A Ragged Schooling

Source: Robert Roberts, A Ragged Schooling (Fontana, 1978; orig. pub. Manchester University Press, 1976), pp. 59-60

Text: Mr Higham, we also heard, had played piano in hotels, and opulent picture palaces now opened in the city, but ‘bad luck’ had reduced him latterly to performing at our local fleapit. There, we learned, in the course of the evening, he was plagued by a problem of hygiene unknown in bourgeois entertainment circles – our ‘Kinema’ floor had, he complained, to be swilled out and disinfected every morning. And no wonder! Owner-managers of slum cinemas, out for every penny they could get, crushed their youngest patrons so tightly along the cheap benches that no child dared get up for fear of losing his seat. In our establishment, even before the lights went out, retaining position could be difficult. Theoretically, no standing was allowed. The chucker-out would bring in a small paying customer to an already packed bench, push his posterior against the end occupant and make room for the newcomer; but this sent pressure running along the row, and another child slid off the other end. Once in the dark, no one dreamed of going to the lavatory. Through need or mischief children relieved themselves where they sat, and often the lower reaches ran awash. Down slope, before the silver screen, Mr Higham, we understood, battled on at his music, feet upon the pedals, powerless, despite threats, as King Canute. But already he seemed to have grown tolerant, looking upon the phenomenon as a mere occupational hazard. Indeed, at a later date, he referred to it airily as the ‘Falls of Lodore,’ which shows one can get used to almost anything.

Comments: Robert Roberts (1905-1979) became an English teacher following a Salford childhood, where his parents ran a corner-shop. His book The Classic Slum is a classic combination of autobiography and historical account of the lives of the Edwardian poor. A Ragged Schooling is a further autobiographical account of his childhood. The city referred to is Manchester. In a footnote to the above section, he writes “Strangers to the town were puzzled when invite to patronise a local picture house referred to by all as the ‘By Joe’ – our native rendering of ‘Bijou’, a name chosen for high inappropriateness on every count.”

So Laugh a Little

Source: Molly Picon, So Laugh a Little (New York: Julian Messner, 1962), pp. 136-142

Text: If someone were to write a history of the movies from the fan’s point of view, he would have to include my grandmother. From the day she walked in to see her first nickelodeon, she was completely captivated by Hollywood. She might not have gone to the nickelodeon if my grandfather hadn’t used every argument he could muster to get her there – what did she need it for, she cried, the first time the subject came up, she had a million things to to around the house, she didn’t feel like getting all dressed up, if he wanted to go, she wouldn’t stand in his way. My grandfather patiently outwaited all her cogent reasons for not leaving the house and eventually bore her off triumphantly to witness the marvel of moving pictures. Afterwards he used to complain that a man didn’t know when he was well off, why hadn’t he left well enough alone, if he had known how she would react he would have had his head examined before he talked her into it. My grandmother would smile and wave her hand at him and tell him not to get excited, at least she wasn’t a gambler or a drinker. My grandmother didn’t need alcoholic stimulation; she was intoxicated by the silver screen. Although she loved the theatre, she never responded to it the way she did to the movies. I have often thought that the plays she saw on the Yiddish stage hit too close to home; the situations were exaggerated, perhaps, but always contained nuggets of reality; the people were too easily identified with. They were, after all, her own people. But up there on the screen, magnified out of all contact with her world, scenes would unfold before her that would transport her into a never-never land. Even when she didn’t understand what was happening – and this occurred more often than not – she still loved every minute of it.

When I would ask her what she had seen, she would shrug her shoulders and say, “Do I know? They were hitting and fighting, and the girl didn’t like the good-looking one, and then she did like him, and then she changed her mind again. I don’t know what’s the matter with the girls today. In my time nobody asked you. You got married and that finished it.”

“Then you didn’t care for the picture?” I asked.

“Didn’t care for it?” she repeated incredulously. “With all that fighting and hitting and that poor boy up there eating his heart out for her? Why didn’t I like it?”

