Source: Annye C. Anderson (with Preston Lauterbach), Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson (New York: Hachette Books, 2020), pp. 51-52
Text: Once I got to go to Beale Street, I’d tag along with Brother Robert, Brother Son, and Sister Carrie to the movies at the Palace Theater. They liked to see Mae West and Bette Davis, and I was a nuisance, always running to the bathroom and wanting popcorn.
Most of the movies we saw at the Palace were Westerns. Buck Jones and Tom Mix were Brother Robert’s favorite cowboys. He wore that big Stetson, like them. All of the young men in our family wore Stetson—that was on the go. My father and Uncle Will wore Dobbs.
At the Palace, Son and Brother Robert saw Gene Autry in Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Gene and another guitar player did a song called “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.”
That piece became a part of Son and Brother Robert’s repertoire whenever they entertained.
All the top bands, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, and Jimmie Lunceford played at the Palace. We could see big entertainment for a small price. These acts also played the Orpheum, the grand opera theater on Main Street at Beale, one of the few integrated venues in the city, though blacks sat in the balcony.
It’s my understanding that Brother Robert would hang out at the Palace while waiting on his next gig. Mr. Barrasso, the owner, let you stay all day on one ticket price. Brother Robert would sleep while the movie played over and over, and the Looney Tunes, shorts, and newsreels ran. He’d sit with the guitar across his chest, watching the old-time cowboy movies. He’d cool off in there on a hot day or warm up on a cold day until the time to meet up with his friends or return to Sister Carrie’s.
Comments: Annye C. Anderson (1926 – ) is the step-sister of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the legendary American blues guitarist and singer. Her memoir provides much personal detail of the life of the step-brother, who was murdered when she was twelve years old, as well as a vivid account of black lives in the American south in the 1930s. Charles ‘Son’ Spencer was his (and her) musician step-brother and Carrie Spencer his (and her) step-sister.
Source: Henri Borel, The New China (New York: Dodd, Mead and company, 1912), p. 77
Text: The bioscope films—Tien ying or “lightning shadows”—have become immensely popular in China, and here and there even begin to supplant the ancient, very popular Chinese theatre. In the large Ta-Sha Lärl Street, in the Chinese City, some theatres where special Chinese plays used to be given have been entirely re-arranged for bioscope productions, although only in very exceptional cases are Chinese scenes reproduced. The bioscope seems an invaluable instrument for giving the Chinese people some idea of life in Europe, of which they used to have not the slightest notion; and the Chinese also forms by its means a clear conception of modern inventions. I positively saw in Peking good ﬁlms of balloon ascents and aviation. It is certainly a sharp contrast to visit the Chinese City in the evening, to go through the sombre mediaeval Ch‘ien Mên Gate, to walk along the wide Ch‘ien Men Street, where not a single European can be seen at that time of day, to pass into the crowded Ta-Sha Lärl Street and traversing a long, dark passage, to enter a Chinese theatre and see on the canvas a Paris Boulevard with Parisian gentlemen and girls, clearly on the spree, sitting, half seas over, in front of a café. Shade of Confucius, how is it possible?
Comments: Henri Borel (1869-1933) was a Dutch travel writer, journalist, novelist and diplomat. He was an authority on Chinese affairs. This account of Chinese film shows refers to Beijing.
Source: Edmund Yates, ‘Haunted Hoxton’, All the Year Round, 27 June 1863, vol. 9 no. 218, pp. 420-424
Text: At last my guilty wishes are fulfilled! At last I am enabled to look back into the past, and think that one great object of my life has been realised, for I have seen a GHOST! Shade of (ah! by the way, I forget the name of the shade, and I’ve left the document which could inform me in my overcoat-pocket! never mind!) sacred shade, who appeared simultaneously to me and to some hundreds of entranced people, thou hast, so far as I am concerned, set the vexed question of apparitions at rest for ever. My interest in the ghost subject has been intense. I have read every story bearing upon it, and worked myself up to a delightful pitch of agonised excitement. Alone, and in the dead of night, do I peruse the precious volumes: the mere fact of the scene being laid in “an old castle in the Black Forest,” gives me a pleasing sensation of terror; when the student seated alone in the tapestried room finds “the lights begin to burn with a blue and spectral hue,” I shake; when there “reverberates through the long passages a dismal clanking of chains,” I shiver; finally, when “the door bursts open with a tremendous crash,” and there enters “a tall figure clothed in white, with one clot of gore immediately below its heart,” I am in a state of transcendent bliss, and only long to have been in the student’s place. Some years ago I thought I had a chance of realising my hopes. I read a book called, I think, The Nightgown of Nature, the author of which announced that he—or she— was thoroughly well acquainted with several houses where spectres appeared nightly with unexampled punctuality—houses “within a convenient distance from London, and accessible by rail,” as house-agents say—and I wrote to him—or her— for the address of one of these houses, stating that I intended to pass a night there. He—or she—replied that though his—or her—statement was thoroughly correct, he—or she— must decline giving the address of any particular house, as such a course would be detrimental to the value of the property, and might render him—or her— liable to an action at law on the part of the landlord. So I was disappointed.
I heard, however, the other day, that a real ghost, real as to its unreality, its impalpability, its visionary nothingness, was to be seen in a remote and unknown region called Hoxton, I had previously heard that the same, or a similar spectre, haunted Regent-street, but I laughed at the notion. Regent-street! with the French boot-shop, and the ice-making man, and the Indian pickle depôt opposite! A ghost in juxtaposition to electrical machines, a diver who raps his helmet with halfpence, and the awful insects in the drop of water! But Hoxton—there was something ghostly in the very name, and the place itself was as unfamiliar to me as Tierra del Fuego. Nobody to whom I spoke knew anything about it; they “had heard the name;” it was “somewhere out north,” they thought. Ah! in an instant my fancy sketches the spot. A quaint old suburb, where the railway has not yet penetrated, where sleepy cows chew the cud of peace in quiet meadows, where ploughmen whistle o’er the lea (whatever that may happen to mean), where huge elms yet stand waving their giant limbs before square red brick mansions. One of these mansions for years untenanted, roofless, dismantled, a murder was committed in it years ago: an old man with silver hair, a spendthrift nephew, a box of gold, a carving knife, a well in garden where weapon is discovered years afterwards, a wailing cry at twelve P.M., a tottering figure wringing its hands—yes, that must be it, or something very like it! I determined to go to Hoxton that night.
