Brother Robert

Source: Annye C. Anderson (with Preston Lauterbach), Brother Robert: Growing Up with Robert Johnson (New York: Hachette Books, 2020), pp. 51-52

Text: Once I got to go to Beale Street, I’d tag along with Brother Robert, Brother Son, and Sister Carrie to the movies at the Palace Theater. They liked to see Mae West and Bette Davis, and I was a nuisance, always running to the bathroom and wanting popcorn.

Most of the movies we saw at the Palace were Westerns. Buck Jones and Tom Mix were Brother Robert’s favorite cowboys. He wore that big Stetson, like them. All of the young men in our family wore Stetson—that was on the go. My father and Uncle Will wore Dobbs.

At the Palace, Son and Brother Robert saw Gene Autry in Tumbling Tumbleweeds. Gene and another guitar player did a song called “That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine.”

That piece became a part of Son and Brother Robert’s repertoire whenever they entertained.

All the top bands, Count Basie, Lionel Hampton, Lucky Millinder, Cab Calloway, and Jimmie Lunceford played at the Palace. We could see big entertainment for a small price. These acts also played the Orpheum, the grand opera theater on Main Street at Beale, one of the few integrated venues in the city, though blacks sat in the balcony.

It’s my understanding that Brother Robert would hang out at the Palace while waiting on his next gig. Mr. Barrasso, the owner, let you stay all day on one ticket price. Brother Robert would sleep while the movie played over and over, and the Looney Tunes, shorts, and newsreels ran. He’d sit with the guitar across his chest, watching the old-time cowboy movies. He’d cool off in there on a hot day or warm up on a cold day until the time to meet up with his friends or return to Sister Carrie’s.

Comments: Annye C. Anderson (1926 – ) is the step-sister of Robert Johnson (1911-1938), the legendary American blues guitarist and singer. Her memoir provides much personal detail of the life of the step-brother, who was murdered when she was twelve years old, as well as a vivid account of black lives in the American south in the 1930s. Charles ‘Son’ Spencer was his (and her) musician step-brother and Carrie Spencer his (and her) step-sister.

Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers

Source: Eileen Elias, Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers (London: W.H. Allen, 1979), p. 126

Text: I always claimed that I didn’t care for Westerns; they were or children, and I considered myself too old for such childish things. Nevertheless, when on occasion I did see them, I found myself riveted to my seat as the flying spectacle galloped by. It was as thrilling and alarming as Harold Lloyd and his window-sill hanging, only in a different way; I didn’t want to jump out of my seat, but cringe within it as the racing hoofs swept past, it seemed, only a few feet from my nose. Things came to a climax when Ben Hur arrived on the screen, better far than any Western with its famous chariot-race scene. This was a stupendous film which we all must see, Father pronounced; so off we trooped to the local cinema and sat in a trance watching the close-ups — and how close they seemed! — of whirling wheels and galloping hoofs while the organ surpassed itself in a frenzy. We came out with our heads spinning, and all that night I lay in bed, my dreams full of the thunder of chariots and the tug of leather harness just about to give way as the rival competitors passed and re-passed each other on the course. Ben Hur broke all records in the West End, and toured all the local cinemas while whole
families went to watch it again and again. The art of the cinema, it seemed, could reach no further: Ben Hur had said it all.

Comments: Eileen Elias was an author of books on child management and memoirs of her Lewisham upbringing. This passage part of a detailed and atmospheric chapter on cinemagoing in London in the 1920s in her books Straw Hats and Serge Bloomers. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ (USA 1925), directed by Fred Niblo and starring Ramon Novarro, was based on the novel by Lew Wallace. It was one of the most expensive but also one of highest-grossing films of its era.

Leaves from a Greenland Diary

Source: Ruth Bryan Owen, Leaves from a Greenland Diary (New York: Dodd, Mead, 1935), pp. 162-164

Text: Julianehaab has been out in boats and kayaks all day, circling around the ship, and when the Danes and the principal Greenlanders and their wives came on board, for a moving picture show this evening, all the rest of Julianehaab was grinning genially through the portholes and feeling equally a part of the unprecedented festival.

I wondered what the Greenlanders, who were having their first experience with moving pictures, must have thought. Even if the first film, a drama of the covered wagon days in the West may have been a little incomprehensible to people who have never seen horses or a wagon, the antics of Mickey Mouse were well within the range of everyone’s understanding. One Eskimo nudged his wife so violently at Mickey’s vagaries that he almost pushed her off the slippery bench. Certainly Mickey Mouse never had more rapt attention or more whole-hearted appreciation!