She became such an avid movie fan that Helen and I had to sit and read every little bit of gossip we could find in the papers to her, up to and including the blurbs of coming attractions. To my grandmother this wasn’t gossip, but gospel. She never for a moment doubted that every word was true. After all, it was printed, right there, in black and white. In those days, we lost my grandmother regularly once a week. For this was the era of the weekly serial, and Pearl White was its human sacrifice in fifteen installments. In spite of my grandmother’s shrieking warnings, Pearl White always managed to get herself into utterly hopeless situations. She would be huddling in some dank cellar while up above the villain would be peering down at her through a convenient hole in the floor, threatening to flood the cellar and drown poor Pearl unless she immediately and forthwith yielded what my grandmother always called her “good name.” Both Pearl White and my grandmother rejected these advances haughtily, no matter what the consequences. And the villain, of course, would then promptly turn on the waterworks.

All week long, my grandmother would worry and fret and strain for the days to pass so she could see how Pearl was doing. Pearl would escape from drowning only to wind up, at the end of that particular installment, in an even more precarious position, maybe tied to the railroad tracks, or about to be evenly distributed in a sawmill, or hanging by her fingertips from a cliff whilst the villain carefully and painstakingly lifted her fingers, one by one. I remember one time my grandmother was ill and unable to attend the next showing. She went into an absolute frenzy. I couldn’t go, because I was involved in a rehearsal. Helen was out of town. My mother had to stay home and take care of my grandmother. That left only my grandfather, who regarded the whole thing as bordering on simple insanity. “I should spend a beautiful day in the dark to watch a girl make a fool of herself,” he scoffed. “This week she’ll hang by the neck, and next week she’ll hang by the toes, and after the fifteen weeks is up, she’ll only start all in again with the foolishness. You would think with all the trouble she gets into that she would learn something.”

“Aaron, I beg you,” my grandmother pleaded. “I left her last week the house was burning down, and she was choking … such choking she was purple in the face. Like this she was, Aaron …” And my grandmother went into a graphic illustration that almost purpled her own face, but my grandfather remained unmoved.

“So what are you so worried?” he replied indifferently. “You think they’ll let anything happen to her? And for her I should miss my checkers?”

Even my grandmother couldn’t expect my grandfather to give up a checker game for Pearl White. All week she brooded. A whole episode missed and gone forever. When she would return to the theatre, Pearl would be facing a completely new peril. It was too much for flesh and blood to stand, my grandmother complained. As soon as she was well, she hurried off to the theatre and cornered the manager.

“Mr. Brody,” she panted. “From you I can have an answer. Tell me what happened last week. One foot I don’t put outside this office till I hear what happened.”

“God love you, Mrs. Ostrow,” said Mr. Brody, who had come to know my grandmother very well, in weekly installments, “how would I be knowing that? I’ve more adventures of my own keeping an eye on the little devils that come to watch her than she’ll ever be having.”

My grandmother couldn’t believe it. She herself would sit through both showings of the serial, just in the hope that it might come out differently at the end the second time, and here was Mr. Brody, with such a golden opportunity, who didn’t even care!

“Do you have any idea what the little monsters do here of an afternoon?” Mr. Brody warmed up to his subject as one who had had much practice. “I won’t mention the condition of the floors, with the boxes and papers and bags filled with banana peels and apple cores,” he said, waving an angry finger under my grandmother’s nose. “Nor do I care to mention the state of the bathrooms in front of a lady. But do you have any idea what happens to the seats?” He clutched his head. “The black plague on him that invented chewing gum!”

“I ask him about last week and he gives me chewing gum. Mr. Brody. A whole week I’m dying …”

“It’s the back of my hand to the next whippersnapper I see with a mouthful of the stuff.” Mr. Brody, my grandmother could understand, was too full of his own woes to be concerned with hers. She left his office, muttering to herself angrily. Fortunately she ran into an usher who was as much enraptured with Pearl White as my grandmother.

“Ya dint see ut?” he whispered, aghast.

“I was sick. Please. I’m dying. How did she get out of the fire?”

“It was the cat’s pajamas,” the usher said. “Ya know how she dint see no way outa there, an thuh fire gettin’ closer alla time, and she was kinda chokin’ up from the smoke …?”

“Yeh, yeh, I know the fire and the smoke … what did she do?”

“Well, just when it looked like she was a goner, she noticed a little door she never seen before and …”

And turned the knob and escaped into the clean, outside world to start running from the villain in Chapter Ten, to be seen at this theatre next week, don’t miss this exciting episode.

