The Silent Film Bookshelf

The Silent Film Bookshelf was started by David Pierce in October 1996 with the noble intention of providing a monthly curated selection of original documents on the silent era (predominantly American cinema), each on a particular theme. It ended in June 1999, much to the regret to all who had come to treasure its monthly offerings of knowledgeably selected and intelligently presented transcripts. The effort was clearly a Herculean one, and could not be sustained forever, but happily Pierce chose to keep the site active, and there it still stands nine years later, undeniably a web design relic but an exceptional reference resource. Its dedication to reproducing key documents helped inspire the Library section of this site, and it is a lesson to us all in supporting and respecting the Web as an information resource.

Below is a guide to the monthly releases (as I guess you’d call them), with short descriptions.

October 1996 – Orchestral Accompaniment in the 1920s
Informative pieces from Hugo Riesenfeld, musical director of the Rialto, Rivoli and Critierion Theaters in Manhattan, and Erno Rapee, conductor at the Capitol Theater, Manhattan.

November 1996 – Salaries of Silent Film Actors
Articles with plenty of multi-nought figures from 1915, 1916 and 1923.

December 1996 – An Atypical 1920s Theatre
The operations of the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y.

January 1997 – “Blazing the Trail” – The Autobiography of Gene Gauntier
The eight-part autobiography (still awaiting part eight) of the Kalem actress, serialised over 1928/1929 in the Women’s Home Companion.

February 1997 – On the set in 1915
Photoplay magazine proiles of D.W. Griffith, Mack Sennett and Siegmund Lubin.

March 1997 – Music in Motion Picture Theaters
Three articles on the progress of musical accompaniment to motion pictures, 1917-1929.

April 1997 – The Top Grossing Silent Films
Fascinating articles in Photoplay and Variety on production finance and the biggest money-makers of the silent era.

May 1997 – Geraldine Farrar
The opera singer who became one of the least likely of silent film stars, including an extract from her autobiography.

June 1997 – Federal Trade Commission Suit Against Famous Players-Lasky
Abuses of monopoly power among the Hollywood studios.

July 1997 – Cecil B. DeMille Filmmaker
Three articles from the 1920s and two more analytical articles from the 1990s.

August 1997 – Unusual Locations and Production Experiences
Selection of pieces on filmmaking in distant locations, from Robert Flaherty, Tom Terriss, Frederick Burlingham, James Cruze, Bert Van Tuyle, Fred Leroy Granville, H.A. Snow and Henry MacRae.

September 1997 – D.W. Griffith – Father of Film
Rich selection of texts from across Griffith’s career on the experience of working with the great director, from Gene Gauntier, his life Linda Arvidson, Mae Marsh, Lillian Gish and others.

October 1997 – Roxy – Showman of the Silent Era
S.L. Rothapfel, premiere theatre manager of the 1920s.

November 1997 – Wall Street Discovers the Movies
The Wall Street Journal looks with starry eyes at the movie business in 1924.

December 1997 – Sunrise: Artistic Success, Commercial Flop?
Several articles documenting the marketing of a prestige picture, in this case F.W. Murnau’s Sunrise.

January 1998 – What the Picture Did For Me
Trade publication advice to exhibitors on what films of the 1928-1929 season were likely to go down best with audiences.

February 1998 – Nickelodeons in New York City
The emergence of the poor man’s theatre, 1907-1911.

March 1998 – Projection Speeds in the Silent Film Era
An amazing range of articles on the vexed issue of film speeds in the silent era. There are trade paper accouncts from 1908 onwards, technical papers from the Transactions of Society of Moving Picture Engineers, a comparative piece on the situation in Britain, and overview articles from archivist James Card and, most importantly, Kevin Brownlow’s key 1980 article for Sight and Sound, ‘Silent Films: What was the right speed?’

April 1998 – Camera Speeds in the Silent Film Era
The protests of cameramen against projectionsts.

May 1998 – “Lost” Films
Robert E. Sherwood’s reviews of Hollywood, Driven and The Eternal Flame, all now lost films (the latter, says Pierce, exists but is ‘incomplete and unavailable’).

June 1998 – J.S. Zamecnik & Moving Picture Music
Sheet music for general film accompaniment in 1913, plus MIDI files.

July 1998 – Classics Revised Based on Audience Previews
Sharp-eyed reviews of preview screenings by Wilfred Beaton, editor of The Film Spectator, including accounts of the preview of Erich Von Stroheim’s The Wedding March and King Vidor’s The Crowd, each quite different to the release films we know now.

August 1998 – Robert Flaherty and Nanook of the North
Articles on the creator of the staged documentary film genre.

September 1998 – “Fade Out and Fade In” – Victor Milner, Cameraman
The memoirs of cinematographer Victor Milner.

October 1998 – no publication

November 1998 – Baring the Heart of Hollywood
Somewhat controversially, a series of articles from Henry Ford Snr.’s anti-Semitic The Dearborn Independent, looking at the Jewish presence in Hollywood. Pierce writes: ‘I have reprinted this series with some apprehension. That many of the founders of the film industry were Jews is a historical fact, and “Baring the Heart of Hollywood” is mild compared to “The International Jew.” [Another Ford series] Nonetheless, sections are offensive. As a result, I have marked excisions of several paragraphs and a few words from this account.’

December 1998 – Universal Show-at-Home Libraries
Universal Show-At-Home Movie Library, Inc. offered complete features in 16mm for rental through camera stores and non-theatrical film libraries.

January 1999 – The Making of The Covered Wagon
Various articles on the making of James Cruze’s classic 1923 Western.

February 1999 – From Pigs to Pictures: The Story of David Horsley
The career of independent producer David Horsley, who started the first motion picture studio in Hollywood, by his brother William.

March 1999 – Confessions of a Motion Picture Press Agent
An anonymous memoir from 1915, looking in particular at the success of The Birth of a Nation.

April 1999 – Road Shows
Several articles on the practive of touring the most popular silent epics as ‘Road Shows,’ booked into legitimate theatres in large cities for extended runs with special music scores performed by large orchestras. With two Harvard Business School analyses from the practice in 1928/29.

May 1999 – Investing in the Movies
A series of articles 1915/16 in Photoplay Magazine examining the risks (and occasional rewards) of investing in the movies.

June 1999 – The Fabulous Tom Mix
A 1957 memoir in twelve chapters by his wife of the leading screen cowboy of the 1920s.

And there it ended. An astonishing bit of work all round, with the texts transcribed (they are not facsimiles) and meticulously edited. Use it as a reference source, and as an inspiration for your own investigations.

