Delight

Source: J.B. Priestley, Delight (London: William Heinneman, 1949), pp. 36-38

Text: One afternoon, nearly twenty years ago, some long-forgotten business took me to Golders Green, and when I had finished and was walking towards the Tube station there came a sudden drenching downpour. I had no raincoat, so I hurried into a cinema, more for shelter than amusement. It was a large solemn cinema, almost empty, and I felt as quiet and remote in there as if I were sitting at the bottom of the sea. The news reel came and went. There were the usual fancy tricks with the lights. The feature film noisily arrived I stared idly at the reception desk of an hotel in Florida. A fantastic character entered, and, without speaking a word, took the letters from the rack and casually tore them up, drank the ink, and began to eat the telephone. I sat up, lost in winder and joy. The film was The Cocoanuts, and with it the Marx Brothers had entered my life. And this was the perfect way to discover these glorious clowns, unexpectedly in the middle of a wet afternoon in Golders Green. Since then – besides making their acquaintance and actually watching them on the job – I have followed the from cinema to cinema. I like them best when they are given the largest carte blanche – as in the sublime Duck Soup – but even when they are clamped to some miserable plot, have to give place to some preposterous tenor and his simpering girl, I do not desert them but sit there, waiting for such delight as they can offer me. My family – thank heaven – share this rapture, and we often exchange memories, mere shadows and echoes, of our favourite antics at the dinner table. Friends who refuse to enjoy these inspired zanies are regarded with suspicion. I have never understood why some London cinema does not show the Marx Brothers year in and year out. We appear to be living, as so many well-informed persons have observed, in a gigantic madhouse, but there are a few compensations even here, and one of them is that we have the Marx Brothers with us. Their clowning is a comment on our situation. Chico is the eternal, sulky but wistful peasant, sceptical but not without hope. Groucho is urban America, the office executive, the speculator, the publicity agent, the salesman, raised to a height at which the folly of such men blazes like a beacon. Harpo is modern man with the lid off, a symbolic figure of the masculine unconscious. Together they have worked out comic routines that may be regarded one day as a saga of satire, Rabelais caught on celluloid. But even if they should be soon forgotten, some of us will remember how they dissolved with laughter, during those evenings in the ‘thirties when the fuses were already spluttering round our feet. Karl Marx showed how the dispossessed would finally take possession. But I think the Brothers Marx do it better.

Comments: John Boynton Priestley (1894-1984) was a British novelist and playwright, known for Time and the Conways, An Inspector Calls and The Good Companions. His 1949 book Delight is a collection of short essays on some of the pleasures of life. The Cocoanuts (USA 1929) was an early sound feature film, based on the Broadway stage production written by George S. Kaufman. The film also featured the fourth, non-comedic, Marx brother, Zeppo.

Old Glory

Source: Jonathan Raban, Old Glory: An American Voyage (London: Collins, 1981), pp. 94-95

Text: I tried the wardrobe, a handsome reproduction piece of pine colonial. The drawers, when I pulled at them, turned out to be doors, and opened on an enormous colour television. I found my weather report. Nothing does so much justice to the gargantuan scale of American life as its national weather maps. In Europe, one is allowed to see the weather only as scraps and fragments: a cake-slice of a depression here; a banded triangle of a ridge of high pressure there. In the United States I was enthralled by the epic sweep of whole weather systems as they rolled across the country from the Pacific to the Atlantic, or coasted down from the Arctic Circle, or swirled up from Mexico and Cuba. The weathermen tapped their maps with sticks. Without betraying the slightest flicker of wonder or concern, they announced that people were being frozen to death in Butte, roasted in Flagstaff and blown off their feet in Tallahassee. Each day they rattled off every conceivable variety of climactic extremity in a blasé drawl. I’d never seen so much weather at once, and was deeply impressed. I shivered vicariously for the Montanans, sweated for the Texans and ran for shelter with the Floridans.

Comments: Jonathan Raban (1942 – ) is a British travel writer and novelists. Old Glory records a journey he takes down the Mississippi River, including this visit to a Minneapolis hotel.

A Cinema-Goer's Autobiography

Source: Extracts from Italo Calvino (trans. Tim Parks), ‘A Cinema-Goer’s Autobiography’, in The Road to San Giovanni (London: Jonathan Cape, 1993), pp. 37-41, 43-45

Text: There were years when I went to the cinema almost every day and maybe even twice a day, and those were the days between ’36 and the war, the years of my adolescence. It was a time when the cinema became the world for me. A different world from the one around me, but my feeling was that only what I saw on the screen possessed the properties required of a world, the fullness, the necessity, the coherence, while away from the screen were only heterogeneous elements lumped together at random, the materials of a life, mine, which seemed to me utterly formless.