When talking pictures came in, my grandmother became an even more ardent fan. She would come home beaming and repeat the story to us whether we wanted to hear it or not. Since the plot suffered considerably in the retelling, it was like trying to solve a puzzle with half the pieces missing. For some reason or other, my grandmother would identify the actor or actress with the role he was playing, so that if John Gilbert’s name in the story was Henry, he would remain Henry to her.

I’ll never forget the day she saw Al Jolson in The Jazz Singer. She sobbed so hard through this performance that even after the curtain swished across the screen and the house fights were put on, she sat in her seat and cried vigorously. She came home with a bagful of sodden handkerchiefs, convinced that Al Jolson had sustained a terrible loss. In the picture, he sang a tearjerker called Sonny Boy to an angelic-faced child who subsequently died. Nothing could persuade my grandmother that this boy was not Al Jolson’s child. For weeks she would walk around the house, heaving racking sighs and wiping tears from her eyes.

“Bubba. For heaven’s sake,” I said, annoyed. “It was only a picture! That boy will be in a dozen new pictures before the year is over.”

“What do you know how a father’s heart can break? Wait. When you’re a mother, you’ll understand what it is to have love for a child.”

“But, Bubba. That child did not die. It was just a story.”

“Malkele,” she replied sorrowfully. “I know you mean well and you’re trying to make me feel better. But you’re young yet. You don’t know what real suffering is.”

From that time on, she became especially interested in Al Jolson’s career. If she heard gossip that was good, she felt considerably cheered. If she heard comments that were unfavorable, she would shake her head gravely and say, “That poor man hasn’t been the same since he lost his little boy.”

As she became older, she preferred stories with modern settings. When we took her to see a picture depicting early days in man’s history, she would turn to me or to Yonkel and say disapprovingly, “Why do you take me to see a picture made in olden days?”

“Bubba,” I would answer. “The picture wasn’t made in those days. The movies are practically brand new. That is a picture that just came out this year from Hollywood.”

“Go on,” she denied unbelievingly, “don’t I see with my own eyes what they’re wearing and how they are living?”

We discovered, after a while, that my grandmother would go to the movies for still another reason than to see what was playing. It was so dark and cozy and relaxing, my grandmother found it ideal for sleeping. The music would crash through the theatre; sirens would wail; heroines would shriek. My grandmother would doze blissfully through it all, awaken refreshed, and remark that she didn’t remember when she had enjoyed a picture more.

Finally my grandmother took to going to see foreign films. This was somewhat of a puzzle to me, since she had rough going with American films. One day I spoke to her as she was busily preparing to go to a Spanish movie.

“Bubba,” I protested. “A Spanish movie you want to see? Do you understand Spanish?”

She looked at me, and her eyes crinkled with amusement as she answered, “And who understands English?”

My grandmother was constantly amazed at the new innovations in the motion picture field, but I think there was never a time to equal, for her, the Pearl White days. Once, when I took her to see some mystery film, remembering how she loved the suspense in the old-time serials, she turned to me and said, “You think she is suffering?” – pointing scornfully to the quaking heroine on the screen – “you should have seen little Pearlie White. She was a real wreck.”

Comments: Molly Picon (1898-1992) was a renowned American star of Yiddish theatre and film. The above is a chapter from her memoir (‘as told Eth Clifford Rosenberg’) of her family and upbringing. Her Ostrovsky (later Ostrow) grandparents came from Rizshishtchov in Russia, where Picon’s mother was born. Molly Picon herself was born in New York. Al Jolson’s song ‘Sonny Boy’ comes from the film The Singing Fool (USA 1928), not The Jazz Singer (USA 1927). Pearl White starred in the serial The Perils of Pauline (USA 1914).

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Unreliable Memoirs

Source: Clive James, Unreliable Memoirs (London: Jonathan Cape, 1980), pp. 43-47

Text: Every Saturday afternoon at the pictures there was a feature film, sixteen cartoons and an episode each from four different serials. The programme just went on and on like Bayreuth. The Margaret Street children would join up with the Irene Street children and the combined mass would add themselves unto the Sunbeam Avenue children and the aggregate would join the swarm from all the other areas all moving north along Rocky Point Road towards Rockdale, where the Odeon stood. In summer the concrete paths were hot. The asphalt footpaths were even hotter: bubbles of tar formed, to be squashed flat by our leathery bare feet. Running around on macadamised playgrounds throughout the spring, by summer we had feet that could tread on a drawing pin and hardly feel it.