Movies and conduct

Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Banky in The Son of the Sheik (1926)

Motion pictures are not understood by the present generation of adults. They are new; they make an enormous appeal to children; and they present ideas and situations which parents may not like. Consequently when parents think of the welfare of their children who are exposed to these compelling situations, they wonder about the effect of the pictures upon the ideals and behavior of the children. Do the pictures really influence children in any direction? Are their conduct, ideals, and attitudes affected by the movies? Are the scenes which are objectionable to adults understood by children, or at least by very young children? Do children eventually become sophisticated and grow superior to pictures? Are the emotions of children harmfully excited? In short, just what effect do motion pictures have upon children of different ages?

There were so many studies in the early years of cinema, so many anguished articles, doubtless so many sermons preached from pulpits, all seeking to explain the huge attraction of motion pictures among the young and trying to assess the damage done. The above paragraph neatly sums up many of the concerns that adults held – though presumably those adults who weren’t frequenting the cinema much themselves. The questions posed are reasonable enough, but they are underpinned by a fear of the young, a fear of a loss of control. Such studies end up telling us rather more about the prejudices of their authors than the motives of their subjects.

The paragraph comes from American sociologist Herbert Blumer’s Movies and Conduct, published in 1933. The book 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. Sigh. But the reason for highlighting this 1933 book here is not for its questions or its conclusions, but for its evidence. The studies undertaken included interviews with filmgoers, who were asked about their cinema-going experiences as children, and hence it provides us with a rich selection of people’s fresh memories of watching films in the silent era.

Here, for example, are young adults remembering childhood play inspired by films:

Male, 20, Jewish, white, college junior – Quite often I would band together with other youths of my age, and we would play “Cop and Robber” or “Cowboy and Indian” trying to imitate the antics of the actors we saw in the movies. We would arm ourselves with toy pistols and clubs and chase each other over streets and yards. We would climb fences and barns, imagining them to be hills and all other objects necessary to make a realistic scene. At times we would get a little girl to play with us and we would have her be the heroine. Then someone else would rescue her, as we had seen it done in the movies.

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – We had a small hobby horse which was used by the hero and heroine alternately. As my cousin’s backyard was large and contained a large number of trees, we soon learned to climb these with agility, with only one or two casualties resulting a cracked arm and a sprained wrist. From these trees we would lasso the villain and his band as they rode by. We wore this plot almost threadbare and then began to use Indians as the villains. They were always cruel and painted terrifically with mud. These cruel villains usually about three would hide behind a tree about six inches in diameter. This hid them so completely that no one could see them, especially the heroine who happened to be out walking. Then the villain would fall upon her and drag her to the Indian camp about three or four feet away. By that time, of course, the dashing hero would try to make the daring rescue. Sometimes he would succeed, but at other times he would be captured. He would then make the spectacular escape with the heroine in his arms and the wild Indians at his heels. This plot was used many times with but few variations. It provided such a great amount of action that it was always a favorite.

Female, 20, white, college junior – From these pictures I received some of my ideas of beauty. I had a great desire to have curls like Mary Pickford’s and was forced to try to secure them secretly because my father forbade the curling of my hair … I got some comfort out of being “Mary Pickford” in our games, and improved my appearance with the aid of shavings from new buildings near by. I was also fond of old-fashioned clothes which I had first seen in the movies. I always loved to dress up as the old-fashioned lady, and used everything available to make my skirts stick out like a hoop skirt.

Female, 19, white, college sophomore-The first picture which stands out in my memory is “The Sheik” featuring Rudolph Valentino. I was at the impressionable and romantic age of 12 or 13 when I saw it, and I recall coming home that night and dreaming the entire picture over again; myself as the heroine being carried over the burning sands by an equally burning lover. I could feel myself being kissed in the way the Sheik had kissed the girl. I wanted to see it again, but that was forbidden; so as the next best thing my friend and I enacted the especially romantic scenes out under her mother’s rugs, which made excellent tents even though they were hung over the line for cleaning purposes. She was Rudolph and I the beautiful captive, and we followed as well as we could remember the actions of the actors.

There are some particularly rich examples of children becoming so totally immersed in re-enacting what they had seen on the screen that it led to harm:

Male, 20, white, college junior – Two peculiar events are still impressed upon my mind as directly resulting from the influence of the movies. Once we tied one of our members to an oak tree, and notwithstanding his frantic cries, proceeded with a boisterous war-dance about the victim. The struggling boy was almost strangled by the numerous coils of rope about his neck before his frenzied mother appeared to secure his release. At another time, I was compelled to walk home through the deep snow in my stocking feet because my playmates had chosen to forcibly remove my shoes and conceal them, in imitation of a humorous scene which they had witnessed at the theater on the same day.

There is more on imitation of dress, mannerisms, etiquette and modes of behaviour, and how tips from the stars might be adopted when dating:

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – Then came the time when I became interested in men. I had heard older boys and girls talking about “technique” and the only way I could find out how to treat boys was through reading books and seeing movies. I had always known boys as playmates, but having reached my freshman year in high school they became no longer playmates but “dates.” I didn’t want it to be that way but it seemed inevitable. I was asked to parties and dances and friends’ homes. The boys were older and sophisticated. I felt out of place. I noticed that older girls acted differently with boys than they did when with girls alone. I didn’t know what to do.

I decided to try some of the mannerisms I had seen in the movies. I began acting quite reserved, and I memorized half-veiled compliments. I realized my “dates” liked it. I laid the foundation with movie material. Then I began to improvise.

Of course, I had a rival in the crowd. Every time she began to receive more attention from the boys than I, I would see a movie and pick up something new with which to regain their interest. I remember one disastrous occasion. She was taking the center of the stage, and I was peeved. I could think of nothing to do.

Then I remembered the afternoon before I had seen Nazimova smoke a cigarette, and I decided that would be my next move. The party was at a friend’s home and I knew where her father’s cigarettes were kept. I got one, lit it, and had no difficulty whatsoever in handling it quite nonchalantly. The boys were fascinated and the victory was mine.

There is a lot of testimony on taking love-making tips from the movies, with Valentino frequently cited as a model, as in this droll, self-mocking example:

Male, 20, white, college junior – Later Valentino. I studied his style. I realized that nature had done much less for me in the way of original equipment than she had for the gorgeous Rodolfo, but I felt that he had a certain technique that it would behoove me to emulate. I practiced with little success. My nostrils refused to dilate – some muscular incompetency that I couldn’t remedy. My eyes were incapable of shooting sparks of fiery passion that would render the fair sex helpless. I made only one concrete trial. The young lady who was trial-horse for the attempt is still dubious about my mental stability. Worse yet, she made a report of the affair to her friends. The comments that came drifting back to me left no doubt in my mind about the futility of carrying on any longer. I gave up.

