Gone to the Pictures

Source: Hilda Lewis, Gone to the Pictures (London: Jarrolds, 1946), pp. 23-27

Text: Suddenly Lena stopped. Here was another of those blacked-in shops like the one opposite Mr. Dicks. The window was pasted all over with bills; but they were so dirty and dilapidated, it was impossible to read what they said. A dark and dirty boy was standing and yelling, All the latest … all the lat-est! Every time he bawled late he gave the open door of the shop a thwack with his stick. When he caught sight of Lena and me he changed his tune, bawling out that there was No waiting – ebserlootly no waiting … ending with an invitation to Walk in, walk in. …

We walked in.

It was very dark inside the shop and the smell was horrid. If it had not been for Lena, in spite of all my joyous anticipation I believe I should have turned tail – especially as we had not yet paid.

I stopped at the front row, but Lena said you could see better at the back so we pushed our way through the darkness, stumbling here and there over people’s outstretched legs and finally sat down on two rickety kitchen chairs.

“We haven’t paid yet,” I reminded Lena.

“Don’t you worry” she said, “they’re not here for love!”

In front of us, against the blacked-in window, hung a small greyish sheet on rollers, like a blank and crumpled map. “You keep your eyes on that!” Lena said.

I kept my eyes on that, and since nothing seemed to happen, or even to be about to happen, I looked about the dark shop. I could make out the shapes of people sitting here and there, with sometimes as much as an empty row of chairs between them.

We seemed to be sitting there a long, long time. My chair got harder and harder.

“They say continuous,’ I said fretfully. “It hasn’t begun yet, let alone continue. …”

“Got to wait till it fulls a bit,” Lena said cheerfully and diving into her handbag she produced a twisted paper of fruit-drops. I amused myself by trying to recognize the flavours on my tongue. I recognized lemon, orange, blackcurrant and possibly greengage, and then my palate being somewhat jaded, I turned my attention once more to my surroundings.

“Why don’t they light the gas?” I was bored with the darkness.

“Film might catch fire.” Lena explained.

“Oh,” I said. “Then why do people smoke?” I was coughing a little.

“Not supposed to,” Lena informed me.

“Oh,” I said.

“Shan’t be long now,” she promised after what seemed hours. “Going to collect now.”

The dingy curtain that hung in front of the open door was pushed aside by a man carrying an open cigar-box. He shoved his way through the now-full rows and the fall of clanking coppers went with him.

He retired. And with his retiring came silence. For as though it were a signal, a ray of silver light fell upon the hanging sheet.

I sat there forgetting to breathe, forgetting to finish the sweet that lay unheeded upon my tongue. I sat entranced. I remember how I kept saying to myself, I don’t believe it!

And all the time upon the silver screen people ran and walked and laughed and cried.

Living Pictures. Alive.

I remember every incident of that day. Even now, as I write, if I choose to shut my eyes and send my thoughts backwards, I am again that child sitting in the darkness of Cohen’s shop; and I see every shot in my first living pictures.

The first film is very sad. An old man lies in bed and he is very ill. The room is almost bare except for the bed and a chair and there is no doubt at all that he is very poor. An old lady who is presumably his wife goes to the cupboard and opens it. Empty. Nothing but bare boards. She wrings her hands. She points to the old man. The tears run down her thin old cheeks.

It is all terribly sad. The blurring of the screen is not entirely due to bad projection.

But stay. All is not lost! In the depths of her apron pocket the old lady finds a few coppers. Now she is going out. She is in the street.

It is, I think, a French street. Now the old lady is in the market. She is buying flowers. Why on earth flowers when there isn’t a thing to eat?

Oh, clever! She is going to sell them!

She stands at the corner of the street holding out her flowers. No one will buy them. No one will even stop to look at them. It is a cold day. People hurry by in their good boots, or in their handsome carriages. The old lady in her thin shawl shivers on the pavement.

It begins to rain. The pavements grow greasy. The old lady goes on holding out her bunches; the flowers are beginning to look bedraggled. The rainy street gets emptier and emptier. Rain falls upon the old woman standing in the deserted street holding out her unwanted flowers.

