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Subject: ‘Cinema’

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Alfred Hitchcock remains cinema’s peerless master of suspense

Posted in America, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Monday, 30 September 2013

This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 413 published on 13 December 1969.

Hound of the Baskervilles, picture, image, illustration
The Hound of the Baskervilles

It is dark and late when the silence of the house is broken by a knocking at the door. The sound reverberates through the old house, and the young couple who are visitors to the place look at each other over the guttering candle that rests on a table, casting dramatic shadows over their tense and drawn faces. The knocking is heard again, more thunderous this time. Slowly, taking his time, the young man goes to the door and begins pulling back the heavy bolts. With a great deal of creaking, the door swings open – to reveal the local vicar who, it turns out, is there for some entirely trivial and unconvincing reason.

The scene described could have been from any film of suspense made in the early days of the talkies when sinister happenings in old, dark houses were common. Since then, more sophisticated methods have been used to scare audiences. Which leads us to posing the question – why do audiences like to be scared? To answer this, we must first realise that every time we enter a cinema, we live for a few hours a life other than our own. In the darkened auditorium we become a cowboy bent on vengeance, a police inspector on the trail of a murderer, or an explorer, or whatever other character we see on the screen before us. In the same way that we share their thrills, we also share their fears, knowing in the back of our mind anyway, “that it is only a film.” We actually enjoy being frightened – as long as what is frightening us remains on the screen. Even the young filmgoer likes to be frightened, a fact which Walt Disney knew and exploited in his cartoon films, which had more than their full quota of cackling witches and baleful black cats.

Suspense takes all forms in the cinema. There is suspense in the classic Western situation, when two cowboys move towards each other for the final showdown in the deserted, silent street of some small, Western town. A Harold Lloyd comedy, with Lloyd teetering among the girders of an unfinished skyscraper, can provide suspense. Generally, however, we associate suspense with the thriller.

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Hollywood’s comedians delivered droll one-liners in their cruel repartee

Posted in Actors, America, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Friday, 27 September 2013

This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 412 published on 6 December 1969.

Laurel and Hardy, picture, image, illustration
Laurel and Hardy

In the days of the silent cinema, the comedian was invariably an innocent abroad. He was destined to suffer from the moment he made his first appearance on the screen. A perpetual victim, forever at the mercy of a malignant fate which guaranteed him a series of unpleasant misadventures, he was pursued remorselessly by runaway cars, or chased by lions, inexplicably strolling down Sunset Boulevard. Machinery was calculated to go berserk at his slightest touch, and if he had the misfortune to be driving a car, it was certain to run out of petrol on a level crossing, just as an express train was approaching. If he did arrive home relatively intact, his house was liable to collapse around his ears.

The comedians who arrived on the scene during the early days of the talkies were of quite a different breed. There was less slapstick in their films and more sophisticated humour. Significantly, they generally played characters who were antisocial, aggressive, and rather unpleasant; W. C. Fields was a typical example of this kind of comedian. Fields, who came from American vaudeville, acted people who were mean, ‘misanthropic, and generally unlikeable. He was sly and a braggart, and he was continually venting his ill temper on children and animals. Even his looks were against him. He had a large, red nose, a thin, mean mouth, and a whining voice. But the audiences loved him. This may seem difficult to understand. But the truth of the matter is that Fields realised that times had changed.

The charming innocents of the silent films had become an object of good-natured contempt with the advent of cynical and more ruthless audiences. They were, of course, only reflecting the new age of materialism which applauded the lack of ethics implicit in the title, Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, one of W. C. Field’s most popular films. Fields was undoubtedly an eccentric, almost as unpleasant off-screen as on it, but he was so immensely popular with audiences that he was allowed to write his own screen plays. He penned these under fantastic pseudonyms like Otis T. Criblecoblis and Mahatma Kane Jeeves.

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Animated films depended on supreme drawing skills as much as technology

Posted in America, Art, Artist, Cinema, Famous artists, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 26 September 2013

This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 411 published on 29 November 1969.

Zoetrope, picture, image, illustration
In 1834 W. G. Horner invented a machine which he called a zoetrope

Slowly, painfully, and with much grunting, the squat, misshapen figure completed the outline of a bison on one of the walls of the cave in which he lived. It was only one of several drawings of a bison, all of them crudely done, which was understandable enough as the artist was a prehistoric man. For all that, he had done something quite remarkable – he had analysed movement and had drawn it in a series of pictures. He was, in fact, the first animator.

The problem of making a series of successive images move was not solved until the beginning of the 19th century, when a Belgian professor, named Plateau, invented the phenakistoscope, a revolving disc, with figures drawn on it, which came to life when viewed through a series of slits. Two years later, in 1834, W. G. Horner, an Englishman, invented a similar machine called a zoetrope. Emile Reynaud of France took the next step forward with his machine, called a praxinoscope. By 1888 he had developed it to such a degree that he was able to give public performances by projecting his pictures on to the back of a screen which greatly enlarged the image. These performances, which were accompanied by special music and sound effects, were so successful that he opened a larger theatre in the Musee Grevin, in Paris, which remained open from 1892 until the turn of the century. During that time, no less than half a million people attended his performances.

But Emile Reynaud’s work in the field of animation was soon to be overshadowed by the moving pictures of the Lumiere Brothers. Unable to compete with the rapidly-growing cinema industry, Reynaud became so depressed that he finally threw most of his apparatus into the River Seine.

Although a large number of rather primitive cartoon films were made in America and France during the first years of the 20th century, the animated film did not begin to come into its own until the early years of the First World War, when the cartoon character, Felix the Cat, began to appear regularly on cinema screens all over the world.

Felix was simply drawn, and the films in which he appeared did not even have sub-titles, but everyone loved him. Technically, he was no better drawn than most of the other cartoon characters of the time, but he had a special appeal of his own, thanks largely to the imagination of his creator, an Australian, Pat Sullivan, who had learned his craft drawing comic strips. Felix also had the honour of having a special theme tune written for him called, “Felix Kept on Walking,” which was hummed by children everywhere.

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The rise of realism in post-war cinema inspired Italian film directors

Posted in Actors, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 26 September 2013

This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 410 published on 22 November 1969.

Vittorio de Sica, picture, image, illustration
Vittorio de Sica

The work of the documentary film-makers during the Second World War had proved that people were prepared to support films which attempted to face up to the grim realities of war. Even more illuminating, was the fact that the box office returns were beginning to indicate that the public was growing tired of artificial stories that bore no relation to life. From all this, it was clear to even the most conservative film producer that what the public now wanted were films about ordinary people in recognisable situations, rather than films which created a fantasy world of make-believe. “The Dream Factory,” as Hollywood had so often been called, was ready for demolition.

The “new realism” began to operate at full blast in 1946. But in actual fact, the new breed of film-makers who sprang up at this period were not pioneers. The coming of sound had automatically brought films closer to reality, even though most of the stories had remained as trite as before. Moreover, Hollywood, like any other society, had its rebels, the directors and writers who had decided to break free from the established patterns of film-making.

As far back as 1935, the director, John Ford, had made a film called The Informer, which went into production only because the heads of the studio were under the impression that it was just another routine gangster picture. It was, in fact, a sombre study of a dull-witted man, who had betrayed his comrades in the Irish Republican Army, for the sake of a boat fare to America. The story of how he is found out and executed by the I.R.A., was not a terribly appealing subject, but its unrelenting realism gripped audiences, and it won several Academy Awards.

Earlier still, there had been I Am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, made in 1932 and starring Paul Muni, a film which shocked audiences with its searing indictment of penal conditions in the Deep South. This was classified as a film with a “message,” and many more were to follow, as the studios began to explore the film potentialities of other social problems. Two of the most popular films of this type were Fritz Lang’s Fury, starring Spencer Tracy, a study in lynch law, and Dead End, a fairly superficial sketch of juvenile delinquency, which nevertheless made claims to being a serious sociological study.

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British cinema nurtured the talents of immigrant and home-grown directors

Posted in Actors, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 25 September 2013

This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 409 published on 15 November 1969.

