth Company, whose chief stars were Henry Edwards and Chrissie White, Alma Taylor and Stewart Rome. These I enjoyed better than anything else, certainly better than Daughter of the Gods, which I found rather inhuman in its concentration on athletic feats of swimming, a sport in which I was not much interested. After the introduction of talkies, the Cinema House, in a pathetic effort to carry on the struggle of the silent film, put up a notice, We have an orchestra, and its English, quite English, you know.’ I have always remembered this with a feeling of sadness. The Hepworth films always seemed to me very English, with their quiet lanes, their village maidens, their blacksmiths’ forges and ancient inns, all bathed in mellow sunlight.

Then amidst all this pleasant but rather insipid stuff there suddenly burst on me the stupendous genius of D.W. Griffith – one of the great revelations of my life. Griffith’s Intolerance perhaps did not make on me a more profound or lasting impression than did Martin-Harvey’s Sidney Carton, but for Martin-Harvey I had been prepared, oh so well prepared, by young Gibson, whilst Intolerance took me completely by surprise. It was the coup de tonnerre out of a clear blue sky. There was nothing in the simplicities of Billy Wells or the quiet pastoral landscapes of the Hepworth films to foreshadow the size, the shape, the rhythm and the roar of the car racing to reprieve a condemned man, the blood running in the streets of Paris on St Bartholomew’s Eve, the Crucifixion, and the crashing towers of Babylon, all intercut with each other at an ever accelerating speed. Intolerance gave me a feeling of grandeur I have got nowhere else. Never once during the several times I have seen it did I get the feeling that its tremendous expense in actors (20,000 in a single scene) and sets (that for Babylon was 1500 metres long) was not matched by a conception of justifying importance.

The four stories of man’s intolerance to man which make up the film were not told consecutively, but intercut with each other. This did not baffle me in the least, and I followed the stories quite easily. I even saw their relevance to each other, and appreciated their cross-references. I was astonished to hear some years later that my experience had been by no means general. Most audiences were unable to follow what was going on, and the symbolism of the recurrent image of Lilian [sic] Gish endlessly rocking a cradle (to Griffith a symbol of the things that endure while empires fall) was wildly misunderstood. It was thought that somebody in the film was going to have a baby.

So, commercially, Intolerance was a failure, but to me a tremendous triumph, an exaltation of the mind and spirit and imagination. Little else that Griffith did gave me the same quality of delight. The Birth of a Nation seemed overtly racist; I found the luscious hatred with which Griffith filmed the attempted rape of a white girl by a black man unacceptable. Not much of his later work was important, though the honest, serious, young face of Richard Barthelmess forcing his way through some rich eaves of corn in Way Down East is a memory of some beauty.

Comments: Harold Hobson (1904-1992) was a renowned theatre critic. His childhood was spent in Sheffield. The films he recalls are Kent the Fighting Man (UK 1916 d. A.E. Coleby), The Exploits of Elaine (USA 1914), The Perils of Pauline (USA 1914), Ultus and the Grey Lady (UK 1916 d. George Pearson), Ultus, the Man from the Dead (UK 1915 d. George Pearson), A Daughter of the Gods (USA 1916 d. Herbert Brenon), Intolerance (USA 1916 d. D.W. Griffith), The Birth of a Nation (USA 1915 d. D.W. Griffith) and Way Down East (USA 1920 d. D.W. Griffith). The lameness to which he refers was caused by polio, which afflicted him at the age of seven. The recollection of John Martin Harvey refers to the stage production The Only Way (an adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities).


Source: Jean-Paul Sartre, Words [Le Mots] (London: Penguin, 2000 – orig. pub. 1964), translated by Irene Clephane, pp. 75-79

Text: I challenge my contemporaries to tell me the date of their first experience of the cinema. We entered blindly into a traditionless century which was to contrast sharply with the others by its bad manners, and the new plebeian art anticipated our barbarism. Born in a robber’s cave, classified by the authorities along with travelling entertainers, it had certain vulgar qualities which shocked serious people; it was an amusement for women and children. My mother and I adored it, but we hardly ever thought about it and we never mentioned it: do you mention bread if there is plenty of it? When we became aware of its existence, it had long since become our major need.

