The Other Americans

Source: Arthur Ruhl, The Other Americans; the cities, the countries, and especially the people of South America (New York, C. Scribner’s Sons, 1912), pp. 110-112 [orig. pub. 1908 as series of articles in Collier’s magazine]

Text: On Arequipa, too, broods the spell of the ancient Church. By the time I had dined the evening I arrived and started forth to look at the town, it lay dead and silent under its cold stars, the only sound the rush of mountain water in the open drains. But there was light in the cathedral, and within on the floor — for there were no pews — knelt, it seemed, all the women in the town, like so many black-birds in their sable mantos, whispering and crossing themselves. Here were the lights and the ambitious glitter and the antiphonal choruses echoing through the arches, yet outside no background of noise and busy worldliness to put it in its place. It was as though all the town were turned into a cloister; as though, having no opportunity to sin, it were determined to carry out the other end of the bargain at any rate, and fancy itself condemned.

The flesh was not altogether neglected, however, that night, and toward nine o’clock, a few squares away, a lonely little band, muffled in ponchos and neck-scarfs, tooted in the frosty air, calling the men-folks and the irreligious to an exhibition of the American biograph.

The latter has become almost an institution in parts of South America. Where no other theatrical entertainment is to be had, one will generally find a biograph show. “All the world ought to have one,” an advertisement in the paper read that night — “I. Families: For its modern repertoire of operas, zarzuelas, etc., to pass happy and diverting moments without going out of the house in the evening. II. Merchants: To attract the attention of the public to their establishments. III. Proprietors of haciendas: To amuse their workmen on Sundays.”

There was so much Indian blood in the audience that night, as is always the case in the interior, that it suggested a crowd of Japanese soldiers. Broad- cheeked and stolid they sat while the great world flickered before them. From Norway to Damascus we jumped, from Jerusalem to Paris and Madrid — the fountains playing at Versailles, Hebrews kissing the Wall of Lamentations, a “pony” ballet in a musical comedy, skeeing in Norway, with fresh-cheeked girls sweeping almost out of the picture and into the auditorium, the snow spraying from the skees, the wind blowing their hair across their faces, laughing as they came. There was a royal bull-fight at Madrid — even the sweating flanks of the bull panting up and down, the pretty bonnet of some tourist which, in the excitement, had insisted in bobbing in front of the camera.
I am not an agent for any picture-machine, but I must confess that it seemed rather wonderful to me, this very glitter and pulse-beat of Europe up here in a stoveless theatre among a lot of Indians. And I regret that the audience showed much more enthusiasm over a Byronic young man who gave an imitation of the battle of the Yalu on a guitar, and stood in the cobbled court outside wrapped in a velveteen cloak and gazed at us superciliously as we started home.

Comments: Arthur Brown Ruhl (1876-1935) was an American sports journalist and travel writer. Arequipa is in Peru.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), p. 238

Text: AGE: 64 SEX: M. NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: BRICKLAYER
MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HELPMATE TO FATHER

I am going to mention the titles of four films. First The Common Touch. I cannot remember ever enjoying a film so much as this as regards a film for what I call a working class audience. To me there were no special ‘stars’ all actors and actress’s were of equal value, it was a very human, sensibly and elevating story, very well acted. The second picture or film is Smiling Through featuring Jeannette MacDonald and other ‘stars’. As I sat watching and listening to this film story I seemed to be taking part in it myself, and each time I saw it (and I saw it many times) I enjoyed it more and more. The singing was superb, the acting was such that it made the story very real, the facial expressions of all taking part was very convincing although I saw it during war time, it made me forget war, and lifted my thoughts to higher levels, this was a clean, decent and elevating film, and time well spent seeing it and also well worth the money paid.

Sentimentally yes, upholding that most beautiful of all things Love, yes, and if these two things were to die out, I think this world, would be even a poorer place than it is to day. Love is ridiculed far too much in some pictures or films and on the ‘stage’ yes I know that I am old fashioned, but let us have more films like these two. And now from the sublime to the most ridiculous, I refer to two films, in which I got up out of my seat to leave the cinema, I was that disgusted, but I saw them through. First The Miracle of Morgans Creek a film that was anything but elevating, in fact, if the producer had been sitting with me, and had heard what some children were saying about it I think his face would have gone very red, a film that was of no use to the world, in fact not even a good moral film. The other film was Cassonova Brown [sic] perhaps, it was with seeing Gary Cooper in such stirring films before, and then to see him in a dud film such as this, another film that I think could have been done without. Yes let us have ‘Decent’ films like the first two I have mentioned. If anyone should have had an Oscar award, I think all the leading ‘stars’ in Smiling Through should have one each. As I am getting on in years, perhaps I shall never have the chance to travel, so I would like to see more travel films, which are a delight, and also good education. Films with Jazz and Swing bands I do not like, they are far too harsh.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and Their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘A Study in Film Preferences’. The films mentioned are The Common Touch (UK 1941), Smiling Through (USA 1941), The Miracle of Morgan’s Creek (USA 1944) and Casanova Brown (USA 1944).

The Promise of Air

Source: Algernon Blackwood, The Promise of Air (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1918), pp. 170-173

Text: The rush of the wonderful cinema then began, and he forgot himself.

They experienced the sense such a performance leaves behind of having been—as Mother put it—all over the place. Sitting in the dark the individual at first is conscious only of himself, neighbours ignored if not forgotten. The screen then flashes into light, and with the picture, consciousness flashes across the world. The lie of the stationary photograph is corrected, time is denied, partially at least, and space is unable to boast and swagger as it loves to do. The cinema frees and extends the consciousness, restores the past, and sets distance close beneath the eyes. Only the watching self remains—pregnant symbol!—in the darkness.

It was one of the best performances in London; within an hour or two the audience danced from the dingy streets of the metropolis into the sunlight of India, Africa, and of islands among far southern seas. The kaleidoscope of other lands and other ways of thinking, acting, living carried them away with understanding sympathy. From savage wild life drinking at water-holes in the sun-drenched Tropics, they darted across half-charted oceans and watched the penguin and the polar bear amid arctic ice. Over mountains, down craters, flying above cities and peering deep under water, the various experiences of strange distant life came into their ken. They flew about the planet. The leaders of the world gazed at them, so close and real that their emotions were legible on their magnified features. They smiled or frowned, then flashed away, and yet still were there, living, thinking, willing this and that. Widely separated portions of the vast human family presented themselves vigorously, registered a tie of kinship, and were gone again about their business, now become in some sense the business of the audience too. Fighting, toiling, loving, hating, meeting death and adventure by sea and land, creating and destroying, differing much in colour, custom, clothing, and the rest, yet human as Wimble and his family were human, possessed with the same griefs, hopes, and joys, the same passion to live, the same fear of death—one great family.

Joan slipped her arm into that of her father; they nestled closely, very much in sympathy as the world rushed past their eyes upon the screen. “We’re flying,” she whispered, with a squeeze, as the penguins on the polar ice gave place to a scene of negroes sweating in the sun and munching sugar-cane while they lazily picked the fluffy cotton. “We’re everywhere all-at-once, don’t you see?” A moment later, as though to point her words, they looked down upon a mapped-out country from an aeroplane. The unimportance of earth was visible in the distance.