There was no railway—so far I was right—and I went to my destination in a cab. After a little time I found we were striking out of the great thoroughfares of commerce into narrow by-lanes, where a more pastoral style of living prevailed, where fried fish of a leathery appearance lay in tangled heaps on the slabs of windowless fish- shops, where jocund butchers, seemingly on the best terms with their customers, kept up a perpetual chorus of “Buy, buy!” and slapped the meat before them with a carving knife and a gusto that together seemed to give quite an appetite to the hesitating purchaser. We passed several graveyards deep set in the midst of houses—dank, frouzy, rank, run-to-seed places, where Pelions of “Sacred to the memory” were heaped upon Ossas of “Here lieth the remains,” and out of which the lank sapless grass trembled through the railings and nodded feebly at the passers-by. Good places for ghosts these! City ghosts of misers and confidential clerks, and trustees who committed suicide just before the young gentleman whom they had had in trust came of age, and would have infallibly found out all about their iniquities. I peered out of the cab in quest of any chance apparition, but saw none, and was very much astonished when the driver, to whom I had given particular instructions, pulled up before a brilliantly lighted doorway, round which several cadgers were disporting themselves. These youths received me with great delight, and one said, “You come along with me, sir! I’ll take you to the hout and houtest old spectre in the neighbr’ood. This way, sir!” He led the way along a lighted passage, between rough brick walls, until we arrived at a barrier, where—after a muttered conversation between my guide and the janitor—a shilling was demanded of me, after paying which I was provided with a card talisman and left to find my way alone. Down a broad passage on one side of which was a recess where sandwiches lay piled like deals in a timber-yard, where oranges were rolled up in pyramidal heaps of three feet high, and where there was so much ginger-beer that its simultaneous explosion must infallibly have blown the roof off the building, down a flight of asphalted stairs, at the bottom of which a fierce man wrung my card talisman from me and turned me into a large loose box, the door of which he shut behind me. A loose box with a couple of chairs in it, a looking-glass, a flap table—a loose box open on one side, looking through which opening I see hundreds of people ranged in tiers above each other. Turning to see what they are all intent on, I see a stage—I’m tricked! I’m done! the loose box is a private box, and I’m in a theatre.
Left to myself, what could I do but look at the stage, and, doing that, how could I fail to be intensely interested? I speedily made myself acquainted with the legend being there theatrically developed, and, beyond that the colour was, perhaps, a little heightened, I did not find it more or less preposterously unlike anything that could, by any remote possibility, ever have occurred than is usual in dramatic legends. The scene of action being laid at the present time, I found the principal character represented to be a BARONET (he had a name, but he was invariably spoken of by everybody, either with yells of hatred or shoulder-shrugs of irony, as “the Baronet”), and certainly he was the most objectionable old gentleman I have ever seen. The mere fact of his walking about, in the present day, in a long claret coloured coat, a low crowned hat with a buckle in the front, and boots which, being apparently made of sticking- plaster, had tassels like bell-pulls, was in itself irritating; but his moral conduct was horrible. He seemed to have an insane desire for the possession of his neighbours’ property, not felonious in his intentions, but imbued with a buying mania, and rabidly ferocious when said neighbours refused to sell. First among his coveted possessions stood the house and garden of a clergyman’s widow (no mistake about her widowhood! the deepest black, and such a cap, all through the piece!), who obstinately refused to part with an inch of her ground. Baronet smiles blandly, and informs us that he will “have recourse to stratyjum.” Widow has two daughters, one very deep-voiced and glum, the other with her hair parted on one side (which, theatrically, always means good nature), and funny. Funny daughter is beloved by Baronet’s son—unpleasant youth in cords, top-boots, and a white hat, made up after Tom King the highwayman, vide Turpin’s Ride to York; or, The Death of Black Bess (Marks, Seven Dials), passim. Baronet proposes that son should get clergyman’s daughter to steal lease of premises, promising to set son up in life, and allow him to marry object of affections. Son agrees, works upon daughter’s vanity; daughter, who is vague in Debrett, is overcome by notion of being called the Right Honourable Mrs.——, a title which, as the wife of a baronet’s son, she is clearly entitled to—steals the lease, hands it to son, who hands it to Baronet, who, having got it, nobly repudiates not merely the whole transaction, but son into the bargain: tells him he is not son, but merely strange child left in his care, and comes down and winks at audience, who howl at him with rage.
That was the most wonderful thing throughout the evening, the contest between the audience and the Baronet. Whenever the Baronet made a successful move (and Vice had it all its own way for nearly a couple of hours), the audience howled and raved against him, called “Yah!” whistled, shrieked, and hooted, and the Baronet advanced to the footlights and grinned across them, as though he should say, “I’m still all right in spite of you!” When a villain who, for a sum of money advanced by the Baronet, had murdered an old man, and was afterwards seized with remorse, stole the lease from the Baronet’s pocket, the multitude in the theatre cheered vociferously; but the Baronet, after proving that the purloined parchment was only a copy, and not the original document, which he still retained, calmly walked down to the front of the stage, and literally winked at the people, tapping his breast, where the lease was, in derision, and goading the audience to the extremity of frenzy.