When you got to the Odeon the first thing you did was stock up with lollies. Lollies was the word for what the English call sweets and the Americans call candy. Some of the more privileged children had upwards of five shillings each to dispose of, but in fact two bob was enough to buy you as much as you could eat. Everyone, without exception, bought at least one Hoadley’s Violet Crumble Bar. It was a slab of dense, dry honeycomb coated with chocolate. So frangible was the honey comb that it would shatter when bitten, scattering bright yellow shrapnel. It was like trying to eat a Ming vase. The honeycomb would go soft only after a day’s exposure to direct sunlight. The chocolate surrounding it, however, would liquefy after only ten minutes in a dark cinema.

[…]

Everyone either ate steadily or raced up and down the aisles to and from the toilet, or all three. The uproar was continuous, like Niagara. Meanwhile the programme was unreeling in front of us. The feature film was usually a Tarzan, a Western, or the kind of Eastern Western in which George Macready played the grand vizier. At an even earlier stage I had been to the pictures with my mother and been continuously frightened without understanding what was going on – the mere use of music to reinforce tension, for example, was enough to drive me under the seat for the rest of the evening. At a later stage I accompanied my mother to every change of evening double bill both at Ramsgate and Rockdale – a total of four films a week, every week for at least a decade. But nothing before or since had the impact of those feature films at the Rockdale Saturday matinees.

In those days Johnny Weissmuller was making his difficult transfer from Tarzan to Jungle Jim. As Tarzan he got fatter and fatter until finally he was too fat to be plausible, whereupon he was obliged to put on a safari suit and become Jungle Jim. I was glad to to learn subsequently that as Jungle Jim he had a piece of the action and was at last able to bank some money. At the time, his transmogrification looked to me like an unmitigated tragedy. His old Tarzan movies were screened again and again. Many times I dived with Tarz off Brooklyn Bridge during the climactic scene of Tarzan’s New York Adventure. In my mind I duplicated the back somersaults executed by Johnny’s double as he swung from vine to vine on his way to rescue the endangered Jane and Boy from the invading ivory hunters. In one of the Tarzan movies there is a terrible sequence where one lot of natives gives another lot an extremely thin time by arranging pairs of tree trunks so that they will fly apart and pull the victim to pieces. This scene stayed with me as a paradigm of evil. No doubt if I saw the same film today I would find the sequence as crudely done as everything else ever filmed on Poverty Row. But at the time it seemed a vision of cruelty too horrible even to think about.

I can remember having strong ideas about which cartoons were funny and which were not. Mr Magoo and Gerald McBoing-Boing, with their stylised backgrounds and elliptical animation, had not yet arrived on the scene. Cartoons were still in that hyper-realist phase which turns out in retrospect to have been their golden age. The standards of animation set by Walt Disney and MGM cost a lot of time, effort and money, but as so often happens the art reached it height at the moment of maximum resistance from the medium. Knowing nothing of these theoretical matters, I simply consumed the product. I knew straight away that the Tom and Jerry cartoons were the best. In fact I even knew straight away that some Tom and Jerry cartoons were better than others. There was an early period when Tom’s features were puffy and he ran with a lope, motion being indicated by the streaks that animators call speed lines. In the later period Tom’s features had an acute precision and his every move was made fully actual, with no stylisation at all. Meanwhile Jerry slimmed down and acquired more expressiveness. The two periods were clearly separated in my mind, where they were dubbed ‘old drawings’ and ‘new drawings’. I remember being able to tell which category a given Tom and Jerry cartoon fell into from seeing the first few frames. Eventually I could tell just from the logo. I remember clearly the feeling of disappointment if it was going to be old drawings and the feeling of elation if it was going to be new drawings.

