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Chapter XIV. — Silver Sheet

page 175

Chapter XIV.
Silver Sheet

Myra was a beautiful and intelligent young woman with hair done in fat sausage-like ringlets after the manner of a well-groomed nag's tail: in normal circumstances I have no doubt that she could have held her own against any man, but one could never tell what the Iron Claw would be up to next. Sliding stairways, horrible oubliettes under carved Chinese chairs, formidable crucibles emitting clouds of poisonous vapour, gorillas stationed in expectant attitudes and with loathsome smirks on their faces — these are but casual details of the many dirty tricks the Iron Claw kept up his sleeve.

We all loved him, we of the Star Theatre's gallery. It still stands in Wellington, still serves its same old purpose as a cinema, but I haven't had the heart to go there for the past ten years. I don't believe the rising generation could bring itself to such a pitch of honesty that it would be able to sit still… . well, more or less still…… and watch an instalment of a screen serial, with the fatal words, “Don't Miss Next Week's Great Episode” flickering on the screen just when Myra landed in the toughest spots.

Olga Petrova, Gloria Swanson, sweet Mabel Normand, and then the ingenues.… If you weren't in love with Marguerite Clark, you were with Pearl White or Mary Pickford. Marguerite died, Pearl went into a convent; Mary, from all accounts, might just as well have done one or the other. Even before page 176 the close of the “silents,” she began to show bust measurements not a little surprising in the kiddie portrayals to which her ringlets pinned her in Hollywood's shadow world.

The first picture ever shown in New Zealand was a French film called “A Trip to the Sun.” Other very early films were “The Great Train Robbery,” with Gloria Swanson, and Pathe Frères “Les Misérables,” which was in colour. By the way, only the records reveal the fact that Gloria was the train robbery heroine. Names of stars weren't published in those high and far-off times. If you developed a soft spot for an actress, you just had to slink into the theatre hoping that “the little jumpy girl” would be on again.

“Living pictures,” quaint enough little sideshows but the ancestors of the opulent talkie of to-day, were at first treated as very minor entertainment at the theatres, where the platform artists, tenderly known as “hams,” absorbed all the dignity, all the limelight, all the well-matured tomatoes. In one house, where the walls were too grubby for the “living pictures” to be reflected thereon, the lantern was turned on the ceiling, and the audience patiently suffered the first agonies of a complaint later to be christened “aeroplane neck.”

A little company called “The Brescians” came out to tour New Zealand. Henry Hayward, later managing director of Fuller-Haywards, with their half-million capital, was “chief” in this unostentatious show. With the Brescians arrived “living pictures” —the first a shot of a boy throwing snowballs, departing in hot haste from the wrath that was to come. Cinema houses there were, of course, none. In Wanganui the late Louis Cohen, a picturesque old identity who in his capacity as barrister was a sort of incarnate Beelzebub to more than one slow-thinking magistrate, became enthusiastic about the “living pictures” scheme, and so wangled matters page 177 that the dignity of an auction mart was placed at the command of the exhibitors.

An auction mart wasn't by any means the worst that the cinematograph pioneers must needs face. In Christchurch there was a horse bazaar; an old garage did service in Dunedin. But the full New Zealand tour of this first little company was a coincidence in thirteens—started in Dunedin on the 13th of a month, drew a house of 13 the first night, and cleared £13,000 before the four was over. By the way, New Zealand developed one of its unexpected little spurts of progress over the matter of the movies. Whilst America still released its films in dime stores, we of the Antipodes could boast honest-to-goodness picture houses. And isn't the simple fact that the rear of the New Zealand anatomy could sit out an evening on those vicious little wooden seats a proof that there, at least, we were made of sterner stuff than the new generation?

Not many screen celebrities ever departed from the deserts and log cabins for long enough to set eyes on the Antipodes. Tom Mix visited New Zealand, long after his real glamour had slipped into the limbo where the dead stars twinkle still. He declared to the press interviewers: “Millions adore me,” which I think was rather game of him. The Dominion wrote him up under the caption “Modest Tom Mix.” Another exception to the steer-clear-of-New Zealand rule was Annette Kellerman, reputed the world's most perfectly proportioned woman and its most celebrated swimmer at the time. A picture depicting her as Venus of the ocean waves proved a box office success in every New Zealand cinema. Really Miss Kellerman didn't look so bad when in bathing array, though she had nothing on the Mack Sennett bevy. And she was probably the first woman to make New Zealand wake up to find itself bathing-suit-conscious. A host of imitators followed. One of them was lovely—a mermaid with long golden hair. page 178 Odiva, of the seaweed tresses and the slim green-suited figure: do you remember the great crystal tank on the stage at Fuller's old vaudeville house? We were allowed to see her as a special treat, because whilst comedians with red noses, purple pasts and blue jokes were immoral and must come not nigh our unblemished youth, a girl and her playmates, the seals were permissible just for once.… How did you bewitch the seals? Do you remember the big fellow, always first off the mark when it came to catching fish, who circled solemnly round you and kissed you through your yellow hair? Far be it from me to blame him. And it seemed ages that you sat there under water, laughing up through the green and crystal.

For the most part, we had to content ourselves with an occasional publicity man from Hollywood. Douglas Fairbanks boasted a stout-hearted and enterprising one. He wanted to boost “Robin Hood,” which was a pretty good film for those who like blondes, acrobatics and platitudes well mixed. In Auckland, he endeavoured to get permission for an outdoor archery demonstration in Albert Park, merry men and maidens in Lincoln green potting at one another with good old—fashioned arrows from appropriate spots in the shrubbery. The City Council said “No.” They would: but American “dope sheets” (circulars containing passionate paragraphs about new films, and suggestions for real, live publicity of the right sort), always fill me with a savage joy. They have one pet expression, “Tie up.” And they're so hopeful. “Tie up with the Banks,” “Tie up with the Supreme Courts,” “Tie up with the Churches,” is just a mere airy nothing in any dope-sheet artist's bright young life.

A Whangarei showman, a few years ago, just missed the full weight of that city's judicial wrath for the natty way in which he “tied up” a few buckets of whitewash, the King's highway, and Ruth page 179 Chatterton's film, “Madame X.” Darkly by dead of night, he and his comrades crept forth, painted large and sinister-looking white crosses all down the town's prim new-tarred highways, leading to his theatre. He was let down lightly, for there was money behind that theatre's company. Still, I can't help thinking that had he but used broad arrows instead of crosses he would have added point to the jest.

The first “Miss New Zealand”: we all knew intimately somebody or other in the finals of that contest (the world's first epidemic of beauty queens having just broken out), and one and all, we cried, “Oh, but I'm better-looking than that!” Some of the screen tests were definitely grim. In the end, Miss New Zealand No. 1 was Dale Austen, a not unattractive Dunedin brunette less than 16 years of age. She was shipped off to Hollywood (complete with chaperone), given a clothes allowance of £250, a flat, a car, a secretary, and a chance in several films. She did get as far as a second lead to one Tim McCoy in a Western. After which, she was “recalled to New Zealand,” and Rudall Hayward (nephew of Henry of that ilk) took a film called “The Bush Cinderella,” with Dale as leading lady. 'Twas no worse than 90 per cent. of Hollywood's western dramas, which, indeed, but for the good offices of an occasional tricky horse or dog, would have been depressing indeed. What I most distinctly remember about Cinderella was her gingham gown. In those days, because Pickford had distributed gingham and ringlets so lavishly over the screen, it was generally taken for granted that if a screen heroine parted from her gingham she had also said a long farewell to her virtue.

Not half-a-dozen full-length films were made in New Zealand. The Publicity Department turned on “Glorious New Zealand,” of which one could at least say that it was not inglorious. In another publicity film, “Under the Southern Cross,” the hit of the show page 180 was Bathie Stuart, who, scantily draped, executed Maori dances with a vim to which that comfortably lethargic race can seldom nowadays be provoked. Bathie, who brought home an impressive husband in the biggest cowboy hat New Zealand has ever seen, after one American sojourn, has now an official position disseminating publicity about New Zealand in “The Delighted States.” Her war-dances go over big with the Cat Clubs, which must, indeed, all too often suffer from repression.

So far New Zealand has contributed but few stars to the talkies: principal among them are Winter Hall and Robert McKail Geddes. Nola Luxford has taken some talkie parts and has Hollywood headquarters. John Batten who “crashed” the Elstree gate and partnered Lillian Harvey in a German film whilst not out of his 'teens—has time enough to develop into a definite screen personality. His sister is the lone girl flier, Jean Batten. If air is Jean's medium, brother John had a taste of the waters under the earth, when making a submarine film taken at Portsmouth to demonstrate the soundness of the British spirit under the most trying circumstances. John had to supply rather more than a screen demonstration of endurance. His part in the film was to be all but drowned whilst the submarine was flooded at sea-bottom, everyone escaping by means of a new apparatus. They did the thing thoroughly. Over and over again, the drowning John was “shot” in a huge tank, where the salt sea waves were no pretence, even if the actual danger of a watery grave wasn't very pressing. However, there are more ways of dying than one, and John demonstrated this by catching double pneumonia — after which he came out, weak and shaky, to recuperate in New Zealand.