There were Bestyrrer Ipsen and his wife and Landsfoged Svane on the front seat, of course; and there were Walsoe and Froken Sabroe, the school-teacher, and the telegraph operator and his wife and children, and the young clergyman who is heading the Julianehaab high school of 24 pupils. And there were Pavia, in his white anorak, and the Eskimo village councilmen and their wives.

After the movie show, they all came into the wardroom for coffee and cakes and music from the big electric gramophone. All of the blaze of electric lights was actually there in their harbor, close to their candles and blubber-lamps. The big searchlight of the Champlain played around over the hills, picking out here a little red painted house and there a boatload of Greenlanders who screamed with amusement as the blinding light fell upon them. All the shining brass and gleaming paint of the ship, all the leather and silver in the wardroom, all of the bit of America, for that incredible hour in their harbor, was being absorbed, along with the coffee and cakes.

Comments: Ruth Bryan Owen (1885-1954) was an American politician. In 1933 she became the first women to be appointed a US ambassador, when President Franklin Roosevelt assigned her to Denmark and Iceland. Greenland had been owned by Denmark since 1814. Owen had been a filmmaker herself, writing and directing a self-funded feature film, Once Upon a Time aka Scheherazade (1922), an ambitious undertaking for an amateur. which gained some distribution through the Society for Visual Education.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

America Day By Day

Source: Simone de Beauvoir (trans. Patrick Dudley), America Day by Day (London: Gerald Duckworth, 1952), pp. 62-63

Text: And how easy it was to take part in New York life! From early morning people on Broadway queued up for the movies. At any time of the day, with an hour to kill, you can go to see animated cartoons or newsreels. But above all it is at night, in crowded Forty-second Street, that the movies have the dual attraction of fairs in foreign countries and national rejoicings. On Times Square you can see the latest Hollywood films; on Forty-second Street they show old Westerns, comedies and pictures that give one goose-flesh: I mean the thrillers. In a small cinema on one of the grands boulevards of Paris they used to show one of these horror films weekly twenty years ago. Now that they have become talkies they have scarcely altered. Once more I watched the murdered mummies finally stabbed through the heart with hunting knives; vampires greedily drinking up fresh blood; robots charged with uncontrollable forces, sowing death and terror …. Every time the mummy appears the audience shouts, not with terror, of course, but with delight, for they no longer believe it.

But the animated cartoons disappointed me; they have become set and mechanical. And the films I saw did not reveal New York to me as I had hoped they would one evening. But they helped to bind me to America. I no longer looked at the screen in the same way that I did at home; the exotic drugstores, the streets, the elevators and the press-bells had disappeared; they were now just realistic details. But this realism had poetry all the same. The screen transfigured everyday objects and reimposed that distance between me and the drugstore which was abolished every time I drank an orange juice, although continuing to exist nevertheless. It was by means of these black and white pictures that I had come to know America, and still they seemed to me to be its real substance; the screen is a platonic heaven where I find my concept in all its purity. The houses built of stone are but doubtful embodiments of it.

Comments: Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) was a French intellectual. She visited America over a four-month period in 1947. Her account of her journey was first published in France in 1948 as L’Amérique au jour le jour.

A Death in the Family

Source: James Agee, A Death in the Family (London: Peter Owen, 1965 – orig. pub. 1957), pp. 11-14

Text: At supper that night, as many times before, his father said, “Well, spose we go to the picture show.”

“Oh, Jay!” his mother said. “That horrid little man!”

“What’s wrong with him?” his father asked, not because he didn’t know what she would say, but so she would say it.

“He’s so nasty!” she said, as she always did. “So vulgar! With his nasty little cane; hooking up skirts and things, and that nasty little walk!”

His father laughed, as he always did, and Rufus felt that it had become rather an empty joke; but as always the laughter also cheered him; he felt that the laughter enclosed him with his father.

They walked downtown in the light of mother-of-pearl, to the Majestic, and found their way to seats by the light of the screen, in the exhilarating smell of stale tobacco, rank sweat, perfume and dirty drawers, while the piano played fast music and galloping horses raised a grandiose flag of dust.