The cinema as evasion, it’s been said so many times, with the intention of writing the medium off – and certainly evasion was what I got out of the cinema in those years, it satisfied a need for disorientation, for the projection of my attention into a different space, a need which I believe corresponds to a primary function of our assuming our place in the world, an indispensable stage in any character formation. Of course there are other more profitable and personal ways of creating a different space for oneself: the cinema was the easiest and most readily available, and then it was also the one that instantaneously took me further away than any other. Every day, walking up and down the main street of my small town, I’d only have eyes for the cinemas, three that showed new films and changed programmes every Monday and Thursday, and a couple of fleapits with older or trashier films that changed three times a week. I would already know in advance what films were showing in all five theatres, but my eye would be looking for the posters they put up to announce the next film, because that was where the surprise was, the promise, the anticipation that would keep me excited through the days to come.

I would go to the cinema in the afternoon, slipping out of the house on the sly, or with the excuse that I was going to study with some friend or other, since during the school term my parents allowed me very little freedom. The proof of my passion was my determination to get into the theatre as soon as it opened, at two. Seeing the first showing had a number of advantages: the half-empty theatre, apparently entirely reserved for me, which meant I could lie back in the middle of the third-class seats with my legs stretched out on the back of the seat in front; the hope of getting back home without anybody realizing I’d left, so as then to get permission to go out again (and maybe even see another film); and the slight daze I would be in for the rest of the afternoon, bad for studying but good for daydreaming. Then apart from these motives, none of them things one would really want to confess to, there was a more serious one: getting into the cinema when it opened meant I was sure to enjoy the rare good fortune of seeing the film from the beginning and not from some arbitrary moment near the middle or the end as usually happened when I arrived at the cinema mid-afternoon or early evening.

Of course arriving when the film had already started was to conform with what is a barbarously common habit among Italian cinemagoers, and one that still persists today. You might say that even in those early days we Italians were looking forward to the more sophisticated narrative techniques of contemporary cinema, breaking up the temporal thread of the narrative and transforming it into a puzzle to be put back piece by piece or accepted in the form of a fragmentary body. To console ourselves further, I might add that watching the beginning of the film after one had already seen the end offered additional pleasures: that of discovering not the resolution of the film’s mysteries and dramas, but their genesis; and that of a confused sense of premonition vis-à-vis the characters. Confused: in precisely the way a clairvoyant’s must be, since the reconstruction of the mangled plot was not always easy, and would be even less so if it happened to be a detective story, where the identification first of the murderer and then of the crime left an even murkier area of mystery in the middle. What’s more, there would sometimes be a bit missing between the beginning and the end, since suddenly looking at my watch I’d realize I was late and that if I didn’t want to incur my parents’ wrath I’d have to leave before the sequence I’d come in at reappeared on the screen. So that many films were left with a hole in the middle, and even today, after thirty years – what am I saying? – almost forty, when I find myself watching one of those films – on television for example – I’ll recognize the moment I walked into the cinema, the scenes I watched without understanding, and I’ll retrieve the lost pieces and complete the puzzle as if I’d left it unfinished only the day before.

[…]

When, on the other hand, I went into the cinema at four o’clock or five, what hit me on coming out was the sense of time having passed, the contrast between two different temporal dimensions, inside and outside the film. I had gone in in broad daylight and came out to find it dark, the lamp-lit streets prolonging the black-and-white of the screen. The darkness softened the contrast between the two worlds a little, and sharpened it a little too, because it drew attention to the passing of those two hours that I hadn’t really lived, swallowed up as I was in a suspension of time, or in the duration of an imaginary life, or in a leap backwards to centuries before. Especially exciting was finding that the days had got shorter or longer: the sense of the passing seasons (always bland in the temperate clime we lived in) caught up with me as I came out of the cinema. When it rained in the film, I would listen hard to hear whether it had started raining outside too, whether I had been surprised by a downpour, having left home without an umbrella: it was the only moment when, while still immersed in that other world, I remembered the world outside; and it made me anxious. Even today, rain in film triggers the same reaction, a sense of anxiety.

If it wasn’t time for dinner yet, I’d join my friends trooping up and down the pavements of the main street. I’d go back past the cinema I’d just come out of and hear lines of dialogue echoing out of the projection room onto the street, and rather than the indentification [sic] I’d felt earlier, hearing them now would instill a feeling of unreality, because by now I was firmly in the outside world, and a feeling akin to nostalgia too, as one one who turns back at a frontier.