Margaret Lockwood, picture, image, illustration
Margaret Lockwood, Britain's most glamorous film star of the era, appeared in The Lady Vanishes

What was Britain doing, one might ask, while America was in the process of becoming the largest film-producing centre in the world? The sad fact is that the British film industry was going through a long period of stagnation, from which it emerged only in 1933, when a Hungarian named Alexander Korda began to make films in Britain.

Before the First World War, British film production was a bread-and-butter affair of making as many films as possible at the lowest possible cost. It was therefore inevitable they should be inferior in quality to films being made in America and on the Continent. One of the few film producers of this period who deserves serious consideration is Cecil Hepworth who had begun his career by making films in his own house and back garden. But even Hepworth, talented though he was, did not seem to appreciate that it was necessary for films to have international appeal, if they were to survive in the highly-competitive world of film-making. From 1906 to 1914, Hepworth, relying on the Englishman’s love of animals, put a certain amount of his money into films about pets, whose wholes lives seemed to be dedicated to rescuing their owners from one dreadful predicament after another.

His major star was a dog named Rover, who has a permanent place in the pages of the history of the British cinema as the first-named British star. After his first triumphant appearance in Rescued by Rover, in which he saved a kidnapped baby, this endearing dog star worked steadily for Hepworth for 10 years, until his death in 1914. Although Rover was a famous star, he was often up against strong competition from horses and other dogs, not to mention an elephant, who made a triumphant appearance in a film called Plucky Little Girl. Popular as these films were in England, they had little appeal for audiences overseas. But it was Hepworth who produced a remarkable version of David Copperfield. This film, despite stilted acting, had much more feeling for the period than the Hollywood talking version, made in 1935.

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The arrival of the talkies caused an artistic revolution in the cinema

Posted in Actors, America, Cinema, Communications, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Music, Technology on Wednesday, 25 September 2013

This edited article about the early cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 408 published on 8 November 1969.

Al Jolson, picture, image, illustration
Al Jolson by John Keay

Although the words in our title this week could hardly be said to make up an immortal sentence, they led to the end of an era and spelled professional death to many talented people. They were first heard in 1926, at a premiere in New York of an indifferent film called, The Jazz Singer, starring Al Jolson. The picture was basically a silent film but at the end Al Jolson spoke, then sang two songs. Those two songs and the sentence that went before, meant that the talkies had arrived.

Surprising though it may seem, all the major film companies had known since the cinema’s earliest days that the making of sound films did not lie in the realms of pure fantasy. But why did they not start to explore this field of entertainment earlier? The answer is that the making of silent films was a highly-profitable business, and film company executives saw no good reason why they should explore a new territory that could lead them into treacherous quicksands.

It was an act of desperation on the part of one of the major studios that finally propelled the film industry towards the making of sound films. The first steps were faltering and uncertain, and they were made by Warner Brothers, who were on the verge of bankruptcy. Desperately looking for a new gimmick, they equipped a sound studio and gambled everything on the making of synchronised films. Their first effort was Don Juan, starring John Barrymore, in which recorded music took the place of that usually supplied by an orchestra. Although it was an entertaining enough film, thanks largely to Barrymore who hammed his way through it with outrageous but endearing glee, it made no major impact on the box office. Rightly, audiences thought the distorted sound of “canned” music a poor exchange for the lush strings and stirring brass of a live orchestra. The Jazz Singer, which followed it, broke box office records all over the world and proved that the talkies were here to stay.

The wholesale switch from silent films to talkies which followed brought headaches and heartaches to many. Suddenly, stars, directors, writers and film producers found themselves caught up in a desperate struggle for survival, as they tried to master the new medium. But it was the stars who suffered most. Manly looking actors who had been mouthing silent orders to the cavalry for years, were discovered to have absurdly squeaky voices. Romantic actors, who should have had velvet voices, boomed like foghorns, and tragic actresses lisped. All of them were brutally discarded by the very companies who had made fortunes out of them.

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Sergei Eisenstein revolutionised Russian and European cinema

Posted in Actors, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Monday, 23 September 2013

This edited article about the early cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 407 published on 1 November 1969.

Rudolph Valentino, picture, image, illustration
Rudolph Valentino and Vilma Bank in The Son of the Sheikh (1926)

When the Soviets came to power in 1917, Lenin, the leader of the revolutionaries declared: “For us the most important of all the arts is the cinema.” He was seeing the cinema as a powerful weapon for propaganda and his words were, in effect, an order that a cinema industry should be created which would favourably reflect the new Socialist civilisation being built up inside Russia.

The new Soviet film-makers went to work. Although they were subsidised by the Government, their task was a formidable one. There were no studios and little was available in the way of equipment. Even film stock was in short supply. The film-makers did, however, have a revolutionary zeal, and a dedication to their work which made it possible for them to achieve miraculous results.

Their task was not made easier by the setting-up of a Central Bureau which vetted each completed film to see that its subject matter was in keeping with the immediate policies and social aims of the Government. Most of the films that came out of this era were, therefore, either earnest documentaries, or simple stories depicting the effects of the revolution on a single person, or a group of persons. Incredibly, despite the bureaucratic stranglehold on the industry, several masterpieces emerged.

One man was mainly responsible for this situation. His name was Serge Eisenstein, and he is regarded as the most important influence on the cinema, since the American director, D. W. Griffith. Eisenstein conceived a new technique of story-telling which relied heavily on the editing of his film, and it is seen at its most effective in his masterpiece, Battleship Potemkin, based on a historical incident of the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1905, when the crew of a battleship mutinied against their conditions aboard.

The film contains a famous sequence which still remains a textbook example of how a dramatic sequence can be built up into a memorable experience by the skilful use of film techniques. The sequence deals with the moment when the population of the Black Sea port of Odessa demonstrate their sympathy for the sailors by marching towards the docks down a huge flight of stone steps. Suddenly Cossack soldiers appear and begin to descend the steps with lowered bayonets. They aim and fire, and then advance again. Then we see a mother shot, and her pram bounce down the steps. The cuts become shorter as we see glimpses of gaping mouths and frightened faces, intermingled with other shots of the long shadows of the soldiers. The sequence remains as powerful as when it was first shown in 1925.

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The first great movie stars could be seen but not heard

Posted in Actors, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Friday, 20 September 2013

This edited article about silent cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 406 published on 25 October 1969.

Douglas Fairbanks, picture, image, illustration
Douglas Fairbanks. Star of the Silent Screen Douglas Fairbanks in a typical action pose, as d’Artagnan in The Three Musketeers by Ralph Bruce

As early as 1909, film producers realised that they were at the mercy of fickle audiences, who were just as likely to stay away from a film as they were to rush and see it. The most trivial reason could keep them away. It could be a bad title, a poster that did not appeal to their imagination, or the fact that they were not in the mood for a costume drama that week. It might even be because they had been to the pictures the week before, and saw no reason why they should go again the following week.

It was therefore obvious to the producers that, if they were to stay in business, it was necessary to find a way to create a steady demand for films. The answer they came up with was the star system. The star system was built on the premise that if the producers could find players with attractive personalities, the public would flock to see them. It was a shrewd decision which has helped to support the film industry to the present day.

The star system was seen at its most effective during the years of the silent film. Many of the stars of this time have now become legendary figures but, in many cases, they were an artificial product, created by clever studio publicity. A typical example is Mary Pickford, who played roles in which she was invariably a sweet, pathetic child, constantly at the mercy of a wicked world. In reality, she was a highly professional performer with a strongly-developed business sense. Whenever Mary Pickford came to discuss the terms of one of her contracts, the hard-headed businessmen of Hollywood knew that they had lost the battle before it had even begun. Sam Goldwyn, one of the great producers, once said of her that it often took longer to make one of her contracts than it did to make one of her pictures. By 1919, she was one of the directors of a famous film company known as United Artists.

One of the most fabulous stars to emerge from this era was Douglas Fairbanks, who was the very epitome of what a screen hero of those days should be. Chivalrous and acrobatic, constantly in costume with a sword in his hand, he was the eternal gallant adventurer who fought his way through a series of wonderful films, which included The Black Pirate, The Three Musketeers, Robin Hood, and The Thief of Baghdad. His films often contained many impossible situations, but by some magic of his playing he made them believable.

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Charlie Chaplin’s “little man” is one of the most famous icons in Western culture

Posted in Actors, America, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Wednesday, 18 September 2013

This edited article about the silent cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 405 published on 18 October 1969.