And there was William S. Hart with both guns blazing and his long, horse face and his long, hard lip and the great country rode away behind him as wide as the world. Then he made a bashful face at a girl and his horse raised its upper lip and everybody laughed, and then the screen was filled with a city and with the sidewalk of a side street of a city, a long line of palms and there was Charlie; everyone laughed the minute they saw him squattily walking with his toes out and his knees wide apart, as if he were chafed; Rufus’ father laughed, and Rufus laughed too. This time Charlie stole a whole bag of eggs and when a cop came along he hid them in the seat of his pants. Then he caught sight of a pretty woman and he began to squat and twirl his cane and make silly faces. She tossed her head and walked away with her chin up high and her dark mouth as small as she could make it and he followed her very busily, doing all sorts of things with his cane that made everybody laugh, but she paid no attention. Finally she stopped at a corner to wait for a streetcar, turning her back to him, and pretending he wasn’t even there, and after trying to get her attention for a while, and not succeeding, he looked out at the audience, shrugged his shoulders, and acted as if she wasn’t there. But after tapping his foot for a little, pretending he didn’t care, he became interested again, and with a charming smile, tipped his derby; but she only stiffened, and tossed her head again, and everybody laughed. Then he walked back and forth behind her, looking at her and squatting a little while he walked very quietly, and everybody laughed again; then he flicked hold of the straight end of his cane and, with the crooked end, hooked up her skirt to the knee, in exactly the way that disgusted Mama, looking very eagerly at her legs, and everybody laughed very loudly; but she pretended she had not noticed .Then he twirled his cane and suddenly squatted, bending the cane and hitching up his pants, and again hooked up her skirt so that you could see the panties she wore, ruffled almost like the edges of curtains, and everybody whooped with laughter, and she suddenly turned in rage and gave him a shove in the chest, and he sat down straight-legged, hard enough to hurt, and everybody whooped again; and she walked haughtily away up the street, forgetting about the streetcar, “mad as a hornet!” as his father exclaimed in delight; and there was Charlie, flat on his bottom on the sidewalk, and the way he looked, kind of sickly and disgusted, you could see that he suddenly remembered those eggs, and suddenly you remembered them too. The way his face looked, with the lip wrinkled off the teeth and the sickly little smile, it made you feel just the way those broken eggs must feel against your seat, as queer and awful as that time in the white pekay suit, when it ran down out of the pants-legs and showed all over your stockings and you had to walk home that way with people looking; and Rufus’s father nearly tore his head off laughing and so did everybody else, and Rufus was sorry for Charlie, having been so recently in a similar predicament, but the contagion of laughter was too much for him, ang he laughed too. And then it was even funnier when Charlie very carefully got himself from the sidewalk, with that sickly look even worse on his face, and put his cane under one arm, and began to pick at his pants, front and back, very carefully, with his little fingers crooked, as if it were too dirty to touch, picking the sticky cloth away from his skin. Then he reached behind him and took out the wet bag of broken eggs and opened it and peered in; and took out a broken egg and pulled the shell disgustedly apart, letting the elastic yolk slump from one half shell into the other, and dropped it, shuddering. Then he peered in again and fished out a whole egg, all slimy with broken walk, and polished it off carefully on his sleeve, and looked at it, and wrapped it in his dirty handkerchief, and put it carefully into the vest pocket of his little coat. Then he whipped out his cane from under his armpit and took command of it again, and with a final look at everybody, still sickly but at the same time cheerful, shrugged his shoulders and turned his back and scraped backward with his big shoes at the broken shells and the slimy bag, just like a dog, and looked back at the mess (everybody laughed again at that) and started to walk away, bending his cane deep with every shuffle, and squatting deeper, with his knees wider apart, than ever before, constantly picking at the seat of his pants with his left hand, and shaking one foot, then the other, and once gouging deep into his seat and then pausing and shaking his whole body, like a wet dog, and then walking on; while the screen shut over his small image a sudden circle of darkness: then the player-piano changed its tune, and the ads came in motionless color. They sat on into the William S. Hart feature to make sure why he had killed the man with the fancy vest – it was as they had expected by her frightened, pleased face after the killing; he had insulted a girl and cheated her father as well – and Rufus’ father said, “Well, … this is where we came in,” but they watched him kill the man all over again; then they walked out.

Comments: James Agee (1909-1955) was an American novelist, journalist and film critic. The passage above is the opening to chapter one of his posthumously-published novel A Death in the Family, which is set in 1915 in his home town of Knoxville, Tennessee. Despite the great detail given, the Charlie Chaplin film described is imaginary. The family had attended a continuous show, which is why the William S. Hart western comes round again. Player-pianos were not infrequently used in early cinema shows.