The first talkie shows were good. Hollywood had done things well, though why “The Singing Fool” should have figured as the first real talkie success is quite beyond understanding. And of course page 181 nobody could foresee that the American accent would in the next few months have the exact effect on the English-speaking that holy water is commonly reputed to have on the Devil: thereby once again placing England in a conspicuous position on the map.

With the beginning of the talkies came midnight matinees. They were damnably dull and chilly, began at 11 o'clock, and continued until after two in the morning, the all but unendurable tension relieved only by cups of black coffee. I remember hearing “The Desert Song” under these trying conditions in Wanganui. John Boles was taking the part of the famous Red Shadow, and, it being a particularly cold night, those men who had brought rugs along were at a premium. Before the hour of two sounded, the most unlikely people were dimly to be discerned nestling together under one another's coverlets.

Charlie Chaplin, with his inordinately greedy demands for 50 per cent. on the takings from “City Lights,” is the only actor who got past the talkie barricade with a silent film, and he did it by means of bluff and a Heaven-sent publicity agent. The “sound effects,” alleged the work of the versatile Charles in person, were an appalling jumble, the film mediocre, with an occasional purple patch. But audiences have become so case-hardened to vulgarity that a film won't sell on that alone. If Charles, despite his Legion of Honour decoration and his dinners with the great whilst in Europe, ever gets away with a picture again, it will not be the fault of the audiences who went along to be thrilled by “City Lights”—nor yet of the showmen who writhed even as they signed the agreements which robbed their takings of half their glory.

Tactlessness brought about really vigorous opposition to the American block-buying system, which ended in a Film Commission set up by Parliament, hit Hollywood hard by quota, for a time threatened to bring about a sort of strike and page 182 lock-out crisis between American film companies and New Zealand showmen. Nothing on earth would persuade Hollywood that New Zealand doesn't provide the same admiring hordes of baseball “fans” as the politely described “hick audiences” of the middle West. Quaint old-fashioned detectives, their manners only just worse than their morals, and newspapermen who would promptly be committed to suitable institutions for the insane in any civilised country, were two other Hollywood types of best-seller from which the big men of the producing world refused to be weaned. “Block-buying” is of course the system under which a theatre circuit purchases not one film but a season's output from some particular company. These claims are always salted with two or three good films, which have been boomed by the publicity that money can manage. After them comes the deluge… film after film so rubbishy that empty houses are assured to the luckless showman contracted to release them. Time and again, films thus purchased have not been considered worth the trouble of a New Zealand release. They are simply “dead wood”… paid for and thrown aside. Another unfair trick in the block-buying system is to hold back a particular good film, made, say, in 1933, for the producing company's 1934 output. All sorts of excuses are made for this little dodge, and what it comes to is that the expectation of this star film is sold twice over.

The astonishing discovery that England can be just as improper as America sank deep into the Colonial heart after a few films such as “Blackmail” and “Frail Women.” Lord Bledisloe was one who found this out for himself, and was, to the horror and amazement of the showman concerned, deeply and most publicly shocked. A British film called “Rich and Strange” was screened at the Regent Theatre, in Auckland. The theatre manager was only too happy to be able to advertise “under vice-regal patronage,” when his Excellency signified his page 183 intention of bringing a party along to the opening night.

As a general rule, any film at which vice-royalty is to be present is as carefully censored as a baby's new breakfast food. In this case, things were complicated by the fact that the film only arrived from Wellington on the day before its premiére. Even so, bits considered a little too close to the torrid zone were hastily scissored out. It was labour in vain. The party-Lord and Lady Bledisloe and attendants were courteously received and seated in the comfiest corner of the dress circle. The film (I was in the audience on that historic occasion) was really very mild. A husband and wife, suddenly coming into money, go for a steamer trip, and each falls in love with somebody else. The scene nearest to any particular impropriety depicts them in a more or less inebriated condition, but the picture was so tame compared with much that has gone before and come after that the vice-regal thunderbolt of disapproval was quite unexpected. After the show, his Excellency expressed grave displeasure to the showman: moreover, on returning to Government House, he instantly sent a message to the morning daily (the New Zealand Herald) demanding that not only should the “Under vice-regal Patronage” clause be withdrawn instantly from all “Rich and Strange” advertisements, but that the newspaper critique of the film should expressly state how much overdone was the richness and strangeness thereof.