But the serials were what caught my imagination most, especially the ones in which the hero was masked. It didn’t occur to me until much later that the producers, among whom Sam Katzman was the doyen, kept the heroes masked so that the leading actors could not ask for more money. At the time it just seemed logical to me that a hero should wear a masked. It didn’t have to be as elaborate as Batman’s mask. I admired Batman, despite the worrying wrinkles in the arms and legs of his costume, which attained a satisfactory tautness only in the region of his stomach. But Robin’s mask was easier to copy. So was the Black Commando’s. My favourite serials were those in which masked men went out at night and melted mysteriously into the urban landscape. Science fiction serials were less appealing at that stage, while white hunter epics like The Lost City of the Jungle merely seemed endless. I saw all fourteen episodes of The Lost City of the Jungle except the last. It would have made no difference if I had only seen the last episode and missed the thirteen leading up to it. The same things happened every week. Either two parties of white hunters in solar topees searched for each other in one part of the jungle, or else the same two parties of white hunters in solar topees sought to avoid each other in another part of the jungle. Meanwhile tribesmen from the Lost City either captured representatives of both parties and took them to the High Priestess for sacrifice, or else ran after them when they escaped. Sometimes white hunters escaping ran into other white hunters being captured, and were either recaptured or helped the others escape. It was obvious even to my unschooled eyes that there was only about half an acre of jungle, all of it composed of papier mâché. By the end of each episode it was beaten flat. The screen would do a spiral wipe around an image of the enthroned High Priestess, clad in a variety of tea-towels and gesturing obdurately with a collection of prop sceptres while one of the good white hunters – you could tell a good one from a bad one by the fact that a bad one always sported a very narrow moustache – was lowered upside down into a pit of limp scorpions.

Comments: Clive James (born 1939) is an Australian broadcaster, critic, poet and essayist. These extracts from his first volume of memoirs cover the period of the late 1940s. The films mentioned include Tarzan’s New York Adventure (USA 1942), Batman (1943, 15 episodes), The Secret Code (USA 1942, 15 episodes, featuring ‘The Black Commando’) and The Lost City of the Jungle (USA 1946, 13 episodes). There were numerous Jungle Jim films from 1948 onwards. Rockdale is a suburb of Sydney.

Stately pleasure-domes

Source: Steve Woolley, contribution to David Thomson, ‘Stately pleasure-domes: The first cinema opened 100 years ago (arguably)’, The Independent, 17 April 1994, http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/film–stately-pleasuredomes-the-first-cinema-opened-100-years-ago-arguably-david-thomson-shows-you-to-your-seat-while-other-film-fans-name-their-favourite-picture-palaces-1370670.html

Text: I was fortunate to grow up in Islington when most of the cinemas were still running. I was mad about films. I’d go to the Odeon Angel and the Rex, which is now the Screen on the Green. My dad or uncles would take me to the ABC in the evenings. I became highly attuned to audiences and the environment a film was shown in. I rate it as highly as the movie itself. If you see Performance, as I did, at three in the morning at the Classic in Victoria, it’s not the same as seeing it on the box. It was one of the strangest films I’ve ever seen, and coming out and walking from Victoria to Notting Hill Gate afterwards was extraordinary.

There are no character cinemas in London now. Places like the Biograph in Victoria. It was 28p to get in and a huge gay pick-up. It was great, like watching a film in a Baghdad market. The toilet door kept crashing into you. They showed films like The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. Then there was the Starlight, which just showed Thirties and Forties doubles. They used to serve cucumber sandwiches with the corners cut off – I’d never had them before.

At the Scala I strove to create an atmosphere, because that’s how I saw films when I was young. People say the Scala wasn’t great because not all the seats worked and the trains ran underneath, but who else would show Kenneth Anger films, or do proper late shows? It’s because of videos. People don’t seem to get it any more, they don’t want to see a film on a big screen. There was hardly a ripple when the Scala closed. It’s kind of sad.

The Screen on the Green has a really big place in my heart. I remember it as the Rex, a fleapit. I was forbidden by my parents to go there. Working as an usher there in 1976 was definitely the most exciting time. We put the Sex Pistols on – it was the summer of punk. And there were all-night Marx Brothers films. It would show Duck Soup at four in the morning. The first weekend I worked there the double bill was Bonnie and Clyde and Dillinger. I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘I’m being paid to watch these films three nights a week, I must be the luckiest person alive’.