And so much more. There are examples of day-dreams and fantasies, of which stars they fell in love with, what induced sorrow, what thrilled them, and memories of what frightened them. The a several memories of a film in which a gorilla with the transplanted brain of a human commits murders (presumably the Bull Montana film Go and Get It, 1920), which clearly terrified many:

Female, 19, white, college sophomore – The horror-pictures and serials used to frighten me when I was a child. I remember one picture in particular I cannot even recollect the name of it but it was a newspaper story and concerned several mysterious killings which, it came out later, were committed by a huge orang-utan which had been given the brain of a man in an experiment by a doctor one of the men killed by the animal. I remember distinctly the scene which frightened me so. The ape was standing in an open window leering at his next victim who was lying in bed, a helpless invalid, rendered even more helpless by fear and horror. Of course, a newspaper reporter, the hero in the story, came in to his rescue just in time and shot the ape, but by that time I had been so thoroughly frightened that I could not sleep that night. Every time I closed my eyes, I could see this ape standing in the window and as the foot of my bed was only a few feet away from an open window, unprotected by even screens, I soon decided to spend the rest of the night in my mother’s bed with her. I remember being so paralyzed with fear that I could scarcely get out of bed, but once my feet touched the floor I ran as fast as I possibly could to my mother and spent not only that night but the next one, also, with her. I do not believe I cried, but I became speechless, powerless, rigid, staring wide-eyed into the dark, and the fright did not leave me for several days.

Finally, there is evidence of lessons learned from the movies, and of prejudices either reinforced or overturned. There is much on racial stereotyping, mostly the Chinese, but also this last piece of testimony summing up much that was worst about the movies:

Female, 17, Negro, high-school senior – It seems to me that every picture picturing a Negro is just to ridicule the race. When a Negro man or woman is featured in a movie they are obliged to speak flat southern words, be superstitious, and afraid of ghosts and white men. They have to make themselves as ugly and dark as possible. The bad things are emphasized and the good characteristics left out. This is very unfair to the race. All Negroes are not alike; there are different types as in other races. Why must they be portrayed as ignorant, superstitious animals instead of decent people that are just as capable of doing great things as any other race; all they need is the chance. It is the same with other dark races besides the Negro. They are always the loser, the shrinking coward, and never the victor. It is very unjust of the white race to make every nation appear inferior compared to them.

You can take or leave the analysis that goes with the text, but the short memoirs themselves are vivid, eloquent and revealing. There is much evidence here for anyone keen to explore the social impact of cinema (particularly on the young) in the 1920s and the mysteries of spectatorship. Movies and Conduct is available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (4.9MB), PDF (22MB) and TXT (542KB) formats. I’ll add it to the Bioscope Library.

Knee-deep in orange peel and pea-nut shells

I gave a talk the other day on children’s cinema-going before the First World War, which reminded me that it’s been a while since I had any of the testimonies of cinema-going in the silent era that I occasionally reproduce here on The Bioscope.

The extracts below come from the unpublished memoirs of Hymie Fagan, of Jewish working class origins, who was born in Stepney in 1903. His autobiography is one of a large collection of unpublished working class autobiographies which are held in the Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies at Brunel University. These autobiographies were collected by John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall while compiling their three volume annotated bibliography, The Autobiography of the Working Class (1984-1989). The texts aren’t available online, and there’s only an index available which gives author, title, and some indication of the location and time period of their memoir. So you’d have to go there to find out more, but here’s evidence from Hymie Fagan of why it would be a worthwhile trip for the dedicated researcher. Here he’s writing about going to the cinema in London before the First World War. It is full of observant detail:

The Picture Palaces, as cinemas were then known, or the Bioscopes, were becoming very popular. I vaguely remember once going with my father to one in Shoreditch High Street, where I was given a bag of sweets, and he a packet of Woodbines to popularise the cinema still more. After his death I used to go to one in Brick Lane. Admission was one ha’penny. Only one film was shown, usually a cowboy and Indian film. We cheered the cowboys like mad and hissed and booed the Indians, for they were always the baddies.

The one-film shows were for the childrens’ matinees. When the film ended the lights went on, and the children ushered out, to enable the next show to start, but some of the boys hid under the seats, so that they could see the film again without paying. Finally the manager became aware of this, and at the end of each performance the attendant would poke under the seats with a long pole to flush out the stowaways, who were then somewhat forcibly removed.

There was another, more expensive, picture palace in Commercial Street, where the gallery cost one penny and the stalls sixpence. A full programme was shown, and not only cowboy and Indian films. Such dramas as “Leah the Forsaken” all about the plight of a Jewess caught in the toils of the Spanish Inquisition. Another was “The Indiarubber Man” who could scale high walls with amazing jumps and disguise himself by changing the shape of his face. Then there were the serials. The heroine in most of these was a star named Pearl White. She was usually left tied to the rails whilst an express came thundering down towards her. I remember her in one serial named “The Perils of Pauline”, and I underwent agonies of suspense each week, until I learned how she managed to escape in the following episode.

Real picture lovers, but poor like me, went into the gallery. Others, who simply wanted to snog in the dark, went into the stalls. Looking down into it, it seemed that nearly all the seats were empty, as indeed they were, for the snoggers preferred the walls round the stalls. The floors from the gallery to the stalls were knee-deep in orange peel and pea-nut shells.

To keep Pearl White’s image before the public the P.R.O. [?] composed a song about her. It went

“My Little Pearl of the Army,
Pearl of my heart so true.
You’re the queen of the picture screen
And the pride of the whole world too.
Whilst the band plays Yankee Doodle
Rule Britannia too
There’s many a lad, who to die would be glad
For a Pearl of a girl like you”.

A later passage covers cinema-going during the First World War, and has useful evidence of the appeal of the cinema’ stars on the young:

Apart from reading and swimming, another joy was the cinema. It was becoming very popular indeed and there was a children’s matinee every Saturday afternoon. Admission was one penny and since mother had no objection because of the Sabbath, I went regularly. I used to arrive almost before anyone else, queuing up impatiently at the box-office, and as the crowd of children grew, so did the yells demanding that it opened, which at last it did, dead on two o’clock. Chaplin was always shown since he was the favourite, and I remember falling off my seat, helpless with laughter at “Champion Charlie”. Then there was Douglas Fairbanks, whose athletic exploits I tried to emulate. Once after he had escaped from his enemies by jumping down a cliff by a series of ledges, I tried to do the same thing on our pitiful crumbling cliffs, but when I jumped onto the first ledge it crumbled under me and I hobbled home on a badly sprained ankle.

