Here's another story about the movies, but turned back, once more, before the days
of organized fandom. The setting this time is England; the writer went on to become
one of the most active fans of 1950s British fanzine and convention fandom. Here is
a recollection of some of his early influences.
One of the happy pastimes of my early days was visiting the cinema. From a very early age, long before I understood what was taking place on the screen, I would be taken along to the first house at the Coliseum every Tuesday and Thursday evening. It didn't matter what the subject of the film, or what the weather, there we were in the same balcony seats, twice a week without fail.
I have vague memories of seeing the black and white version of Ben Hur, Rider Haggard's She, and Frank Buck's Bring `Em Back Alive films showing how he would trap animals for the world's zoos. Jimmy Cagney and Edward G. Robinson regularly shot each other to pieces, Greta Garbo gave us long, lingering glances, and Harold Lloyd defied death on some skyscraper. As for the Tarzan films, I lapped them up, even though emulating Johnny Weismuller's cry gave me a sore throat for weeks.
One film had Harry Carey in the role of an African explorer. Title and plot are long forgotten, but one sequence still sticks in my memory, thanks to the sloppy work of the continuity girl. Harry was being paddled upriver in a canoe. Scenes alternated between closeup and long shot. Every closeup showed him with the hat brim turned up, but in the long shots, it had gone down again. In some of the quicker cuts, it almost seemed to be flapping.
Such films were incidentals; the real highlight of my film diet was the children's matinee. Every Saturday afternoon, a howling mass of young monsters would converge on the Coliseum. I was always given 3d to go in the balcony with the upper class hooligans, but occasionally, would blow a penny of this on sweets and have to get a 2d seat downstairs. I never sank so low as to sit in the neck-and-eye-straining front rows, which cost only a penny.
The great advantage of sitting up in the balcony was not because the kids were more refined, but simply it was an excellent vantage point from which one could hurl apple cores, toffee papers, orange peels, and other missiles down on the lesser fry below. Throwing them back up again was much harder. One summer, a glut of oranges saw them selling for four a penny! That was a really cheap source of ammunition.
The cinematic entertainment usually consisted of an assortment of 'shorts'. Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, Charlie Chase, maybe a Laurel and Hardy, and a cartoon or two. Some of these comedy films were produced by a company with the title, 'Educational Films'. I never did work out where the education came in, unless it was how to lose one's trousers in some perfectly innocent manner and then escape before being discovered.
Although virtually all the local cinemas had a kid's matinee, cinema brand loyalty was ensured by concluding the afternoon's performance with an episode of a serial. Each episode would finish with the hero or heroine trapped in some perilous position. They might have been lashed to a railway line as the express thundered nearer and nearer. Another week saw them in a plane as it crashed into a hillside, or trapped inside a building as it was blown sky-high. Naturally, we always came back the following week to find out what happened. This, despite the regular cheating which showed the train had just been diverted to a neighbouring line, the hero parachuting out just before the crash, or leaving the building by the back door prior to the explosion.
My favourite serials were those with a science fictional element. The earliest I ever saw was The Master Mystery, which featured that great escapologist, Harry Houdini. I watched, enthralled, as week after week, Houdini was trapped by the villains, then tied, chained, buried, or rendered hors de combat in some way designed to render him slightly dead by the following week. Sometimes he would be tied to a large black bomb with a slowly burning fuse. On other occasions, he was often nailed inside a packing case before being dumped in the river (a procedure which at least made for cleaner films).
Like all such heroes, he must have been a bit weak in the head, to have been trapped so regularly; but the baddies were equally stupid for not shooting him there and then when they had the chance. During these activities, we would all shout ourselves hoarse, "Look out behind!" in a vain attempt to warn Harry of danger creeping up on him. He never took a bit of notice -- maybe he was a bit deaf.
The serial's SF content came in the form of a robot called 'Q'. This was operated by a bunch of gangsters as they pursued their evil ends. Time after time, Houdini evaded its claws or managed to free himself from the imprisoning ropes, chains, or locked safes. Although we didn't realise it at the time, his escapes were done before the camera, without resort to trickery or any of the standard, "After Harry had escaped from the pit of man-eating snails..."
If one robot was good, imagine the effect on my tender young mind of seeing scads of the things. That was what we got in The Phantom Empire. Throw in an underground city with futuristic buildings and you might think it the cat's whiskers for any youngster. It was, but there was one very big fly in the ointment. The serial featured a singing cowboy!
Mascot Films had roped in the baby-faced Gene Autry. Their crafty idea was to attract addicts of Westerns and musicals. Then, by throwing in the robots and masked riders, they could also hook the mystery and SF buffs.
The plot was (fairly) simple. Gene Autry ran Radio Ranch, which happened to have been built on the land above a secret underground city. His contract called for singing to his guests (poor blighters!) and putting out a regular radio programme. The inhabitants of the city spent all their time trying to stop Autry getting to the microphone to sing (an aim I fully supported), so that he would lose the radio contract, go bankrupt, and move elsewhere.
Each episode followed the formula...