Charlie Chaplin, picture, image, illustration
Charlie Chaplin in his most famous role as "the little man"

They were known as the Keystone Kops, and they were the most inefficient police force in the world. Summoned to give chase, they tumbled down steps, or fell out of windows in their haste to get into the waiting patrol wagon, which immediately took off at a hundred miles an hour. A nightmare chase followed, in which approaching cars, lorries and trains were constantly being missed by a hair’s breadth.

When their quarry was finally cornered, it was inevitably in a pastry shop which specialised in making custard pies, for the very good reason that they provided excellent ammunition for a wonderful free-for-all in which everyone on the screen received a pie in the face.

The Keystone Kops were the invention of a man named Mack Sennett, who had started his film career in 1908 as an actor and a scriptwriter for the director, D. W. Griffith. By 1912, he had his own studio and a collection of artists, the like of which the world has never seen since. Some of them came from the circus and vaudeville theatres, others from walks of life completely divorced from the world of entertainment. All were willing to risk their lives for the sake of raising a laugh. Ask them to throw themselves off a building and they would leap merrily into space; lead a lion into the room and they would hurl themselves at it in a flying tackle; give them a car and they would drive it through a house. Astonishingly, there was only one fatality ever recorded at the Sennett Studios.

In 1913, the Sennett comedians welcomed a new recruit, a young Englishman whom Sennett had seen in a touring show called Fred Karno’s Mumming Birds. His name was Charles Spencer Chaplin.

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D. W. Griffith – a colossal genius of cinema who died forgotten and alone in 1948

Posted in Actors, America, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 17 September 2013

This edited article about D. W. Griffith originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 404 published on 11 October 1969.

Lilian Gish, picture, image, illustration
Lilian Gish appeared in 'The Birth of a Nation' and became one of the greatest stars of the silent screen

A fascimile of a railway carriage that actually rocked and swayed while the people within watched a series of panoramic views of different countries that had been photographed from a moving train was an ingenious idea. It was a feature of the St. Louis World’s Fair held in America in 1903, and the brainchild of a highly-enterprising film exhibitor, George C. Hale, who showed his travelogues under the title of Hale’s Tours.

Lifelike effects were also added by recordings of bells, whistles, and the hiss of steam. Everyone who left the cinema afterwards swore that they had been given a highly-successful illusion of having been taken on a railway tour through distant lands.

Hale presented his travelogues like this because he shared with many people the idea that the cinema was more a fun-fair attraction than a serious form of entertainment. Others held this view, stage performers, for instance, and, rather strangely, the American film producers themselves who were busy making films for the nickelodeons. These were the new halls of entertainment, where a tinkling piano and a silver screen brought a little magic into the drab lives of countless immigrants, who found in the cinema, with its sparse, simple captions, the ideal form of entertainment for people struggling to master a new language.

Film-makers did not take the cinema seriously because they thought nickelodeons were only a temporary craze. Anxious to make money quickly while the boom lasted, they worked feverishly, turning out a one-reel film a day, thus producing an endless stream of rubbish which had only one thing to recommend it – the fact that kept a lot of people out of the drinking saloons.

When it became obvious that the nickelodeons were there to stay, the quality of films began to improve. But the tremendous potentialities of the cinema were revealed by a man called David Wark Griffith, who was to become one of the few authentic geniuses of the cinema.

Griffith first came on the scene in 1907, when he approached Edwin Porter, the director of the now-famous film, The Great Train Robbery, carrying under his arm a script outline which Porter promptly rejected. But Porter did offer Griffith the leading role in a film called Rescued from the Eagle’s Nest.

Later, Griffith was offered the chance to direct a film called The Adventures of Dolly. The film was not world-shattering but it certainly had lots of action. In 12 minutes flat, Griffith managed to rattle his way through a story involving a child who was kidnapped by gipsies and sent over a waterfall in a barrel, before being rescued and re-united with its parents. Griffith made many more unpretentious little films of this nature, before he produced his epic film Birth of a Nation. It received its world premiere in Los Angeles on the 8th of February, 1915 and the impact it made on audiences and film-makers was fantastic.

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