There are several other such autobiographies in the Brunel collection, though in my research I looked only for those subjects who had lived in London in the 1896-1914 period. John Burnett’s books looking at nineteenth and early twentieth-century working class life through memoir evidence (Destiny Obscure, Useful Toil) are not hard to find in second-hand shops, and are well worth seeking out, even if none so far as I know touches on the cinema.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 9

Edward Turner

Edward G. Turner, from http://www.victorian-cinema.net

This is the ninth and final part of the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner, pioneer British film distributor with the firm of Walturdaw. The series of articles was originally published in the Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June, 24 June, 1 July and 15 July 1926, under the title ‘From 1896 to 1926: Recollections of Thirty Years of Kinematography’. Other film veterans supplied pieces to the journal at this time – Will Day, Jack Smith, James Williamson, Frank Mottershaw, E.T. Heron, Will Onda, Monte (Monty) Williams – which makes June/July 1926 in the Kinematograph Weekly an area well worth investigating by film historians. Here Turner recalls business during the First World War, through to the 1920s and the demise of the Walturdaw film renting business.

Then the fatal year of 1914 arrived. In February of this year, Walker came to me and said, “Turner, our ten years with the Walturdaw Company expire in Auust, and I have the opportunity of taking over all of the products of the Famous Players organisation; putting them on the English market on a renting basis, part cash and sharing.

“Will you join me when our time expires, or, if not, will you get my release from the Company, as this is too great an opportunity to let pass?”

As he still had six months to serve, I promised to do my best, and at a board meeting held a fortnight later, I secured his release, and the Walturdaw Company gave him a farwell dinner at the Monico on March 17, and so our eighteen years of partnership closed. J.D. Walker founded the Famous Players organisation in this country.

A Good Team

My old friend and I had shared hardships and success together; we had had many ups and downs and many pleasures. We had seen the kinema Industry grow from nothing to an important Industry. We were well matched for a business partnership: he had imagination, inspiration, and his head was always full of schemes; in fact, he was nearly a genius in this respect, but like all people of this type, he had not the patience or the determination to carry out his schemes; in other words, to come down to the hum-drum process of bringing his imagination to concrete facts.

I am not brilliant in imagination, neither am I a genius, but I have the faculty of dogged determination and perseverance, and the knack of geting down to things and working them out to their logical conclusions. This is very essential to bring brilliant schemes to a practical end.

I believe we both made a mistake in parting: we had got to know each other so well, he to scheme and I to carry out, that we were both somewhat lost when we parted, and I believe that had we not done so, his name to-day would be a household word, as it was in the years of which I am speaking, and both our fortunes would have been on a higher plane.

The War

In August, 1914, the Great War started. We had many thousands of pounds worth of German film just issued, or about to be issued. In two months its value was the price of scrap for melting down to make dope for our aeroplanes. This was a first big knock.

The following three years were ones of anxiety in every respect for everybody, but we all did our best to keep the flag flying. We had 95 per cent. of our our staff in the Army – all volunteers, and we had to keep the business going to provide a place for them when they came back, if they ever did. Out of our entire male staff there were only two other man and myself left, we either being over age of permanently turned down as physically unfit.

The year 1918 found me in communication with J.D. Williams, who just then had founded the First National Pictures in America, with English rights in view, and I secured these for my company in face of great opposition.

Daddy Long Legs

Daddy Long Legs (1919)

The F.N. Contract

Mr. Williams had gathered under his banner practically all the great artistes of America, including Mary Pickford, and I secured three of her productions: “Heart o’ the Hills,” “The Ragamuffin,” and “Daddy Long Legs.” For these I paid a record figure, but all the world knows what a huge success “Daddy Long Legs” was, and then we began to get films quicker than we could put them out, which is nearly as bad as not getting enough, because they could not be worked out to their capacity.

In the year 1920, a great slump took place in the English poound in America. We were having weekly consignments over, and as we were paying dollars against the depreciated pound, our losses in this respect amounted to over £30,000. Then the company with whom we had fixed up our programme for 1923 and 1924 began to fail in delivering to time, and eventually stopped altogether. This was the third great block, becuase it left us with a big organisation and nothing to put out to the exhibitors, and finally, the Walturdaw Company had to close down, going into voluntary liquidation.

But the Walturdaw Cinema Supply Company, of which to-day I am a director, sprang up from its ashes like the Phoenix of old, and we are carrying on the traditions of the old company – carrying all its personnel, and I am sure the good will of the thousands of old clients.

Such is the review which has passed before my mind during the time I have been jotting down this article and it practically gives the life story of the kinema trade.

Turner’s optimism was not ill-founded. The Walturdaw Cinema Supply Company continued as a successful provider of cinema equipment for decades. Turner himself became a senior figure within the film industry. He became chairman of the Kinematograph Renter’s Society and the Kinematograph Manufacturer’s Association, and president of the Cinema Veterans Society. He died in 1962.

The previous parts of Turner’s memoir are available here:

Part 1: The first film shows
Part 2: Popular film titles of the 1890s
Part 3: Pitching the product to the working classes, and developing film renting
Part 4: Exhibition in the 1890s and the effect of the Bazar de la charité fire
Part 5: The London County Council’s fire regulations and the cinematograph business
Part 6: The hiring business and establishing the Walturdaw name
Part 7: Developing fireproof equipment
Part 8: Flicker Alley and the rise of the exclusive film.

The Classic Slum

The Classic Slum

http://www.amazon.co.uk

It’s been a while since we had any memoirs of cinema-going. This, as regulars may know, is a particular research topic of mine, particularly memoirs of those who were children in London before the First World War.

The example below, however, comes from Salford. It comes from a renowned memoir of working class life, Robert Roberts’ The Classic Slum: Salford life in the first quarter of the century (1971). Roberts looks back to his childhood in Edwardian Salford, combining the personal with academic historical research in a uniquely powerful combination. As Roberts says, “few historians are the sons of labourers”, and his account of hard urban poverty hits you with eloquently-expressed authenticity.