The Great Apple Raid

Source: Arthur Hopcraft, The Great Apple Raid & other encounters of a tin chapel tiro (London: Heinemann, 1970), pp. 39-41

Text: The Central Cinema has an off-white front, big posters in many-coloured paint and two show-cases of lusciously seductive photographs. In those show-cases pinned sill for savours were the exotics and the exquisites, the protectors and the menacers, the despicable and the flawless, who were the prototypes for the stars in the casts of thousands whom I deployed in my tumultuous cinema of the mind.

I took these cowboy sheriffs, boy runaways, space pilots, singing sword-fighters, jungle lords, banjo comedians, miniscule Chinese detectives, coloratura goddesses, dimple-kneed flirts, blood-fed pirates, hero-dogs and men made of mud and I directed them in thunderous extravaganzas of the silver screen which stretched across the vastness of the inside of my forehead. I needed only seconds between one conscious activity and another to mount a galloping adventure of epic dimension. Poised between the tying of one shoelace and wrestling with the other, invincibly locked in some self-imposed knot overnight, I could summon cavalry by the column and glint at their head in a metallic charge at Geronimo’s ochrous horde; could transmogrify while the dust still billowed and swing slab-thighed and bicepped like an elephant’s leg on my rope of jungle creepers, and snatch some plane-wrecked blonde from the tentacles of a spider the size of a willow tree; and could still have time to change yet again, as I landed in the treetop with Blue Eyes fluttering in my armpit, into goggles and flying jacket and sweep onwards and upwards into lone battle in my spitting bi-plane cockpit against a skyful of Huns.

I was a hero with a hundred faces, all copies and composites of the idols in the showcases and yet on all of them was superimposed my own. For supporting players, rivals and heroines I mixed the famous with a brilliant audacity that no De Mille or Korda ever approached. Hoppalong Cassidy had his horse shot from under him by King Ming’s bodyguard using ray guns; Shirley Temple got carried off by Zulu warriors; Mickey Rooney borrowed one of Tarzan’s giraffes for a race from the saloon to Boot Hill and back, got locked in his room again for smoking and was replaced to triumphant effect by me. Usually, even if mechanized or airborne at the moment of victory, I still rode out of my film on a tall, piebald horse, waving my hat in the air, the adoring, grateful faces of all those figures in the showcase flickering subliminally through the fade-out.

I knew the faces long before I saw them bloated in close-up inside the cinema. Not all of them were regarded at home as suitable for my interest. But they were already in my own shows. I was a slinking private detective, on that precursor of the Cinemascope screen that I carried behind my eyes, before I had ever seen Bogart or Powell. I knew what dames (hot) were, and rods (‘You man enough to carry that thing, Bug?’), and torpedos (out of town). Or at least I knew that those thin-eyed, snappy hatted men in the striped suits used those terms; there references were there in the captions under the showcase pictures. Imagination was enough to turn those pictures into a wealth of stories, tricky with sudden turns of fate, reckless with fists and gunfire. The showcase pictures changed every three days, but it was not often enough to match my impatience for new faces, new circumstances.

Comments: Arthur Hopcraft (1932-2004) was a British sports journalist and screenwriter, best known for his book The Football Man. He spent much of his childhood in the Blackfords area of Cannock, Staffordshire. His recollections of cinemagoing in the 1940s continue in the book with a more conventional account of riotous behaviour at Satursday afternoon film shows.

The Valley of the Moon

Source: Jack London, The Valley of the Moon (New York: The Review of Reviews Company, 1917 [orig. pub. 1913]), p. 279

Text: They bought reserved tickets at Bell’s Theater; but it was too early for the performance, and they went down Broadway and into the Electric Theater to while away the time on a moving picture show. A cowboy film was run off, and a French comic; then came a rural drama situated somewhere in the Middle West. It began with a farm yard scene. The sun blazed down on a corner of a barn and on a rail fence where the ground lay in the mottled shade of large trees overhead. There were chickens, ducks, and turkeys, scratching, waddling, moving about. A big sow, followed by a roly-poly litter of seven little ones, marched majestically through the chickens, rooting them out of the way. The hens, in turn, took it out on the little porkers, pecking them when they strayed too far from their mother. And over the top rail a horse looked drowsily on, ever and anon, at mathematically precise intervals, switching a lazy tail that flashed high lights in the sunshine.