The Regent Theatre has always been an excellent newspaper advertiser. It is stated on good authority that the Herald's big business men refused to use the mailed fist on the show, and furthermore rang Government House in the stilly watches of the night, demanding to speak to his Excellency in person. No mere aide would suffice. Although his Excellency is credited with answering the call, it is understood that no palliative was offered. That the same week page 184 Lady Bledisloe paid an unofficial visit to the Majestic Theatre, where they were screening “Tarzan of the Apes,” the jungle love-passages therein not appearing any more restained than might be expected, was another feature of the situation. She raised no complaints.

His Excellency, however, is something of a stickler for the proprieties. On presenting a cup at an Auckland trotting meeting to one theatre-owner who also goes in for horse-flesh, he publicly expressed pleasure at being able to award a prize where it was well deserved, as the winner “showed pictures suitable for children.”

It is quite true that the white-headed boy of this little episode does make a specialty of children's holiday matinees, and that Mickey Mouse is a big man on his theatre circuits. Apart from this, his shows contain quite as much adultery per mile as do those of the unlucky Regent—at a conservative estimate. However, Lord Bledisloe can hardly be expected to stumble over every improper film that comes to New Zealand. In “silent” days the Regent, Wellington, once put on a British film week. The first film was about cocaine addicts, the second about somewhat complicated immoralities.

Two outstanding events, since the beginning of the talkie era, are the fall of the old theatre orchestras, and the drama that centred around the Civic Theatre in Auckland.

Wellington's outstanding theatre orchestra was to be heard at the De Luxe. Its star turn was little swarthy Emmanuel Aarons, at the astonishing instrument which bears the appalling title, “Mighty Wurlitzer Organ.” However, Mr. Aarons, who was an artist, made his Wurlitzer much less overwhelming than might have been expected, and his salary ran into very big figures… After the talkie conquest, he was allegedly cut down to £5 a week. He departed hotfoot for Australia and a square deal.

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There have been several valiant attempts to revive theatre orchestras in Auckland. A suburban house, the Tivoli, boasted one when the depression was in full swing. It was killed because the musicians, who were getting 30/- a week, demanded union wages. The Civic has tried revivals, and the St. James Theatre is now in the thick of one.

The Civic Theatre was an astonishing business. Nobody has yet elucidated whether its construction originated in a desire to give New Zealanders a picture house well beyond their income, or simply in a rather neat little scheme to dispose of building sites at a figure profitable for some, if not for all. The adventurous T. A. O'Brien was its fons et origo. Eastern in design, bright yellow outside and within equipped with Persian-trousered houris, carved chairs which looked like the illegitimate offspring of Bombay and Birmingham, a mid-night-blue sky twinkling with incandescent stars, and a great flower-draped barge which rose slowly out of the depths, displaying the orchestra reclining thereon; it was certainly what the most blasé Aucklander would have to admit “an eyeful.”

Its ballets, in the first instance, were also very diaphanous. Much of the glory quickly departed. New Zealand Truth, a journal whose keen interest in some business deals is only surpassed by its clam-like reticence over others just as fascinating, had a good deal to say about the disappearance of this early “groundbait,” and the justifications of so costly an edifice. The Civic was dogged by ill-luck, in any case. In choosing its pictures, it missed on what turned out to be the film of the year—“Gold-Diggers of Broadway,” colour-toned in beautiful flesh-pink tints, which was to run for eleven weeks at the St. James', whilst the opening of the Civic's palace over the way slipped by almost unnoticed.

Though New Zealand takes no notable part page 186 in the film industry, except that of an increasingly critical audience, we have grown used to the advent of camera-men from afar. If we have neither a riot nor a 'quake to offer a roving movie man, it may well be that Jean Batten or a new sort of Maori war-dance will fill the gap. One American firm, evidently most optimistic about local industries, centred a screen drama round a boat leaving these shores with a cargo of oil, which caught fire. Unlucky shareholders in this land's few oil ventures greeted the film with wild peals of hysterical mirth. But the most outrageous libel ever perpetrated on this country — that of an American company which prefaces its every film with a glimpse of a spinning globe on which there is no such place as New Zealand — is becoming less justifiable every day.