“You can’t fly under water anyhow,” mumbled Wimble, as they left the air and flashed with a submarine upon sponges, coral, and inquisitive, perfectly poised fish. A black man was trying to knife a shark.

“I can see what they feel though,” was the whispered answer. “Inside their watery minds, I mean.”

“Wherever I am I go,” he thought, but didn’t say it, because by the time he had reflected how foolish it was to remain stuck only upon the minute point of his own tiny personal experience, they were climbing with a scientific Italian of eminence down a crater full of smoke and steam, and could almost hear the thunder of the explosions. But while they went down, everything else went up. Smoke, steam, masses of rock all trying to rise. “Gravity is the devil,” he remembered; “it keeps us from flying into the sun.”

The idea made him chuckle, and Joan pinched his arm, giggling too audibly in her excitement. “Hush!” said Mother. They watched in silence then; a bird’s-eye view of the planet was what they watched. With each picture they took part. Every corner of the globe, with its different activities, touched their hearts and minds with interest—busy, rushing life in various forms, and all going on simultaneously, at this very moment—now. Life obviously was one. The strange unity was convincing. Nothing they saw was alien to themselves, for they took part in it. In each picture they “wondered what it felt like.” They took for an instant, longer or shorter, the point of view of a new aspect of life, of something as yet they had not actually experienced. They longed—or dreaded—to stand within that huge cavern of blue lonely ice and hear the waves of the Polar Sea lick up the snow; to taste that sugary cane with animal-white teeth, and feel the fluffy cotton between thick, lumpy fingers; to swim under water and look up instead of down; to crawl fearfully a little nearer to the molten centre of the planet through smoke and fire and awful thundering explosions. They longed or dreaded. Mentally, that is, they experienced a new relationship in each separate case, a relationship that stretched a suburban consciousness beyond its normal ken.

Comments: Algernon Blackwood (1869-1951) was a British writer of ghost stories and fantastical fiction. The Promise of Air is one of his novels on a mystical theme, and is concerned with freeing the spirit from the limitations of the human frame. Characters are either earthbound or airy. The above passage is part of a long sequence covering the central Wimble family’s visit to a cinema, in which their rhapsodic experience are occasionally touched by the practicalities of attending a cinema.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

The Missionary Film

Source: Winifred Holtby, extract from ‘The Missionary Film’, Truth is not Sober (London: W. Collins Sons & Co., 1934), pp. 108-110

Text: In the market place the cinema beckoned to him, flaring with joyous light, festooned with small electric bulbs like jewels, emerald green and ruby stars. Such stars, though Mr. Grant, set all the Sons of God shouting for joy.

He paid eightpence and went in.

The honest friendly darkness engulfed him, but against the flickering pallor of the screen he saw the clear outline of Mrs. Fitton’s Sunday hat. He liked Mrs. Fitton; he liked the rural English audience; the scent of warm humanity and muddy boots reminded him of Sunday school treats in his childhood. The orchestra, a local pianist, and a girl playing the violin, broke out into Mendelssohn’s “Spring Song.” Bending to light his pipe, Mr. Grant missed the first title of the film. Head read only “… missionary propaganda, but rather education in its broadest sense.” He felt a twinge of disappointment, for he did not want to be educated. Above all, he did not want to be reminded of a man who had once been a missionary educationalist. He wanted to see Harold Lloyd or Tom Mix.

“The first sight of land which thrills the heart of the traveller,” he read with faint distaste. What trash about travellers. The best thing about travel was the last mile on the way home. He wanted to see Charlie Chaplin; but he saw instead a line of flat-topped hills, mottled about their base with little houses, and towering starkly over a placid sea.

He sat up rigidly, frowning.

“Adderley Street,” danced the caption. “the gateway to a continent.” Tall buildings, faint against the sunlight; dark trees tossing in a dusty wind; bearded farmers in knee breeches; Indian schoolgirls with prim plaits of hair hanging down muslin dresses; a market-gardener swinging baskets of melons and yams; pretty typists in sleeveless summer frocks; here they came. Then a couple swaggered down the road, the wind flapping in their ragged coats and wide trousers. They carried canes, and wore handkerchiefs in their breast pockets. Their black faces grinned, growing larger and larger until they filled the screen, blotting out towers and trams and all the paraphernalia of the European.

Click! They had gone. The orchestra began to play Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody. A train started up from the veldt like a frightened snake and slid out of the picture. An ox-wagon lumbered between the scorching hills and twisted thorn bushes. A naked boy with a round, gleaming belly ran ahead of the beats. Mr. Grant could hear the creak of the leather and the grinding of heavy wheels on the dry red soil.

A group of women stooped beside the spruit washing sweet potatoes. Their white bead anklets clanked as they moved. Water dripped from black wrists and flat pink palms. One carried on her head a blanket in which two fowls roosted cackling.

Mr. Grant’s pipe had gone out. He sat clutching the plush arm rest of his eightpenny chair. The sweat round his lips tasted salt and cold …

Comments: Winifred Holtby (1898-1935) was a British novelist, journalist and political campaigner. This extract is from a collection of her short stories. The story is about a man who had previously served on a mission who sees a promotional film in a British cinema about South Africa, and is reminded of how he was forced to leave because of his sympathy for the black South Africans. At the end of the story he decides to return to South Africa to pursue what he believes in. Adderley Street is in Cape Town.

The Magic Mountain

Source: Thomas Mann (trans. John E. Woods), extract from The Magic Mountain (London: Everyman’s Library, 2005 [orig. pub. Der Zauberberg, 1924]), pp. 376-378

Text: They even took Karen Karstedt to the Bioscope Theatre in Platz one afternoon, because that was something she truly enjoyed. Being used only to the purest air, they fell ill at ease in the bad air that weighed heavily in their lungs and clouded their minds in a murky fog, while up ahead on the screen life flickered before their smarting eyes – all sorts of life, chopped up in hurried, diverting scraps that leapt into fidgety action, lingered, and twitched out of sight in alarm, to the accompaniment of trivial music, which offered present rhythms to match vanishing phantoms from the past and which despite limited means ran the gamut of solemnity, pomposity, passion, savagery, and cooing sensuality. They watched as a rousing tale of love and murder in the court of an Oriental potentate unrolled silently before them; scene after opulent scene sped past, full of naked bodies, despotic lust, and abject servility blind in its zeal, full of cruelty, prurience, and fatal desire – and then suddenly the filmed slowed to linger revealingly on the muscular arm of an executioner. In short, it had been produced with a sympathetic understanding of its international audience and catered to that civilization’s secret wishes. Settembrini, as a man who formed opinions, would surely have denounced this exhibition as a denigration of humanity, and with honest, classical irony would have castigated the misuse of technology that made such cynical presentations possible – or so Hans Castorp thought, and whispered as much to his cousin. Frau Stöhr, however, who happened to be sitting not all that far from the trio, had apparently abandoned herself to the film; her red, uneducated face was contorted with pleasure.

