East End Memories

REMEMBERING THE ESSOLDO, BETHNAL GREEN (1948-1956)

PART THREE - DESPERATE TIMES, DESPERATE MEASURES & 3-D

My memories of the Essoldo, Bethnal Green Road might have continued in this vein were it not for repercussions that resulted from the shivers of desperation that rippled through Hollywood in the early 1950s. Television had arrived, and as the decade progressed, more and more sets were being sold around the world much to the horror of movie moguls. The advent and progression of television meant more and more people chose to stay home and obtain their entertainment for free, if you exclude the cost of a license required in many countries including the United Kingdom. And this meant that fewer and fewer people were now prepared to leave the warmth and safety of their homes and venture out and pay for the privilege of sitting in a darkened room with a host of strangers and watch moving and talking images shown on a wall. Television sent shivers up the spine of both Hollywood and British film studios. Once ticket sales fell, so did profits causing many in the film industry to suffer sleepless nights as well as nervous breakdowns and a few heart attacks.

Movie moguls being first and foremost businessmen knew well that desperate times did indeed call for desperate measures. To avert the decline in cinema attendance and also hopefully lure the public back to the cinema, the moguls knew that they had to come up with something spectacular. To get customers to part with their hard earned cash, they needed to have something that television could not, as yet, offer. They not only needed spectacle, they needed something with flash. They needed something to make the public sit up and take notice. The moguls knew that audiences would pay to be teased and tantalised, as well as to be thrilled and frightened.

The moguls chose the thrill and frighten route and began to produce films where photographic images appeared to stand out both with and without the use of special glasses. In this way, audiences became a participant in the action on the screen. Soon customers were being thrilled and squealing with wonder and delight as they dodged flaming arrows, lances and other objects seemingly being hurled at them from the screen. They were both frightened and exhilarated by marauding circus animals that seemed to jump off the screen at them. Soon audiences were screaming in terror as phantoms and gorillas appeared to reach out to grab them from the safety of their cinema seats. Although being of a young age, I was nonetheless an avid cinema-goer with what I thought was good taste. Despite thinking of myself as a sophisticated patron and connoisseur of film, I soon embraced spectacle wholeheartedly and became a devotee of films produced in 3-D and for the widescreen.

Most films made in 3-D were not especially good. The major Hollywood studios did not fully embrace the process and produced only a few films requiring the need of special glasses. Here, through the wearing of these glasses, the two images projected onto the screen were seen as one and seen as if they stood out! I remember enjoying the flaming arrows being fired into the auditorium when I saw Hondo. I also remember trying to catch both a tankard and a banana from Howard Keel, as he nonchalantly flew them my way in the film of Kiss Me Kate! I was extremely annoyed as a child as I was denied access to the one 3-D film that I really wanted to see, House of Wax.

In the 1950s, Great Britain had a censor board in place that gave certificates to each film that clearly stated who should be allowed to view it. Most children wanted to see any and all films given an X-certificate. One had to be 16-years old to have that right. All kids tried to dupe box office servers in those times and pretend to be of age so as to see some of the more titillating offerings of the time. Sometimes you were successful, other times not. I remember that on each occasion I gained entry to an X-rated film, I was always sorely disappointed by what I saw!

I can only remember one film being awarded an H-certificate. Essentially, this rating was the same as an X-certificate since it meant that no one below the age of 16-years would be allowed to see it in a cinema. However, the H-certificate added a tantalising quality to the film, one that implied this was a horror film with special qualities guaranteed to chill the blood. This is just the kind of film that every kid wanted to see! Cinemas had to be strict when it came to allowing entry to questionable 16-year olds since the management received a hefty fine should a youth be found present during the screening of such a film. Naturally, I was too young to be passed by the cruel and inquisitive eye of the box office agent and so was denied access. Mind you, I think that I was about 10-years old when this film was first released and could expect nothing else but denial. This film, House of Wax, was one of Vincent Price’s first horror films and was a great financial success. The advertisement for this film was both frightening and tantalising as it showed the central character wrapped in a long black cloak and with a very wide brimmed hat pulled down over his face. Other images showed a woman in mid-scream and of an inferno promised in the film. Truly great stuff! I regret never having seen this film in the wonders of 3-Dimension and again I feel that my childhood was deprived as a result!