I’m thinking of one cinema in particular, the oldest one in the town and connected with my earliest memories of the days of silent films, a cinema that had preserved from those days (and did so right up until a few years ago) both its liberty-style street sign decorated with medals and the structure of the theatre itself, a long hall sloping downwards flanked by a corridor with columns. The projectionist’s room had a small window that opened onto the main street and would blare out the absurd voices of the film, metallically distorted by the technology of the period, and all the more absurd thank to the affectations of the Italian dubbing which bore no relation to any language ever spoken, past or future. And yet the very falseness of those voices must have possessed a communicative power all its own, like the sirens’ song, and every time I passed that little window I would sense the call of that other world that was the world.

The side doors of the theatre opened onto an alleyway; in the intervals the usher with the braiding on her jacket would open the red velvet curtains so that the colour of the air outside appeared discreetly at the threshold, and the passersby and the people sitting in the cinema would look at each other a little uneasily, as though facing an intrusion equally inconvenient to both. The interval between the first and second reel in particular (another strange custom practised only in Italy and inexplicably current even today) would come as a reminder that I was still in this town, on this day at this time: and depending on how I felt, my satisfaction at knowing that in just a moment I’d be plunging back into the China Sea or the San Francisco Earthquake would grow; or alternatively I would be oppressed by this warning not to forget that I was still here, not to lose myself in far-off lands.

Comments: Italo Calvino (1923-1985) was an Italian journalist and novelist, author of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveller and Invisible Cities. He was born in Havana, Cuba, but his childhood years were spent in Sam Remo, Liguria, on Italy’s north-western coast. The above extracts are from a long piece on his memories of cinemagoing, included in a posthumously-published volume of autobiographical essays.

Bioscoop

Source: Louis Couperus, ‘Bioscoop’, Haagsche Post, 2 December 1916, English translation by Ivo Blom in ‘North and South: two early texts about cinema-going by Louis Couperus’, Film History vol. 20, issue 2 (2008), pp. 127-132

Text: The contrast between North and South manifests itself in many different ways. At the Bioscoop, too. First of all, in the South the Bioscoop is called Cinematografo in Italy or Cine in Spain. Well, this difference is negligible. But in both southern countries the difference is great as compared with cinema in Germany and the Netherlands. As soon as we go North, the cinema becomes something of a theater, becomes pretentiously heavy. You are received by employees in braided frocks, your coat and stick are taken from you, you are allocated a certain, fixed seat, you are not allowed to stand up, you notice everyone around you in the shimmering darkness in their seats for hours, there is an intermission … Nothing of all this in Italy or Spain. Not only is the cinematografo or the cine much cheaper than the bioscoop, but the whole interior is more light-hearted, comfortable, accommodating. The illuminated foyer which you can see from the street is inviting, with a salon orchestra (albeit not very attractive to me personally), and a reading table. To enter when it rains, when I don’t want to go to a bar, when I have paraded around enough, when I am tired, bored … I pay 30 centimes and whenever I want to look rich, 50 centimes. I cannot go above that, unless for a world famous film such as Quo Vadis? Even for 50 centimes – both in Italy and Spain – my seat is too chic, so terribly chic, that I prefer to pay 30 centimes … Around me are casual, very decent people, so decent that if I want to see the less decent, I need to descend into places where I pay only 20 or 15 or 10 centimes. I see the same films, but … one week later. But everywhere the experience is light and capricious, an ephemeral joy, while in the North cinema has shut itself inside an impenetrable shell. Really, when I walk into a cinema I want to do it in a light-hearted and casual way. I’ll stand up for a quarter of an hour if necessary, just to see Max Linder or a scene of the war, and then leave again. Dear heavens, you really notice when you are in the North, as soon as you are away from Italy: in Munich or … The Hague. There is no question of standing up; everything is so solemn and heavy, that your first casual impulse to see a film is immediately crushed. In Italy I saw the whole war in Tripoli screened before me, surrounded by a decent officer-with-family audience, without reserving seats and always for 30 centimes each day. Here, I am hesitant to go and see The Battle of the Somme because I don’t want to reserve a seat. I want to keep my coat on, even keep my wet umbrella with me; I’d rather stand than sit; in particular I don’t want to turn my cinema joy into a solemn visit; rather I desire an unpretentious, casual ‘walking in’, a passing pleasure, which should not last more than twenty minutes at the most.

Oh North and South, not even in the bioscoop and cinematograph do you have anything in common.