But, then, it was much the same with all the faces they could see. When the last flickering frame of one reel had twitched out of sight, and the audience’s field of dreams stood before them like an empty blackboard, there was not even the possibility of applause. There was no one there to clap for, to thank, no artistic achievement to reward with a curtain call. The actors who had been cast in the play they had just seen had long since been scattered to the winds; they had watched only phantoms, whose deeds had been reduced to a million photographs brought into focus for the briefest of moments so that, as often as one liked, they could then be given back to the element of time as a series of blinking flashes. Once the illusion was over, there was something repulsive about the crowd’s nerveless silence. Hands lay impotent before the void. People rubbed their eyes, stared straight ahead, felt embarrassed by the brightness and demanded the return of the dark, so that they could again watch things, whose time has passed, tricked out with music and transplanted into new time.

The despot was dispatched with a knife, his mouth opened for a bellow that no one heard. They now saw pictures from all over the world: the top-hatted president of the French republic reviewing a long cordon, then sitting in his landau to reply to a welcoming speech; the viceroy of India at the wedding of a rajah; the German crown prince on a barracks drill field in Potsdam. They observed the life and customs of an aboriginal village in New Mecklenburg, a cock fight in Borneo, naked savages blowing on nose flutes, the capture of wild elephants, a ceremony at the Siamese royal court, a street of brothels in Japan with geishas sitting caged behind wooden lattices. They watched Samoyeds bundled in furs driving sleds pulled by reindeer across the snowy wastes of northern Asia, Russian pilgrims praying at Hebron, a Persian criminal being bastinadoed. They were present at each event – space was negated, time turned back, “then and there” transformed by music into a skittering, phantasmagoric, “here and now.” A young Moroccan woman dressed in striped silk and harnessed with chains, bangles, and rings, her swelling breasts half-bared, was suddenly brought nearer until she was life-size. Her nostrils were flared wide, her eyes full of animal life, her features vivacious; she laughed, showing her white teeth, held up one hand – the nails seemed lighter than her skin – to shield her eyes, and waved at the audience with the other. People stared in bewilderment and the face of this charming specter, who seemed to see them and yet did not, who was not at all affected by their gaze, and whose laughter and waves were not meant for the present, but belonged to the then and there of home – it would have been pointless to respond. And so, as noted, their delight was mixed with a sense of helplessness. Then the phantom vanished. A bright void filled the screen, the word Finis was project on it, this cycle of entertainments was over, and the people left the theater in silence as a new audience pushed its way in, eager to enjoy another roll of the reels.

Comments: Thomas Mann (1875-1955) was a German novelist and short story writer, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1929. The Magic Mountain mostly takes place in in a Swiss sanatorium in Davos in the years just before the First World War, and serves as an ironic and cryptic analysis of European society. The visit to the Bioscope is one of the rare scenes in the novel to take place outside the sanatorium. Though the thoughts on the nature of time and the viewing experience are profound, the picture painted of a diverse programme is improbable in its extent and its dubious details (no public film show would have featured travel films of the bastinado or Japanese brothels, for example).

Cheap Amusements

Source: John Collier, ‘Cheap Amusements’, Charities and the Commons, 11 April 1908, pp. 73-76

Text: For four months a joint-committee of the Woman’s Municipal League and the People’s Institute has been engaged in an investigation of the cheap amusements of Manhattan Island. The committee has been composed as follows: Michael M. Davis, Jr., secretary of the People’s Institute, chairman; Mrs. Josephine Redding, secretary of the Woman’s Municipal League, secretary; Mrs. R. H. McKelvey, Miss Henrietta B. Rodman, Miss Alice Lewisohn, Mrs. F.R. Swift, Michael H. Cardoza, Charles H. Ayres, Jr., John Collier, and W. Frank Persons. The investigation has been made financially possible through the Spuyten Duyvil branch of the Woman’s Municipal League. The writer has acted as field investigator.

Attempt has been made to cover all phases of the cheap amusement problem, excluding from the detailed investigation dance-halls and skating-rinks on the one hand and high-priced theaters on the other. Legal and business aspects have been studied as well as educational and sanitary. The subject-matter has been fourfold: melodrama, vaudeville and burlesque; nickelodeons, or moving picture variety shows; penny arcades; and miscellany. The miscellany are anatomical museums, fake beauty-shows, etc., which are confined to a limited area of the city where they maintain a difficult existence. They can be passed over in the present brief report. What follows sums up the results of the investigation.

The whole topography of the cheap-amusement problem has changed within the last six years. To illustrate: the old-time crass melodrama has been in large measure dethroned, crowded out by the cheap vaudeville and the nickelodeon. The cheap vaudeville has spread widely and has become a problem in itself; it plays a fairly constructive role in a few instances, and in several is about the vilest and most brutalizing form of entertainment in New York. Withal, it generally keeps within the bounds of the laws protecting public decency, which are largely matters of interpretation, but only through agitation, hard fighting and a constantly aroused public sentiment can it be kept within bounds. But even the cheap vaudeville has been eclipsed by the tremendously expansive nickelodeon, the number of which in Greater New York, has grown in a few years from nothing to more than six hundred. The nickelodeon is now the core of the cheap amusement problem. Considered numerically it is four times more important than all the standard theaters of the city combined. It entertains from three to four hundred thousand people daily, and between seventy-five and a hundred thousand children. And finally, the penny arcade has sprung into mushroom existence, has proved itself to be irredeemable on the educational side and without the elements of permanent growth in popular favor and has worn out its public. It is now being driven from the field by the nickelodeon.

Not only the superficial aspect, but the essential nature of the cheap amusement problem has changed and changed for the better. Constructive elements have entered and triumphantly made good with the public, so that now the cheap-amusement situation offers an immediate opportunity and a rousing challenge to the social worker. The nickelodeon’s the thing, and the story of its development is instructive.

Five years ago the nickelodeon was neither better nor worse than many other cheap amusements are at present. It was often a carnival of vulgarity, suggestiveness and violence, the fit subject for police regulation. It gained a deservedly bad name, and although no longer deserved, that name still clings to it. During the present investigation a visit to more than two hundred nickelodeons has not detected one immoral or indecent picture, or one indecent feature of any sort, much as there has been in other respects to call for improvement. But more than this: in the nickelodeon one sees history, travel, the reproduction of industries. He sees farce-comedy which at worst is relaxing, innocuous, rather monotonously confined to horseplay, and at its best is distinctly humanizing, laughing with and not at the subject. Some real drama: delightful curtain-raisers, in perfect pantomime, from France, and in the judgment of most people rather an excess of mere melodrama, and in rare cases even of sheer murderous violence. At one show or another a growing number of classic legends, like Jack and the Beanstalk or Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, can be seen any night. The moving picture repertoire amounts to tens of thousands, and is amazingly varied. One firm alone in the city has two million feet of “film” stored away until it can be used again as fresh material, after the public has forgotten it. In addition to the moving-picture, the nickelodeon as a rule has singing, and almost invariably the audience joins in the chorus with a good will. Thus has the moving-picture-show elevated itself. But the penny arcade has not elevated itself, and the cheap vaudeville, if anything, has grown worse.