At last she sees it is hopeless. With a sad and helpless gesture she drops the flowers into the gutter. She hurries home. The old man is dying. I have never seen death before, but I know he is dying.

I try to turn my face away. Death is so frightening. But I must look. I have to look. These Living Pictures are so much stronger than my fears… they drag my fascinated eyes from the safety of my hands.

I look again. The old man is still a-dying. His thin chest jerks up and down; in and out it goes like a concertina. Suddenly his head falls backwards.

Dead.

His eyes are staring, staring in his head.

Do dead people’s eyes stare?

I turn to ask Lena. I am hoping she will say No. But we have started on a new picture. I must try to put those dead eyes out of my mind.

This time it is “a comic.” There are two gentlemen and a lady and they all look what Mamma calls “common.” Lena is smiling already.

The two gentlemen have each a bunch of flowers for the lady. The lady is very fat; she is as tall as a grenadier. She takes the flowers from each of the gentlemen.

But do dead people’s eyes …?

The fat lady invites the two gentlemen to have a piece of an enormous melon that is on the sideboard. She cuts a huge slice for the fat gentleman, a huge slice for the thin gentleman; and then she takes the biggest slice for herself.

They rub their stomachs, they roll their eyes, they grin all over their faces to show how good the melon is. Then they all have another slice. And then another and another. There is no melon left.

They don’t look so happy now. The fat lady gets up and steals away. The thin gentleman gets up and follows her. Then the fat gentleman follows them both.

Now the two gentlemen are standing outside a shed at the bottom of the lady’s garden. There is French writing on the door of the shed. I am not good at French but for all that I know perfectly well that this is a lavatory and the fat lady is inside.

I am beginning to feel uncomfortable; and all the time there is a pricking in my mind…. Do dead people’s eyes …?

The lady is still inside the lavatory and the two gentlemen are walking up and down quickly as if they dare not stand still. And all the time they are holding their stomachs and making uncomfortable faces. Now they begin to thump upon the lavatory door.

It is queer seeing the thumps and yet not hearing them… .

Tt is all rather horrid and quite stupid. I begin to think that perhaps Mamma is right. And yet everyone else is enjoying it.

Someone behind me is stamping on the rungs of my chair and jarring my spine. And Lena, even Lena is laughing … and … Do dead people’s eyes …?

There are three or four more pictures. There is no writing to explain, and no one to tell you what is happening. But then the stories are so simple.

There is one that I like best of all. It is another French one and very exciting. It is about the Devil; and it has the most lovely colours.

The Devil in a gorgeous red cloak and long black tights does magic tricks; and it is a thousand times more mysterious than Maskelyne’s. He sprinkles magic powder in a bowl and great flames leap up. He waves his hands over the flames and there are tiny people dancing — fairies and elves.

The Devil keeps walking about and his red cloak flows out behind him. Suddenly he begins to walk towards us and all the time he gets larger and larger; and nearer and nearer … it begins to look as if he will walk right out of the picture, right into the dark shop where I sit clutching hold of Lena. …

The earliest close-up in the world! I know that now. And it wasn’t accidental, either. Old Méliés who made it knew all the tricks.

It is absolutely terrifying seeing the Devil walk straight towards us – possibly my guilty conscience has something to do with it. I sit there, clutching, until the Devil moves slowly backwards, getting smaller and smaller as he goes … I am not at all sorry when he proves himself too clever and, pop—up he goes in flames himself!

And that is the end of the show. The screen goes dark. Lena says that when it lights up again it will start with the dying man in the place that perhaps is France: if we stay, Lena says, we shall have to pay again.

Pay or not, I don’t want to see that one again … and the question is back again, teasing at me, Do dead people’s eyes …?

Comments: Hilda Lewis (1896-1974) was a London-born author of children’s and historical fiction. Her 1946 novel Gone to the Pictures tells of a young girl growing up in London’s East End, where she is entranced by motion pictures. The film show described (recalled?) here is set in the East End (‘east of Aldgate’); from the description of the films the date would be the early 1900s. The novel has several subsequent accounts of film exhibition in London, as the heroine goes from film fan to cinema owner and then film director and producer in the period before the First World War. Méliés is the French magician and filmmaker Georges Méliés. Lewis’s 1947 novel The Day is Ours was adapted into the feature film Mandy (1952) about the education of a deaf child (Lewis’s husband Michael Lewis specialised in the education of the deaf at the University of Nottingham).