“It’s a warm day and there are flies—can’t you just feel it?” Saxon whispered.

“Sure. An’ that horse’s tail! It’s the most natural ever. Gee! I bet he knows the trick of clampin’ it down over the reins. I wouldn’t wonder if his name was Iron Tail.”

A dog ran upon the scene. The mother pig turned tail and with short ludicrous jumps, followed by her progeny and pursued by the dog, fled out of the film. A young girl came on, a sunbonnet hanging down her back, her apron caught up in front and filled with grain which she threw to the fluttering fowls. Pigeons flew down from the top of the film and joined in the scrambling feast. The dog returned, wading scarcely noticed among the feathered creatures, to wag his tail and laugh up at the girl. And, behind, the horse nodded over the rail and switched on. A young man entered, his errand immediately known to an audience educated in moving pictures. But Saxon had no eyes for the love-making, the pleading forcefulness, the shy reluctance, of man and maid. Ever her gaze wandered back to the chickens, to the mottled shade under the trees, to the warm wall of the barn, to the sleepy horse with its ever recurrent whisk of tail.

She drew closer to Billy, and her hand, passed around his arm, sought his hand.

“Oh, Billy,” she sighed. “I’d just die of happiness in a place like that.” And, when the film was ended. “We got lots of time for Bell’s. Let’s stay and see that one over again.”

They sat through a repetition of the performance, and when the farm yard scene appeared, the longer Saxon looked at it the more it affected her. And this time she took in further details. She saw fields beyond, rolling hills in the background, and a cloud-flecked sky. She identified some of the chickens, especially an obstreperous old hen who resented the thrust of the sow’s muzzle, particularly pecked at the little pigs, and laid about her with a vengeance when the grain fell. Saxon looked back across the fields to the hills and sky, breathing the spaciousness of it, the freedom, the content. Tears welled into her eyes and she wept silently, happily.

Comments: Jack London (1876-1916) was an American novelist and political activist. His 1913 novel The Valley of the Moon, named after the wine-growing Sonoma Valley of California, is about a working-class couple, Billy and Saxon Roberts, who leave city life behind for work on the land. Their visit to a cinema takes places in Oakland, California, before they settle in the country. A continuous show would indeed have meant that the same film programme would be shown over again, without need for those already seated to purchase another ticket. The Valley of the Moon was filmed as a six-reel feature in 1914, directed by Hobart Bosworth.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive

Mexican Odyssey

Source: Heath Bowman and Stirling Dickinson, Mexican Odyssey (Chicago: Willett, Clark, 1935), pp. 150-151

Text: We join the people walking around the square. French sailors in their immaculate white dress uniforms and pith helmets eye the pretty girls. Are they more beautiful here just for these sailors’ delectation, and do they ever escape their ever-present dueñas? And are their dresses with the big middy-blouse collars in the seamen’s honor, or simply the latest style? For the girls are dressed well in bright summer clothes, and the northern fad for bare legs is really sensible and beautiful here.

From the movie house an amplified victrola is competing with the music outside. Already people are going in, and we find seats in the luneta, half-way back (the best place to see). To us, the people are more fascinating even than the persuasive melody of “Pienselo Bien,” a beguiling, plaintive tune. But to the Mexicans, the center of interest is Ken Maynard, a favorite Western movie star, who is here tonight in person! He has to stand up and bow and smile before they are satisfied.

Always in Mexico there are two movies, almost invariably imported from Hollywood. Westerns are the favorites, but the audience goes wild when their hero, José Mojica, sings for them, as he does tonight. They do not even mind that the newsreel shows the opening of the baseball season in the States, just ten months before, and they cannot understand a picture of a Chicago blizzard, snow swirling about pedestrians. What is snow? Something like ice cream?

Mojica’s picture is laid in the South Seas, and absorbs the Mexicans, although the scenes might have been taken on their own coast. . . . For, as we drive back along their ocean, weaving along the edge where we can look down upon a full moon throwing its wake clear to the breakers below, and as we round the last curve and see our house, black against the shining beach, we wonder what more they could ask.

The jungle is quiet now, it is as if the darkness had obliterated it. But the sea continues to moan. The oldest cry on earth. . . .