The section from The Classic Slum on the cinema is typically evocative and filled with telling observations. He identifies the joyous effect that the cinema had upon its early, working class audiences, but also how it was a boon for women as a legitimised form of entertainment that had none of the social stigma of the pub. He also makes useful observations about seat pricing policies, children reading out intertitles to help out the illiterate, and the genuine educative value of the cinema.

Cinema in the early years of the century burst like a vision into the underman’s existence and, rapidly displacing both concert and theatre, became both his chief source of enjoyment and one of the greatest factors in his cultural development. For us in the village the world suddenly expanded. Many women who had lived in a kind of purdah since marriage (few respectable wives visited public houses) were to be noted now, escorted by their husbands, en route for the ‘pictures’, a strange sight indeed and one that led to much comment at the shop. Street corner gossip groups for a time grew thin and publicans complained angrily that the new fad was ruining trade: men were going to the films and merely calling in at the tavern for an hour before closing time. The disloyalty of it! Children begged, laboured and even thieved for the odd copper that would give them two hours of magic, crushed on a bench before the enchanting screen.

Moralists were not long in condemning cinema as the tap-root of every kind of delinquency. Cinema owners protested virtue: one kept an eight-foot-long poster across his box office: ‘CLEAN AND MORAL PICTURES. Prices – 2d. and 4d.’ In our district the Primitive Methodist chapel, recently bankrupt and closed, blossomed almost overnight into the ‘Kinema’. There during the first weeks would-be patrons of its twopenny seats literally fought each night for entrance and tales of crushed ribs and at least two broken limbs shocked the neighbourhood. In the beginning cinema managers, following the social custom of the theatre, made the error of grading seats, with the most expensive near the screen and the cheapest at the back of the house. For a short time the rabble lolled in comfort along the rear rows while their betters, paying three times as much, suffered cricked necks and eye strain in front. Caste and culture forbade mixing. A sudden change-over one evening, without warning, at all the local cinemas caused much bitterness and class recrimination. By 1913 our borough still retained its four theatres, but already thirteen premises had been licensed under the Cinematograph Act.

Yet silent films for all their joys presented the unlettered with a problem unknown in theatres – the printed word. Often in the early days of cinema, captions broke into the picture with explanations long, sententious and stage-ridden. To bypass this difficulty the short-sighted and illiterate would take children along to act as readers. In this capacity I saw my own first film. When the picture gave place to print on the screen a muddled Greek chorus of children’s voices rose from the benches, piping above the piano music. To hear them crash in unison on a polysyllable became for literate elders an entertainment in itself. At the cinema many an ill-educated adult received cheap and regular instruction with his pleasure, and some eventually picked up enough to dispense with their tutors. Yet in spite of all the aids to culture and learning, unknown fifty years before – compulsory education, free libraries, the spate of cheap print, the miles of postered hoarding, and the cinema, the brightest lure of all – among the lower working class a mass of illiterates, solid and sizeable, still remained.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 8

Let us return once more to the memoirs of Edward G. Turner, British pioneer film distributor, who in 1926 wrote a series of articles for the Kinematograph Weekly on his thirty years in the film business. Turner here describes how the ealy British film business in the late 1900s started to gather in one area of London, soon to be affectionately named ‘Flicker Alley':

“Flicker Alley”
We had splendid premises at Dane Street, but as the industry grew, it was necessary to have a common centre, where customers from the provinces could make their purchases easily and not have to travel all over London to visit the different firms, and so the trade began to drift west, and Cecil Court, where Gaumont’s had so long been established, became the centre of the trade – so much so that the court lost its proper name and became known as “Flicker Alley”.

We reluctantly decided to go West, and did establish ourselves at 40, Gerrard Street. I always think it was a mistake for the Trade to setle upon the most expensive quarter in London for their offices, showrooms and stores, as our trade demands plenty of space, and the West is very expensive; that is why nearly all of us, even to-day, are cramped for room.

By this time the old showman had given up travelling and had opened permanent kinemas; others had followed, and everywhere the picture Industry was booming, and kinemas were springing up like mushrooms all over the country. This was good for houses like ours, which dealt not only in films and machines, but in all other requisities for the kinema. Those were good days indeed – and profitables ones.

Simon Brown has written an excellent essay on the history of Flicker Alley, which identifies all of the film businesses based there, for the latest issue of Film Studies (issue 10, Spring 2007). This specially-themed issue on cities just so happens to have an essay by me on children’s cinema-going in London before the First World War as well, so all the more reason for the dedicated to seek it out. Cecil Court is now London’s home for second-hand and antiquarian booksellers.

The Exclusive

About this period saw the introduction of the exclusive. Which firm introduced this system I am afraid will never been known definitely. They say great minds think alike, and it is a debatable point as to which was actually the firm, Jury’s, Andrew’s, or ourselves, but all exhibitors will remember our first one, namely: “Fools of Society”, as it brought golden records to their pay-boxes. The idea caught on with the Trade, and so a new era was started in film renting.

About this time we represented nearly all the German film producers, two of the stars being Henny Porten and the great Asta Nielsen, and the time came when we had to leave 40, Gerrard Street for larger and more commodious premises at 46.

This, I think, was in the year 1913, just at the time when the Famous players Producing Company began to put their films on the English market, and we purchased from them the first long Mary Pickford films ever made: “A Good Little Devil” (6,000 ft.), “In the Bishop’s Carriage” (6,000 ft.), and “Caprice” (5,000-6,000 ft.). We originated the phrase “The World’s Sweetheart” for this great little artist.

A bold and most unlikely claim!

About that time also we put the Clarendon Film Co’s big film, “The Great Fire of London”, and Barker’s big creations, “East Lynne” and “Jane Shore”, the latter being one of the most ambitious that any English producer had ever made.

What visions of full houses these names must conjure up to those exhibitors who played them!

(To be continued.)

The ‘exclusive’ film system was a break away from a uniform pricing policy for any kind of film (so much per foot) to the marketing of higher quality films on an exclusive basis, usually determined by territory or time period. The most notorious example was Will Barker’s marketing of his Henry VIII (1911), which he made available to exhibitors for a short period only (six weeks) at high prices, then publicly burned all the prints. No one else pursued such a drastic policy, but the introduction of exclusive hire for quality films caught on quickly, as was an important development for the British film trade, cementing the renting sector of the business, and impressing on everyone for the first time the idea of film as (occasionally) art.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 7

We return to the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner of the Walturdaw company, pioneer film distributors. Turner is now talking about their business situation in the 1900s, when they turned to production as well as distribution. As is usual with Turner, what gives him equal pleasure is the mechanical side of the business, here devices for preventing fire, and getting the better of the London County Council.