I did eventually see House of Wax, but this was years later and on television and in black and white! I remember seeing it on a Saturday afternoon in the winter of 1969 while living in Toronto. One of the local television channels was showing the film and I had stayed at home purposely to watch it. I remember looking forward to seeing it and so prepared myself for a great and a grand experience. I had taken my telephone off the hook so as not to be disturbed and had surrounded myself with an assortment of sweetmeats and other special treats. After all, this was going to be an important film and one that I had been looking forward to seeing for some years by then. The film started and it soon became obvious, although I did not fully appreciate this at the time, that the film had been hacked and chopped to fit into the allotted time and that much of the story had been sacrificed in so doing. The film ran for ninety minutes with endless commercial breaks.

The film proved to be dull to say the least and was a great disappointment. There were scenes that had I had the opportunity to see in 3-Dimension and in colour then my opinion of the film would perhaps have been less negative. For example, the scene where a barker standing and hawking in front of the House of Wax and hitting a ball attached to a bat back and forth had a spark to it. When seen in 3-D, the ball would appear to leap off the screen seemingly aimed directly at the audience. This no doubt brought yelps and cries from the customers, as they ducked to miss the non-existent ball flying towards them. Sadly what should have been a spectacular finish to the film was dull and completely lacking in excitement in the hacked television version. During the final scene, the House of Wax burns to the ground and the owner means a suitable and horrific end. There was a battle between villain and hero amidst a number burning beams, which periodically crashed to the ground. While the hero attempted to save the damsel in distress, the wax figures were melting. Naturally the camera lingered on the faces which, as the wax melted, became horribly disfigured and produced a horrific site. Once the wax had dipped away, it became clear that the villain had made his figures from the corpses of his victims. Without colour, without 3-D and without the ambiance of a cinema audience, the finale was dull and uninteresting. I was very disappointed and wished that I had not bothered to watch.

Several years later, I tried to watch a more complete version of the film, also on television, but this time in colour. Alas, the film held no mystery for me and I soon lost interest and turned to another channel. I don’t think that I shall ever forgive the British Board of Film Censors for denying me the thrill and fear of seeing this film in a cinema, as I would have relished the special effects fully!

As amusing as 3-D was to kids like me, paying patrons soon became annoyed at having to wear special glasses and were also annoyed at having to pay for them in addition to the price of a ticket. I remember my mother being miffed at the Empire Leicester Square when after paying three shillings & sixpence per seat to see Kiss Me Kate, which was a huge sum for a cinema ticket in the early 1950s, she was then asked to fork-out a further one shilling & sixpence for a pair of these special spectacles. I remember being especially pleased to get my spectacles since many of the comics of the day were featuring stories in 3-D and they were of better quality than the cheap one red eye-one green eye viewer that accompanied the comic and needed to be held in place. The cinema’s special glasses were classier and provided dotted lines on either side of the green-tinted lenses, which when folded, produced ear pieces.  The wearing of the spectacles avoided the necessity of holding them in place. In this way, the patron had free hands and so could unwrap sweets, hold an orange drink and/or eat an ice cream without interference to their film experience while also being able to avoid any perceived object thrown there way from the film! However, not every patron appreciated the thoughtfulness of the management and I was most amused to find that after going into the auditorium, many members of the audience were viewing the action through non-folded spectacles held up over the bridge of their noses! Naturally, with arms now extended, they were either constantly interlocking with other patrons or tapping them on the sides of their heads as they bobbed and weaved out of the path of a flaming arrow!

The concept of depth had apparently intrigued the film moguls for some time, but they soon realised that people would not tolerate the holding or the wearing of special spectacles for too long and that the novelty of objects being flung their way had a limited appeal. The quest was soon on for these features to appear in a film but without the use of special glasses. Apparently, a French scientist had produced a lens that would allow an image to appear on a wider screen than was currently in use and would also allow objects to appear to stand out, thus giving the scene depth.




Continue to Part Four - CinemaScope - A Brief Introduction to Specifications

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Copyrightę 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins