26 September 2009

Book Review: British Cinemas and their Audiences

Once I get outside a cinema I return to real life, and though I may have enjoyed a film immensely, it does not, and never has affected my everyday existence, with the exception of the shoes and the impressions of fear which I have experienced. – “No. 4”  
In the case of film history, this impulse speaks to obvious and wholly legitimate lines of inquiry: how did audiences really feel about the films they watched and about the whole apparatus itself? How did they regard this complete transformation of the order of things and why did they so quickly adopt cinema as a regular and serious pastime?  

To ask these questions is not only a matter of curiosity but inevitably an implicit corrective to earlier versions of film history. Anglo-American pioneers in this field, such as Terry Ramsaye, Benjamin Hampton, Paul Rotha, and Lewis Jacobs quite plainly did not re-view the films they wrote about and often just gussied up their own memories with trade articles and newspaper clippings. Probably apocryphal anecdotes—like the bumpkins running in terror at the projection of an approaching train—became part of the very fabric of film history with minimal effort. The end result, obviously unintended by the first generation of historians, was a tendency to transform every snap misinterpretation of an old film into evidence of the feeble primitiveness of these artifacts and their audiences.

And so we arrive at the value of an unassuming title like British Cinemas and their Audiences: Sociological Studies, a 1948 volume compiled by one J.P. Mayer and published by Dennis Dobson, Ltd.  This is the kind of book that isn’t discussed much or found in most bibliographies, that is not ever actively sought out but nevertheless leaps from the shelf at the Larry Edmunds Bookshop, where it probably sat unmolested for thirty years. It’s a simple book—sixty ‘motion picture autobiographies’ and fifty short essays on ‘motion picture preferences’ collected in Britain in 1945, along with brief interpretations.

Mayer was far from the first to undertake such a project. Many of the professors involved in the eight-volume Payne Fund Studies (officially Motion Pictures and Youth) in the early ‘30s procured their data about cinema and its relation to children’s morals, sleep patterns, delinquency, etc., through similar means. What sets Mayer apart is his project’s complete removal from academic decorum and other niceties of twentieth century sociology. He solicited his accounts in the fan magazine Picturegoer in 1945 and offered £3, 3 shillings for the prize entry. Whether this meant the liveliest, the wittiest, the grimmest, or the strangest remains unclear.

The reasons that we should be interested in these accounts today are quite different from Mayer’s aims in collecting them. In the introduction he spot-checks Seneca, Jaspers, Burke, and Rilke (among others) before settling on Pascal as his empathetically Christian model. Reading Mayer’s accompanying commentary is often frustrating, for he willfully ignores many nuances to arrive at pre-ordained conclusions about the need to keep children away from horror films and such.  Needless to say, Mayer’s enterprise is ill-equipped to deal with an extraordinary passage like this one from a 22-year-old medical student:
I remember vividly a scene in Laurel & Hardy’s The Bohemian Girl where the gypsy girl was being dragged out to be whipped. She was stripped & lashed to a post. Of course, she was saved at the last minute. That scene stimulated me a great deal, & I would enact over & over again in the privacy of my own bedroom any scenes like that, with me playing the heroine, of course I usually altered it so that I was not saved so promptly. My saviour was never the film hero, but the particular boy in my class at school that my imagination had fastened on for the time being. This effect of being excited by a scene of a girl being badly treated went on for a long time, until I was 16 at least, I am sure. It gradually faded, but it can be still reactivated occasionally.
It is doubtful Mayer had the vocabulary, much less the inclination, to understand such unrepentant and suggestive kink. Similarly, he cautions that ‘it is quite impossible even to attempt to isolate the effect on the writer of his attendance at the cinema and the effect of other circumstances’ when confronted this totally swish response from a 15-year-old schoolboy: 

I have imitated many things from the films but mostly my hair has suffered. Yes suffered. I used to Bleach it when in the bathroom. I copied smoking from the films. I started at nine and am still going strong. When courting at school I used to put flowers in my sweethearts desk.