But now the analysis. Why is it so different in the North and the South? Because of the heavy soul of the Northerners? Of course, but also because ‘street life’ does not exist in the North and because in the South ‘walking into a cinema’ is a part of everyday life. Just as in the North it is not allowed in a lunchroom bar to toss off a little glass of vermouth standing up, so it is not normal to consider the cinema as a short halt in your flanerie, as a shelter from the rain, as a short, oh, so short, distraction from the melancholy which can so affect the flaneur when he is lonely, wandering among the busy crowd. And so he longs for Max Linder or Charles Prince; yes, even some lively pictures of actuality, whose photographic ugliness, teasing and screeching, scratch the silently suffering soul of the purposeless street wanderer when the winter twilight hour nears, when the shopping lights and street lanterns are starting to flame and the pain of wistfulness hurts him, without really knowing why …

It is then that you lose yourself – not in a bar where the electric light shines mercilessly – and where you need to drink something; it is then that you lose yourself, in the South, in the cinematograph, where you can watch pictures as if still on your mother’s lap.

Comments: Louis Couperus (1863-1923) was a Dutch novelist and poet and is considered one of the leading figures in Dutch literature. He wrote about films in his regular ‘Bioscoop’ column for the Dutch newspaper Haagsche Post. The films referred to are Quo Vadis? (Italy 1913) and The Battle of the Somme (UK 1916). Max Linder and Charles Prince were French film comedians, the latter known on-screen as Rigadin. Bioscoop is the Dutch word for a cinema building, taken from the English word Bioscope. My thanks to Ivo Blom for his permission to reproduce his translation, and to Deac Rossell for alerting me to the Film History article. Ellipses are as given in the Film History translation.

Going to the Cinema

Source: Luke McKernan, ‘Going to the Cinema’, from lukemckernan.com, http://lukemckernan.com/2012/12/16/going-to-the-cinema, published 16 December 2012

Text: I am out in London, and it has been a long day. I am walking towards the train station for the journey home, when I pass close by a shopping centre with an art house cinema in the middle of it. It is still early evening, and I think to myself why not see if that film you read about is still screening. I turn up at the cinema and find that its next showing will be in ten minutes’ time.

There are two queues, one for each person manning the the ticket office. I join one of them. The people in the queue are a mixed crowd, some young, some middle-aged, generally of the sort one expects to see queuing for this sort of film. It is to be a cultural treat. We stand by a display of DVDs of other art house films, each with quotations announcing that film’s exceptional qualities. There is nothing average on display here; everything proclaims itself remarkable. I wonder how so many films can all be so good and worry about those that I have not heard of, let alone seen. I feel reassured about those that are familiar to me. I have come to the front of the queue. It will cost £11.50 to see this film, which seems a lot of money to purchase something that you cannot take away with you afterwards. Were it a DVD I would hope to pay less.

I pay the money, take my ticket, and go down a set of stairs, where there is a bar with a few people seated on stools with drinks and snacks. There are posters on the walls for films past and film to come. I go down a second set of stairs. A young man takes my ticket, tears it in two and hands it back to me. It occurs to me that this is not much of an occupation for anyone. I go into a darkened room with seats in rows, each with a letter to differentiate it from the next. There are seats for around 200 people. Probably 50 or so people are arranged at various points, facing a large screen. I calculate how much revenue the cinema may take from a single screening such as this and how this helps pay for the women at the box office and the young man tearing tickets. I find a corner three-quarters of the way back, away from other people and with some leg room. I set down my bag of recently-purchased clothes, take off my coat and switch off my mobile phone. The seat is soft and comfortable. The room itself is sloped so that those at the back are higher than those nearer the front, enabling those behind to see over the heads of those in front, so long as we are all of uniform height.

The screen in front of us is showing advertisements for products. These advertisements help pay for the cinema; we understand this. There is one for a Beetle car, another an animation with young men self-consciously walking down a street with their shoes changing colour – it is advertisement for sports shoes of some kind. Another advertisement attempts to be amusing in a laboured way, and I concentrate on my knees until it is over. Two women behind me laugh at what they see on the screen. Then we are shown trailers for films that the cinema will screen in future days. One trailer tells us that its film is the best produced in Ireland this century. I try to consider what this might mean. I have not heard of any of the films trailed, nor do I feel any compulsion to see any of them. The screen then shows us advertisements for the cinema itself, including its upcoming screenings of live opera from New York. The operas look sumptuously staged. I almost forget that I do not much care for opera. The trailers show the highlights and none of the trials that may come between.

A disembodied voice asks us to switch off our phones. Some rustle with objects in their coat pockets. The film we have paid to see is about to begin. There is a message from the British Board of Film Classification to tell us that this film has been classified as 12A, which means that it is considered unsuitable for children under 12 unless they are accompanied by an adult. There are no children aged 12 or under in the cinema. All is well.

