LET’S ALL GO TO A PICTURE-SHOW

Posted by Admin on Monday, 25th July 2011, 12:14

‘Let’s all go to a picture-show, for I love it so.’ Those words are from a cylindrical record which, eighty or so years ago, I used to play on my father’s gramophone. And, like the young woman who sang them, I, too, am a lover of the cinema – but not, let me add, of the ‘X’ certificate films that contaminate so many current programmes.

Fortunately, many of the films made during the golden era of film-making often appear on television, and we are able, without leaving home, again to enjoy the performances of Bette Davis, Garbo, Katharine Hepburn, Gary Cooper, Cary Grant, Spencer Tracy, and many other ‘all-time greats’.

For many years two cinemas were operating in Cowes, and in the early ‘twenties there were three. Kelly’s Directory for 1912 mentions Poole’s Picture Theatre in Medina Road, and the Empire Theatre in St Mary’s Road. My father could remember the former when it was known as Poole’s Panorama. Huge pictures, painted on cloth or canvas and wound on rollers, were exhibited. A lecturer said his piece about each picture and indicated with his baton items of particular interest.

My own introduction to the ‘silent screen’ took place at Poole’s, where I was taken by my parents to see the two-reel Chaplin comedies. What a wealth of invention he expended in whimsical and balletic gestures – in raising his bowler from the back, in tripping bullies with his cane, and in moustache oscillations prior to his tentative pursuit of the leading lady, Edna Purviance! Quite recently I again saw a number of those comedies on television – including A Night in the Show which, with Chaplin as an unappreciative member of a theatre audience, was in my opinion one of the funniest.

At an early age I persuaded my mother to take me to the Empire to see what was, I think, the first film version of Tarzan of the Apes. Elmo Lincoln starred as the eponymous hero. In those days the Empire’s lowest admission fee for children was tuppence. I have been told that children at Saturday matinees were given a bag of sweets. I do not recall being a recipient.

At the age of twelve I was an inveterate cinema-goer and an avid reader of The Boys’ Cinema. My collection of ‘art plates’ from the Picture-Goer and the Picture Show included the exotic Nazimova, that fine tragedienne, Gloria Swanson, and my especial favourites, Tom Mix and Douglas Fairbanks. These and many others adorned the walls of my bedroom.

About that time (1922) the completion of a new cinema caused considerable excitement. The Royalty, in Birmingham Road, when finished, was thought to be the last word in luxury. At Poole’s and the Empire a lone pianist accompanied the films. The Royalty had a three or four-piece orchestra. It had also four boxes – two at the back of the pit, and two screened-off corners at the front of the circle. The cheapest seats when it opened were not cushioned. They sold at sixpence. The dearest seats were two shillings and ninepence.

As a rule, the films we saw were those which had been going the rounds for a long time. Many showed their age. Some of the outstanding titles come to mind: Blood and Sand and The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (both featuring Rudolph Valentino); The Queen of Sheba with Betty Blythe and 400 horses; and D.W. Griffith’s masterpiece (made in 1915 and already seven or eight years old), The Birth of a Nation. Daniel Blum in A Pictorial History of the Silent Screen has called the latter ‘the world’s greatest motion picture, if greatness is measured by fame’. I remember also Lillian and Dorothy Gish in Orphans of the Storm, another of D.W.G.’s successes; Lillian Gish and Richard Barthelmess in Broken Blossoms; Norma Talmadge in Smilin’ Through; and Mae Murray with John Gilbert in The Merry Widow.

Erudite writers, primed with a knowledge of the Commedia dell’ Arte, have discovered in slapstick comedy a profundity of which the average cinema-goer was oblivious. In youthful ignorance we accepted the hilarious situations at their face value, and enjoyed the fun. Unless the main picture had been exceptionally long, a two-reel comedy concluded each performance. The appearances of Charlie Chaplin were rare, but Ben Turpin, Chester Conklin, the Keystone Cops, Roscoe (Fatty) Arbuckle (until scandal terminated his career), Mabel Normand, Louise Fazenda, and the Mack Sennett Bathing Belles, sent us away with laughter that remained with us until we were asleep.

The news that Stewart Rome was to come to the Island put me on tenterhooks. Then, one enchanted evening, I saw him disembark at a landing place opposite the Marine Hotel. He and his company were staying at the Marine, and as he crossed the Parade he removed his hat and wig. A polite but enthusiastic crowd surrounded him. He was on location to shoot scenes for The White Hope – a period piece decorated with Corinthians and Dolly Vardenish damsels. In due course the film came to the Royalty, but it was not possible to identify our local scenery.

All traces of Poole’s, which was blitzed in 1942, have disappeared beneath the Ratsey and Lapthorn premises; the Empire is now occupied by a towing and rigging specialist: and the Royalty (the last to go) became a supermarket and more recently a block of apartments – a permanent rebuke to patrons who deserted it for TV.

T. C. Hudson

© T. C. Hudson.
This article may not be reproduced without prior permission of the author.

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