Childhood Years

Source: Junichiro Tanizaki (trans. Paul McCarthy), Childhood Years: A Memoir (London: Collins, 1990, orig. pub. 1957), pp. 137-138

Text: There were some good places like the Yurakukan, falling somewhere between a legitimate theater and a vaudeville hall. The result was that a variety of interesting and unusual entertainments were presented: it was there that I saw my first motion picture and my first Western-style marionette show. According to One Hundred Stories of the World of Meiji by the late Yamamoto Shogetsu, the first presentation of a motion picture in Tokyo was around February 1897 at the Kabukiza; and the Yurakukan must have begun showing them soon after. They were either simple records of actual events taken on the spot on trick shots, and the ends of the reel would be joined together so that the same films could be projected over and over. I can still remember a scene, endlessly repeated, of high waves rolling in on a shore somewhere, breaking, and then receding, and of a lone dog playing there, now pursuing, now being pursued by the retreating and advancing waters. There was also a scene of a long line of horses in the distance at the edge of a broad plain, looking as small as grains of millet, They came rushing straight towards the camera, growing bigger moment by moment until finally they were upon us. Suddenly they veered away into the distance, to be succeeded by another thin line on the horizon.

Then there were scenes reminiscent of the upheavals that attended the French Revolution or the persecution of the Protestants after the Reformation: aristocratic-looking women are being dragged to the place of execution, placed on a great pile of bundled faggots, and burned to death; the smoke billows forth and the women are enveloped in flames; at last the fire and smoke die down to reveal only ashes – not even the outlines of the bodies remain.

There was yet another scene in which two beautiful, almost naked women, one on either side of a devil dressed like Mephistopheles. He summons one of them and orders her to lie on a table shaped like a chopping block. He then wraps her body in a huge sheet of glistening black material like carbon paper. A sign is given, and the body of the woman in its black wrappings rises into the air. Then from the area of her feet flames appear and begin to lick at her body, moving upward and finally consuming her, paper wrappings and all.

Comments: Junichiro Tanizaki (1886-1965) was a major Japanese novelist, who also worked for a time as a scriptwiter for the Taikatsu studio in the 1920s. The films he recalls at Yurakukan are a mixture of 1890s and 1900s works: waves breaking on a shore was a common subject in some the earliest film shows; the trick films and the burning of the women would have been a few years later (possibly French Pathé productions). Film reels could not be joined end-to-end to be projected on an endless loop. The first projected motion pictures were exhibited in Tokyo in March 1897 (preceded by showings in Osaka in February).

Kinema

Source: [Filson Young], ‘Kinema’, The Living Age, vol. 272 (1912), pp. 565-567 (originally published in The Saturday Review, 27 January 1912, pp. 108-109)

Text: This is one of the words there is no escaping from. Distorted, misspelled, mispronounced, debased by unholy conjunctions and alliances, it has nevertheless, in the sacred phrase of banality, “come to stay”; and, with the gramophone and the piano-player, to share the doubtful distinction of being one of the wonders of this age. The kinematograph has worked itself into the life of the people in a way that I, for my part, never suspected until I took up an important-looking book the other day and found that it was entirely devoted to the study of the rise, progress, philosophy and anatomy of the kinematograph. Thus the thing even has its literature. And I feel bound in honesty to say that this book is an extremely honest and competent piece of work, in which is modestly and clearly set forth a complete history of this very remarkable business, with abundant photographs and diagrams for the mechanically-minded, and containing certain statistics which I venture to think would stagger most readers. The work appears in Mr. Heinemann’s “Conquests of Science Series”; and the title itself suggests some curious reflections. Are we really conquering science or is science conquering us? That marvellous monster of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, which in its infancy we led as one might lead a lion cub by a ribbon, which we played with and made into a parlor toy: what has it become, and what is it becoming? There is something a little grim about this title “Conquests of Science” appearing on a large book devoted to the kinematograph.

