An amusingly vivid eyewitness account by an American visiting a Brazilian cinema in 1914...
Source: Harry A. Franck, Working North from Patagonia; being the narrative of a journey, earned on the way, through southern and eastern South America (New York: The Century Co., 1921), pp. 261-266
Text: The “Companhia Brazileira” advertized extensively, and the Kinetophone was well patronized from the start. Brazilians take readily to novelties, especially if they can be made the fashion, and our audiences of the second day included both priests and “women of the life,” which is a sure sign of popular success in Brazil.
As our doubled entrance fee of two milreis was high for those times of depression, also perhaps because the “Cinema Pathé” was considered a gathering place of the élite, we entertained only the well dressed, or, perhaps I should say, the overdressed.
They were blasé, artificial audiences, never under any circumstances applauding or giving any sign of approval; they always gave me the impression of saying, “Oh, rather interesting, you know, as a novelty, but I could do much better myself if I cared to take the time from my love-making and risk soiling my spats and my long, slender, do-nothing fingers.” But as they continued to bring us as our share of the receipts more than a conto of reis a day, it was evident that they found the performance pleasing.
The motion-picture having come after all the business part of Rio was built, there was no room to erect “movie palaces” which have elsewhere followed in the train of Edison’s most prostituted invention. All the cinemas along the Avenida Central are former shops, without much space except in depth, and as the temperature quickly rises when such a place is crowded, the screen often consists of a curtain across what used to be the wide-open shop door, so that one on the sidewalk may peep in and see the audience and even the orchestra, though he can see nothing of the projected pictures within an inch of his nose.
Alongside the “movie” house proper another ex-shop of similar size is generally used as a waiting-room. Here are luxurious upholstered seats, much better than those facing the screen, and some such extraordinary attraction as a “feminine orchestra specially contracted in Europe.”
For the waiting-room is of great importance in Rio. It takes the place in a way of a central plaza and promenade where the two sexes can come and admire one another, and it is often thronged immediately after the closing of the door to the theater proper, by people who know quite well they must sit there a full hour before the “section” ends.
In fact, young fops sometimes come in and remain an hour or two ogling the feminine charms in the waiting-room and then go out again without so much as having glanced at the show inside. In contrast, many cinemas have “second-class” entrances, without waiting-room and with seats uncomfortably near the screen, where the sockless and collarless are admitted at reduced prices.
It does not require long contact with them to discover that Latin films are best for Latins, for both audience and actors have a mutual language of gestures and facial expressions. The lack of this makes American films seem slow, labored, and stupid, not only to Latins, but to the American who has been living for some time among them.
It is a strange paradox that the most doing people on the earth are the slowest in telling a story in pantomime or on the screen. What a French or an Italian actress will convey in full, sharply and clearly, by a shrug of her shoulders or a flip of her hand, the most advertised American “movie star” will get across much more crudely and indistinctly only by spending two or three minutes of pantomimic labor, assisted by two or three long “titles.”
The war quickly forced the “Companhia Brazileira,” as it did most of its rivals, to use American films; but neither impresarios nor their clients had anything but harsh words for the “awkward stupidity” and the pretended Puritanic point of view of those makeshift programs — with one exception, Brazilian audiences would sit up all night watching our “wild west” films in which there was rough riding.
Curious little differences in customs and point of view come to light in watching an American film through South American eyes. For instance, there is probably not a motion-picture director in the United States who knows that to permit a supposedly refined character in a film to lick a postage stamp is to destroy all illusion in a Latin-American audience. Down there not even the lowest of the educated class ever dreams of sealing or stamping a letter in that fashion.
An American film depicting the misadventures of a “dude” or “sissy”, was entirely lost upon the Brazilian audiences, because to them the hero was exactly their idea of what a man should be, and they plainly rated him the most “cultured” American they had ever met. Bit by bit one discovers scores of such slight and insignificant differences, which sum up to great differences and become another stone in that stout barrier between the Latin and the Anglo-Saxon divisions of the western hemisphere.
Sunday is the big theater or “movie” day in Brazil, for then the families of the “four hundred” turn out in full force. On our seventh day they were standing knee-deep in the waiting-room most of the afternoon and early evening. The congestion increased that part of my duties which had to do with auditing, for the head of a family often paused to shake hands effusively with the door-keeper, after which the entire family poured boldly in, and it became my business to find out whether there had been anything concealed in the effusive hand, and if not, why the box-office had been so cavalierly slighted.
One afternoon the Senhor Presidente da Republica came to honor the fourth performance of the day with his patronage, and to give us the official blessing without which we had been forced to open. A corps of policemen was sent first to hang about the door for nearly two hours — giving passers-by the impression that the place had been “pinched.” There followed a throng of generals, admirals, and unadmirables in full uniform, who waited in line for “His Excellency.”
The president came at length in an open carriage, his girl wife beside him, two haughty personalities in gold lace opposite them, and a company of lancers on horseback trotting along the Avenida beside them. The waiting line fawned upon the leathery-skinned chief of state, bowed over the hand of his wife, then the whole throng surrounded the loving pair and, pushing the humble door-keeper scornfully aside, swarmed into the cinema without a suggestion of offering to pay the entrance fee. Luckily the doors were not high enough to admit the lancers, who trotted away with the red of their uniforms gleaming in the afternoon sunshine. It was my first experience with the official “deadheads” of Brazil, but by no means my last.
We quickly found, too, that the official gathering was bad for business. Surely any American theater holding 510 persons would fill up when the President of the Republic and his suite were gracing it with their presence! Yet here there was only a scattering of paying audience as long as the “deadheads” remained, which, thanks perhaps to a film showing them in the recent Independence Day parade, was until they had heard the entire program once and the Kinetophone twice.
The president, it seemed, was hated not only for his political iniquities, but the élite looked down upon him for marrying a girl little more than one-fourth his own age and letting her make the national presidency the background for her social climbing; and to enter the theater while the president and his retainers were there was to risk losing both one’s political and social standing as a high class Brazilian.
Comments: Harry Alverson Franck (1881-1962) was an American travel writer, whose journeys took him China, Latin America, Europe and the USSR. For the journey through South America described in this book Franck served as an agent for the Edison Kinetophone, a film projection system synchronised with musical discs, and there are many descriptions of the operation of the Kinetophone and its mixed reception across the continent in Franck’s characteristically sardonic style. Although the publication date of the book is 1921, the trip must have occurred around 1913-14. The president of the Brazilian republic referred to is Hermes da Fonseca.