Wednesday, September 28, 2005

The Golden Cinema in Black and White

Believe it or not, there was a movie cinema in the British Naval Base in Singapore in the 1950s to early '70s (this, and the rest of the workers' quarters were demolished in the 1980s). It was quite a sizeable cinema hall and it has screened a mix of movies, from Indian (not Red Indians) movies to the English blockbusters.

As a very young boy then, I often only heard of the shows that were screened there, the most famous of which was Dracula. The name, Christopher Lee, has stuck in my mind ever since. The other show that generated much excitement and talk was The Ten Commandments with Charleton Heston in the lead role. But I never once stepped into that cinema hall, much less watched any of these blockbusters because my mother believed that movie watching has a negative influence. The closest I ever got to seeing the movies were the full-coloured printed flyers that were distributed around the Base advertising the upcoming movie. I did, however, catch the occasional Johnny Weissmuller Tarzan movies that were screened in the open air across the road from where I lived then. These screenings were free of charge, courtesy of the British Empire. So long as you can find a place on the grass land to sit down, you're set for Tarzan.

I also often wandered outside this sole cinema hall in the day time. This cinema hall was located at the end of a street named Jalan Kedai. It could get very silent during the day where no movies are screened because everyone who has the means to catch a movie is busy making a living. The silence of the place is eerie, especially when a swamp (ever heard of the Swamp Thing?) is about 50 metres away.

Today, that cinema hall and all its surroundings, including the swamp is gone. The movies that used to play there is but a memory. Indeed, movie going has been around for more than a hundred years. The black and whites, the silent movies, the talkies and the musical are the stuff of legend today. Fortunately, they have been preserved by movie studios and are screened from time to time for film buffs and serious movie historians. There are many books that document the lives and times. One of the most recent that I came across is the picture-book "In the Picture - Production Stills from the TCM Archives". TCM stands for Turner Classic Movies. Once again, through these stills, I was re-acquainted with Tarzan and Johnny Weissmuller with Jane - er, Maureen O'Sullivan, that is. This 159-page book has a full-sized picture in almost every page, showing movie stills from the silent era such as Buster Keaton's The Cameraman, Lilian Gish's The Scarlett Letter to those talkies starring Jean Harlow, Clark Gable, Johnny Weissmuller (pages 36 and 55), Greta Garbo, etc. etc. right up to Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in Giant. There are just too many to list here. The actor I missed most in these pages was Charlie Chaplin. I wonder why its not in this book? The TCM website does have Charlie Chaplin's The Kid (1921) and Modern Times (1936).

One interesting nugget I picked up in this book is how erstwhile silent movie actors can fail to make the transition from silent movies to talkies. Their movie careers were adversely affected by it - the victims yet again of technology. A case in point - in silent movie actor, John Gilbert's first talkie, His Glorius Night (1929), audiences just could not match his actual light natural baritone voice with the high pitch voice that they imagined him to have after watching 5 years of Gilbert's silent movies. That movie flopped and Gilbert's star wanned. On the other hand, Greta Garbo's first talkie, Anna Christie (1930) was successful and propelled her towards greater stardom. This nugget is from page 19 of the book.

Lots of interesting tales and 'old' pictures in this book. Have a look.