Being always behind the times in such matters, it was only the other day that I went for the first time into a Kinema Palace, as I believe those very white and very gold buildings that diversify the squalor of the humbler thoroughfares are called. I had often been allured by their façades, but from some confusion of mind by which I associated them with those dismal halls where the entertainment consists of peering into an endless number of little metal machines, I had never ventured inside. And when at last I did succumb I was not a little surprised. I did not know that London habitually amused itself between the afternoon hours of twelve and six; but here was a crowd of people pouring into what looked like an ordinary theatre. They were not the idle rich nor yet the wealthy poor; they were people of the lower middle classes, who looked as if they ought to have been at work, but were here disbursing sums varying from a shilling to five shillings with great readiness. The prices themselves were a surprise; I had thought of threepence or sixpence as a reasonable price to pay for an hour’s vision of flickering pictures with motes dancing over them, and a headache; but I think my stall cost five shillings. And there, at the high noon of the London day, in the midst of perhaps the busiest human activity in the world, some hundreds of us sat waiting in a darkened, plush-upholstered hall, like mourners at a funeral waiting for the corpse.

Presently a harmonium, violin, and a piano began some whining and twittering attempt at an overture, and the pictures appeared. We all know them; even I, who am no patron of Kinema palaces, am familiar with them in the larger world of the music-hall. There was the Durbar, a dancing succession of troops marching at about fifteen miles an hour, of well-known figures walking up to you, looming nearer and nearer, and then apparently cut off in the prime of life and blotted out as though they had never been; the industrial pictures of money being coined at the Mint — tons of bullion poured out before one’s eyes while someone behind the screen jingled sixpenny worth of halfpence in a tin tray; some wonderful things and some stupid things; and then, finally, the plunge into real, thick, treacley sentiment, the middle-aged man brooding by the fireside (such a fireside!) and looking at the face of his sweetheart in an old album (such an album!), and seeing visions of himself and his sweetheart as children, as young man and maiden, as bride and bridegroom (such a bride and bridegroom!); and, finally, the disturbance of the gentleman’s meditation by the arrival in the room of his wife, who, when she turns her face to the audience, is seen to be identical with the heroine of the old fool’s meditations. This the audience liked; and I saw a stout woman, who might have been a publican’s wife, wiping away an undoubted tear.

They did not give me for my five shillings what I really longed for — one of those breathlessly rapid dramas in which babies are thrown at people in the street, motor-cars fly asunder before your eyes, and long trains of people, headed by a policeman and a nursemaid, and receiving constant accretions in the shape of chimney-sweeps, clergymen, bricklayers, and school children, pursue one another apparently in the full light of day across thoroughfares which are unmistakably recognizable as the Champs Elysées and the Avenue du Trocadéro. It is an unending pleasure to see men running at thirty-five miles an hour and clashing into each other at a corner and exploding in a cloud of smoke. One feels at such moments that life is really a busier and braver thing than the dull crawl of one’s own experience.

But there is another side to the picture. Men have toiled and used splendid brains in order that these things should be; one cannot help asking oneself how far they are worth while. All over the world there are great theatres with stages far larger and more modern than Covent Garden or the Paris Opera, equipped with every kind of scenic effect, on which dramas are dally performed to no other spectator than the little crystal lens in front of an unrolling film; sometimes as many as two thousand people at a time are employed in a drama on one of these great stages. Is this to be the theatre of the future? We have almost abolished thinking from our theatres; are we also to abolish hearing, and seeing in any except one dimension? There is another, perhaps the greatest, evil of the kinematograph craze, the evil which it shares with the pianola-player and the gramophone. It is that these things really narrow the life and experience of men. They bring life to one’s door; and it will soon be possible for people to have all the adventurous experience they want within a radius of half a mile of their own house. No journeys need be taken; you pay sixpence and sit in a chair that is mechanically rocked like a railway carriage, and look out upon the moving scenery of the Andes, the Alps, or the Rockies. You need not go through the toil and discipline of learning the technique of music; turn a handle, and all that Beethoven and Mozart and Chopin groaned in travail with, wept tears of blood for, or laughed and sang out to the world, is at your command. You need not go and hear a great oration; the very voice will issue for you from your brass-throated gramophone on the morrow. All of which is bad, and means loss of life in the fullest and most serious sense. It is not the conquest of science, but the abuse of science.