Naturally, we came back next week, only to see that Autry had awakened during that time and was thus able to leap off the moving belt before it took him anywhere near the robot. Just once, why couldn't they have let the robot succeed in spot-welding Autry?
Then there was Flash Gordon, the college boy hero who zoomed off to the planet Mongo, along with Professor Zarkov and the nubile Dale Arden whose acting ability was even worse than Flash's -- but at least she had much nicer legs. Their aim was to foil the nasty plans of the evil Emperor Ming, who lorded over everything from his Flying City. We got to see the wing-men, the clay-men, some very strange robots, and Ming's daughter Azura who had the hots for Flash. Every so often, a rocket plane would splutter slowly across the landscape. No matter where it was in the script, the rocket plane was always over the same bit of terrain doing its unbanked turns. Rocket sparks dropped straight down, whilst the smoke went straight up. It didn't even convince us kids.
Eventually, all Ming's schemes got foiled, but I must admit he had one or two good lines, such as 'a fate worse than death' for Dale. At least Ming had the right idea -- Flash never even gave Dale a kiss. No mushy s-x was ever allowed to corrupt the young audience.
Not in the matinee, but at the main show, I recall seeing Conrad Veidt in FP.1, a title mercifully abbreviated from its full German version of FP.1 Antwortet Nicht which I gather means 'FP.1 Doesn't Answer'. FP.1 was a floating platform tethered in mid-Atlantic so that aircraft could land and refuel on their way across. The baddies, hired by shipping magnates, scuttled the platform by opening the sea-cocks and letting it sink. I never did work out why the builders were so daft as to put sea-cocks on the thing in the first place.
The crafty Germans hadn't put all their eggs in one basket, though. In another film, Der Tunnel, which Gaumont British refilmed as The Tunnel, Richard Dix was an engineer charged with burrowing his way to America beneath the Atlantic Ocean. He also had problems, such as leaks, underwater volcanoes, and the usual crop of baddies trying to sabotage the project.
I also enjoyed Death Takes a Holiday, in which the man with the scythe sneaked off for a day, leaving the world to get along without him. Jockeys escaped unharmed from beneath falling horses, a man who fell off the Eiffel Tower didn't even need an aspirin, and so on.
The greatest film of that era was undoubtedly Korda's Things to Come. Though reputedly based on the H.G. Wells book, it had no discernable connection. After a devastating war, 'The Boss' is trying to rebuild a barbaric empire and fight further battles, when Raymond Massey arrives in a futuristic aircraft heralding the giant bombers of a peace organization called 'Wings Over The World'. They drop anaesthetic gas bombs, free the Boss's subjects, and off everyone goes rebuilding a brave new world. The story culminates with an uplifting speech by Massey as spacetravellers orbit the moon. In answer to the ever-present malcontents, who always accept improvements in social life, housing, food, medicare, entertainment, travel, and so on -- but who oppose anything 'new' on principle -- he points out that mankind can either stagnate and decay, or go forward to new discoveries. As they observe the vase expanse of stars, his gesture includes them as he concludes, "Which shall it be, Passworthy? Which shall it be?" Great stuff, even for a teenager.
Another film based on a Wells story was The Invisible Man. Claude Rains had us all boggling in wonder as he unwrapped his bandaged hand to reveal... nothing! There was even greater argument as to how the lines of footsteps were created in the snow just before he died. Then there was the wonderful trick photography which brought the giant ape King Kong to the screen. Even in jerky animation, Kong was a better actor than his human counterparts, and it was impossible not to feel pity for him in his unrequited love for Fay Wray, leading to his death in a final fall from the Empire State Building.
More recent SF films such as The Thing, Them, Destination Moon, and War of the Worlds still give me fond memories, but it is to those long-gone days of the children's matinee that I tend to turn with nostalgia. I remember all those post-cinema 'gunfights' when we fired off thousands of rounds from the inexhaustable chambers of our extended forefingers... the ropes we tied to tree branches so we swing to and fro in Tarzan-like fashion whilst ululating infernal laryngitis-giving screams... how we tied old bed springs to our feet to emulate 'Spring-Heeled Jack', or strove to hurl each other to the ground in the best 'Mr. Moto' style...
And we unconsciously took in other things as well. Heroes had white hats and white shirts, rode white horses, and were clean-shaven. The baddies were always in black, smoked cheroots, and usually had thin black moustaches. Scientists wore beards as a sort of trademark to make it easier to identify them at fifty paces. Our prejudices were also carefully manipulated: Germans were villains, Lascar seamen untrustworthy, Negroes shined shoes or rolled their eyes in fright, whilst the Chinese were master criminals to a man. Important people wore top hats, evening dress, and spoke 'posh'. Plebs were usually Cockneys, had cloth caps, and dropped their aitches.
On the other hand, we also acquired social values such as 'Crime Does Not Pay', 'Honesty Is The Best Policy', and 'Good Will Always Triumph Over Evil'. In our fights, we used no kicks, head-butting, karate chops, or knees in the groin. If an opponent went down, we waited for `em to get back up again. Despite all this, people still tell me that films have no effect on impressionable youngsters. I wonder just who is living in cloud cuckooland.
All illustrations by Charlie Williams