Prior to our moving to Dane Street, the three partners had not definite duties. We all put our hands to whatever was required of us during the day, and acted as operators at night. We were buyers and sellers of everything in the kinematograph Industry, new or secondhand.

There was one member, however, whose inclinations were photographically inclined, and so we took lease of Wembley Park and erected there something novel in the way of outdoor studios – a revolving platform, which allowed us to put up three sets of scenery at a time, when the wind allowed it, and each could be brought to the camera as required. Further, it was so constructed that we could always get the best of the light and sunshine.

[Ernest] Howard took charge of this department – his lieutenants being J.B. McDowell and E. Bloomfield – these latter were our cameramen.

Albert Bloomfield left Walturdaw in 1908, forming the British & Colonial Kinematograph Company, J.B. McDowell soon joining him. McDowell would go on to achieve lasting fame as a cameraman in the First World War, filming much of the documentary feature The Battle of the Somme (1916). Interestingly, one of the companies he worked for before Walturdaw was the British Mutoscope and Biograph Company, which had a revolving open-air studio (on the Thames embankment) much as Turner describes, dating around 1899.

[J.D.] Walker took over the Film Hire Department, [G.H.J.] Dawson the Entertainment Department, and myself the Sales and Accessory Department. The business thus became sectionalised, each man devoting himself exclusively to his own side of the business, whereas in the past we had been cosmopolitan in this respect. Things grew apace, and we were doing business with all parts of the world.

A Fireproof Spool

One day at Dane Street, the late Mr. Holmes, of Essex Road, who was the chief kinematograph mechanic to Levy Jones, of Horton Square, called to see me, and found me experimenting with a tin box. Instantly he said to me, ‘I see what you are after, I am working on the same thing; suppose we join forces?’

While we were discussing the point, my eye fell on a kinematograph camera film box (in those days the boxes were outside the camera). At once we had solved the problem. Why not make a copy of the camera film box in metal, fit it to the top of the kinema machine, make a similar box for the bottom spool-arm and so get fire-proof spool boxes?

The first pair were made of mahogany, and Mr. Holmes used them pretty regularly. They answered their purpose perfectly. We then had them made in metal and thus came about one of the greatest improvements in the kinema world.

A Lost Fortune

I took the model to Mr. Wrench and asked his advice as to taking out a patent, as I had done previously with the fireproof gate. I shall remember his words as long as I live:

He told me he had taken out over 100 patents on his lanterns, and never made any money out of any of them; other makers copied, and rarely was he able to stop them, except at great expense. Further, non-flam film was bound to be perfected in a month or two (it was always to be a month or two as it is to-day), and when non-flam film did come out, that would solve all our difficulties with the L.C.C., insurance companies and other authorities.

Alas! I took his advice and lost a fortune. The owner of those patents would be rolling in untold wealth to-day, as spool-boxes are compulsory all over the world.

Films, of course, were of cellulose nitrate, and were highly inflammable. ‘Non-flam’, or safety films (cellulose acetate) were often talked about, but in general they lacked the robustness of nitrate. Some safety systems were available around 1908, but cellulose acetate really only found use for narrow gauge systems designed for non-theatrical and amateur use, of which Edison’s 22mm Home Kinetoscope system, introduced in 1912, was the first.

The L.C.C. Butts In

No more was heard of fireproof spool-boxes until the demonstration which was given at the London Hippodrome, on December 17, 1908, when no fewer than ten firms exhibited, before the representatives of the London County Council and insurance bodies, their machines, showing how they had tackled the question of making the machines safe.

Incidentally, I claim to have had a good deal to do with this demonstration. It came about in this way. Passing the Hippodrome about a fortnight previously, I found that a demonstration of fire extinguishing apparatus for kinematographs was being given inside the Hippodrome. I walked in to see what was moving, and discovered that the apparatus was similar to an ordinary water cistern, such as are used in w.c.’s, fitted on four rods and suspended over the machine; this was the ingenious arrangement that the trade had been called together to see.

The apparatus was so arranged that if a piece of film caught fire it released a spring and the water supposed to come down and put the fire out. I, with a number of other exhibitors, saw this absurd apparatus, and laughed it to scorn, but certain members of the County Council were strongly in favour of foisting this wretched thing upon the trade.

The Test that Failed

Mr. Brandon (one of the oldest exhibitors) and myself, stepped into the ring and challenged the efficacy of this absurd invention, and I, as spokesman, asked that a fair test might be given, first to the apparatus which the various makers were selling, and secondly, that the County Council would call us together to demonstrate. The test was to be under the same conditions that we would have if we were actually showing, and this challenge was accepted.

Frank Allen kindly granted us the use of his ring, and on December 7 the demonstration was given, and proved the death knell of the water cistern, for when the film was set fire to by means of the rays from the arc lamp, the wretched invention failed, the water instead of coming down all over the spool and putting the fire out, simply fell over the bottom spool and damaged the film – and let the rest flare away.

All the other machines were tested very severely by the judges, and each came out triumphant. Some of the tests were really severe, inasmuch as they fired the film on the top sprocket, the bottom sprocket, and in the gate, and yet in no instance did the fire enter into the spool cases.

Stay turned for the next episode, when Turner tells us about ‘Flicker Alley’ and discusses the rise of the exclusive.

From 1896 to 1926 – part 5

Cinematograph show under the new L.C.C. rules

Cartoon parodying the alarm over the L.C.C.’s first regulations for film exhibition, from The Showman, 8 March 1901 (signed as being originally from The Photographic Dealer, 1898)

Back to the reminiscences of Edward G. Turner, the pioneer British film distributor. We’re still in the 1890s (we will move out of them eventually), and Turner and his partner J.D. Walker have their first encounter with the London County Council (L.C.C.), which had responsibility for the inner London area, including its public entertainments. The L.C.C. had become alarmed by the threat of fire presented by cinematograph exhibitions.

On November 8, 1897 I had an engagement at the Old Balham Baths, which I believe to-day is a permanent kinema. We had a notification from the L.C.C. that we could not show unless the apparatus and operator were enclosed in a fireproof enclosure.

This notification was delivered to us 48 hours befiore the show. So I worked all day and night in making a box out of corrugated iron. The dimensions were 4 ft. wide, 6 ft. long and 6 ft. high. The sizes were determined by the iron sheets.

This was the first operating-box ever made, and was used at Balham. This box again served as the model for practically every portable iron house, even to its dimensions, and the shutters which I originally made for this box became the standard article for this type of box.

Enter the L.C.C.