But there is no question about there being a real use for the kinematograph. To such perfection has it been brought that it can record the movement of an insect or a bird’s wing, or the flight and penetration of a projectile. Films have been made so delicate that they will take a picture in an exposure of 1-42,000th of a second; the mechanism has been so perfected that streams of consecutive pictures can be taken at the rate of 5000 per second, the measurement and control of this being entrusted to a tuning-fork — so far beyond our mere mechanical abilities do such figures take us.

And as an historical record also the kinematograph has its legitimate use. Sometimes — very rarely — looking upon that illuminated square, one has for the moment a sense of real illusion, of looking through a glass and seeing the sea breaking on some tropical shore, or the figures of men moving and smiling in a distant land. Think if we could once see in the same way King John crossing to the little Thames island to give Englishmen their freedom, or Anne Boleyn driving through the streets of Westminster to her wedding, or Cromwell speaking in the House of Commons, or King Charles I, making his farewell on the scaffold! It would not be so much on the central figures that we should pore as upon the crowds and the people in the street, seeing actually before our eyes what men and women looked like, how they moved about, what clothes they wore, what manners they had in those dim, far-off days. Five hundred years hence the English people will in this way be able to see scenes of our life in England; we shall not be so isolated from them; they will know us really as we are, and along with the figures and faces of the great will be preserved and made familiar to our descendants of the twenty-fifth century some otherwise utterly unimportant people, who pushed to the front of crowds and took the trouble to see public shows. And perhaps the most familiar figures of our day to the people of coming days will be the figures of policemen. Thus you see even the kinematograph will not really tell the truth; for there is no such thing as mechanical truth or mechanical record of truth. And that is the crowning fault of mechanism when it takes the place of human effort and labor.

Comments: Filson Young (1876–1938) was a British journalist and essayist. The Living Age was an American magazine which reproduced selections from English and American magazines and newspapers. The article was originally published in British magazine The Saturday Review. The book on film the writer refers to is Frederick A. Talbot, Moving Pictures: How They are Made and Worked (London: Heinemann, 1912). Typical cinema prices of the time were between threepence and sixpence, and the suggestion of a five shilling seat sounds like an exaggeration. The ‘Durbar’ refers to newsfilms of the Delhi Durbar celebrations of 1911. Many trick and chase films of the period were indeed filmed in Paris, by the Pathé and Gaumont firms.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Mexico: the Wonderland of the South

Source: W.E. Carson, Mexico: The Wonderland of the South (New York: Macmillan, 1914 – orig. pub. 1909), pp. 139-140

Text: Being 7091 feet above sea-level, — somewhat lower than the capital, — Puebla is a little more removed from the “northers,” but when one is blowing, the temperature at night is far from tropical. When I reached the city, the day was as warm‘as a fine June day in New York; but when the sun went down there was a sudden change to November, and a good blazing fire would have been a welcome addition to the comforts of my hotel. To while away the time, I went to a cinematograph show, but the cold pursued me even there. In order to ward off chills and pneumonia, I had to wear my overcoat in the hall, and even then I was unable to sit through the performance without going out now and then to get a hot drink. The Indians in the audience wrapped their blankets tightly about them and sat watching the pictures, grimly defying the cold. It was Christmas week, and a large number of these swarthy natives had come in from the country to do their marketing and see the sights. I witnessed an amusing example of their superstition.

An Indian family sat in front of me, and it was evident that they were seeing a cinematograph show for the first time. The worthy peon, his wife and children, seemed bewildered with amazement, and frequently crossed themselves. At last some French colored pictures were flashed on the screen. The figure of a magician appeared, looking very much like Mephistopheles, and in front of him was a pumpkin. This he touched with his wand, and immediately it was transformed into six sprightly ballet girls. After several transformations the wizard touched the figures, which disappeared in a cloud of smoke and flame. This was too much for the Indians. The man rose, muttering “Diablo, magio, no mas, no mas” (the Devil, magic; no more, no more), crossed himself repeatedly and, followed by his wife and family, all apparently very much terrified, hurried from the hall. It is safe to say that these Indians had a horrible story to tell their padre when they went to confession the next Sunday.

