100 years ago

One of the elements of early cinema shows that is frequently forgotten is the presence of a lecturer. It certainly wasn’t the case for every show, and as cinemas spread, got bigger, and intertitles became common, the lecturer became redundant. But this inheritance from the variety theatres and fairground shows where films were first exhibited lingered for a time as cinemas were first developing and many felt the need to have the sometimes bewildering action on the screen explained to them.

How common were such lecturers? It is interesting that in all the memoirs of early cinema-going in London, of which I’ve made a special study, there is not a single mention of someone talking to the pictures. Nevertheless, there were definitely some around, though by the time of this article from The Bioscope of a hundred years ago they starting to become anachronistic. The article, with its quaint language and references to Greek oratory, is describing an ideal, much as other articles from this time describe the sort of music that the author feels should be played in cinemas, rather than the music that actually was.

So we have to read between the lines, and to understand that everything the writer says the lecturer should not do is what the average lecturer almost invariably did.

Explain the Pictures!

The Most Pressing Need of the Day is an intelligent description of Film Plots and Travel Pictures

There seems to be a tendency amongst present day managers to quietly lean back on the reputations they built up in the early years of the industry, confident that the impetus which they engendered then by real grit and toil will carry them along and keep them in the front rank for all time. We must always be on the qui vive. We must not be deceived and deluded by a long period of properity, but must watch for fresh and new fields of enterprise. Good pictures and good prices must not be the only consideration.

One of the most urgent requirements to-day is that every picture shall be introduced to the audience in a manner that will ensure the good points of the film being intelligently appreciated. The developments in the selection and the building up of subjects during the last few years have schooled us until we are quite decided that the lay mind – the mind which is not always devoted to the manufacture and the elucidation of screen mysteries – is quite incapable of seeing and of comprehending the inner nature and the underlying humanity which are the life and soul of to-day’s great creations. Nowadays the lecture is an attribute to success. Some managers have seen it already; others are slowly discovering the fact; while as to the remaining many, we are going to explain to them why they should lecture and how. And if they accept our advice, and act on it, we shall not wait long for their thanks.

Verbal explanation is necessary, finally, because it is impossible to place on the screen real pathos and real humanness – these must be preserved from the full glare of people’s eyes or the effect is lost; secondly, because spectators will not trouble to look for these latent qualities unless the search is suggested to them; and, thirdly, because educational travel pictures minus an explanation of why they should be considered important enough to occupy the screen tend to make interest wane and eventually to fade away altogether.

The Greek orator, when asked what was the essence of speech making, answered “Delivery”. The essence of giving a lecture on a bioscope picture is not distinguished by such a word. The lecturer’s key to success is “to tell the tale”. It should be told simply, clearly and intellectually. The lecturer should know the picture well before he attempts to explain it to others. He should keep perfect pace with the projecting machine, should quietly indicate the inner cause when the outer result is taking place. He should indulge in no stock phrases, no personal reminiscences which the picture may recall, no opaque phrases, no drawn-out, windy sentences; in fact, nothing which could possibly lower his description in the estimation of any single member of his audience. Let him always keep well in mind that he is talking to an assembly, not to a few of his acquaintances, who would probably laugh at his jokes and listen to his rhetoric merely for the sake of their friendship. Audiences do not tolerate any admixture of personality. They want the discription [sic] to be clear, unalloyed, to serve the purpose which it is intended to serve.

But while endeavouring to make himself understood by using words which everyone knows and sentences the meaning of which will be readily grasped by all, the lecturer must guard against falling into the opposite error – that of making his explanation too elementary. Either extreme is wrong, and not wanted. By making his story too academical he will run the risk of being thought by a portion of his audience, to be aiming higher than is necessary, and if he is so unfortunate as to lose himself for a moment, the chaos, which is always threatening, comes; while if he goes too far in the other direction his listeners will accuse him of looking down on them. So the only sensible course to pursue is a middle one. Let the words used be ordinary ones, but let the construction of the sentences be perfect. Do not have your lecture “scrappy” and disconnected. The more intellectual people object strongly to this, and never listen to it more than once.

Above all else, make the story bright. Make your explanation worthy of the beautiful picture you are showing. Every description can be made bright and sparkling, for it is not the subject but the way it is exploited that determines the amount of interest the narrative shall be accorded. Travel films can be described with a swing and a healthy raciness which help the listener to persuade himself that he, too, is bounding along and partaking of the pleasure of actual expedition, while the picture of sentiment and pathos lends itself to that terseness and conciseness which, while bordering almost on the abrupt, is the real acme of of pathetic narrative. Do not have your lecture like a few dry old extracts hitched up from a text book, and, without boring the audience, make yourself felt. Be an authority on the subject in hand; be the larger half of the show.

And when you have done all this you have faithfully discharged your duty. You have sown the seed of success and can look forward to the harvest. You begin to reap exactly one week after the inauguration of the lecture, and the crop increases weekly. So try it. Engage a lecturer or improvise one from your own material. Whether you have spoken in public or not matters little. Study your audiences, work on the ideas I have attempted to explain, and watch for the crowds being turned away.

The Bioscope, 10 December 1908, p. 5

Particularly amusing is the implication that there were lecturers who attempted to provide commentaries to films they had not seen. If all that you are doing is conducting a running jokey conversation with your friends in the audience, perhaps you may even have got away with it.

One last thought. Is this high-minded commentator (who ought to have read some of his own words about the use of clear language) thinking more of lecturers for magic lantern shows than cinema shows? He refers to film dramas and travel pictures, but there is more of an air of the church hall than the electric theatre about this curious piece.

2 responses

  1. What this started to remind me of are the travelogue newsreels from the 1930’s, with the brash narrator explaining the sights and sounds of far off lands. My guess would be that the need of narrators for those did not wane from the days of the magic lantern to the talkies. Essentially it’s still around, otherwise “Planet Earth” and “March of the Penguins” would just be visuals and incidental music.

    The closest I’ve ever come to a narrated silent film was when a restored German print of “Metropolis” was performed here. In addition to the organist (Dennis James), there was a translator who, unfortunately, added a great deal of humour to places where there were none. Imagine the girl running down the hall scream for “Freder!” and the person reading it with a total deadpan.

  2. There’s a definite link between the travelogue commentators of the 30s onwards (FitzPatrick traveltalks etc) and lecturers of the silent era. The travelogue (as a term if not simply as a type of film) was pioneered by the showman Burton Holmes, whose presentation of the film wasas important as the contents of the film itself. He was the best-known exponent of a tradition that ran throughout the silent era and gravitated naturally to the onscreen commentary.

    I’ve done a fair bit of narrating to silent films myself. Not fiction films, but for programmes of actualities. The knack is not giving too much detail, letting the pictures spreak as much for themselves, sense what the audience is interested in, be prepared to change tack if needs be, and get your timing right e.g. pointing out things to look for just before they occur. I have, alas, sat through some unfortunately po-faced audio translations of silents which have been killed by the deadened delivery. One particularly painful memory is the silent filmof an Olympic Games (1928, I think), here the translator was clearly bored and gave us every translated intertitle with a heavy sigh. It did not gain our sympathy.

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