On rainy days, Anne-Marie would ask me what I wanted to do, and we would hesitate a long while between the circus, the Châtelet, the Maison Électrique, and the Musée Grévin; at the last moment, with deliberate casualness, we would decide to go to a picture theatre. My grandfather would appear at the door of his study when we opened the door of the flat; he would ask: ‘Where are you children off to?’ ‘To the cinema,’ my mother would say. He would frown and she would add hastily: ‘To the Panthéon cinema, it’s very near; we only have to cross the rue Soufflot.’ He would let us go with a shrug; the following Thursday, he would say to Monsieur Simonnot: ‘Look here, Simonnot, you’re a sensible fellow, can you understand this? My daughter takes my grandson to the cinema!’ and Monsieur Simonnot would say in a conciliatory tone: ‘I’ve never been but my wife sometimes goes.’

The show would have begun. As we stumbled along behind the attendant, I felt I was there surreptitiously; above our heads, a beam of light would be shining across the hall, and dust and smoke would be dancing in it; a piano would be tinkling, violet light-bulbs would be glowing on the wall, and I would catch my breath at the varnish-like smell of a disinfectant. The smell and the fruits of that inhabited night mingled within me: I was eating the exit lights, filling myself with their acid taste. I would scrape my back against people’s knees, sit on a creaking seat. My mother slipped a folded rug under my buttocks to raise me up; finally I would look at the screen and would see fluorescent chalk, and shimmering landscapes streaked with rain; it was always raining, even in bright sunshine, even inside a flat; sometimes a fiery planet would cross a baroness’s drawing-room without her appearing to be surprised. I used to love that rain, that restless disquiet which tormented the wall. The pianist would strike up the overture to Fingal’s Cave and everyone would know that the villain was about to appear: the baroness would be crazed with terror. But her handsome, dusky face would be replaced by a mauve notice: ‘End of first part.’ Then would come the abrupt sobering-up and the lights. Where was I? At school? In a government office? No ornaments of any kind: rows of tip-up seats, which revealed their springs when pushed up, walls smeared with ochre, and a wooden floor littered with cigarette ends and spittle. Muffled voices would fill the hall, words would exist once more; the attendant would offer boiled sweets for sale and my mother would buy me some; I would out them in my mouth and I was sucking the exit lights. People would rub their eyes and everyone would realize he had neighbours. Soldiers, local servants; a bony old man would be chewing, hatless working-women would be laughing out loud: all these people were not of our world. Fortunately, dotted here and there, large bobbing hats brought reassurance.

The social hierarchy of the theatre had given my late father and my grandfather, who used to sit in the upper circle, a taste for ceremony: when a lot of men get together, they have to be separated by rituals or else they slaughter each other. The cinema proved the opposite: the very mixed audience seemed to have been united by a disaster rather than by a show; once dead, etiquette finally unmasked the true link between men, their adhesion. I came to loathe ceremonies but I adored crowds; I have seen all kinds, but I never recovered that naked awareness without recoil of each individual towards all the others, that waking dream, that obscure awareness of being a man until 1940, in Stalag XII D.

My mother even went so far as to take me to the Boulevard cinemas: the Kinérama, the Folies Dramatiques, the Vaudeville and the Gaumont Palace, then called the Hippodrome. I saw Zigomar and Fantômas, Les Exploits de Maciste and Les Mystères de New York: the gilding spoilt my pleasure. The vaudeville, formerly a theatre, refused to yield up its old grandeur: up to the last minute, a red curtain with gold tassels hid the screen; three knocks would announce the beginning of the performance, the orchestra would play an overture, the curtain would go up and the lights out. I was annoyed by this incongruous ceremony, by the dusty pomp which achieved nothing except to remove the characters to a distance; in the circle, in the gods, impressed by the chandeliers and by the paintings on the ceiling, our fathers could not or would not believe that the theatre belonged to them: they were received there. I wanted to see the film as close as possible. In the egalitarian discomfort of the local halls, I had realized that this new art was mine, was everyone’s. We had the same mental age: I was seven and could read; it was twelve and could not speak. They said that it was just starting and that it would improve; I thought that we would grow up together. I have not forgotten our mutual childhood: when I am offered a boiled sweet, when a woman near me varnishes her nails, when I breathe a certain smell of disinfectant in the lavatories of provincial hotels or when I star at the small violet night-light on the ceiling of a night-train, I recapture in my eyes, in my nose and on my tongue, the scents and the lights of those vanished halls; four years ago, at sea off Fingal’s Cave, in heavy weather, I could hear a piano in the wind.