The nickelodeon is a family theater, and is almost the creation of the child, and it has discovered a new and healthy cheap-amusement public. The penny arcade is a selfish and costly form of amusement, a penny buying only a half-minute’s excitement for one person. Its shooting-gallery and similar features are likewise costly. In the short-lived pictures there is no time for the development of human interest, but the gist of a murder or of a salacious situation can be conveyed. So the penny arcade has resembled the saloon, from which the family has stayed away; and everything artificial has been mustered in to draw the floating crowd. As for the cheap theater, it has had a false tradition behind it, and managers have taken for granted that a low-priced performance could be given only by an inferior cast. So when the cheap theater has departed from the crudest melodrama it has gone over into inferior vaudeville and has depended on illegitimate methods for its success. This is the rule, although there are exceptions, and vaudeville at best has only a limited interest for the great, basic, public of the working and immigrant classes in New York.

But the nickelodeon started with a free field and a marvelous labor-saving device in the moving-picture, and it began above all as a neighborhood institution, offering an evening of the most varied interest to the entire family for a quarter. Thus the nickelodeon grew as solidly as it grew swiftly, and developed a new amusement seeking public, the public that has made the nickelodeon what it is. Right here is found the most significant aspect of the present amusement situation. All the settlements and churches combined do not reach daily a tithe of the simple and impressionable folk that the nickelodeons reach and vitally impress every day. Here is a new social force, perhaps the beginning of a true theater of the people, and an instrument whose power can only be realized when social workers begin to use it.

The investigation led almost immediately to constructive opportunities. On the legal side, an anomalous situation was found. In no existing law, state or municipal, was penny arcade or moving picture mentioned. These theaters were grouped by construction as common shows, along with ferris wheels and bicycle carrousels, and were put under the authority of the license bureau. But where the standard theater is regulated in the minutest detail as regards its building requirements, by written law, there is no law and no printed specification for the moving picture show, which plays with fire. The theaters are controlled by the police, in whom responsibility is centered, and who co-operate with the proper departments. But the nickelodeon is controlled by the license bureau, a clerical department, and up to ten months ago it went to all intents and purposes unsupervised. Then popular agitation and the initiative of a hard working official in the fire department, set the city’s machinery at work, and a good deal has been done. The moving picture show is reasonably safe from fire now; it is not yet safe from contagious disease, and the air is often very bad.

As a first step toward adjusting the legal situation, the investigation committee framed a bill, which has been introduced by Assemblyman Samuel A. Gluck at Albany, and which has passed the Assembly by a large majority. Barring unforeseen obstacles it will pass the Senate at the present session. This bill provides for the raising of license fees on nickelodeons from $25 to $150 a year, for the placing of this license under the direct control of the police, along with the license for standard theaters, and for the exclusion of school children from nickelodeons during school hours and after eight o’clock at night, except when accompanied by guardians. This bill went to Albany with the endorsement of various civic organizations, the Board of Education, and the Moving Picture Association itself which has shown every desire to co-operate in the improvement of moving picture standards.

On the side of co-operation with the moving-picture business looking toward more elevated performances, and even the improvement of the artistic and educational quality and of sanitary conditions through direct competition on a commercial basis, the opportunity is immediate and large. In this field it is probable that the drama machinery of the People’s Institute will be turned to use in some co-operative plan, giving endorsement to the best of the shows and receiving in return the right to regulate their programs. Settlements on their own initiative could do valuable work in this way. The investigation committee, which is to be perpetuated as a sub-committee of the drama committee of the People’s Institute, will in all probability start one or more model nickelodeons, with the object of forcing up the standard through direct competition, of proving that an unprecedentedly high class of performance can be made to pay, and perhaps, in the event of success, of founding a people’s theater of the future.

Comments: John Collier was an American social worker working for the New York People’s Institute. Michael M. Davis of the same organisation later produced an important study of commercial entertainments, including cinema, The Exploitation of Pleasure: A Study of Commercial Recreations in New York City (1911). Charities and the Commons was a weekly journal dedicated to social and charitable themes. Penny arcades would often include moving pictures, usually of the peepshow variety.

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

The Nickel Theater

Source: James Oppenheim, ‘The Nickel Theater’ in Monday Morning and other poems (New York: Sturgis & Walton, 1909), pp. 66-68

Text:
O Shakespeare come and sit with us!
Here are such theater-glories
As you, O million-peopled Soul, had loved! For
you told stories
The crowds could see — yea, though the poems
swept over their brains blind.
So much were women and men your words you
spoke to all mankind.

It’s a thick black room and a rough rude crowd —
the real strong human stuff —
A screen’s before, a beam of light rules through
the air — enough!
Lo, on that beam of light there darts vast hills
and men and women.
The screen becomes a stage; here’s life, blood-red
with the living human!

In but ten minutes how we sweep the Earth, un-
baring life.
Here in Algiers and there in Rome — a Paris street
— the strife
Of cowboys swinging lariat ropes — the plains, the
peaks, the sea —
Life cramped in one room or loosed out to all
eternity!

Lo, now, behold the dead salt desert, the trail-lost
man and wife,
A child clutched to her breast ! They toil through
sand, they cry for life.
They stagger on from hill to hill — now far, now
near — their cry
Breaks through our hearts, their fight is ours, we
love them as they die!

Yea, in ten minutes we drink Life, quintessenced
and compact.
Earth is our cup, we drain it dry; yea, in ten min-
utes act
The lives of alien people strange; the Earth grows
small; we see
The humanness of all souls human: all these are
such as we!

O at day’s end, and after toil that dragged the
heart In the street,
What utter glory to forget, to feel again the beat
Of the warming heart with light and life and love’s
unearthly gleam,
Till Dreams become our Living World, and all
the World’s a Dream!

Now we have lived the pain of others, now we
have drunk their joy!
It gives us new heroic grip upon our day’s employ!
O Shakespeare, here Earth’s dimmest brain can
draw strength from great stories!
The millions grasp their heritage of Art, the
theater-glories!

Comments: James Oppenheim (1882-1932) was an American poet, novelist, writer on psychology and editor of the literary magazine The Seven Arts.

Links: Copy of Monday Morning and other poems at Hathi Trust

British Cinemas and their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 57-59

Text: AGE: 19; SEX: F.; FATHER: HEAD CLERK, SOLICITORS MANAGING CLERK; OCCUPATION: STUDENT NURSE; NATIONALITY: BRITISH

I have been considering answering your request for a motion picture autobiography ever since the May 26th Picturegoer fell into my grasping hands a week ago, until I could not resist the urge this morning and refused to be tempted by the thoughts of a luxury lay-in or even ‘mon petit dejeuner’, so please spare me the cruel information that you are accepting no more contributions as I could not bear the thought of so much wasted energy.

My interest in films was first awakened, when I was expected to accompany my elder brothers and sisters to the nearest cinema perched on a hill some two miles distant, so that my parents were free to choose their particular choice of entertainment on Saturday afternoons. We were ‘treated’ to the front stalls but even on Saturday pennies did not always provide sufficient odd cash to travel in style so the hike not only enforced an early start, but also a delayed return.

My superiors would converse very learnedly on the way about the respective merits of the film we were about to see and it always used to puzzle me how they knew so much about it when they had not even seen it. Tarzan was a great favourite of mine in those days although even then my fellow hero-worshippers were inclined to be slightly cynical as well as highly intrigued by his magnificent feats.