There was an atmosphere in London then rivalling France and New York – movies were suddenly hip. I was going to the cinema on my own, thinking I was mad. As I was about to enter my twenties, I realised that all these other people were obsessed too. It was a great time. It was pre-Channel 4 and before BBC 2 got its act together. You really had to search the films out.

Comments: Steve Woolley (born 1956) is a British film producer, who was programmer at The Screen on the Green in Islington, London and managed the Scala at King’s Cross, London, before establishing Palace Video and then moving into film production (Mona Lisa, The Crying Game etc). This is one of a series of memories of favourite cinemas published in an article to mark the centenary of film exhibition (in the USA).

Seats in All Parts

Source: Leslie Halliwell, Seats in All Parts (London: Granada, 1985), pp. 17-18

Text: On the whole, however, the Hippodrome brings back only the happiest of memories. There was something very satsifying about seeing music-hall comedy in an old music-hall. We always sat in the fourpenny stalls, which meant entry through a little side street pay box. The cashier was a maiden lady of uncertain age; she had tight marcelled hair, and repeatedly told us (and presumably everybody else) how terrified she was of a recurrence of the night she was attacked by ‘footpads’ while the commissionaire was inside. I liked to pay for my own ticket, using pennies handed to me by Mum as we walked briskly through the back streets from Victoria Square; but when an ‘A’ film was the attraction, the law said she must get the tickets for both of us and hand them to the doleful old doorkeeper, the one with the drooping moustaches and the dirty white gloves. He would then lift the dust-filled red velour curtain which allowed us to enter the inner sanctum by the doorway to the left of the screen. Invariably we arrived towards the end of the shorts, but sometimes there was a cartoon just before the news, and of course I always insisted on seeing that through twice. The shorts in fact were very often the best part of the programme. Since main features then seldom ran more than 75 minutes, there was room in a two-hour programme not only for a two-reel comedy and a cartoon but often for a couple of ‘interests’ as well, selected from such series as Stranger than Fiction, Speaking of Animals, Sportslight (with Grantland Rice), Screen Snapshots and Unusual Occupations. Then there was the news. World events at my age were a bit of a bore and I often went for a stroll to the Gents as they unfurled, but I did like Gaumont British News for its cheerful signature tune and its fancy title sequence where a gallery of rapidly changing news items centred on a bell-ringing town crier whom I used to insist was the comedian Sidney [sic] Howard in disguise. (Perhaps it was.)

The best vantage-point for a small boy was obviously the middle of the front row, and Mum sometimes agreed to sit there; although it can’t have done her eyes any good, and people making their way to the toilets used to tread on her feet, which were tender at the best of times. There was now rowdyism, however: the front stalls at the Hippodrome were occupied chiefly by respectable middle-aged couples or family parties, and any hooligan elements would have been quickly and firmly dealt with by the patrons themselves if the commissionaire had chosen to be otherwise engaged. Wherever we sat, it was always a thrilling moment when the lights dimmed and the censor’s certificate for the main feature flashed on to the dividing, floodlit red curtain, to be laboriously and audibly deciphered by an eager audience.

The stars whose adventures we watched on the Hippodrome’s milky-textured screen seemed always more real, more vital, than those observed elsewhere. This may have been partly because it was such an intimately shaped hall, but mainly I suspect because low vaudeville comics most easily found a level on which to meet audiences whose roots were in cotton spinning and who had lived, generation after generation, in the long shadow of the mills. In Lancashire they worked hard, and they liked to laugh hard, sometimes at subjects which southerners might have thought in poor taste, like drunkenness, underwear, and funerals. Beefy Leslie Fuller might have been my uncle, George Formby a comical cousin and Gracie Fields a young spinster aunt. It required no effort of imagination for us to be interested in their doings; they were only a slight exaggeration of our everyday life.

Comment: Leslie Halliwell (1929-1989) was a film historian and programme buyer for ITV and Channel 4. Seats in All Parts is his memoir of cinemagoing, including his Bolton childhood. Bolton had 47 cinemas in the 1930s; the Hippodrome was a former music hall and existed as a cinema until the 1940s, being demolished in 1961. ‘A’ certificates were introduced in 1912 and stood for ‘Adult’; from 1923 a child attending an ‘A’ film had to be accompanied by an adult.