My film idol is Errol Flynn and I fell madly in love with him after seeing Dawn Patrol. I think about him at nights, pretend I am with him and dream about him. I have never felt about a film actress in this way.

I would not know much about love making. Although I may say that most love making goes on in the pictures.

A 30-year-old clerk (female) recounts excursions to see ‘sex films’—though it’s not clear whether she means sex hygiene exploitation pictures or something closer to DeMille’s comedies:
 At twelve I wondered what sort of films they were that I was never allowed to see, and played truant from school one afternoon—with another small and curious-minded friend—to see my first ‘sex’ film. It was of the trials and temptations of a rather blowsy continental actress, and puzzled us for weeks, setting us wondering about things we had never before bothered about. Did men kiss women like that, and did babies come unwanted, from such episodes and behaviour? So my curiosity aroused, from Ken Maynard at age eight I sneaked off at twelve—now unescorted—to see all the extravagant and unreal epics of sex and high living I could find. Did it do me any harm? Yes—I’m afraid so. Children should never be allowed to see at such an early age, the ugly side of life and I have only myself to blame … Now boys seemed tame who couldn’t hug and kiss like the exaggerated figures on the screen, and being silent films, I always imagined the dialogue to be more fiery than any the censor would pass.
An 18-year-old shorthand typist (female) writes about a prototypical and evocative moment of displacement that nearly earns a place in our euphemistic lexicon:

My enthusiasm [for films] became so infectious that my parents decided to take me to an adult show, and so with many warnings about being quiet and threats that I’d get a pasting if I wasn’t, we sallied forth equipped with a bag of bullseyes and an extremely large and juicy orange.

Of that first adult film I remember nothing except the fact that just as the hero kissed the heroine I commenced to suck my orange. Never again vowed my parents, and so back I went to my weekly twopenny rush.

By and large, however, most of the responses printed in Mayer’s book are considerably tamer. They tell of being frightened by Dracula or The Black Room (but no mention of Tod Slaughter, unfortunately) or finding great escape in Betty Grable and Deanna Durbin pictures. Some of the respondents are more articulate than others about their tastes. A 23-year-old R.A.F. veteran and letter sorter submits an eloquent apologia for Hollywood:
Broadly speaking, I suppose that of the number of films I have seen over the past five or six years, very few can be called to mind as deserving a lode of brickbats. Let it not be thought, however, that all the rest brought me applauding to my feet. Truth to tell, most of them are completely forgotten, yet they possess virtue even in oblivion. The inability of some of the most recent films I have seen to stir my memory must surely prove that they served a purely relaxative kind. If they were meant by their producers for nothing more, then, on the whole, those gentlemen have succeeded in their modest aims.
And a 23-1/2-year-old housewife succinctly defines the difference between life and art, the former only turning into the latter through the infusion of craft: 
One can have too much reality—e.g., The Grapes of Wrath—I thought it was an unusual film, brilliantly acted, but it was not entertainment. It was the sort of thing that happens to many of us, without the touches of humour or grand drama or sinister twist that would make it entertainment. One lives that sort of thing, and does not go to the cinema to meet it again, but to get away from it.
Unfortunately, though, when the cases get down to the specifics we are left wanting more. The largely low-income, white-collar professionals who read Picturegoer proved quite homogeneous in their taste. Worse, they are cursed by short memories, with a mixed bag of a dozen or so then-recent films like A Song to Remember, Henry V, Waterloo Road, Frenchman’s Creek, This Happy Breed, The Lamp Still Burns, and Laura cited repeatedly. Two or three iconoclasts praise Citizen Kane and The Magnificent Ambersons. Respondents are divided roughly evenly between those who find Hollywood pictures inferior to British productions and those who prefer Hollywood to their own drab provincial lives. Many confess an urge to travel prompted by Fitzpatrick Traveltalks and Jon Hall-Maria Montez vehicles!

We see, nevertheless, that many complaints oft-voiced today are not new. A 25-year-old clerk (male) reports:

I went to see the re-issue of Dodsworth. The cinema announcements gave the stars as David Niven, Paul Lukas, and Walter Huston. Yes, in that order. No mention at all of Ruth Chatterton, whose brilliant portrayal of Fran Dodsworth was in the nature of a swansong to a distinguished career.