Inaccessible to the sacred, I adored magic: the cinema was a dubious phenomenon which I loved perversely for what it still lacked. That stream of light was everything, nothing, and everything reduced to nothing: I was present at the frenzies of a wall; solid objects had been robbed of a massiveness which bore down even on my body, and the young idealist in me delighted at this endless contraction; later on, the lateral and the circular movements of triangles reminded me of those shapes gliding across the screen. I loved the cinema even for its two-dimensional quality. I made primary colours of its white and black, comprising all the others and revealing themselves only to the initiate; I loved seeing the invisible. Above all, I loved the immutable dumbness of my heroes. But no; they were not mute because they knew how to make themselves understood. We communicated through music; it was the sound of what was going on inside them. Persecuted innocence did better than to speak of or show its woe: it stole its way into me through the tune which issued from it; I would read the conversations, but I understood the hope and the bitterness, and caught a whisper of the proud suffering that did not proclaim itself. I was committed; that was not me, that young widow crying on the screen, and yet she and I had but one soul. Chopin’s Funeral March; that was all it needed for her tears to moisten my eyes. I felt that I was a prophet unable to foretell anything: even before the traitor was betrayed, his crime would steal its way into me; when all seemed quiet in the château, sinister chords would betray the presence of the murderer. How lucky those cowboys, musketeers and policemen were: their future was there, in that foreboding music, and it determined the present. An unbroken song mingled with their lives and led them on towards victory or death, as it moved towards its own end. They were expected, these men: by the young girl in peril, by the general, by the traitor ambushed in the forest and by the friend tethered near a battle of powder as he sadly watched the flame run along the fuse. The course of that flame, the virgin’s desperate struggle against her ravisher, the hero galloping across the steppes, the interweaving of all these images, of all these speeds and, underneath them, the hell-bent movement of the ‘Race to the Abyss’, an orchestral selection from The Damnation of Faust adapted for the piano, all meant one thing to me: Destiny. The hero would jump down, put out the fuse, the traitor would go for him, and a duel with knives would begin; but the hazards of this duel would themselves become part of the strict musical development: they were false hazards which poorly concealed the universal order. What joy when the last knife-stab coincided with the last chord! I was satisfied, I had found the world in which I wanted to live – I was in touch with the absolute. What uneasiness, too, when the lights went on again: I was torn with love for these characters and they had disappeared, taking their world with them. I had felt their victory in my bones, yet it was theirs and not mine: out in the street, I was a supernumerary once more.

Comment: Jean-Paul Sartre (1905-1980) was a French philosopher, novelist, playwright and public intellectual. He also wrote or co-wrote a number of screenplays. Le Mots is his autobiography. Anne-Marie is his mother. He was imprisoned in Stalag 12D during the Second World War. Zigomar was a 1911 French adventure film series. It was adapted from a serial novel, as was Fantômas (France 1913-14). The character of Maciste first appeared in the 1914 Italian film Cabiria, played by Bartolomeo Pagano, with numerous follow-up films featuring the character appearing from 1915 onwards. Les Mystères de New York was the French title of the American serial The Exploits of Elaine (1914). My thanks to Guido Convents for recommending this extract.

London Particulars

Source: C.H. Rolph, London Particulars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1980), pp. 104-107

Text: It was in the company of Mr Herbert and his Sunday School following that I made my second visit to a cinema. (The first had been in my mother’s arms at about the age of twelve months.) Since then, I had grown accustomed to the marvels of the magic lantern: first, through visits to Wally Gerrard’s house, where a magic lantern was one of the attractions, and from about 1908 onwards through our acquisition of an Army and Navy stores magic lantern, price 92 shillings and six pence with eight slides. Four slides told the story of a London Fire Brigade hero called Bob the Fireman. It seems odd to me that the second cinema visit, after a lapse of nine years should (in contrast with the first) have left in my mind virtually no record of what was shown on the screen. The explanation probably is that I was absorbed in the mechanics and showmanship of the whole thing. In the Fulham Road near the Fire Station a shop had been converted into a tiny cinema, though that is not what it was called. It was called the Parsons Green Moving Picture Theatre; and it seems a happy thought that the wonder and magic of ‘moving pictures’, even then probably twenty years old and yet growing year by year, should sustain the word ‘movie’ in our language to this day. (Not that we ever used the word then: I believe its public admission to un-American English happened in Bernard Shaw’s Heartbreak House towards the end of the war.) I suppose the Parsons Green Moving Picture Theatre seated an audience of thirty at the most, the front three rows of chairs being very small ones of the kind seen in nursery schools, and behind those (for the grown-ups) there were padded forms with no backs to them. Saturday performances started at 3 p.m. and the price of admission was twopence-halfpenny.

The music was provided by an old horn-type gramophone, operated by the ticket cashier, its horn protruding through a hole cut in the wall of the box-office. The films were all very short, and no doubt very old – they broke down many times in each performance. And at each breakdown a stout lady who always sat on a cushioned stool near the Exit (it was the first time I ever saw the word Exit, and to this day I don’t understand why it is better than Out) tugged at a little chain hanging from the gas-lamp near the door and, it seemed to our startled eyes, flooded the room with a dazzling light. Mr Herbert told us that the management had not learned to leave a company of children in the dark with nothing to engage their attention. An audience of grown-ups were allowed to wait in the dark, I believe, during breakdowns. But they probably knew how to pass the time.

It was I think a year or two after that (probably 1912) when my parents first took us all to the newly opened Putney Bridge Kinema: a splendid edifice, we thought, with a domed entrance; two or three hundred seats; a curtain that pulled itself, with an unforgettable swish, across the screen at the beginning and end of each picture – it bore corrugated references to what we had just seen and what was to come next; a little string ensemble eked out by an indefatigable pianist; and brown-uniformed attendants who paraded the aisles from time to time squirting deodorant over our heads (I wonder why?). The lights went up at the end of each picture, and it was then that the attendants began shouting ‘Sway out please’ and ‘Cigarette, Chocleet’. The very first time we were taken to this stately pleasure-dome, and waited while my father paid our admission fees, I leaned over and whispered in five-year-old Roland’s ear the mysterious words he must have been hearing so often from me in recent months: ‘Moving pictures!’ He tells me that once he was inside, and seated on his father’s lap, he noticed that there were indeed pictures all around the walls, and he was waiting breathlessly for them all to start moving when, to his intense disappointment, all the lights went out. It was some time before he found that everyone else was now looking at a huge illuminated square at the end of a searchlight, and even longer before he was prepared to allow that the flickering figures to be seen on it must be the moving pictures for which I had so long and so excitedly prepared him.

Visits to the Putney Bridge Kinema became a weekly occurrence, and it was there that we saw our first Charlie Chaplin film. It was called Laughing Gas, and it established a devoted family of Chaplin addicts who were never, in the next seventy years, to waver in their loyalty. The universal Chaplin impact was something I shall never really understand. For years it seemed to me that there are so many totally humourless people in the world that success on the Chaplin scale simply shouldn’t be possible, that it is a phenomenon calling for some transcendental explanation. Then I saw that this point of view merely rationalizes the feeling, in the breast of each Chaplinite, that Chaplin really belongs to him alone, that there is no one else who quite understands just how funny life can be. I do not see how this universal act of identity could have survived Charlie’s ham sociological period, his City Lights and his Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux and the rest. But when I was a boy no one could have foreseen those aberrations.

Three actresses of the time enslaved us, and at that age I was precociously ready for enslavement: ‘eleven-plus’ was for me, I now realize, a prominent emotional milestone. They personified our more ecstatic dreams of the fair: Mary Pickford, Daphne Wain, and Pearl White. Miss White held us by reason of the terrifying predicaments we always had to leave her in. As the curtain swished across at the end she was always crying for help from a seventh-floor window in a burning building, hanging by her beautifully manicured fingernails from the outside of a balloon basket, or bound and struggling gracefully in the path of an express train. Her films bore titles like The Exploits of Elaine, and it was only the need that she should survive for at least one more advertised Exploit that sent us home partly optimistic about the future. Mary Pickford and Daphne Wain held us by their beauty, whatever kind of story it had to illuminate, and they usually got their stories over in one go.