In those days the London County Council had no officers for dealing with kinematographic affairs. Somewhere about November they appointed a Mr. Vincent, who, I believe, was the head of the Chemistry Department in Villiers Street, Strand, as the officer responsbile for looking after these affairs. This gentleman inspected our box at Balham on the afternoon of the display, and told us that he would pass the box, subject to same being painted with asbestos paint inside and out.

Why this precaution I have never been able to understand, but the effects on Mr. Walker and myself were disastrous, as we had to work in this confined space, and before the end of the performance we had answered the riddle “Can a leopard change its spots?” We went in in black suits, and came out piebald, with most of the paint adhering to our clothes.

It was at Great Eastern Street that the first operating-box was made, and later improved by the addition of adjustable shutters.

The original box was fitted with a dead-man lever, i.e., the shutters had no means of being held up while the picture was being projected, except by a wire over a pulley, which was attached to a piece of wood about 15 in. long. One end of the wood rested on the floor, and the other, to which the wire was attached, would be about 6 in. off the floor.

The operator placed his foot upon the wood, which by its weight lay flat upon the floor, and the wire would automatically raise the shutter of the operating-box. If he took his foot off the lever, or fainted, or as soon as the pressure was removed from the lever down came the shutter. Later, we did away with the lever.

Soon we moved our offices to the second floor of Wrench’s premises at 50, Gray’s Inn Road, and after nine to twelve months we shifted our quarters to Nos. 77 and 78, High Holborn.

The Safety Shutter

When we had our office at 50, Gray’s Inn Road, we conceived the idea of automatic shutters to fall down between the light and the film. In those days we tested every machine that Wrench made, and, naturally, we took the idea to him, and in his workshop on the top floor, I believe, his mechanic worked out our idea and fitted the shutter, the opening and closing of same being worked by governor balls.

Wrench is Alfred Wrench. The long-established optical firm of J. Wrench & Sons became leading suppliers of cinematographic equipment at this time, and their offices at 50 Gray’s Inn Road housed a number of early film companies, including Will Barker’s Autoscope company, and later the Topical Film Company, as well as the eventual Wrench Film Company.

We then thought of covering in the space between the lensholder and the front of the film gate, working on the known law that combustion cannot take place without air, so that if the film fired in the gate, it went out, because there was not sufficient air left to support combustion, and thus was evolved the first fireproof gate, and we gave it to the world for nothing.

At this time we were doing business with Pat Collins (now an M.P.), Biddell Bros., the late George Green (of Glasgow), Haggar (of Wales), Dick Dooner, Jacob Studd and his sister, Hastings and Whyman, Ralph Pringle, Edison Thomas, Boscoe, all showmen; and, among lecturers, T.M. Paul, A.E. Pickard, A.H. Vidler, Waller Jeffs, Professor Wood, T.R. Woods, Baker (of Liverpool), and Lenton (of the Sherwood Film Agency), who bought his first outfit from me.

We, of course, had a number of competitors:- Joyce, of Oxford; McKenzie, of Edinburgh; Walker, of Edinburgh or Glasgow; Nobby Walker, of Bermondsey; F. Gent, of London; Jury, of Peckham (now Sir William); Brandon Medland; Matt Raymond and his lieutenant Rockett; Fowler and Ward, Ruffles Bioscope; Weisker, of Liverpool; Carter, of Leeds; Lens Bros., of Lancashire; Henderson, of Newcastle, and Gibbons (now Sir Walter). This list by no means exhausts the number.

Early Operators

Some of the operators I can remember who worked for us at this time are as follows:- Chas. Harper, C.H. Coles, W.M. Morgan, “Baby” Morgan, E.T. Williams, Jack Herbert, E. Mason (of Charrington’s, Mile End), J. Gardiner and his brother, George Palmer, W.W. Whitlock (now of gramophone fame), J. Nethercote (a school teacher), A. Malcolm, W. Walker, F. Hull, H. Luner, Joe Saw, Harry Last, F. Haward, Will Turner, T. Bosi (now of Herne Bay).

What an amazing list of names of those involved in the film business in the late 1890s. The showmen’s names are mostly familiar, being prominent fairground figures such as Ralph Pringle, Dick Dooner and William Haggar (soon to be a notable film producer). Edison Thomas is the notorious A.D. Thomas, a larger-than-life figure much associated with Mitchell and Kenyon. Waller Jeffs became a leading exhibitor in the Midlands, Matt Raymond, previously having worked for the Lumières, went on to become a prominent cinema owner (his assistant was Houghton Rockett), the Scottish Walker is William Walker, William Jury went on to become cinema’s first knight, while Walter Gibbons (also knighted) established the London Palladium. But many of those names are unknowns, and offer tantalising new avenues for research.

More from E.G. Turner in a few days’ time.

Freak shows and cinematographs

As initiatives such as the Crazy Cinematographe show and DVD are showing, the cinema came out of the fairground and its displays were seen by many as at one with freak shows, waxworks and performing animals. Just as many would probably say that this remains the case. Anyway, published this week is fascinating evidence of this parentage. The Society for Theatre Research has published The Journals of Sidney Race, 1892-1900: A Provincial View of Popular Entertainment. Sidney Race was a gas company clerk, living in Nottingham, who started writing down what he saw of life in the city, including its many public entertainments, notably the Nottingham Goose Fair.

From 1892 to 1900, Race recorded his impressions of bearded ladies, armless wonders, performing seals and dancing bears, with a keen eye for ordinary detail. And so, naturally enough, he took note of the cinematograph when it arrived in Nottingham. His first impression was one of scant glamour:

It was a dirty canvas tent with the sheet arranged by the entrance and the apparatus on an old box or two opposite it where it was worked by a grim looking individual as black as a stoker.

Later he recorded seeing a ‘Living Pictures’ in Long Row, Nottingham, where he recorded that:

an enormous number of photographs, taken consecutively, are whirled with the speed of lightning, before your eyes.

He saw films shown on the Edison Kinetoscope, trick films, dramatised scenes depicting the Greco-Turkish War (made by Georges Méliès), and numerous ‘exceedingly improper’ films’. He describes one film which evidently made a particular impression. It was called The Model’s Bath.

A woman – we could detected a large smile on her face – divested herself of her skirt and other outer objects of clothing and appeared in her white drawers and chemise … The girl was in a large white night dress which had fallen down from the breast disclosing a well developed ‘frontage’ … It was a dirty and suggestive exhibition though we really saw no indecency … I am very glad it was late at night when I saw the thing and that no lady was with me.