I must have reached the imposing age of eight years or thereabouts when I considered Alice in Wonderland a film worthy of a three hours’ wait in the pouring rain at the aforementioned cinema partly because I had had visions beforehand of myself playing the part of the heroine. These were inspired by my mother’s insistence that I was the image of the ‘real Alice’ for whom the studio was searching, but my photo only resulted in a letter of thanks, the news that the part had been allotted to Charlotte Henry and the rapid subsidence of my dreams of fame.

These have never returned to the same extent since I have realised that magnificent swimming pools, publicity and glamour do not necessarily make for happiness, although there are times when I envy the stars the projection of their personalities on the world at large.

There is a spark of vanity in most of us which is encouraged by being the centre of attraction in some sphere however small and it must be wonderful to know that strangers too are aware of that irrepressible charm.

The disadvantage however is that people are apt to think of their screen heroes and heroines only in terms of their screen personalities instead of men and women with the ordinary trials of life plus those of their unreal environment to face.

It is mainly because of this that I am satisfied with my obscurity in the work I have chosen and have no great desire to change places with the hard working people in the entertainment world.

I always used to imagine that Hollywood hair styles, clothes and make-up were well out of my reach, but since the advent of natural beauty has arrived, it has become apparent to me that the rest are only appendages to produce the desired effect.

Ingrid Bergman is far more truly glamourous [sic] than Ginger Rogers in all her films, in Lady in the Dark while Ginger herself has no need to rely on the artificial props.

Studios tend to bring out a sparkling new star and rely on his or her talents from the start, but then gradually fit those same distinguishing features into the old pattern, thus forming an entirely new, less exciting personality.

The screen world always appeared as a dream world and although it has given me the desire to travel it has not made me feel dissatisfied with my way of life.

Travel films, pictorial, nature study, documentaries all interest me as they have something to teach, while films made from books encourage my love of literature.

My time is obviously running short with the result that my reply is conforming to the conventional pattern set by the lecturer for ‘guidance’ only, which may have prevented many irrelevancies if they had been consulted earlier and provided more of the required information. Nevertheless I intend to conclude this autobiography which more rightly belongs to the readers column, with the information that films have given me vocational ambitions to become a soldier, lawyer or nurse etc: to be more precise The Lamp Still Burns was mainly responsible for my taking up student nursing at this hospital and I can only thank all the people concerned in the production for their moving portrayal of the characters, which so greatly influenced my decision.

Comments: J.P. (Jacob Peter) Mayer was a German sociologist at the London School of Economics. His British Cinemas and their Audiences collates motion picture autobiographies submitted through competitions in Picturegoer magazine. This contribution comes from the section ‘Films and the Pattern of Life’. Contributors were asked to trace the history of their interest in films, the influence films had on them (including if they were ever frightened by films), what they imitated from films, if films made them more receptive to love-making, if films made them want to travel or to be dissatisfied with their way of life or neighbourhood, and if films gave them vocational ambitions. The films mentioned are Alice in Wonderland (USA 1933), Lady in the Dark (USA 1944) and The Lamp Still Burns (UK 1943).

Moving Pictures

Source: Stephen Paget, ‘Moving Pictures’, in I Sometimes Think: Essays for the Young People (London: Macmillan, 1916), pp. 68-85

Text: We are so accustomed to moving pictures, that we do not trouble ourselves to study their nature, or their place in the general order of things. We take them for granted. Youth, especially, takes them for granted, having no memory of a time when they were not. But some of us were born into a world in which all the pictures stood still: and I challenge youth to defend the cause of moving pictures. Let the lists be set, and the signal given for the assault. On the shield of youth, the motto is Moving Pictures are All Right. On my antiquated shield, the motto is Pictures Ought Not to Move.

Pictures, of one sort or another, are of immemorial age. Portraits of the mammoth were scratched on gnawed bones, by cave-dwellers, centuries of centuries ago: and we look now at their dug-up work, and feel ourselves in touch with them. The nature of pictures was decided at the very beginning of things, as the natures of trees and of metals were decided. It is not the nature of trees to walk, nor of metals to run uphill: it is not the nature of pictures to move. Pictures and statues, by the law of their being, are forbidden to move. That commandment is laid on them which Joshua, in the Bible-story, lays on the sun and the moon–Stand thou still. They must be motionless: ’tis their nature to: they exist on that understanding, as you and I exist on the understanding that we are mortal. If I were not to die, I should not be a man. If pictures were to move, they would not be pictures.

So we come to this difficulty, that moving pictures are not pictures. We cannot evade it by giving another name to them; for it is a difficulty not of names but of natures. Let us examine it with decent care.

Moving pictures have got mankind in their enchanted net. They have unfailing power over us. Old and young, rich and poor, learned and ignorant, we are all under their spell. So magical are they, that every owner of a picture-palace would have been burned alive, not very long ago, for diabolical practices. The world is their scenery, life is their repertory, and all things in earth and air and sea are their company. They will give you, like the strolling players in Hamlet, what you desire:–

The best actors in the world, either for tragedy,
comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical,
historical-pastoral, tragical-historical,
tragical-comical-historical-pastoral, scene
individable, or poem unlimited.

Every little country-town is familiar with this vivid and precipitate entertainment. No other invention of our time–neither the electric light, nor telephones, nor aeroplanes, nor all three of them together–can show such a record of change wrought on us. Well then, what is wrong with moving pictures? Is anything wrong with them? Why should not pictures move, now that they can?

No, they must mind their own business, and do their duty in that state of life unto which it has pleased God to call them. It is not their business to move. If they were to move, the effect would be horrible: it would kill our enjoyment of them. Imagine how we should feel, if sculpture could be made to move: statues of Royalty bowing this way and that, statues of orators waving scrolls, and statues of generals waving swords: the lions in Trafalgar Square shaking their manes, and Miss Nightingale in Pall Mall raising and lowering her lamp. We should be pleased for a day or two, then bored, then disgusted. Imagine our pictures moving: the photographs on the mantelpiece, the advertisements, the big Raphael in the National Gallery.

The advertisements would matter least, because nobody cares how advertisements behave or misbehave. I have one in front of me, at this moment, from a religious journal, or a patent medicine which “creates cheerfulness by cleansing the system of its poisonous bye-products.” There is a picture of two men, one moping, the other alert. I should not like to see it move. I prefer it as it is. My imagination is free, so long as the picture is motionless; but would be hindered, if the picture moved.

The photograph of a friend, on my mantelpiece, gives play to my remembrance of him. Within the limits of photography, it is perfect. But if it moved–if its eyes followed me about the room, and its hands had that little gesture which he had with his hands, and its lips opened and shut–it would be hateful, and I should throw it in the fire.

The great pictures in the National Gallery–the Rembrandt portraits, the Raphael Madonnas–imagine them moving. Their beauty would vanish, their nature would be destroyed. The Trustees would immediately sell them, to get rid of them. Probably, they would go on tour: admission threepence, children a penny. Then they would be “filmed,” and the films would be “released,” and a hundred reproductions would be gibbering all over the country. The originals would finally be bartered, in Central Africa, to impressionable native potentates, in exchange for skins or tusks: and if pictures were able to curse, these certainly would curse the day on which they began to move.