Comments: Frederick Heath Bowman (1910-1993) was an American travel writer and later a US Department of State public affairs officer. With his friend and fellow Princeton graduate, the artist Stirling Dickinson (1909-1998), he travelled through Mexico over 1934-35 in a 1929 Ford Model A convertible named ‘Daisy’. Bowman wrote the text and Dickinson provided the illustrations for their popular travel book. The cinema they visited was in Acapulco. José Mojica was a Mexican actor and singer who provided a foreword to Bowman and Dickinson’s book. He later became a Franciscan friar.

Links: Copy at Hathi Trust

Speedsters Replace Cowboys

Source: Thomas Baird, ‘Speedsters Replace Cowboys’, World Film and Television Progress, vol. 2 no. 12 (March 1938), p. 20

Text: A little over twenty years ago, I started to go to the pictures. I was then a small boy
living in a provincial city. There was quite a ritual about this picture-going. The first requirement was a penny. Pennies only come on Saturdays and, strange coincidence, the “Penny Matinee” came on the same day. Part of the ritual was to forswear the sweetie shops on Saturday morning. This called for severe discipline. It is true that we children had watched the highly dramatic posters all the week. Early on Monday morning the bill poster had pasted them up opposite the school gate. At the eleven o’clock interval we hoisted each other up on to the school wall to see the new posters. From the top of the wall would come shouts of: “It’s a cowboy”, or “It’s about lions”, or “There’s a man in a mask”. Imagination eked out these brief abstracts, and by Saturday excitement was at fever pitch; many a Friday night was sleepless in anticipation. But still it was difficult to pass the sweetie shop and occasionally we succumbed to the temptation of toffee-apples and liquorice straps. Once the precious penny was broken there was nothing for it but to get the greatest value by spending in four shops. But Saturday afternoon was a misery without the matinee.

The second item of the ritual was to be at the picture house fully an hour before the programme commenced. We had to stand in a queue and fight periodically to keep our positions. In the quiet periods we read comics, Buffalo Bills, and Sexton Blakes. Part of the ritual was to swap comics. As a story was finished off a shout went up of: “Swap you comics”, and there was great reaching and struggling to pass the paper to someone else in the queue.

About fifteen minutes to three o’clock the queue grew tense. Comics were stuffed in pockets and the battle to retain a place in the queue started. The struggling and pushing continued for about five minutes. Then the doors opened and a stream of children spilled into the picture house. There was a fight for the best seats. The right of possession meant little, and many a well-directed push slid a small boy from a well-earned seat into the passage.

Occasionally the programme was suitable, and by that I mean interesting to us children. Often, however, the feature was quite meaningless to us. On rare occasions I can remember films like Last Days of Pompeii, Tarzan of the Apes, Cowboy films, Twenty Thousand Leagues under the Sea, and the war films, giving us unexpected thrills, but in the main we went for the more comprehensible shorts: Bronco Billy, John Bunny, the Keystone Kops, Ford Sterling, Fatty Arbuckle, then one day a funny little waiter who afterwards we learned to call “Charlie”. Newsreels with soldiers, guns and bursting shells we loved. But we went for one thing above all others — the serial. These were the days of the Clutching Hand, The Exploits of Elaine, The Black Box and The Laughing Mask. Many of the names have faded and been forgotten, but I can recall that the heroine par excellence of all small boys was Pearl White. As Elaine she triumphed week after week, and later, changing with the times, she was Pearl of the Army. The villain of villains was an oriental called Warner Oland and, if I remember rightly, he was the Clutching Hand Himself, but this I will not swear to because these old serials had already learned the trick of making the obviously bad man become good in the last reel. I can remember living through fifteen exciting weeks to learn who the Clutching Hand was: to-day I can’t remember whether it was Oland or not. I seem to be losing my sense of values. Week after week we followed Warner Oland through his baleful adventures. Later he became the malevolent Dr. Fu Manchu. Then for a while I missed him, but, joy of joys, he reappeared as Charlie Chan. It is sad news that he has, perhaps, made his last picture. He has been one of my symbols of a changing cinema; the evil and the nefarious Clutching Hand became in time a prolific and model parent and fought on the side of the angels.