Comment: C.R. Rolph (real name Cecil Rolph Hewitt) (1901-1994) was the son of a policeman. His family lived in Southwark, then Finsbury Park, then Fulham. He became a Chief Inspector in the City of London Police, Vice-President of the Howard League for Penal Reform and served on the editorial staff of the New Statesman. London Particulars is the first of two classic volumes of autobiography.

Going to the Pictures

Source: Ben Moakes, ‘Going to the Pictures’, in The Time of our Lives (Peckham Publishing Project, 1983), pp. 96-97

Text: All those people who, like me, were born in the early years of this century have grown up with the cinema, reached their prime with the cinema and are now declining with the cinema.

The early films had just a novelty value and were shown wherever a suitable hall could be rented. Music halls would feature ‘the bioscope’ as an added attraction.

No film lasted more than half an hour and was usually accompanied by a piano tinkling out appropriate music.

We children had plenty of choice between cinemas that catered for youngsters. There was one in Walworth Road, near Liverpool Grove, and the halls that stands behind the Visionhire premises nearby was called ‘The Electric’ cinema. There was also ‘The Gem’ in Carter Street opposite the Beehive Public House.

My elder brother and I were given a penny each for our weekly visit to the pictures. We favoured the little cinema near Liverpool Grove.

The procedure was to buy a penny ticket each at the paybox outside; then, on entering, half the ticket would be taken by an usher, the other half being retained.

The seating consisted of rows of wooden forms. After two or three short films had been shown, the lights were switched on and the remaining half tickets were collected from us. The children who had arrived earlier and seen their full pennyworth would have to leave.

At the end of the next part of the programme once more the lights went on and we, having no ticket, would go out.

But my brother and I liked to have sweets to suck, so we spent a halfpenny on toffee before getting to the cinema, then bought one penny ticket and one halfpenny ticket. This meant that one of us, it was always me, had to leave after the first half was seen. So we planned a fiddle. I would lay full length under the form when the collector came, hidden by the legs of the other children. They also spread themselves along to cover the space I had occupied. As soon as the lights went out I climbed back on the form. But after a while they got wise to us. A man came in with a broom that had a long bamboo handle. “Hold up your feet”, he shouted, then plunged the broom under the forms to detect anybody lying there.

Eventually Mum gave us an extra halfpenny for our sweets.

Eddie Polo was one of our early film heroes. He had fights in every picture, getting his shirt ripped each time.

Two of our cowboy heroes were William S. Hart and Broncho Billy Anderson. Tom Mix came later. Charles Ray was the college boy heart-throb for the girls.

In the many fights we saw on the screen, our heroes always fought fairly. When they had knocked down their antagonist, they stood back to allow him to get up. But the villains would frequently kick the man who was on the ground.

After a few years we got the serials, with an exciting episode every week, the hero or heroine being left is a desperate situation each time. From this the word ‘cliff-hanger’ evolved.

‘The Shielding Shadow’ was a serial that intrigued us with its trick camera effects showing only the hands of an invisible man who foiled the villains every time. We all knew that Jerry Carson was The Shielding Shadow. He couldn’t be seen because he used a substance left in a jar by a scientist.

‘The Exploits of Elaine’, ‘The Hazards of Helen’ and ‘The Perils of Pauline’ were all serials and Pearl White was the blonde heroine who stole the hearts of growing lads – us!

Comment: Ben Moakes was born in 1904. His piece on cinemagoing is part of a local collection of memories of life in Peckham, London. The Perils of Pauline, The Exploits of Elaine and The Hazards of Helen were all American serials that began in 1914, The American serial The Shielding Shadow was released in 1916.

I Was a Walworth Boy

Source: H.J. Bennett, I Was a Walworth Boy (Peckham Publishing Project, 1980), p.20

Text: If one turned to the left at the top of East Street the first pub was the Roundhouse. Here too was a little cinema where I saw my first silent films with a woman playing what was [sic] considered appropriate tunes on the piano. Among the films I saw here were ‘The Exploits of Elaine’ and the early Chaplin comedies.

Comment: H.J. Bennett was born in East Street, Walworth, London, in 1902. The Exploits of Elaine was a 1914 American serial, starring Pearl White.