The film has started. It is an earnest work about an elderly couple, one of whom suffers from a stroke, leaving the other one to care for her. Probably we would not normally have chosen to pay money to see a film with such a theme, but it has received awards and many favourable reviews, and the director has made notable films before now, so we expected to be impressed. Certainly we are not expecting fast-paced action or the any of the other kinetic thrills of a cinema film. We are prepared for what we see. A mobile phone goes off five minutes into the proceedings, and I wonder for a moment whether it is part of the film. But it comes from the women behind me and is swiftly turned off. The film rolls on. It is in French, and there are subtitles. It is very accomplished work, with exceptional cinematography capturing interior natural light with a quality that makes me think of Norwegian paintings of the late 19th century. Perhaps this is intentional. The director is clearly very skilled, and nothing seems incidental or without relevance. One cut from close-up to medium shot of the couple jars by its unnaturalness, but that is all. There is no story to speak of. There are incidents, because a film is drama and must have incidents, but they are not important.

We admire the flat where the couple live. It is filled with books and paintings and interesting objects. I wish my own home had some of these books and paintings and interesting objects. Probably others in the audience are thinking the same. The film shows us some of the paintings in close-up, filling the screen. The director knew that we would like to look more closely, and knew when we would want to do so.

The film runs for around two hours, during which time we sit still and watch it. I sometimes arrange my legs to the left, sometimes to the right. Sometimes I think of other things, such as whether I will want to eat after the film or not, but mostly the film holds my attention. Occasionally I wonder when it will end, and how, but I never look at my watch. One of the subtitles has a grammatical error, and this bothers me. The film is filled with significant sounds, such as a tap running, a pigeon flapping or the clink of plates being washed. There is no music, except that which is played on a CD player or by the people who are acting in the film. It is a film about musicians. The main protagonists are more cultured and accomplished than we the audience watching them, but we do not resent or envy them for this. It is simply who they are. This is one of the film’s accomplishments.

The ending comes, and end credits follow which tell us all the names of the many talented people who made the film. They roll past in silence. Some of the audience get up, but I stay to the end out of a long habit which says that I must see the name of every person who contributed to this work, even though their names mean nothing to me. When the film has had its final say, we get up and walk out of the auditorium and up the stairs once more. The film has been bleak and sad and all are silent at first, then turn to chatter as they near the open air above.

I come up to the foyer, where a new set of people is gathering to see either a further screening of this film or another film showing on a second screen. I step out of the doors, where the cold air greets me. I do up my coat, head out into the dark and think not so much of the film but rather of the strange rituals involved in seeing a film. Once it was an act of faith, now it is an act of remembrance. What did that film mean, and why did I see it? I knew these things once, but now no more.

The cold wind blows and I head for home.

Comments: Luke McKernan (born 1961) is a film historian, news curator, and editor of the Picturegoing website. This posting from his personal site lukemckernan.com documents a visit to the Renoir Cinema, Bloomsbury, London to see Amour (France/Germany/Austria 2010 d. Michael Haneke).

At the Drive-in

Source: Terry Gallacher, ‘At the Drive-in’, from Terence Gallacher’s Recollections of a Career in Film, http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com/2013/09/24/at-the-drive-in/, published 24 September 1913

Text: From 1956 to 1961, I worked in Melbourne, Australia. I was Senior Film Editor with GTV9 (General Television Corporation) and Supervising Film Editor with ABV2 (Australian Broadcasting Commission).

In 1956 I lodged with an English family at Frankston. This was some months before the start of television in Melbourne and there was no cinema in Frankston, our nearest town. However, I was told that there was a Drive-in Cinema which had opened at Dandenong on May 4th 1956. I was curious as to what it would be like watching a film from inside a car.

It was decided that we should go. We got there quite early, long before show time. We got on to the end of a long queue. The queue was slow moving as each car stopped at the toll-gate for the drivers to pay their dues. I cannot recall the price of entry, but it would have been modest, maybe as little as $A1 or in Sterling about 10/- and that was for the car load.

It was called the Panoramic Drive-in and had room for 650 cars. After paying to get in, you found your own way to a parking spot. Parking attendants only came on the scene when the place was nearly full and they would guide each car to what spaces were let.

The cars were parked alongside a post on which hung a speaker. The driver would wind down the window half way, hook the speaker on to the glass and then close the window. On the speaker was a volume control and a button which, when pushed, would summon a waiter or waitress who would come and collect your order for food. On offer were Burgers, grills, fish grills, and chips. These were brought back to the car.

A building which also housed the Projector was a food bar. Some people would arrive very early and go to the food bar for a meal before the performance began.

The cars were parked with an eight-foot gap between them. The parking area for each car was sloped so that the front of the car was higher than the back. This enabled the people in the car to get a good view of the screen. The gap between each row was about fifteen feet. To include 650 cars and the screen area needed some six or seven acres of land.

The screen was huge. It was about thirty feet above the ground and about 70 feet long. The aspect ratio would have been 2.35: 1 which would accommodate CinemaScope as well as other widescreen forms.