There were several pleasant episodes in which the Baronet was the mainspring: hiding fifty-pound notes in the glum sister’s bundle, accusing her of robbery, and having her locked up in his house, whence she was rescued by the murdering villain who had previously (out of remorse) set the house on fire; but at length the widow, who a minute before had been remarkably lively, and had “given it” to the Baronet with great vehemence and cap-shaking, suddenly declared her intention of dying, and though a young gentleman with a sugarloaf hat and a coat with a little cape to it, like the pictures of Robespierre, announced himself as a lawyer, who would defend her and hers against anything and everybody, she forthwith carried out her intention, sat down on a chair, and died, out of hand. There was a faint pretext of sending for the doctor, but there was an evident fear on the part of most lest that practitioner should really restore the patient, and thus burk the great effect of the piece, so the idea was overruled, and the Baronet, advancing to the footlights, rubbed his hands in derision at the audience, and the audience, cognisant of the fact that the decease of the widow was necessary to the subsequent appearance of her ghost, merely answered with a subdued “Yah!” At this point my former conductor opened the box-door and beckoned me out. “Come in front,” he said; “it’s ghost time!” The words thrilled to my very soul, I followed him in silence, and took my place in the boxes, close by a lady whose time was principally occupied in giving natural sustenance to her infant, and an older female, apparently the child’s grandmother, who was a victim to a disease which I believe is popularly known as the “rickets,” and which impelled her at three-minute intervals to shudder throughout her frame, to rock herself to and fro, to stuff the carved and hooked black bone handle of an umbrella, that looked like a tied-up lettuce, into her mouth, and to grind out from between her teeth, clenched round the umbrella-handle, “Oh, deary deary me!” On my other side were a youth and maiden, so devoted to each other that they never perceived my entrance into the box, and I had not merely to shout, but to shove, before I could effect a passage, when there was such a disentanglement of waists from arms, and interlaced hot hands, and lifting of heads from shoulders, that I felt uncomfortable and apologetic, whereas the real offenders speedily fell back into their old position, and evidently regarded me as a Byronic creature, to whom life was a blank.
The ghost did not appear at once. Though the widow had slipped into a very stiff position in her chair, and everybody around her had said either “Ha!” or “The fatal moment!” or “Alas!” or “All is over!” as their several tastes led them, it was thought necessary to make the fact of her death yet more clear, so upon the front parlour, where the sad occurrence took place, fell a vast body of clouds of the densest kind, out of which, to slow music, there came two or three ethereal persons with wings, which wagged in a suspicious manner, bearing the widow’s body “aloft,” as Mr. Dibdin has it with reference to Tom Bowling, and thereby copying in the most direct and unequivocal manner (but not more directly and unequivocally than I have seen it in theatres of grand repute, where critics babbled of the manager’s transcendent stage- direction) Herr Lessing’s picture of Leonore. To meet these, emerged, in midair from either side of the stage, other ethereal persons, also with wings, whose intended serenity of expression was greatly marred by the obstinacy of the machinery, which propelled them in severe jerks, at every one of which the set smile on their faces faded into a mingled expression of acute bodily pain and awful terror lest they should fall down: while, on a string like larks, or a rope like onions, there swayed to and fro across the proscenium, a dozen of the stoutest and most unimaginative naked Cupids that ever got loose from a valentine, or were made by a property- man.
As the act-drop fell upon this scene, which in itself represented something not to be met with in everyday life, some distrust was expressed in my neighbourhood lest there should be nothing more ghostly than we had just witnessed, but the old lady with the umbrella set us to rights by recovering suddenly from a severe attack of rickets, and exclaiming, “Them ghosts! Oh no, sir! In the next act we shall see her, and which the music will play up for us to give attention.” So accordingly, when the fiddles wailed, and the trombone and clarionet prostrated themselves figuratively in the dust, I looked with all my eyes, and saw the curtain rise upon the Baronet’s apartment, which was the most singularly constructed room I ever beheld. The portion of the floor nearest to us was perfectly flat, as is the case with most floors, but after about three feet of flatness there rose in its centre, and stretching from side to side, a long, sloping, green mound, in military language a “glacis,” up which the Baronet had to walk when he wanted to proceed towards the back of the apartment, where all the chairs, tables, and furniture generally had withdrawn themselves, and up which he himself climbed, as though M. Vauban had taken the place of Mr. Cubitt, and as though outworks and entrenchments were as common in London drawing-rooms as lounging-chairs and grand pianos.
On the top of this entrenchment stood, on either side, two thick dumpy pillars, supporting a heavy piece of masonry, which joined them together at the top, and which looked like a portion of the ruins of the Temple of the Sun at Baalbek seen through the wrong end of the opera-glass: or, to use an illustration nearer home, like the front of the catacombs of Kensal- green or Highgate cemeteries. Between these pillars was a hazy vista into which the Baronet walked, and seating himself on a stool in the corner, so as to be quite out of the way, commenced informing us (without any apparent necessity for the statement) of his disbelief in all supernatural appearances, and of his thorough contempt for Death—ha! ha! The second of the two vocal double-knocks given by him in ha! ha! had scarcely been given, when there appeared in the middle of the empty space behind the pillars a stereoscopic skeleton exactly like that which dances in the Fantoccini—so like, that one looked for the string which guides that puppet’s movements (and which, of course, in the present instance, was not to be seen), and expected him momentarily to fall to pieces and re-unite in a comic manner. At this sight the Baronet appeared a little staggered; he said, “Ha! do I then behold thee?” and retreated several paces on his heels, but recovering himself, exclaimed, “‘Tis a dream, an ill-yousion!” and advanced towards the skeleton, which disappeared, to return immediately armed with a dart, or harpoon, with which it made several well-intentioned but harmless thrusts at the Baronet, who appeared immensely flabbergasted by the harpoon, and begged piteously to be spared. Either the skeleton was moved by the appeal or he had work somewhere else, for he disappeared again, and no sooner was he gone than the Baronet so plucked up that he declared he defied Death altogether, and was beginning to be offensively joyous, when in the place where the skeleton had been, appeared the ghost of the widow in her shroud! No mistake about it now! There she was, a little foreshortened, a little out of the perpendicular, leaning forward as though accustomed to a cramped and confined space, and not daring to stand upright! For the Baronet this was, to use a vulgar metaphor, a “corker.” He rubbed his head, but there was nothing there; he tried a taunt, but the ghost answered him with deep-voiced briskness; he rushed towards her, and rushed right through her! Finally, he picked up from the table, where, as we know, they always lay in libraries, a long sword, with which he aimed a very unskilful blow at his visitant. The sword passed through the ghost, who was apparently tickled, for it exclaimed, “Ha! ha!” and disapeared, and the Baronet fell exhausted in the very spot where the ghost had been! Up went the lights, down went the curtain, and the audience gave one great gasp of relief, and pretended they hadn’t been frightened—which they had!
Unquestionably! undoubtedly! The skeleton had been a failure; ribalds in the pit had mocked at him—had given tremulous cries of feigned terror—shouted “O-oh! m—y!” and pretended to bury their heads in their jacket-collars; boys in the gallery had called upon him to dance, and had invited their friends to “look at his crinoline;” the arm of the youth in front of me tightened round the waist of the maiden with evident conveyance of the idea that that alone could them part; and the old lady with the umbrella had considered him a “mangy lot.” But the ghost was a very different matter; when it appeared, not a sound in the pit, not a whisper in the gallery; all open-mouthed, eager, tremulous excitement! The old grandmother clasped the umbrella like a divining-rod, and muttered a hoarse “Deary—dea—ry me!” the mother let the infant fall flat and flaccid on her lap, the youth’s arm unbent, and the maiden, rising stiffly three inches from her seat, said, “Go’as!” and remained rigid. Only one sound floated on the air, and that was emitted by a French gentleman, with more buttons on his waistcoat than I ever saw on a similar amount of cloth (how on earth did a foreigner penetrate to Hoxton?), who clutched his curly-brimmed hat between his fat fists and hissed out, “A—h! Superbe!” It was his testimony and it is mine!
Comments: Edmund Hodgson Yates (1831-1894) was a British journalist and author. He was a good friend of Charles Dickens, to whose journal All the Year Round he was a regular contributor. Yates reports on a production of the play The Widow and the Orphans; or, Faith, Hope and Charity, by C.H. Hazelwood, which featured at the Britannia Theatre, Hoxton, London as a means to showcase the invention of ‘The Ghost’ or ‘Pepper’s Ghost’. This was an optical illusion invented by Henry Dircks and exploited professionally by John Henry Pepper – in which, by means of projected light and a hidden inclined sheet of glass, the reflection of a ghost-like figure could be made to materialise on a stage. It first featured in a stage production of Dickens’s novella The Haunted Man at the Royal Polytechnic on 24 December 1862. In The Widow and Orphans the ghost was played by Mary Henderson.
Source: Anon., ‘Kinoplastikon: As Seen From the Stalls’, The Bioscope, 8 May 1913, p. 391
Text: The cinematograph industry, from its very inception, has been so prolific of novelties and sensations, that we have now grown almost accustomed to living in a condition of perpetual astonishment. The biggest surprise of all, of course, was the cinematograph itself, but since then we have had colour films. speaking films, singing films – in fact, films of almost every character it is possible to imagine or desire. Celluloid has become the embryo of a new universe, which seems to contain everything that was in the old world, and a great deal besides that the old world never dreamed of.
One of the latest wonders to come forth from the inexhaustible womb of the moving picture camera is kinoplastikon, the remarkable “living, singing, talking camera pictures,” of which, as our readers will remember, an enthusiastic description was given in our issue of March 20th. by our special correspondent, Mr. John Cher, who saw them in Vienna, before they had been brought to this country. As most people know, they have now come to England, and are to be seen each night in the west-end of London, at the beautiful Scala Theatre, where we had the pleasure of making their acquaintance the other evening.
Kinoplastikon pictures are certainly very surprising when you first set eyes on them, especially when they come, as they do at the Scala, in the middle of a programme of ordinary cinematograph films. The curtain goes up, and the stage is revealed, bare, to all appearance, of everything but a conventional set. Then, suddenly, you hear the grating of a gramophone beginning to work. The orchestra strikes up in accompaniment. And, without warning, two white pierrots dance on from the wings – as naturally and as easily as though they were beings of real flesh and blood. They give a xylophone duet – their instrument apparently resting on a table which has been placed there beforehand, in full view of the audience, by a solid human attendant – and then, their performance finished, they skip off the stage to make their bows in answer to the riotous storm of applause which marks the conclusion of their “turn.” Five other pictures follow, one of them a flute solo and the other vocal performances.
The appearance of these amazing spirit creatures is curious. They resemble the figures of an ordinary cinematograph film, cut away from their original background with a pair of scissors, and set to caper and gesticulate, their vitality unimpaired, upon a wooden stage. Some of them are in black and white only; others are coloured artificially.
To offer any explanation of how Kinoplastikonis “worked” would be imprudent without investigating it more closely – and we have not yet had an opportunity of examining these “picture people,” except at a respectful distance from the auditorium. Speaking without prejudice, one would imagine that they are related, more or less nearly, to the famous ghosts of the late lamented Professor Pepper, the maker of mirror miracles. They are advertised as being presented “without a screen”; one rather fancies, however, that the screen is invisible, as, on the left-hand side of the stage, the creatures disappeared a trifle before they reached the wings. In, mid-air, also, are occasionally noticed white spots, which seemed to suggest scratches upon a black film.
Kinoplastikon produces a stereoscopic effect, because the figures in its films stand in the middle of an ordinary stage, and thus really have space before and behind them, In themselves, however, they are not stereoscopic, a fact which was observable in the last film shown, where a woman stood in front of several other people, the latter appearing unnaturally small and out of perspective, as is the case in an ordinary photograph.
It is difficult to make speculations about the future of Kinoplastikon without knowing more of its modus operandi. Even if it accomplishes nothing more than the sort of thing which may be seen at the Scala, however, it may always be safely relied upon to make a novel and effective item in a variety programme. And it certainly constitutes a remarkably fine example of the “talking picture.”
Comments: Kinoplastikon was a means of showing coloured motion pictures, with sound, in stereoscopic relief. The original system was the invention of the German film pioneer Oskar Messter, who named it ‘Alabastra’. Based on the ‘Pepper’s Ghost’ stage illusion, whereby seemingly life-like images could appear on stage via reflected projection from a mirror, Messter extended the idea to employ motion picture film, hand tinted and with musical accompaniment. An adaptation of Alabastra was exhibited in Vienna under the name Kinoplastikon, subsequently appearing in Britain in 1913 at the Scala Theatre, London. The films were produced in a studio lined with black velvet (the actors had to be dressed entirely in white) on the roof of the Scala theatre, with synchonrised sound-on-disc accompaniment using Cecil Hepworth’s Vivaphone system. The director was Walter Booth. As the reviewer suspected, a screen was used, though hidden from view.
Kinoplastikon excited much comment, with suggestions that it was the future of entertainment, but as Hepworth observes in his autobiography, Came the Dawn, “It suffered, I suspect, from the usual fate which almost always dogs the steps of any ghost-illusion. Very few people are interested in an illusion of that kind as an illusion. They may think it is clever but do not bother to wonder how it is done; they don’t even care. Unless it tells some story, or belongs to some story which cannot well be told without it. it very soon ceases to intrigue them”. Kinoplastikon was exhibited in Austria, Britain, France, Russia and the USA, but it swiftly disappeared.
Source: Junichiro Tanizaki (trans. Paul McCarthy), Childhood Years: A Memoir (London: Collins, 1990, orig. pub. 1957), pp. 137-138
Text: There were some good places like the Yurakukan, falling somewhere between a legitimate theater and a vaudeville hall. The result was that a variety of interesting and unusual entertainments were presented: it was there that I saw my first motion picture and my first Western-style marionette show. According to One Hundred Stories of the World of Meiji by the late Yamamoto Shogetsu, the first presentation of a motion picture in Tokyo was around February 1897 at the Kabukiza; and the Yurakukan must have begun showing them soon after. They were either simple records of actual events taken on the spot on trick shots, and the ends of the reel would be joined together so that the same films could be projected over and over. I can still remember a scene, endlessly repeated, of high waves rolling in on a shore somewhere, breaking, and then receding, and of a lone dog playing there, now pursuing, now being pursued by the retreating and advancing waters. There was also a scene of a long line of horses in the distance at the edge of a broad plain, looking as small as grains of millet, They came rushing straight towards the camera, growing bigger moment by moment until finally they were upon us. Suddenly they veered away into the distance, to be succeeded by another thin line on the horizon.
Then there were scenes reminiscent of the upheavals that attended the French Revolution or the persecution of the Protestants after the Reformation: aristocratic-looking women are being dragged to the place of execution, placed on a great pile of bundled faggots, and burned to death; the smoke billows forth and the women are enveloped in flames; at last the fire and smoke die down to reveal only ashes – not even the outlines of the bodies remain.
There was yet another scene in which two beautiful, almost naked women, one on either side of a devil dressed like Mephistopheles. He summons one of them and orders her to lie on a table shaped like a chopping block. He then wraps her body in a huge sheet of glistening black material like carbon paper. A sign is given, and the body of the woman in its black wrappings rises into the air. Then from the area of her feet flames appear and begin to lick at her body, moving upward and finally consuming her, paper wrappings and all.
Comments: Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a major Japanese novelist, who also worked for a time as a scriptwiter for the Taikatsu studio in the 1920s. The films he recalls at Yurakukan are a mixture of 1890s and 1900s works: waves breaking on a shore was a common subject in some the earliest film shows; the trick films and the burning of the women would have been a few years later (possibly French Pathé productions). Film reels could not be joined end-to-end to be projected on an endless loop. The first projected motion pictures were exhibited in Tokyo in March 1897 (preceded by showings in Osaka in February).
Source: Quoted in Iona and Peter Opie, The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren (London/Oxford/New York: Oxford University Press, 1959), p. 25
I went to the pictures tomorrow
I took a front seat at the back,
I fell from the pit to the gallery
And broke a front bone in my back.
A lady she gave me some chocolate,
I ate it and gave it her back.
I phoned for a taxi and walked it,
And that’s why I never came back.
I went to the pictures next Tuesday
And took a front seat at the back.
I said to the lady behind me,
I cannot see over your hat.
She gave me some well-broken biscuits,
I ate them and gave her them back;
I fell from the pit to the gallery
And broke my front bone at the back.
Comments: These are two versions of a popular children’s nonsense rhyme, documented during the 1950s in Kirkaldy (in Scotland) and Enfield (in London) by the folklorists Iona and Peter Opie for their classic compilation The Lore and Language of Schoolchildren. They note that they had found versions of this rhyme at ten schools in the United Kingdom. They suggest that the rhyme could be quite old and may originally have referred to the theatre rather than the cinema. The mention of hats obscuring the view of the audience (even if worn by people behind them) echoes a common complaint of pre-First World War film audiences, which could be further evidence of the rhyme’s long-running popularity among children.
Source: Extracts from Karl Brown, Adventures with D.W. Griffith (London: Secker & Warburg, 1973), pp. 86-95
Text: It was a packed house, with swarms of people standing around outside, hoping for cancellations so they could get in anywhere at all, even in the top gallery. I never saw or felt such eager anticipation in any crowd as there was at that opening night. We three, my father, my mother, and I, had been given choice seats saved for us by Frank Woods. My parents, old-stagers at the business of opening nights, were all keyed up to a state of high tension, while I – well, I was feeling a little sick because I knew what the picture really was, just another Biograph, our four times as long. I simply couldn’t help feeling that it had been a tragic mistake to build up such a fever pitch of eager anticipation, only to let them down by showing them what was bound to be just another movie. Only longer, much longer, three hours longer. What audience, however friendly, could possibly sit through that much of nothing but one long, one very long movie of the kind they had seen a hundred times before?
My first inkling that this was not to be just another movie came when I heard, over the babble of the crowd, the familiar sound of a great orchestra tuning up. First the oboe sounding A, then the others joining to produce an ever-changing medley of unrelated sounds, with each instrument testing its own strength and capability through this warming-up preliminary. Then the orchestra came creeping in through that little doorway under the proscenium apron and I tried to count them. Impossible. Too many. But there were at least seventy, for that’s where I lost count, so most if not all of the Los Angeles Symphony orchestra had been hired to “play” the picture.
The house lights dimmed. The audience became tensely silent. I felt once again, as always before, that strange all-over chill that comes with the magic moment of hushed anticipation when the curtain is about to rise.
The title came on, apparently by mistake, because the curtain had not yet risen and all I could see was the faint flicker of the lettering against the dark fabric of the main curtain. But it was not a mistake at all, because the big curtain rose slowly to disclose the title, full and clear upon the picture screen, while at the same time [Joseph Carl] Briel’s baton rose, held for an instant, and then swept down, releasing the full impact of the orchestra in a mighty fanfare that was all but out-roared by the massive blast of the organ in an overwhelming burst of earth-shaking sound that shocked the audience first into a stunned silence and then roused them to a pitch of enthusiasm such as I had never seen or heard before.
Then, of course, came those damned explanatory titles that I had shot time and time again as Griffith and Woods kept changing and rechanging them, all with the object of having them make as much sense as possible in the fewest possible words. Somehow, the audience didn’t seem to mind. Perhaps they were hardened to it. They should have been, by now, because whenever anybody made any kind of historical picture, it always had to be preceded by a lot of titles telling all about it, not to mention a long and flowery dedication thanking everyone from the Holy Trinity to the night watchman for their invaluable cooperation, without which this picture would not have been possible.
The orchestra sort of murmured to itself during the titles, as though to reassure the audience that they couldn’t last forever. And then … the picture, gliding along through its opening sequences on a flow of music that seemed to speak for the screen and to interpret every mood. The audience was held entranced, but I was not. I was worried in the same way that young fathers, waiting to learn whether it’s a boy or a girl, are worried. I was worried, badly worried, about the battle scenes, and I wished they’d get through fiddle-faddling with that dance and all that mushy stuff and get down to cases. For it was a simple, open-and-shut matter of make or break as far as I could see; and I could not see how that mixed-up jumble of unrelated bits and pieces of action could ever be made into anything but a mixed-up jumble of bits and pieces.
Well, I was wrong. What unfolded on that screen was magic itself. I knew there were cuts from this to that, but try as I would, I could not see them. A shot of the extreme far end of the Confederate line flowed into another but nearer shot of the same line, to be followed by another and another, until I could have sworn that the camera had been carried back by some sort of impossible carrier that made it seem to be all one unbroken scene. Perhaps the smoke helped blind out the jumps, I don’t know. All I knew was that between the ebb and flow of a broad canvas of a great battle, now far and now near, and the roaring of that gorgeous orchestra banging and blaring battle songs to stir the coldest blood, I was hot and cold and feeling waves of tingling electric shocks racing all over me.
Somewhere during my self-castigation a title came on reading INTERMISSION. So soon? I asked my father the time. He pulled out his watch, snapped open the case, and said it was nine thirty. Preposterous. Somehow during the past fifteen minutes, or not more than twenty, an hour and a half had sneaked away.
We went out with the rest of the crowd to stretch our legs and, in true backstage fashion, to eavesdrop on the comments of the others. There was enthusiasm, yes; lots of it. It had been exactly as grandpa had described it was the consensus, only more real. There were also a few professionals who were wisely sure that Griffith was riding for all fall. “You can;t shoot all your marbles in the first half and have anything left for your finish” was the loudly expressed opinion of a very portly, richly dressed gentleman. “That battle was a lulu, best I’ve seen, and that assassination bit was a knockout, I ain’t kidding you. But what’s he going to do for a topper, that’s what I want to know. I’ll tell you what’s going to happen. This thing is going to fizzle out like a wet firecracker, that’s what it’s going to do. Don’t tell me, I know! I’ve seen it happen too many times. They shoot the works right off the bat and they got nothing left for their finish. You wait and see. You just wait and see.”
And yet it wasn’t the finish that worried me so much as the long, dull, do-nothing stuff that I knew was slated for the bulk of the second half. Stuff like the hospital scenes, where Lillian Gish comes to visit Henry Walthall, she in demurest of dove grey, he in bed with a bandage neatly and evenly wrapped around his head. Now what in the world can anyone possibly do to make a hospital visit seem other than routine? He’ll be grateful, and she’ll be sweetly sympathetic, but what else? How can you or Griffith or the Man in the Moon possibly get anything out of such a scene? Answer: you can’t. But he did, by reaching outside the cur-and-dried formula and coming up with something so unexpected, and yet so utterly natural, that it lifted the entire thing right out of the rut and made it ring absolutely true.