The blonde hero and partner of Pearl White in so many of these episodes was Cr[e]ighton Hale. To us, twenty years ago, he was a superman. He could hang for a week to the edge of a cliff and on the next Saturday miraculously climb to safety. It is perhaps a greater miracle that we, who, in imitation, hung from the washing-house roof, escaped with our lives. But the master mind — the great detective — was Craig Kennedy. That is the name of the character. I doubt if I ever knew the actor’s name and can still remember my astonishment when he turned up as a naval officer in a feature picture. He existed only for us as a detective with no other function than to answer the plea of Cr[e]ighton Hale to discover the whereabouts of Pearl White, or, out of bubbling retorts, to distil the antidote to the bite of the beetle which Warner Oland had secreted in her bouquet of flowers.

Periodically, a rumour ran round. It was whispered in hushed tones in the waiting queue and passed from lip to lip along the rows of excited children. Pearl White was dead. Somebody’s uncle had read in a paper — not an ordinary paper, but an American paper — that she had been killed jumping from an express train on to a motor-cycle. But she kept turning up week after week and this continual resurrection was sufficient to discount each rumour.

Last week I attended a press view of a serial. All the old characters were there. A black-faced villain (Julian Rivero), a thin-lipped henchman (Jason Robarts [sic]), a beautiful schoolboy’s heroine (Lola Lane), a juvenile of strange intelligence and unerring instinct (Frankie Darro) and a hero, smiling, confident, wise, resourceful and athletic (Jack Mulhall). There they all were, and in episode after episode they romped through their tantalizing escapades. The hero leapt from certain death at the end of one reel to equally certain safety at the beginning of the next; falling in mid air at the end of part three, he easily caught hold of a beam at the beginning of part four; flung from a racing car at the end of part four, he landed safely, with never a scratch, in part five. The scream of the heroine in part one turned through tears to laughter in part two; the leer of certain triumph of the villain in part nine turned to a scowl of miserable defeat in part ten.

I was unable to sit through all the hours necessary to reach the satisfactory conclusion which must be inevitable in the final episode, but I am sure that Burn ‘Em Up Barnes kissed Miss Lane in the end, that Frankie Darro achieved his aim both of a college education and being an ace cameraman, that the villains met a sticky end, in a burning racing-car, that Miss Lane never signed that deed which would have ruined her, and which she threatened to sign at least ten times and would have signed, had not Mr. Mulhall, driving at 413.03 miles per hour, arrived in the nick of time. Of all these things I am certain, and who would have it otherwise?

But even with all these familiar items I felt a little strange in the face of this serial. The fatal contract was there; true, the evil leers; true, the heroic athletics; but it was all set in a strange new world. There was no oriental mystery, no cowboy horses, no swift smuggling of drugs, no torture chamber, no shooting, no labs, with fantastic chemistry, no death-ray. It was all set for the new generation of youngsters who read “Popular Mechanics” in the Saturday queues and not for me, with my world of Sexton Blake and Buffalo Bill. The hero is a racing driver. The vital document was not a faded parchment taken from an old sea chest but a cinematograph film taken on a Mitchell. The hidden wealth was not gold but oil. Death came not suddenly by poisoned arrow or slowly in the torture chamber, but fiercely in burning automobiles or lingeringly on the sidewalks after a crash.

Comments: Thomas Baird was a British film journalist and documentary film executive, who worked for the Ministry of Information in the 1940s as its non-theatrical film supervisor. There was no serial named The Clutching Hand in the 1910s or 20s. Instead ‘The Clutching Hand’ was Perry Bennett, the mystery villain played by Sheldon Lewis in The Exploits of Elaine (USA 1914). This was based on the writings of Arthur B. Reeve, whose Craig Kennedy detective character features in the serial, played by Arnold Daly. Pearl White starred as Elaine and Creighton Hale appeared as Walter Jameson in this and the subsequent New Exploits of Elaine (1915) and The Romance of Elaine (1915), the latter of which featured Warner Oland, who became best known for playing the Chinese detective Charlie Chan in the 1930s. The other serials mentioned are The Black Box (USA 1915), Pearl of the Army (1916) and Burn ‘Em Up Barnes (USA 1934). I have not been able to discover what serial is meant by The Laughing Mask. The reference to four shops is because there were four farthings to a penny, and some sweets could be bought for a farthing.

Links: Copy at the Internet Archive (c/o Media History Digital Library)

British Cinemas and Their Audiences

Source: J.P. Mayer, British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies (London: Dennis Dobson, 1948), pp. 198-201

Text: AGE: 20 SEX: F. OCCUPATION: SHORTHAND-TYPIST NATIONALITY: BRITISH
FATHER’S OCCUPATION: POLICE CONSTABLE MOTHER’S OCCUPATION: HOUSEWIFE

I have not the time to be a habitual picturegoer, so when I get the chance to spend a few hours in the cinema, naturally I choose the film I wish to see. I often think that I have more enjoyment this way than if I were to visit a picture-house two or three times in a week.