The front row of the cars was about 40 yards from the screen.

One of the big troubles with a drive-in is when it rains. Not that that happened very often in the summers in the State of Victoria. In those days, some cars could not operate a windscreen wiper without running the engine. The screen could mist up and one had to run the engine to get the fan to clear the screen, that is if you had one. It was hardly worthwhile trying to watch a film under these circumstances and fortunately for us, the only time we had rain was for a short while during the “B” movie.

The performance was impressive. It started off with a “B” Movie and, after an interval, to allow people to collect more food, the main attraction would be shown. It was a long night.

After the show there was the problem of getting out.

Here is an extract from my memoirs:

Janet (my fiancé at the time and then my wife) and I would regularly go to the drive-in theatre at Dandenong. We saw some good movies and some bad ones. At that time I had a Holden sedan which was large and comfortable. We used to vacate the front seats and go into the back where the seating was something like a settee. It was better than the back row.

On one occasion, we were involved in an accident on the way out. One can imagine a drive-in audience which had arrived in several hundred cars. When the show was over, and sometimes a bit before, cars started to move away and make a dash for the only exit. he exit would only take a single file of cars, so that the last car out was probably over thirty minutes behind the first.

The exit led to a small country lane which then opened out on to a main road, Cranborne Road. (Now known as The South Gippsland Highway) which was around 200 yards down the lane. Each car on arrival at the busy main road would have to wait to get out. We were in the crawl in the country lane when we heard a large bang behind us. In typical fashion, I got out of the car to see if my car was damaged. It was not, but the car behind which was very old seemed to have lost some parts. The owner had got out of his car, doing the same as me. He said “I’ve lost me front bumper”, his mate at the back of the car said, “She’ll be right, it’s back here”. The driver made his way to the back and said “That’s not the front bumper, that’s the back bumper”. The front bumper was still underneath the car.

Meanwhile the driver of the vehicle behind them was out on the road swearing at the driver of the car behind me for having stopped. (We were moving at less than walking pace when we were moving). His was a brand new ute (Utility) looking like something we would now call a 4 x 4. The front was all stoved in from its collision with the old car. The problem for the driver of the truck was that he did not own it and had borrowed it from his father. All this came out in a matter of moments during the hustle and bustle of the occasion.

There was another car involved which had been behind the truck and, in fact, was responsible for the whole problem. He was shouting “It wasn’t my fault that I put me foot on the accelerator instead of the brake”. Well, that explained everything.

Drive-in theatres lost their popularity, like the cinemas, in the sixties and seventies. Today, I am told, that the drive-in theatre has expanded to provide three screens. It must be popular again. The sound of the film no longer comes via a speaker handing on the window, you can pick up the sound on your FM car radio. I wonder how one orders a burger.

It was quite an experience going to the Panoramic – I loved the drive-in.

Comments: Terence Gallacher is a former newsreel and television news manager and editor who now documents his career through his website http://terencegallacher.wordpress.com. The post is reproduced here with the kind permission of its author. The Panoramic is still in operation and is now known as the Lunar.

Links: Lunar Drive-in

A Time to Speak

Source: Anthony Quayle, A Time to Speak (London: Barrie & Jenkins, 1990), p. 52

Text: What flicks they were in those days. Not only did they flicker, but they whirred. The pianist was usually thumping away too loud for you to hear the film running over the sprockets; but when the love scenes came and the piano went soft and mushy, then the projectionist came into his own. Every time Rudolph Valentino narrowed his eyes and the heroine shrank from him in mingled love and loathing, then, just as surely as the next caption would be ‘I Love You!’ and the one after would be ‘No, No!’, so without fail would be heard the whirring, chirring rattle of the projector.

Sometimes the machine broke down. When that happened the whole audience, Aggie and me included, would groan loudly; then, as the lights came on, we would all laugh and applaud ourselves for being such audacious wags. After a few minutes the lights would be turned out again to renewed cheers and whistles. The whirring started up once more, a few feet of film jerked onto the screen – only to suffer a further collapse. Louder groans from the audience: more ribald cheering. No one ever made a fuss or complained about breakdowns; they were accepted as part of the entertainment. You paid your money, you came out of the cold and rain, and whichever way things went you had a good time.

Comments: Anthony Quayle (1913-1989) was a British stage and film actor and theatre director. His family lived in Southport. Aggie was his maternal grandmother. At the time of this extract from his autobiography he was aged around eight.

Strange Truth

Source: James MacKenzie, Strange Truth: The Autobiography of a Circus, Showman, Stage & Exhibition Man [n.d] [manuscript, two volumes] (Brunel University, 1-473), vol. 1, pp. 242-246

Text: The Living Pictures had arrived. I determined to get a machine and films. I soon got the information they were only showing at Music Halls, but I hear some showmen are going to have them. I was nearly first.