Since this was an army hospital there had to be a sentry on guard. So Griffith looked around, saw a sloppy, futile sort of character loitering about, and ran him in to play the sentry, a fellow named Freeman, not an actor, just another extra. Well, Lillian passed before him and he looked after her and sighed. In the theater and on the screen, that sigh became a monumental, standout scene, because it was so deep, so heartfelt, and so loaded with longing for the unattainable that it simply delighted the audience. But not without help. Breil may not have been the greatest composer the world has ever known but he did know how to make an orchestra talk, and that sigh, uttered by the cellos and the muted trombones softly sliding down in a discordant glissando, drove the audience into gales of laughter.
I endured the “drama” – all that stuff with Ralph Lewis being shown up as a fake when he wouldn’t let his daughter marry George Siegmann because he was a mulatto – all because I was itching to get to the part where Walter Long chased Mae Marsh all over Big Bear Valley, running low and dripping with peroxide. What came on the screen wasn’t Walter Long at all. It was some sort of inhuman monster, an ungainly, misshapen creature out of a nightmare, not running as a human being would run but shambling like a gorilla. And Mae Marsh was not fluttering, either. She was a poor little lost girl frightened out of her wits, not knowing which way to turn, but searching, searching for safety, and too bewildered to know what she was doing. So she ran to the peak of that rock, and when the monster came lumbering straight at her, she … well, all I can say is that it was right, absolutely, perfectly, incontestably right.
And did the audience hate Griffith for letting them down? Not a bit of it. When the clansmen began to rise,the cheers began to rise from all over that packed house. This was not a ride to save Little Sister but to avenge her death, and every soul in that audience was in the saddle with the clansmen and pounding hell-for-leather on an errand of stern justice, lighted on their way by the holy flames of a burning cross.
So everyone was rescued and everyone was happy and everyone was noble in victory and the audience didn’t just sit there and applaud, but they stood up and cheered and yelled and stamped feet until Griffith finally made an appearance.
If you could call it an appearance. Now I, personally, in such a situation would have bounded out to the center of the stage with both hands aloft in a gesture of triumph, and I would probably have shaken my hands over my head, as Tom Wilson had told me was the proper thing for any world’s champion to do at the end of a hard-fought but victorious fight.
Griffith did nothing of the sort. He stepped out a few feet from stage left, a small, almost frail figure lost in the enormousness of that great proscenium arch. He did not bow or raise his hands or do anything but just stand there and let wave after wave of cheers and applause wash over him like great waves breaking over a rock.
Then he left. The show was over. There was an exit march from the orchestra, but nobody could hear it. People were far too busy telling one another how wonderful, how great, how tremendous it had all been.
Comments: Karl Brown (1896-1990) was an American cinematographer and director. He served as assistant to cinematographer Billy Bitzer on D.W. Griffith’s feature film The Birth of a Nation. His memoir Adventures with D.W. Griffith is one of the best first-hand accounts of silent era film. The event recalled here is the premiere at Clune’s Auditorium, Los Angeles, on 8 February 1915, when the film was still known as The Clansman. The composer Joseph Carol Breil did not conduct at the premiere – it was Carli Elinor, conducting his own score. Brown’s memory sometimes places film sequences in the wrong order, though Griffith did re-edit the film after initial screenings and in response to requests by censorship boards. Frank Woods was co-scriptwriter on the with with Griffith. Walter Long was a white actor playing a black character, Gus.
Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance’, Close Up vol. I no. 1, July 1927, pp. 34-37
Text: …. So I gave up going to the theatre. Yet I had seen one or two who possessed themselves upon the stage and much good acting, especially of character parts; but I have never been on my knees to character acting. The one or two I saw – again and again, enduring for their sakes those others, many of them clever, all keyed up for their parts, all too high-pitched, taking their cues too soon. It was not that the pain of seeing them lose all our opportunities — their own and with them ours who were the audience — outweighed the joy of recreation at the hands of those others, makers and givers of life, but rather that on the whole the sense of guilt, of wasted performance for players and audience alike was too heavy to be borne. Waste and loss that could, it seemed to me, with ever so little control of the convulsionaries, be turned to gain.
Lured back by a series of German plays zestfully performed by a small and starless group, I found at once my persuasion confirmed that the English, whose very phlegm and composure is the other side of their self-consciousness and excitability, do not make actors. Watching for foreigners I saw a few French plays, saw Bernhardt and was more than ever ashamed of the remembered doings of the English castes.
Not even the most wooden of those selected to surround and show up the French star could produce anything to equal the sense of shame and loss that at that time overshadowed for me all I saw on the English stage that was not musical comedy with its bright colour for the soul and its gay music for the blood. The dignity of the French art and the simplicity of the German restored my early unapprehensive enthusiasm for the theatre, even for the pillared enclosure, the draped boxes, the audience waiting in the dim light to take their part in the great game. I went to no more English plays. And for a long time there were no foreign ones to see. But photo-plays had begun, small palaces were defacing even the suburbs. My experience with the English stage inhibited my curiosity. The palaces were repulsive. Their being brought me an uneasiness that grew lively when at last I found myself within one of those whose plaster frontages and garish placards broke a row of shops in a strident, north London street. It was a Monday and therefore a new picture. But it was also washing day, and yet the scattered audience was composed almost entirely of mothers. Their children, apart from the infants accompanying them, were at school and their husbands were at work. It was a new audience, born within the last few months. Tired women, their faces sheened with toil, and small children, penned in semi-darkness and foul air on a sunny afternoon. There was almost no talk. Many of the women sat alone, figures of weariness at rest. Watching these I took comfort. At last the world of entertainment had provided for a few pence, tea thrown in, a sanctuary’ for mothers, an escape from the everlasting qui vive into eternity on a Monday afternoon.