By these instances, it is evident that pictures ought not to move. The worse they are, the less it would shock us if they did. The better they are, the more it would shock us. Why must they not move? Because they are works of art. It follows, that moving pictures are not works of art.

They are works of science: they are “scientific toys.” Science invented them, just for the fun of inventing them: made them out of an old “optical illusion.” They are that friend of my childhood, the zoëtrope, or wheel of life, adjusted to show the products of instantaneous photography. They are “applied science.” You are so familiar with them that you overlook the ingenuity of them. Here I have the advantage of you: for they came so late into my life that I was properly amazed at them. My first sight of a moving picture, like my first sight of an x-ray picture, was a revelation not to be forgotten. There was a procession of cavalry: and when I saw a photograph whisking its tail, I marvelled at a new power come into the world, and am still marvelling. But you will never get the full delight of moving pictures till you have lectured with them, been behind the scenes, handled films, and become well acquainted with those hot little fire-proof chambers where the wheels are set spinning, and the great shafts of light are projected, and out of the whirlwind of electrical forces the picture flings itself on the screen. Only, for this invention, give honour where honour is due, to Science.

But scientific inventions, unlike works of art, have an immeasurable power of growth and development. They can be improved ad libitum: they can be multiplied ad infinitum. Nothing could be less like a work of art coming from a studio than a scientific invention coming from a laboratory. The work of art is made once and for all: it may be copied, but it cannot be repeated: you cannot have two sets of Elgin Marbles, or two Sistine Madonnas. The scientific invention is like the genie who came out of the fisherman’s jar: you cannot tell where it will stop, nor what it will do next. Moving pictures may be nothing more than a scientific toy, but they are the whole world’s favourite toy: the whole world is playing with them: and if they were suddenly to be taken away, the whole world would miss them. Think what a colossal enterprise this world’s plaything now is: what legions of lives, what millions of money, are spent over the production, multiplication, and exhibition of moving pictures. Famous actors pose for them, thousands of secondary actors make a living out of them, the ends of the earth are ransacked for new scenes and subjects: even politics, and international rivalries, are dragged in the train of this huge industry. I have read of the factions which divided the people of Byzantium over their chariot-races: but these were nothing to the world’s submission to moving pictures. Is there any limit to their kingdom, any measure of their influences? These factories and companies and wholesale houses and palaces and flaming advertisements everywhere–what will be the end of it all? Thirty years hence, will they have more power over us than they have now, or less?

I hope they will have less, and will use it more carefully. I should like to see the War bring down the moving-pictures business to one-third of its present size, bring it down with a rush, and with the prospect of a further reduction. Picture-palaces in London are like public-houses: too many of them, too many of us nipping in them; too many people making money out of us, whether we be nipping in the palaces or the houses. The more we patronise them, the more they exploit us: and some of us are taking more films than are good for us. Dost thou think, because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale? But we can easily get so fond of cakes and ale that we spoil our appetites for our regular meals. Besides, our cakes ought to be wholesome, and our ale ought not to be adulterated. The bill of fare, at the picture-palaces, includes trash: but it pays them to sell it to us: and we behave as if these palaces belonged to us, while they behave as if we belonged to them. Picture-palaces and public-houses, alike, amuse all of us and enrich some of us: they do good, they do harm: they have to be watched, these by censorship, those by the police: and both these and those are backed by wealth, and by interests too powerful to be set aside. The differences between them are accidental: the likenesses between them are essential. The moving-pictures trade is the younger of the two: and the result on us of too many films is different from the result of too much liquor. But these differences are not very profound: and the likenesses are plain enough. They would be even more plain to us, if we could have our moving pictures at home, as we have our liquor, out of a bottle. We have to go into the street for them: we have to consume them on the premises. If we could have them at home, as it were in half-pints, all to ourselves, we should more distinctly feel it our duty to draw the line at one or two, for fear of getting into a habit of them.

II

What is the nature of moving pictures? What are they “of themselves,” and where do they come in the general order of things? Take, for instance, a waterfall. If we look at a waterfall, we see water moving. If we look at a picture of a waterfall, we imagine water moving. If we look at a moving picture of a waterfall, we see a picture moving, a very beautiful object: still, we are looking at an “optical illusion,” not at a waterfall. Or take a more critical example: take a moving picture which not merely moves, but acts. What is it, really, that we are looking at, when we see, on the screen, Hamlet, or How She Rescued Him, or Charlie Chaplin? It was my privilege and honour, in the first winter of the War, to give lantern-lectures to soldiers, on the protective treatment against typhoid fever: and one happy day, we had Charlie Chaplin, till it was time to have Pasteur and the bacilli of typhoid. Besides, I have met his flat effigy, again and again, outside the palaces: that little hat and moustache, and the look of Shelley about the eyes, and that suit of clothes, and the little cane which, like General Gordon’s, is so curiously personal and inseparable from him. So I feel that I know him; and I know that I envy him: for he makes, they say, a very large income: and the laughter which he gave us that day was as clean and wholesome as the smell of a pinewood: which is more than you can say of all picture-house laughter.

But what is it, really, that I was looking at, on the screen? He is an actor equal to Dan Leno: the same unfaltering originality, the same talent for dominating the scene, holding our attention, appealing to us by his diminutive stature, his gentle acceptance of situations as he finds them, his half-unconscious air of doing unnatural things in a natural way. But think what we lose in the transition from Dan Leno on the stage to Charlie Chaplin on the screen. Dan was really there: Charlie is not. Dan talked and sang: Charlie is mute. Dan’s performance was human: Charlie’s, by the cutting of the film, and by the driving of the machine at great speed, is super-human. In brief, on the Drury Lane stage I saw Dan Leno, and heard him: but on the screen I do not see Charlie Chaplin–let alone hearing him: I see only a moving picture of him: and this picture so cleverly faked that I see him doing what he never did nor ever could. It was delightful, every moment of it: all the same, it is an optical illusion. Nor is it a straightforward illusion, like the old zoëtrope: it is rendered grotesque and fantastical by the conjuring-tricks of the people who made the film.

Still, he was delightful; for it was pantomime, dumb-show, knockabout farce, with a touch of magic in it. But I could not bring myself to see Macbeth or Hamlet on the screen; for I have seen Irving’s Macbeth and Forbes-Robertson’s Hamlet, heard their voices, learned my Shakespeare from them. Shakespeare without the words, Shakespeare without the living presence of the actor, would be intolerable. You can see, or lately could, at the “Old Vic” in the Waterloo Bridge Road, for threepence, Shakespeare acted, nobly acted, with simplicity and with dignity. Let nothing ever induce you to see him “filmed.”

Of the rest of the legion of filmed plays, let him write who can. The output of the London picture-palaces, in farce, comedy, drama, and melodrama, can hardly be less than two thousand plays twice in every twenty-four hours. Many of them are American: and those that I have seen were condensed, pungent, over-acted, and spun too fast. Now and again, a book is filmed as a play: for example, East Lynne, and Les Misérables. The effect of a filmed book might be very good: for you might get a pleasant sense that you were reading it with moving illustrations. The ordinary theatrical films cannot give you this sense. They are surprisingly clever. Only, the better they are, the more you want to have the real thing: to hear the voices, to see the players themselves. You cannot be properly thrilled by the best of heroines tied to a stake, nor by the worst of villains with a revolver: she is shrieking at the top of her voice–look at the size of her mouth–but where is the shriek? He fires–look at the smoke–but where is the bang? You are mildly excited: but you are not so excited as you ought to be: you know, all the time, that you are not at the play: you are at an optical illusion, looking with more or less interest at a scientific toy.