The machine and two hundred and fifty feet of film only from the pioneers of Film making in England you had to buy the films then!

I was soon equipped with a booth and a lorry, cylinders of Oxy-Hydrogen gas, for the limelight to show the films, a powerful light was needed.

I find a place to open, & the Whit Monday to follow, a man, and my wife and myself, it took me very little time to know all about the machine. I tried it out, all was O.K.

I opened at a Gala, and I showed over forty times that day the show only lasted a few minutes but they were Living Pictures.

It took longer to wind the film out of the bag (note – There was no self winding on a Spool in the front of the Machine at that time) where it went. Wo[r]se than the performance, and the “Music” was the rattle of the machine, which sounded like a steam roller.

My two chaps and myself bawling outside, and telling a short tale inside and working the machine in full view of the audience, with all the curiosity of this new invention, in a few minutes the show was over, but they had seen the latest invention living pictures. They were at that time virtually only on Music Hall.

It was a grand financial start, but the next pitch was on a common at Whitsuntide, and the weather was atrocious building up in the rain, to eventually to be blown down with repairs to do on the following day … I had little fear of failure as I had booked fairs well ahead, and in the wait between them, I put up in the remotest village. My men & horses jog[g]ed along most happily, covering expenses, and saving and the natives had heard of this novelty, so the advent of them helped considerably.

I showed so many times my machine run hot and my films got worn, so I had to replenish them several times. Then came the back end of the season with terrible weather, it rained six fairs in succession, that sort of business empty’s [sic] one’s pocket, but it’s all in the “game” … I am about eight miles from a Cattle Fair, I knew the place well having been through it many times before, I knew now shows built up there, or Pleasure Fair. So I said to my boys, that I was determined to chance it and go. [He cycles to the village] … I cycled to it, and the Boniface was standing on the doorstep, with his little half apron .. I entertained him told him I was a showman, but reserved my purpose till we were quite friends, the[n] I told him of my living pictures, his eyes stared in wonder, he could hardly credit I had them, then I asked him whether I could put my show up outside his vacant land and show for the Cattle Fair. The answer came Yes! Like a bullet from a revolver … Next morning very early we build up and taking money very early. I had a great crowd the Inn was full. Living Picture was on the lips of a crowd. I was the first there to show them. The two days Friday and Saturday I felt like the Bank of England … I stopped there a week, a sing song every night, and when I departed they waved me out of the village.

Comment: James MacKenzie’s unpublished memoir of seventy years as a circus and fairground showman is held by Brunel University. He was born in London in 1862. The section above presumably refers to the late 1890s.

The Picture-Palaces of London

picturepalace

Illustration accompanying the original article

Source: ‘The Picture-Palaces of London’, The Daily Chronicle, 9 April 1910

Text: The Picture-Palaces of London. Have They Comes to Stay?

Pricked out in electric lights, on an imposing brand new structure of white stucco, you read the words “Cinematograph Theatre.” You wonder where the thing has come from. Like Aladdin’s Palace, it seems to have sprung up in a single night. On yesterday there was a block of old houses on that very spot. You remember looking in a the greengrocer’s window as you sauntered home to dinner, wondering what kind of fruit the children would like.

Well, no, it could not have been yesterday, but it was certainly the week before last!

A few weeks later the white stucco erection appears to have budded. There are two of the now, side by side. The matter is worth further enquiry, so you cross over, and read the “bill of fare” at either door. The rival attendants, gorgeously arrayed, glance at you with enticing eyes, but you regard not their mute entreaties. Then you are probably taken by surprise. The charm of the things catches you. Perhaps it is best set down as a free-and-easiness. Go when you will, after the door is opened, you are never late; never in anxiety over a seat. The show goes on continuously. There is a set of pictures for the day – six perhaps, or eight – and if you miss numbers one and two, why, you will see them for certain after number eight.

Entertainment Ad Lib.

The set may last an hour, to an hour and a half, but you need not go out at that time unless you have a mind to. You may sit still, if you choose, and see the whole set over again. I dare say you won’t, unless it is pouring wet outside, and you have forgotten your umbrella, but it is something to know that you can.

The cinematograph theatre fills a gap in our scheme of amusement. It may be a small gap, but still it was there, and now it is filled. It catches the leakage from the theatres and halls, the unfortunately who are sent sorrowfully away by the unwelcome announcement of “House full.”