To add to the irony of the situation, a young Waaf (though not so very much younger than I) remarked to her companion: ‘She’s good, isn’t she? I wonder who she is. Mary Pickford or somebody.’

Yes—somebody, indeed.

Another 22-year-old cinephile (a jack-of-all-trades who served as an errand boy to a clerk and later an underground pit worker and G.P.O. employee) laments that his girlfriend ignores critical opinion and earnestly invokes cinema lecturer-spokesman Roger Manvell:

My girl friend is only eighteen years of age and to a large extent judges a good or bad film according to the facial attributes of the male stars … My girl states that she is really interested in films and expect [sic?] that she considers taking a film book each week and writing fan letters to be a practical sign of her interest. (It was whilst reading her film book that I learnt of your request) I recently bought two copies of the book Film by Roger Manvell, if her copy ever gets opened it will surprise me

As brief evidence of how film societies, Close-Up, Soviet films, and the like fit into Britons’ workaday lives, a handful of these accounts are invaluable. Others, though, are so tantalizing as to be cruel, such as one artist’s very protracted bit about the influence the now-lost Technicolor Gold Diggers of Broadway had on his design work. The 39-year-old secretary (female) whose quote opens this review recounts this:

I was four years old when I saw my first film. It was given in a tent at a Vicarage fete and to me its principal feature was a train. When a close-up was shewn of the engine, I piped: ‘I hope it doesn’t come out of the picture’ and was rather frightened, but only momentarily.

And then proceeds to write, like almost everyone else, about that season’s junk without setting down her unique historical insights in any greater detail!

Another entry, from a 20-year-old short-hand typist (female) shows great promise:

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.

What had the girl seen? A Maya Deren? The Last Moment? Geography of the Body?

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.

This is a fascinating contribution to our understanding of both the Lewton unit and American avant-garde cinema of the 1940s. B-movies really were, as exhibitor Arthur Mayer (no relation) claimed in Hollywood Quarterly, formative, ‘experimental’ productions that brought innovation to the industry as a whole, whatever their ‘defects.’ And the films on Amos Vogel's Cinema 16 programs (and those of the dozens of film societies Vogel spawned) were promoted as off-market novelties with the emphasis on ingenuity as often as it was on provocation.

British Cinemas and their Audiences is short on such insights but long on elaborations of what it meant to go to the movies in 1945 in England. That’s more than we usually get.

•  •  • 
Have I ever fallen in love with my screen idol—what is love? I don’t know. My ‘favourite’ at the moment is Bing Crosby. He is my favourite actor, crooner, singer, comedian, radio artist, human being, everything. I think of him constantly: I wonder what his reactions are to certain news items; I try to imagine what he is doing at different times during the day; I plan various films for him, and think up ideas for his radio show. I wonder how his wife and kids are, and I wish I could meet him some day before he gets any older.
I listen to people’s conversation about him, read every news item about him, study the daily newspapers to see what he is broadcasting, and plan my day as far as possible not to interfere with my listening. When two programmes, which might possibly feature Bing, are broadcast simultaneously, on different wave-lengths, I wear out the dial on the radio switching from one programme to another, in case I should miss any ‘Bing’ time.
I worry over his publicity, note whether he gets top billing etc. I would rather hear Bing sing not too well, than hear anybody else sing superlatively. I enjoy a Crosby musical flop better than anybody else’s hit. I love the sound of his speaking voice.
When I read that Mr Crosby is standoffish to press-men I defend him; some call him lazy but I applaud his unwillingness to be pushed around. In the same way that Sinatra causes ‘teen-age ‘bobby-socks’ to swoon, so Bing produces a comparable limp when I hear him; relaxed and soothed. His voice makes me happy so that I smile and feel I want to laugh out loud. When I see Bing on the screen my heart thumps and I want desperately for everyone to like him.
– No. 2, 18-year-old female, no occupation.

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