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Subject: ‘Cinema’

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Charlie Chaplin’s comic career began in South London vaudeville

Posted in Actors, America, Cinema, Historical articles, History, Theatre on Tuesday, 15 October 2013

This edited article about clowns originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 425 published on 7 March 1970.

Young Charlie Chaplin, picture, image, illustration
Charlie Chaplin began appearing on the stage at the age of five by Emilio Frejo

The Canteen Theatre, Aldershot, was an entertainer’s nightmare. The audience were mainly soldiers who simply came to jeer. One night a singer got “the bird” because her voice cracked and she was howled off the stage. The stage manager sent on her five-year-old son instead. He had seen him performing to his mother’s friends, but never in public.

The little boy went on and sang a song called Jack Jones. The soldiers threw money on the stage. He stopped and announced he would pick it up first and sing afterwards and got his first laugh. The most famous clown in history, Charlie Chaplin, was on the way to the top.

Yet from this night onwards Charlie’s life was bleak in the extreme for many years. Born in 1889, he was brought up by his loving mother.

Charlie did many jobs as a boy when he was not roaming the decaying streets of South London. Among other jobs, he sold newspapers, made toys and acted as a doctor’s errand boy.

His first stage job, when he was nine, was as one of a troupe of clog dancers called The Eight Lancashire Lads. He toured with them for a time, and also made a success in the role of a cat in a London pantomime. Charlie got his first big break when he played Billy the page-boy in a long tour of a play about Sherlock Holmes. He was now twelve-and-a-half and his days of poverty were over.

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The Battleship Potemkin shamed Russia and stirred Eisenstein’s imagination

Posted in Cinema, Famous news stories, Historical articles, History, Ships on Tuesday, 8 October 2013

This edited article about Russia originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 420 published on 31 January 1970.

Port of Odessa, picture, image, illustration
The mutiny spread onto the streets of Odessa where striking workers supported the sailors’ cause

Forced to eat maggoty meat, the Russian sailors sent representatives to make an official complaint. It was rejected – brutally – and then events moved swiftly. When one of the officers grabbed a gun and shot a rating, the mutiny erupted in full fury

The meat hanging in the mess deck galley stank. It swung gently on its steel hooks with the motion of the ship, and writhed quietly with maggots.

Some of the crew had already seen the meat. More of them had smelled it, for its cloying stench filled the iron companionways of the warship. They were new sailors, most of the crew, and unused to the harsh naval discipline of the Russian Navy as practised in 1905. Perhaps if they had been longer-serving men they would not have dared to notice the meat. They would have eaten it obediently, maggots and all. For all that, the conditions on board were shameful. And the situation was brought to a head when the crew of the Battle Cruiser Potemkin refused their lunch.

If they had been content with a mere refusal, the matter would no doubt have ended then and there, for the officers had little to do with the men, and were too comfortable in their own cabins and saloons, toasting the Tsar’s health in the best wines, to see if the men were adequately fed. In Russia before the Revolution the aristocracy and officers considered themselves virtually a different species of man to the peasant, common soldier and seaman. In other words, they would have known nothing about the men’s refusal to eat.

However, times were altering in Russia, even though the great Revolution was still twelve years in the future. There were strikes in the big cities and small rebellions here and there against the hardships and ill treatment the poor had to suffer whilst the rich pretended not to notice. The revolutionary spirit was in the air of 1905.

The sailors aboard the Potemkin sent representatives to make an official complaint to the officers.

According to one version of the story, Commander Giliarovsky, the ship’s executive officer, ordered a number of men to be chosen at random from the crew, covered with a tarpaulin, as was an old Russian custom, and shot. This was his manner in settling the men’s complaint.

The men were chosen and the firing squad were ordered to load their rifles. They loaded but refused to shoot.

Suddenly there was an uproar on the decks of the ship. Giliarovsky grabbed a gun in an attempt to quell the men and shot and killed a rating named Grigory Vakulinchuk.

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Cinema is an art of illusion where all is not what it seems

Posted in America, Arts and Crafts, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Thursday, 3 October 2013

This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 416 published on 3 January 1970.

Wild West bank robbery, picture, image, illustration
In a Western the small town streets will be the slim facades of bank and shop fronts, propped up with wooden plinths, by Ron Embleton

In the theatre, an audience will happily accept the artificial restrictions of a stage set, where the fourth wall has been taken away so that the audience becomes an onlooker into someone’s living-room. Fundamentally a static medium, which depends on the quality of the play and its acting performances, its sole advantage over the cinema is that an audience can see live actors in a three-dimensional setting.

The cinema, on the other hand, strives to achieve a form of realism which is so convincing that the series of flickering images we see on the screen take on a life of their own.