The first scene was a tide, frothing in over the small beach of a sandy cove, and for some time we were allowed to watch the coming and going of those foamy waves, to the sound of a slow waltz, without the disturbance of incident. Presently from the fisherman’s hut emerged the fisherman’s daughter, moss-haired. The rest of the scenes, all of which sparked continually, I have forgotten. But I do not forget the balm of that tide, and that simple music, nor the shining eyes and rested faces of those women. After many years during which I saw many films, I went, to oblige a friend, once more to a theatre. It was to a drawing-room play, and the harsh bright
light, revealing the audience, the over-emphasis of everything, the over-driven voices and movements of all but the few, seemed to me worse than ever. I realised that the source of the haunting guilt and loss was for me, that the players, in acting at instead of with the audience, were destroying the inner relationship between audience and players. Something of this kind, some essential failure to compel the co-operation of the creative consciousness of the audience.
Such co-operation cannot take place unless the audience is first stilled to forgetfulness of itself as an audience. This takes power. Not force or emphasis or noise, mental or physical. And the film, as intimate as thought, so long as it is free from the introduction of the alien element of sound, gives this co-operation its best chance. The accompanying music is not an alien sound. It assists the plunge into life that just any film can give, so much more fully than just any play, where the onlooker is perforce under the tyranny of the circumstances of the play without the chances of escape provided so lavishly by the moving scene. The music is not an alien sound if it be as continuous as the performance and blending with it. That is why, though a good orchestra can heighten and deepen effects, a piano played by one able to improvise connective tissue for his varying themes is preferable to most orchestral accompaniments. Music is essential. Without it the film is a moving photograph and the audience mere onlookers. Without music there is neither light nor colour, and the test of this is that one remembers musically accompanied films in colour and those unaccompanied by music as colourless.
The cinema may become all that its well-wishers desire. So far, its short career of some twenty years is a tale of splendid achievement. Its creative power is incalculable, and its service to the theatre is nothing less than the preparation of vast, new audiences for the time when plays shall be accessible at possible rates in every square mile of the town. How many people, including the repentent writer, has it already restored to the playhouse?
Comments: Dorothy Richardson (1873-1957) was a British modernist novelist. Through 1927-1933 she wrote a column, ‘Continuous Performance’ for the film art journal Close Up. The column concentrates on film audiences rather than the films themselves. This was the first essay in the series.
Source: H.G., quoted in J.P. Mayer, Sociology of Film: Studies and Documents (London: Faber and Faber, 1946), pp. 113-114
Text: I do not know wether [sic] I am to be considered lucky that I happened to have a wireless on when the Brainstrust [sic] was discussing the subject on which I am going to endeavour to write about.
First the cinemas [sic] good points.
One is always sure of being able to hear and see what is going on. Whereas in the thatre [sic] you are not, unless one is very near the stage, a position which is not very suitable because one can see the actors and actresses make-up.
In wartime the theatre is apt to be drab and the costumes look as if they have seen better days, also in the films one does not expect colour, unless it is in Technicolour [sic] which is very pleasing to the eye in days of war.
Once I was in the pictures seeing a film in Techni-colour called Best Foot Forward with Lucille Ball it was lovely, and the warning went, it was a very heavy raid, but I was much to interested to think about it.
I do not think that the theatre could get one, so concentrated in programme, to forget about it.
Unless one is fond of comedy the theatre can be very boring, if the artists are not good. But films must be good or at least good enough to pass the critics (who allows the films fit for the public).
Plays are not too bad in theatres, but are also apt to be boring.
Last year my sister took my mother and I to see Arsenic and Old Lace. Mummy hated it, but would not tell my sister so because it may have hurt her feelings.
Mummy hated it because (a) She could not hear properly and only caught snatches of the conversation; (b) She was bored stiff, because all they seemed to do was open and shut a box by the window.
I like plays, and during the examinations I went to see The Lisbon Story it was a very spectacular show, and we had a very good seat, which makes all the difference.
In the cinemas it is warm and not so draughty as theatres.
In the theatre one is seeing the thing actually being done, and every thing is more or less real, where as in the cinema, one is seeing something that has been practised to perfection, and if one is seeing what I term a THRILLER! one knows that if somebody in the picture has been killed he or she is not really dead.
So … on the whole I think pictures are better, most of them come from Hollywood and America has all the best stars and I do not think the english [sic] film star has a chance.
In the pictures the story has been picked out and the unnecessary parts cut and the best parts brought out, and in my opinion the films are infinately [sic] better than the theatre and if not in your opinion, better, they are very good entertainment, and I don’t know what a lot of us would do without them.
Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His Sociology of Film draws on a large amount of evidence gathered through questionnaires and submissions received through invitations published in Picturegoer magazine. The above response comes from the section ‘Children and Adolescents and the Cinema’. The contributors for this section came from a school in Hampstead, with the children being described by Mayer as female, mostly middle class, on average not older than twelve-and-a-half.
Source: Uncle Josh at the Moving Picture Show (USA 1902, Edison Manfucturing Company), Library of Congress Motion Picture, Broadcasting and Recorded Sound Division collection, http://www.loc.gov/item/00694324
Comments: This Edison film plays on the comic contemporary idea that some audiences were unable to distinguish the action on a screen from reality. The three films seen by Uncle Josh are Parisian Dancer (not the same as the 1897 Edison film Parisian Dance), Black Diamond Express (not the same as the 1896 Edison film of that title) and A Country Couple (appears to have been produced for this film). An earlier British film, The Countryman and the Cinematograph (UK 1901), finds its comedy in showing how a naive person from the country lacks a sophisticated urban understanding and runs away from an approaching train shown on the screen. The Edison film is a likely imitation. The projectionist shown at the end would have been in front of the screen, not behind it. Uncle Josh is played by Charles ‘Daddy’ Manley. The character featured in two other Edison films of this period.