This remarkable find was made by theatre historian Ann Featherstone, University of Manchester, who came across the journal in the Nottingham Archives. It’s not unknown to film historians, as Vanessa Toulmin of the National Fairground Archive has used the journals, and cites several passages in her essay ‘The Cinematograph at the Nottingham Goose Fair, 1896-1911′, in Alan Burton and Laraine Porter (eds.), The Showman, the Spectacle & the Two-Minute Silence: Performing British Cinema Before 1930 (2001). She notes Race’s scepticism, indicating that early audiences were not always taken in by the trickery of some films as some have suggested, being able to tell a dramatised war scene from the likely reality, for instance.

I’ve not yet seen a copy of the publication, and it’s not easy to find information on it, not least because there’s nothing as yet on the Society for Theatre Research’s web site. There’s a citation for the original journal on the Nottinghamshire Heritage Gateway. I’ll put up more information when I find it.

Update (March 2008):
This message has come from the Journals’ editor:

Hello, I’m Ann Featherstone. I edited the Journals of Sydney Race, published by the Society for Theatre Research. I’ve been working on and around these fascinating journals for about 10 years (!), and I was really glad when the STR agreed to publish the selection. They are absolutely fascinating. Sadly, the book hasn’t appeared on the STR website – I don’t know why. But if anyone wants a copy, please email me. The cost is £11.50 (inc. p & p).

Email Ann at a.featherstone3 [at] ntlworld.com

From 1896 to 1926 – part 4

Fire at the Bazar de la charité, in Paris, on May 4, 1897

Fire at the Bazar de la charité, in Paris, on May 4, 1897 © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from www.parisenimages.fr

We return, after something of a gap, to Edward G. Turner, the pioneer British film distributor, whose reminiscences, written in 1926 for the Kinematograph Weekly, are a rich source of information on early film business practice. Here Turner discusses exhibition in the late 1890s, with particular reference to the effects of the Bazar de la Charité fire:

The First Exhibitors

The earliest exhibitors were fairground showmen, magic lantern lecturers, and men who earned their living by giving private entertainments. The theatres and music-halls took to pictures as a nine-day wonder which would have its day and die.

I remember a time about the end of 1897 when there was not a single music-hall or theatre showing pictures in London. It was only a temporary lull, however, chiefly caused through the lack of subjects. With the advent of the Edisonagraph, Mutoscope, and the American Bioscope, the pictures became a permanent installation in the music-halls in London, but the early showmen and lantern lecturers were the men who were making the pictures popular all over the country.

These were the men who had sunk their little all in the Industry, and they kept pegging away, believing that it must eventually win out, and that the subjects would not be confined to 40 or 50 ft. lengths, but whole stories would be filmed.

The great bar to progress was the difficulty of getting new subjects except by buying them outright, and I think my partner and myself solved the problem for the world by instituting the renting system. Little did we think that that system would spread all over the wide world, and grow to the great business it is to-day.

In those first days we only did it spasmodically, because we had very few customers, but later on when the pictures had caught on, and village halls, churches, and chapels were taking up the pictures and giving regular weekly displays, our hire system grew rapidly. We would buy as many as ten and twelve prints of a film, which was entitled “Landing an Old Lady From a Small Boat.” Our first regular hirer was Ted Lacey, of Barnards M.H. Chatham. My first customer to buy films was Mr. Henderson, of Newcastle.

This is George Henderson, of Stockton, whose surviving film collection is held by British Movietone News and available to view from their website. There’s information on this important early film collection in an earlier post, Movietone and Henderson.

We then extended operations to the entertainment bureaus, such as:- Whiteley’s, Keith Prowse, Harrods, Gamage, Webster and Girling, H.L. Toms, Woods, of Cheapside, Ashton and Mitchell, Army and Navy Stores, the Church Mission Halls, Salvation Army, the Leysian Mission, City Road, and many more whose names at the moment I cannot remember, and after thirty years, we still do business with practically all the above-named firms.

The most disastrous fire that has ever occurred in our Trade took place on May 4, 1897. It is still remembered as the Paris fire. No fewer than 130 people lost their lives in the panic and stampede which occurred, and amongst those killed were the Duchess d’Alençon (sister of the Empress of Austria), Duke d’Aumale, Baron d’Sainte Didier, and General Munier (or Muiner). The Life Assurance losses were paid as to two-thirds American companies and the remaining one-third French – the total being twelve million francs, which, in that day, represented £480,000.

The kinematograph got the blame of this fire, but it actually occurred after the operator had finished giving his display of films, and was showing some slides. He was using an ether saturator, which was giving out, and he started to replenish same by pouring fresh ether in, and, of course, at once the fumes caught fire. The exhibition was being given in a large marquee. It was decorated with inflammable material, and soon the whole was one roaring mass of flame. The tent contained bazaar stalls, etc., and the bazaar was patronised by the principal nobility and well-known people of France – which explains the enormous sums paid by the life insurance companies.

The rubble after the fire at the Bazar de la charité on May 4, 1897, in Paris

The rubble after the fire at the Bazar de la charité on May 4, 1897, in Paris © Roger-Viollet. Reproduced from www.parisenimages.fr

This was the notorious fire of 4 May 1897 at the Bazar de la Charité, Paris, at which a Joly film projector had been used. As Turner correctly recalls, the fire was not caused by the cinematograph but instead by a Molteni ether lamp, but the calamity was swiftly associated with motion pictures, and caused great damage to the reputation of the medium.

Insurance Difficulties

This had the effect of making the Insurance Companies look askance at the kinematograph; and the mere mention of the word sent a shudder through the official minds. The public memory, however, is very short, and the desire for amusement great, and as new subjects arrived on the scene, slowly but surely, we overcame these difficulties.

Within a month of this happening I had an engagement at the St. Martin’s Town Hall. On the afternoon, I presented byself with an apparatus at the hall, and the dismay on the face of the official when he saw it was a kinematograph, accompanied by cylinders of gas, can be well imagined.

He informed the authorities at once, and one official informed me that the display could not be given. After half-an-hour, I got their sanction – they only giving way because they had failed to give notice that they would not permit a kinematograph.

The following week a resolution was passed that no kinematograph should ever be allowed in the hall again, and I believe that this is so even up to the present time. I am the only person who has ever given a display in the Westminster Town Hall, St. Martin’s Lane.

(To be continued)

The memoirs so far have been taken from the Kinematograph Weekly, 17 June 1926, pp. 53-54, and further installments will follow in due course. You can follow the earlier installments here: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3.

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