Obviously, this automatically creates many problems for film makers. A script which demands large sets, exterior locations abroad, and a series of naval battles, could present a film maker with an enormous headache, to say nothing of the cost of it all. But fortunately for him, the cinema has built up a repertoire of mechanical tricks on which he can draw. His bad weather will be supplied by a machine, his foreign locations by back projection; his streets will be the slim facades of house and shop fronts, propped up with wooden plinths, and his naval battle scenes will be fought out by models in a tank.

The thrifty film maker has many tricks at his disposal. One of them is the “process shot.” This was invented by a German engineer named Schufftan, who first used it in the twenties for the film, Siegfried, based on the Nibelung Saga. Audiences were greatly impressed by the sets of gigantic castles and enormous banqueting halls, but what they did not know was that these sets were built up by the clever use of hand painted slides. The idea was later developed by an Englishman, named Percy Day, who also improved the technique of matte shots, another clever photographic technique which saves time and money.

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Cinerama and the technical challenge of 3D movies

Posted in America, Cinema, Historical articles, History, Technology on Wednesday, 2 October 2013

This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 415 published on 27 December 1969.

Cinerama. picture, image, illustration
This is Cinerama

One evening in September, 1952, some 1,000 people gathered in a Broadway Theatre in New York, to see a film which was frankly admitted by its sponsors to be an experimental production. The lights dimmed, and the curtains drew slowly back to reveal an expanse of screen six times larger than the normal screen. A few seconds later, the audience was gasping with excitement as they swooped and dived with a camera which had been attached to a roller coaster.

What the audience were seeing that night was the first public performance of Cinerama, Hollywood’s answer to television, which had been luring audiences away from the cinema in their thousands.

But what, in fact, is Cinerama? It was originally the brainchild of an American engineer, named Fred Waller, who had started his experiments as far back as 1937. Waller began with the realisation that we judged depth by the sight out of the corner of our eyes. Peripheral vision it is called. What he was seeking, therefore, was to create a process which would give the illusion of reality by making the audience feel that they were not, in fact, in a cinema, but actually watching or taking part in an event. The illusion of reality created by Cinerama, therefore, had to be closely linked to the function of the retina of the human eye and the drum of the human ear.

Fred Waller had taken on what must have seemed an almost impossible task, when you consider that, while a person’s attention may be directed primarily at one particular object, their field of vision also encompasses everything on either side of it. Likewise, a person walking down a city street, for example, hears not only the sound directly in front of him, but also that on either side of him and behind him. To bring this into a cinema would have meant building a screen that was literally a mile wide. Waller finally solved this difficulty by curving the screen in the same way that the retina of the eye is curved.

The genesis of Cinerama was, however, a painful one. In 1939, Waller created for the World’s Fair, a form of Cinerama which had a curved screen and a dome that hung over the front of the audience. No less than eleven projectors were needed to throw the image on the screen. The World’s Fair never used the idea.

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The future of cinema depends on quality and innovation

Posted in Actors, America, Cinema, Historical articles, History on Tuesday, 1 October 2013

This edited article about cinema originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 414 published on 20 December 1969.

Clark Gable, picture, image, illustration
Clark Gable, the film star who changed the underwear fashion of male America

There is no doubt that the worldwide distribution of American films has affected our way of life, though the influences at work may have seemed to be only marginal. For instance, the appearance of Southern fried chicken on a menu would hardly constitute a menace to the traditions of any European country. On the other hand, a seemingly casual happening on the screen can sometimes have the most astonishing results.

In the film, It Happened One Night, made in 1934, Clark Gable took his shirt off, and revealed that he was not wearing a vest. Within a few months the American male had completely given up wearing a vest. If this seems no worse than hard luck on the vest manufacturers, one should remember that a medium which can influence people so easily can also be potentially dangerous. The recent film, Bonny and Clyde, glorified and made folk heroes out of two people who were shown as victims of society, rather than the two irresponsible and vicious killers they really were. It would be going too far to say that the film did any real harm. But any film which glorifies violence should cause alarm, especially if it sets off a trend for similar films. Fortunately, a vigilant censor, who is not always right, has protected us from the worst excesses of the cinema.

The full impact of the American Way of Life struck the world in 1920, and it remained a powerful force until immediately after the war, when film attendances suddenly slumped alarmingly. This was because people were staying at home to stare at a small box-like appliance known as television. Panic stricken, the Hollywood film-makers re-examined their methods, not an easy task for men conditioned over many years to turning out mass produced films, which made few demands on the mind. Their answer was to launch into the production of a number of spectacular films, shown on a number of wide-screen processes known as Cinemascope, Vista Vision, Todd A-O, and later, Cinerama.

Although a number of good films were produced for the new mediums, the formula of the stories remained the same, and, when the novelty of the big screen had worn-off, the producers once more found themselves with rows of empty seats in the 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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