Give me leave to hammer at this point: for I want to make it clear to you and to myself. First, let us be agreed that a play on the stage is worth a thousand plays on the screen: for it is the real thing: it is real voices, living presences: the interpreters are there, as real as real can be. The artifices and conventions of play-acting do not spoil the reality of the play: it is only unimaginative minds which are baulked by them. A good play, well acted, satisfies and educates something in us which nothing else can reach. Call it the imagination, or the emotions, or whatever you like: the love of a good play is too old and too natural to care what name you give to it. A play on the screen is not real: there are neither voices, nor presences: there is only a moving picture, moving too swiftly to be a good picture of a play. You cannot command, over an optical illusion, the imagination and the emotions which come of themselves over a real play. They refuse to be fooled. Wrong number, they say, and put the receiver back on the hook.

It follows, that the best plays, on the screen, are those which can best afford to lose the advantage of voices and presences, and to be taken for what they are. Wild farce, with lots of conjuring-tricks in it, is the best of all. In pantomime, with a film so faked and speeded-up that fat men run a mile a minute, and cars whirl through space like shooting stars, and all Nature is convulsed, these picture-plays are at their best, joyfully turning the universe upside-down with the flick of a wheel. In the mad rush of impossibilities, there is no time for words, and no need of them. When Charlie Chaplin, for instance, leaned lightly against a huge stone column, and immediately it fell to bits, I did not want him to say anything: no words of his could sober an event so stupendously drunk.

But more ambitious films, which pretend to give us comedy and drama, are less successful. You miss the sound of voices: you miss the presence of the living actors. The poorer the play is, the less you miss them. Thus, you can enjoy, for the few minutes of its existence, a sensational film, a bit of claptrap and swagger: but Heaven forbid that you should enjoy Shakespeare filmed, with scraps of words thrown on the screen at short intervals.

Judge the performance of a moving picture as you judge the performance of a gramophone. Each is a scientific toy: each produces an illusion, the one through our eyes and the other through our ears: and each gets its best results by staying inside its natural limits. Comic sounds, comic songs, swinging band-music with lots of brass and big drum in it, go well on a gramophone. But do you want to hear high-class music on it? Do you want to hear the voice of a dead friend on it? Not you: let it stick to being a gramophone: let it not profane either the music of the Immortals, or the voices of the dead.

III

The answer comes, that all this talk is tainted with self-conceit. That you and I are superior persons, forgetful of “the masses.” That the picture-palaces enliven the dullness of thousands of stupid little country-towns, and are a safe refuge of entertainment for legions of young men and young women who would have no other meeting-place but the streets. That moving pictures amuse the whole nation, and quicken the mind and widen the outlook and charm the leisure of countless lives more heavily burdened than yours and mine: lives of the hard-driven ill-educated “masses,” who cannot be expected to care for Shakespeare and the National Gallery.

And there is much truth in this answer. Only, it is a one-sided statement. If you could take the opinions of London working-women, with families of young children, just enough wages coming-in to keep a home over their heads, and a flaming picture-palace, with a lot of nasty trash on its programme, just round the corner, you would hear many opinions unfavourable to them rubbishy pictures: many descriptions of the children’s nerves upset by sham horrors, and the children’s pennies wasted on stuff which ought to be labelled Poisonous. The chief business of the palaces is to make money out of us. Where it pays them to give us rubbish, there they give us rubbish: where it pays them to raise a laugh over something disgraceful to us, there they set themselves to be blackguardly.

But praise them for that great gift which they, and they alone, can give to us. Moving pictures of real things, moving pictures of real life–we can never be too thankful for these. It is these, which are the new power come into the world. To watch, on the screen, every moment of the swing of waves and the dash of surf, every fleck of light on a river, every leaf stirring in the wind, is a grand experience: you find yourself watching them with more attention than you bestow on real water and real woods. For, on the screen, you are looking at pure movement, all by itself: you are not distracted by any thought of bathing in that sea, or of going on it: you just watch it, enjoying the mere sight of it moving.

In the display of moving pictures of real things, all the way up from elemental movement to human action, the picture-palace is our good friend: it is servant, by divine appointment, to reality. Moving pictures of living germs of disease, colossally magnified by the adjustment of micro-photography to the making of a film, are the delight of all doctors: moving pictures of wild creatures are the delight of all naturalists: scenes of human life in diverse parts of the world–the crowds in London streets, the crowds in Eastern bazaars, the work and play and habits and customs of the nations–these are the delight of all of us, and will never cease to delight us. For this wealth of visions, this treasury of knowledge, let us be properly grateful.

Only, the higher we go, the more careful we must be to exercise restraint and reverence. It is one thing, to film dumbshow, and another thing, to film real life and real death. Of living men, whom shall we film, and under what conditions, that we may pay sixpence to see them without loss of dignity in them, and without loss of reverence in ourselves? Crowds are not the difficulty: for they are comedy: but we ought to think twice before we film the tragedy of a crowd of people scared or starved. The difficulty is with single figures of great men, or a little group of them, or a multitude of men employed in the business of a great tragedy. Have we any rule, in this matter, to guide us?

During the last few weeks–here is mid-September–we have been made to think over these questions, by the proposal to film the Cabinet, and by the exhibition of the Somme pictures.

The proposal to film the Cabinet was abandoned. The plan was not to film a real Cabinet Council, but to film the Members of the Cabinet, in the Council-room, looking, more or less, as if they were holding a real Council.

Thus, it would have been a picture of real life, but of real life posing for the camera. His Majesty’s Ministers would have put themselves under some of the conditions of acting for a picture-play. This they would have done to please us: they would have shown themselves to us, looking just as they look when they are at work for us. The objection was raised, that the Cabinet would lose dignity: you will find a parallel passage in Shakespeare: and the point for us here is, that the value of a moving picture of a great man is lowered, if he is posing for it. There is no man too great to be filmed, if only he be unconscious of the process, or absolutely indifferent to it: but it is said that the one King who has posed in a group taken for his political advantage is Ferdinand of Bulgaria. Sic oculos, sic ille manus, sic ora ferebat. Much comfort will his people have of this moving picture of him, six months hence.

But the Somme pictures: the official pictures, taken for our Government, of the advance on the Western Front. A moving picture of a little group of great men, behaving as the camera expects them to behave, might deservedly fail to have power over us. But here are legions of men, not under orders from the camera, but employed in a business of tragedy such as the world has never suffered till now: men great, not in the Westminster-Abbey sense of the word, but in the greatness of their purpose, in their unconquerable discipline, their endurance: they go into the presence of Death without looking back, and they come out from it laughing, some of them: you see them treading Fear under their feet, you see Heaven, revealed in their will, flinging itself on the screen. You and I, safe and snug over here, let us receive what they give us, their example.

