1920s >> 1929 >> no-301-september-1929

Thoughts at the Pictures

We thought our town was well supplied with cinemas, but three months ago another opened. This was really a grand affair, with everything right up to recent date. There was a beautiful copper dome, surmounting an artistic tiled front, and when all the lights were twinkling and reflected in the small lake before the building, it was like a dream palace. And then you walked through the polished doors and up the marble stairs,, helping yourself along with the heavy brass handrails until you came to the paybox. Here stood an ambassador (I am sure he was an ambassador, for he was covered in gold lace), who always made the same mistake. He always assumed that we were either American oil-kings or else ex-sergeant-majors, for he immediately called out, “Seats at 5/9, 3/6 and 2/4.” He never mentioned the 6d. and 1/- ones. He made us feel somewhat cheap, but we found he was paid to do that and thus increase his master’s takings, so we paid our shillings and went in. And inside ! What a vision ! To the great majority of people in our town, whose homes are furnished by Tallyman, Gombeen and Tick, Ltd , and decorated by Woolworth’s, the new cinema must appear the last thing in the palatial. Gilt and tinsel, plush and velvet, silken curtains and orange glow-lamps, all go to make the nearest approach to fairyland most of us have ever known. There was a cinema organ capable of making 591 different kinds of noise. I will not venture to express my own ill-balanced and highly prejudiced opinion of it, but will simply state that the majority of my fellow citizens were brought into a state of ecstasy by it. And then there was the orchestra of about twenty musicians. I mention this feature last, because we were assured that it was a highly efficient body under the baton of the well-known conductor, Mr. So-and-So. One must admit that when they played music they were a joy, a pure, unrestrained joy, but when they introduced those orgies of hoots, squeals and death-rattles that are miscalled dance music, they were not a joy.

However, I mention them last for another reason that will be presently apparent. I did not go to the cinema again, because I found that in spite of the fairy-like exterior, the beautiful interior, the organ, the orchestra and all the rest, there appeared upon the screen nothing but the slushiest of slush. One is not entertained by slush.

But there came a day when the owner of the luxurious building informed his “esteemed patrons” and the world at large that, true to the policy of keeping abreast with modern developments, and sparing no expense, he would inaugurate the newest scientific wonder, the talking picture.

So as soon after the opening night as possible, we again paid a visit to the hall of luxury. There were the shaded lights, the marble floor, the painted sky on the ceiling, the courteous attendants as before, and, as we entered, the organ was playing one of the Indian love lyrics. It was not until the great feature, the talking picture, came on, that we noticed a difference. The orchestra had disappeared. Where previously had sat some twenty men in dress suits, producing melody of charm and vigour, there was a boarded expanse, covered with coloured bunting and artificial flowers. Yes ! Gay bunting and paper roses. He had “spared no expense” with a vengeance. It was the tomb of the orchestra. All its members had been sacked. Instead of their merry fiddling, all the noises that are intruded to charm a cinema audience, proceeded from a machine situated in the orchestra’s tomb. I need not tell you what I thought of the film, or of the talkie device, which has obvious wonderful possibilities. But I could not keep my mind from reverting to a little argument I had had with a friend during the day on unemployment.

He had retailed the old, time-worn phrases as to its cause and cure that the Press provides each day for the satisfaction of its readers. He had admitted, willingly admitted, that the introduction of machinery displaced labour, but urged that effect was only temporary as, owing to the cheapening of costs, prices fell, leading to a bigger demand than ever, when the displaced workers were rapidly re-absorbed. I tried to apply this line of reasoning to the sacked orchestra but I am afraid it did not fit. And yet my friend was only saying what the Capitalist Press says. Another statement he retailed from the same source was that men displaced from an industry by the introduction of machinery, eventually found work in the making of that machinery. There seemed to be a flaw in this reasoning, too. I could not conceive of those twenty musicians selling their instruments in a glutted market, and setting out to find the place where the wonderful talkie machines are made, in the hope that their skill as makers of melody would avail them as makers of machines. Had they been so exceedingly simple as to act upon those lines, it is quite possible they would have been unable to get near the factory for crowds of other musicians similarly made redundant, and crowds of real engineers already seeking employment.

Another argument he used, or rather quoted, was that unemployment was caused by cheap foreign labour. And yet these machines were the product of highly-paid American labour. I heard later that a British talkie is now being marketed costing but a third of the American product. Even this information did not seem to me to be of great comfort to the starving musician. Whether the machine was made by labour aristocrats or sweated coolies, the effect on the musician seemed the same. However, thinking over these things interfered with my appreciation of the film, and as my friend was not there I could not ask him to explain his ingenious theories in the presence of the awkward facts. I must recommend him to make a little study of the case of the cinema musician and his sudden and dramatic displacement by the machine, and then go over his theories over again. Perhaps he will see that the reason the musicians are sent out to starve, whilst a machine does their work, is because the cinema is privately owned and it is to the interest of the proprietor to substitute a cheaper music maker if he can, for he thus enlarges the amount of his profit. It is nothing to him that the human musicians starve if they cannot find a hirer. He will tell them he is not a philanthropic institution. He is not in business for the good of his health or the good of his employees. If they are wise, they will take him at his word. He is not in business for their benefit. Then they must see that the private ownership of their means of livelihood is incompatible with their good. They will see further, that the whole of this society of ours is run upon the same basis, and that their unemployment is not to be distinguished from unemployment in general. Their problem is only part of the whole problem, and the whole problem can only be solved by a universal remedy. We say that the only remedy suggested, so far, that has stood every sort of criticism, is Socialism. All our means of livelihood are privately owned, and all of us workers are liable to be sent packing whenever our hirers can find a cheaper substitute. How long are we going to stand it? Why should we not own our own means of livelihood? Why should a relatively small and parasite class dictate to the vast mass of people when they shall work and when not? Let us take possession of the things that are vital to our very existence. We make them, we operate them, we repair them and renew them. We do everything but own them. Without us the whole of the machinery in the world, beautiful as it is, clever as it is, ingenious as it undoubtedly is, is so much junk. Let us make the land, the factories, the machines and the tools of production, common property, and then perhaps, instead of a machine making men into paupers, we shall welcome every machine that lightens labour, for it will bring us holidays and increased leisure. The system wherein the means whereby all live are commonly owned and administered, is called Socialism. That is what we are aiming at, and we want a million workers to say definitely they want it, and are prepared to help get it. Will you be one?

W. T. H.

(Socialist Standard, September 1929)

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