It gives the tired sightseer an hour’s respite from the noise and fatigue of the streets, and in some cases it dangles the tempting bait of “afternoon tea[“] gratis before this type of prospective patron. To the regular theatre it stands in the same relationship as a “snack” does to a formal luncheon. It is the resource of the man with only an hour to spare, the lady who doesn’t like to be out late, the girl whose papa doesn’t approve of theatres, the little boy who must be in bed at six, the hospital nurse who only has two hours off duty, and the family party from the provinces, whose train starts at ten sharp.

Oh, and one must not forget the lovers! Humble lovers, perhaps, with a few shillings to spare. one sees them often in the sixpenny seats, holding hands in the friendly dark. They watch the films go spinning on, with absent eyes and beatific smiles. They haven’t come there for the show, but to find a corner to sit in, out of the wet. One can’t always go round and round the Inner Circle with a penny ticket without catching the eye of the cute conductor!

The Aristocratic Sixpence.

There are differences in the quality of these as of all other types of amusement. There are the second-raters in the outlying streets, just beyond the radius of West-end style. The modest sum of threepence will gain you admittance here, and if you indulge yourself to the tune of sixpence you are “a swell.” The pictures are usually quite up to the average, but the environment is not. The dark is not friendly, but apprehensive. One is suspicious of one’s neighbour, and keeps a tight clutch on one’s belongings. There is every prospect of carrying away with you less than you ought, and more than you bargained for. Reminiscences of the place are forced upon you next day by the odour of stale and indifferent tobacco that clings to your clothes. As you near the vicinity of Oxford-street there is a decided attempt at luxury in the internal appointments of the “Palaces.” The goods are not all in the shop window. Decidedly, too, the “orchestra” plays better. It consists usually of a girl with a piano, the latter very much at her mercy. In some of the theatres visited by the writer, it would be only charitable to suppose that the lady pianist had fallen a victim to the prevalent disease newly christened by a London daily as “The Hump.” She played in spasms, with a reckless disregard of time and tune, and an obvious idea that her function was merely to drown out the silence.

In the West they have changed all that, and, incidentally, the prices have gone up. We may now pay two shillings for a “fauteuil” (which is a horrid, awkward word to spell, and means exactly the same as seat, anyway!). Along with the fauteuil we have the advantage of being shone upon by rose-shaded electric lights, vastly improving to the complexion, and of feasting our eyes on the artistic decorations of the walls when we tire of the pictures.

People do not laugh so boisterously here as they do in the north and east. At most they chuckle. On the whole, there is a remarkable absence of all kinds of noise in these cinematograph theatres. Applause seems to be a thing unknown. It is a relief to hear the voice of a child imperiously demanding, as the name of the film appears, “Read it, mother. Read it quick!”

Child’s Living Picture Book.

The little folks are mostly to be found at the afternoon performances. It must all seem a kind of glorified picture book to them. How they roar over the man who knocks down everything, or the fat old lady pursued by some strange fatality, who is knocked down by everybody! They have a wonderful aptitude, too, for following the “story” in some of the more ambitious pictures. The kidnapped child is one of their favourites. “Did they find him, mother? Are you sure?” a little lad asks in a tearful voice, to the kindly amusement of all who sit near by. The tragic subjects find favour with young ladies, one fancies, and indeed they are sometimes admirably conceived – real dramas, in which the words are hardly missed. The marvellous power of facial expression to convey an emotion in all its subtle shades is brought home to the mind with striking force by the intense interest one feels in these “mimed” plays. Of course it is hard to forget that the pictures are “faked.” One could never for a moment admit the possibility of pictorial drama affecting the taste for the drama of the regular stage. Too much talk may be bad, as was instanced in a recent much-criticised production, but no talk at all is the worse evil of the two.

Perhaps most successful of all are the travel pictures, where the scenery is absolutely realistic, and the sense of motion admirably conveyed. No “book of views,” however beautiful, can fascinate as this moving panorama does. It is as good as a holiday – and somewhat cheaper!

Have the pictures come to stay? Yes, they have filled a gap. It will be long before anything more novel or more entertaining appears to fit that precise niche in the House of Pleasure.

Comment: The inner Circle refers to a London underground train line.

Clips from a Life

Source: Denis Norden, Clips from a Life (London: Fourth Estate, 2008), p. 17

Text: In the years before the Clear Air Act, fog could be a cinema-going hazard. On the Hyam Brothers’ circuit, whenever there was a particularly dense one, a commissionaire would go up and down the queue shouting, ‘Owing to the fog penetrating the hall, the clearness of the picture cannot be guaranteed.’

This was not a universally followed procedure. Indeed, a cinema in Norwood, known locally as ‘Ikey’s Bug Hole’, would put out a placard proclaiming, ‘It’s clearer inside.’

Comment Denis Norden (born 1922), later a humourous writer for radio and television, was a cinema manager in the late 1930s. The Clean Air Act was passed in 1956.