Be content to see these pictures once: they are too tragic to be taken lightly: but see them, if it be only to understand what the picture-palaces might achieve for your country. That which began as a scientific toy has become a world-power. Certain firms, preferring money to honour, have turned it to vile uses, and have proved themselves to be enemies of the people. But things will mend: they will mend very slowly, but the War will help them to mend: and the picture-palaces will gradually learn to take us seriously, and to play down to us less, and up to us more.

Comments: Stephen Paget (1855-1926) was a British surgeon and essayist. The Cabinet film referred to was an abortive attempt by Cecil Hepworth in 1916 to film the British cabinet as though in session, apparently cancelled after advance notice of the plans caused ridicule in some circles (though Hepworth did successfully film a series of ‘interviews’ with British politicians that same year). The ‘Somme pictures’ refers to the British documentary feature The Battle of the Somme (1916). My thanks to Nick Hiley who first drew this essay to my attention.

Links: Copy of I Sometimes Think at Internet Archive
Copy of ‘Moving Pictures’ essay at Gaslight
Discussion of the essay at The Bioscope

This Spoon-Fed Generation?

Source: Dorothy Richardson, ‘Continuous Performance: This Spoon-fed Generation?’, Close Up vol. VIII no. 4, December 1931, pp. 304-308

Text: When, not so very long ago, Everyman’s earth was motionless and solid beneath his feet, his immediate concerns were apt to fill and close his horizon. He knew, dimly and forgetfully, that his world, inhabited by foreigners as well as by the English, was engaged in hurtling through space at unimaginable speed and had possibly heard that the solid part of it was but a thin crust. But he thought in terms of solidity, and his universe was a vague beyond that mattered but little in comparison with his personal beyond, the stable world of daily life whose ways he knew and whose unchangeability.

Each generation, it is true, has had in turn to experience the break-up of a known world. The remotest historical records yield anathema, that might have been written yesterday, on modern noise and hustle, on new-fangled ideas and the perilous paths pursued by the ignorant young; and wistful longings for the good old days.

But until to-day Everyman remained relatively self-contained, and could plan his life with fair certainty in a surrounding that could be counted upon to remain more or less in place. Himself, his house, street, town, nation, all were stable; and beyond these secure stabilities his imagination rarely wandered.

The normal moral shocks awaiting him came gently. They were called disillusionments: change and decay, the loss, with age, of the sense of personal stability and personal permanence. But the solid earth remained unchanged, and one of the consolations of the elderly sane was the enchantment, growing in proportion to their own detachment, of the distant view of life, focussed now for the first time and free from the fret of immediacy, taking on an ever more moving beauty and intensity.

But to-day, it is not only that science from whom had come the news of the tumultuous movement of everything, has begun to doubt the sufficiency of its methods of approach to render any exact account of the ultimate nature of reality, but also that its news, all the latest news, that tomorrow may be contradicted, is now common property almost from the moment of its arrival.

Everyman lives in a world grown transparent and uncertain. Behind his experience of the rapidity and unpredicticability of change in the detail of his immediate surroundings is a varying measure of vicarious experience of the rapidity and unpredictability of change all over the world, and a dim sense that nobody knows with any certainty anything whatever about the universe of which his world is a part.

A new mental climate is in existence. Inhabited not only by those few whose lives are spent in research and those who are keenly on the lookout for the results of further research, but also in their degree by the myriads who have been born into the new world and can remember no other. Uncertainty, noise, speed, movement, rapidity of external change that has taught them to realise that to-morrow will not be as to-day, all these factors have helped to make the younger generation shock-proof in a manner unthinkable to the majority of their forbears.

And more than any other single factors (excepting perhaps Radio through which comes unlocalised, straight out of space, music with its incomparable directness of statement, and news forcing upon his attention the existence of others than himself and his relatives, friends and enemies; and knowledge, if he have the taste for it, and a truly catholic diversity of stated opinion) has the Cinema contributed to the change in the mental climate wherein Everyman has his being.

Insidiously. Not blatantly, after the manner of the accredited teacher, is the film educating Everyman, making him at home in a new world.

And this it is, this enlightment without tears, that makes so many of those who were brought up under a different dispensation cry and cry without ceasing against both Radio and Cinema as spoon-feeders of an Everyman who becomes more and more a looker and a listener, increasingly unwilling to spend his leisure otherwise than in being entertained.

Up hill and down dale we may criticise both Radio and Cinema. Nothing is easier. Nor is it other than desirable that the critical faculty should play freely upon these purveyors of Everyman’s spiritual nourishment. But it is surely deplorable that so many people, both good earnest folk and the gadfly cynic, should be so busy in and out of season with the parrot-cry of “spoon-feeding”? Deplorable that the Cinema, in the opinion of these pessimists, should be the worst offender. Radio, they declare, is sometimes, astonishingly and inexplicably, turned on as an accompaniment to occupation. But to “the pictures” everything is sacrificed; home, honour, mind, heart, body, soul and spirit. So they allege.

Is there an atom of justification for these wild statements? Do they not melt like morning mists before the sunny power of even half as much imaginative attention as the navvy may give to the average picture-show?

Cut out good films, instructional films, travelogues and all the rest of it. Leave only the average story-film, sensational or otherwise, the News Reel and the comic strip. Judge, condemn, all these, right and left. Is it possible to deny, even of this irreducible minimum of value, that it supplies to the bookless, thoughtless multitude the majority of whom do not make even that amount of unconscious contact with aesthetic and moral beauty that it is implied in going to church, a civilising influence more potent and direct than any other form of entertainment available in their leisure hours, and sufficiently attractive to draw them in large numbers? Is a man spoon-fed the moment he is not visibly and actively occupied?

Is there not a certain obscenity, a separation of the inner spirit from the outer manifestation thereof, in regarding pictures we despise and audiences we loftily look down upon in their momentary relationship as we imagine it to exist in the accursed picture-house? Should we not rather set ourselves the far more difficult task of conjuring up the pre-picture outlook on life of those who make no contact with art in any form, and then try to follow out in imagination the result of the innumerable gifts of almost any kind of film, bestowed along with it, unawares, and therefore remaining with the recipient all the more potently: the gift of quiet, of attention and concentration, of perspective? The social gifts: the insensibly learned awareness of alien people and alien ways? The awakening of the imaginative power, the gift of expansion, of moving, ever so little, into a new dimension of consciousness?

Surely those positive cultural activities are more than enough to balance the much-advertized undesirabilities and to disqualify the verdict of “spoon-feeding.”

The scaremongers would perhaps cease to wail if the film-fans, deserting the cinemas, battered down the closed doors of museums and picture-galleries and spent their evenings in silent contemplation not of lively human drama, and lively human nonsense and the living news of the changing world, but of the immortal frozen records of the things of the spirit that are unchanged from age to age.

Has it occurred to them to reflect that film-audiences, popular picture audiences, growing by the bread they have eaten, are maturing, are themselves cultivating and improving the medium from which they have drawn life? And that these audiences seen in the bulk, disregarding single, exceptional individuals, are much more capable of appreciating the wares of museum and gallery than were, in the bulk, their pictureless predecessors?

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.

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