My animosity against the cinema is not strong – I know what I like and on the whole I am satisfied. Starting with the main feature, I like a good story that is essential and I like the producer to stick to the story, that is if he is making an adaption from a book. I really can’t see any reason for side-tracking into scenes alien from the general text. I can think on one film – Madame Curie – one I looked forward to seeing because I was familiar with her life story and thought it juicy material for the film world to knawe [sic]. I saw Madame Curie, or rather I saw Greer Garson, a dashing glamourised, good actress making me believe that she had known poverty! The film should have been called The Love Story of Pierre Curie and Marie Sklodovska – not Madame Curie. I wanted to see her when she was old, her work during the Great World War No. I – they did not have to employ battle scenes for that part of her life, it could have been portrayed in a field hospital – and it would have given colour (not technicolour) to that part of her life. What I did see of the ageing Madame Curie was a perfect Hollywood make-up addressing a hall of eager students, a perfect Hollywood ending. If the war had not been on, would it not have been a good experiment to make this film with an international film unit. I like a good scientific picture, but they are not good box office unless they are garlanded with Hollywood roses, and this seems to prevent a producer taking a chance. What excellent material these cautious men are missing, but what chances they are giving lesser known independent companies.

I like continental films in their original state, not remakes by our own studios. I like these films because they are sincere no matter how absurd the plot may be or trivial the dialogue. There is good honest down-to-earth work put into these films and I like to applaud their efforts.

I have enjoyed a few good adaptions from best-sellers, one in particular – Rebecca. More than once I have spent an evening in a cinema showing this film, in preference to a third rate at another hall. In my opinion this film was a ‘first’, almost perfect in acting, dialogue and scenery and the music, I must not miss out an important part of the film. They kept to the book as near as they could and I passed over the adaptions necessary in this case they helped the film.

Two films of a serious nature, that seems to be my taste. Comedy? Has to be a very good picture before I can let myself go. Irene Dunne’s pictures seem to be the answer, here I can see wit performed in a sophisticated manner, laughable fun as she canters through not always improbable situations. As for the other comediens [sic] on the screen, I snap my fingers at them, but that is just my taste.

I never did like war films and I still don’t like anything with the slightest flavour of war. My reason? I have no wish to relive the past in a cinema.

I come to the second features, usually what I look forward to. My first choice is James A. Fitzpatrick’s Traveltalks. I bow to this man, and I thank him for his work which I am sure he enjoys thoroughly for bringing his country to my eyes. How often has one of his films superseded a highly coloured main feature. Another second feature series – Crime Does Not Pay. We don’t get enough of them and surely crime is just as rampant here as in the States. Couldn’t Scotland Yard co-operate with the English studios and start a series over here. Then on very rare occasions when I am lucky enough to see one, I enjoy the little cameos on medical research where silent acting predominates and the narrator in plain American explains the subject. Westerns I don’t dislike, but feel indifference towards them. The Stooges – a man threesome enjoyed by the children, but not by me. The Marx Brothers I do like, but I can count on one hand the times I have seen them!

Only once have I seen an experimental film made in America. It was badly made and the story was piecey, but there was enthusiasm oozing through the lens of the camera. The Seventh Victim was the title I have yet to find out who the second victim was. This film was trying to break away from the usual run of mysteries, to bring its art to the man in the street and if they failed, it was through no fault of trying. Taking all defects into consideration, I admired the work put into it and the acting of the unknown young actors and actresses who had been given a chance to show what they could do. That chance means a great deal when you are striking out for yourself.

On the whole, I don’t care where a film is made whether it is in China or over here, so long as it conveys to me that here is good material and here is a good film. What I would like is an international studio producing films of the world in general and isn’t there a saying about two heads being better than one, but in this case, it would be much more.

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 Madame Curie (USA 1943), Rebecca (USA 1940), the Crime Does Not Pay series (USA 1935-1948), and The Seventh Victim (USA 1943, a horror film but not experimental as such). James A. FitzPatrick’s TravelTalks was a series of travelogues (USA 1930-1954) characterised by its cheerful but bland tone.