Comments: The writer was American and his full name was William English Carson, but I have found no further information about him. The coloured films would either have been hand-painted or used a stencil colouring process.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Movies and Conduct

Source: ‘Female, 20, white, college sophomore’, quoted in Herbert Blumer, Movies and Conduct (New York: Macmillan, 1933), p. 136

Text: The first film plot which ever made an impression on me was “Reaching for the Moon,” which starred Douglas Fairbanks. This film had the usual exciting Douglas Fairbanks episodes, but it ended with the disclosure that they had all been a dream. Hitherto I had watched movies with an absorbing interest and entered unreservedly into the life portrayed, but after that I began to think about the reality of them, and began to question their validity. At first I was afraid that it all might be a dream again, and then I just began to think about the true life relationships. I began to compare the movies with life as I knew it. I began to be skeptical about many phases of movies. For the first time I realized that the effects presented were gained by technique and not by actual daring. I became curious about, and interested in, the methods by which various scenes were produced and I found out about “doubles” and artificial scenery and queer photography.

As a result of the impersonal attitude I began to have toward the movies, I felt sorry for the men who had to play the villain’s part, while before I had sincerely hated them. My ambition to be a motion-picture actress was chilled considerably when I discovered that the action was not filmed consecutively. One of the charms of that profession, as I had formerly conceived it, was the living of those exciting and lovely stories which always turned out so well if one were the hero or the heroine. Having to separate the scenes would spoil it all.

Comments: American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct presents twelve studies of the influence of motion pictures upon the young, made by the Committee on Educational Research of the Payne Fund, at the request of the National Committee for the Study of Social Values in Motion Pictures. The study solicited autobiographical essays, mostly from undergraduate students of the University of Chicago, and presented extracts from this evidence in the text. This extract comes from the section ‘Emotional Detachment’. This film referred to is Reaching for the Moon (USA 1917), not the later Douglas Fairbanks film of the same title from 1930 (which is not a remake).

Links: Copy at Internet Archive

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

someofthethings

Illustration that accompanies the original article

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

Text: “I like to see a story.”

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

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

They like to see a story.

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

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

Bowery Wants Bank Robberies

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

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

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

Accordion Breathes Hard.

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

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

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

“Ferget it!” yelled the unsympathetic mob.

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

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

French but Chaste.

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

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

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

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

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

Take Them Seriously.

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

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

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

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

Harlem Likes to Laugh.

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

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

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

Links: Available online at Chronicling America

The Movies in the Age of Innocence

Source: Edward Wagenknecht, The Movies in the Age of Innocence (New York: Limelight Editions, 1997 [orig. 1962]), pp. 12-13

Text: I saw my first motion picture, somewhere along about 1905 0r 1906, in a little barn-like theater at “The Chutes,” a small amusement park, at Kedzie Avenue and Van Buren Street, Chicago, where the West Side carbarns now stand. It was all about the adventures of the devil and a beautiful girl whom he had lured to his picturesque domains. From its general resemblance to the French Pathé films which I was soon to see at my first neighborhood theater, I judge it to have been of French manufacture. The devil was a prominent character in many of these early films. He was essentially the Faust operatic devil – with horns and a very realistic tail – and he usually appeared and disappeared in a puff of smoke, which, to us who were new to the movies, was in itself a very wonderful photographic effect. Indeed I have often said that the devil was the first movie star and that if we had known some of the things that the future had in store for us, we might have appreciated him more than we did.

Hell, it appeared in this old French film, was a very beautiful place, full of couches and bowers and drapes and hangings. Indeed it might be described as a kind of Frenchified version of the notion Bernard Shaw was almost contemporaneously presenting in Man and Superman. I remember very well that I, who had been taught to fear hell, and was doing my best – intermittently at least – to keep out of it, at once began to wonder if it was not possible that the place might have been maligned. I can personally testify, therefore, that the very first time I approached the movies, they proved themselves the insidiously corrupting influence which their critics have always declared them to be.

Comment: Edward Wagenknecht (1900-2004) was an American literary critic.

My Last Breath

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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