East End Memories



It was not until 1953 that my relationship with the Essoldo Bethnal Green truly began. It was then that my opinion of the cinema changed or rather was viewed in a different light. It was on a wet Monday afternoon that the old and slightly dilapidated cinema was seen through refreshed eyes. Up until that Monday afternoon, if I had thought about that cinema, I would have quickly dismissed it as a dump, a fleapit, a third-rate establishment of little interest and importance. Brutal comments from one so young! However, on that faithful day, and quite suddenly, the cinema became elevated to rarefied heights and became a favourite for all time. My change of heart came about as a result of two events, both involving Mr. Solomon Sheckman: the first brought the cinema into his Essoldo circuit in 1949 and the second came about as a result of the his savvy business sense in 1953. Obviously a good businessman and a person with foresight, once Mr. Sheckman saw an opportunity, he seized upon it with both hands. His know how brought his cinema circuit to national prominence and allowed it the good fortune to show the films produced by 20th Century Fox now produced in CinemaScope – the Essoldo chain’s gain was the Rank Organization’s loss.

20th Century Fox originally insisted that their CinemaScope films not only be seen on a huge wide screen but also heard in glorious stereophonic sound. Up until then, the Rank Organization was distributing Fox films and I had enjoyed many Betty Grable films at the Foresters cinema by then (link to Going to the Pictures Foresters, a Gaumont cinema). Apparently the Rank Organization was unwilling to upgrade the sound system in all of their managed cinemas. 20th Century Fox was initially adamant in this demand and negotiations between the two companies broke down causing Fox to look for another outlet for their films. Obviously sensing that CinemaScope was just what was needed to lure the public back to his cinemas and allow his circuit to challenge the major distributors in Britain, Solomon Sheckman and the Essoldo chain stepped in and offered their establishments to Fox. The management of the Essoldo chain was happy to agree to all demands made by Fox and so became a force in the business. For several years, the Essoldo chain enjoyed good business by showing many first run films that patrons wanted to see. However, Fox and Rank eventually overcame their differences and the Essoldo circuit returned to its previous screening policy of showing films of less than sterling quality. But by then, I had moved from Bethnal Green, much to my chagrin, and was viewing CinemaScope in the grander setting of a Granada cinema.

I cannot impress upon the reader the sheer magnificence of CinemaScope. The screen seemed huge to me, very wide, yet seemingly narrow in height thanks to the projected aspect ratio of supposedly 2.66:1. I had never experienced stereophonic sound before and was amazed at the effects achieved. Horses and chariots were heard clattering along cobbled streets while off-screen, thereby making their entrance on-screen, greatly anticipated and all the more exciting. Without doubt, I felt myself part of the film and was willing to swallow the occasional weak storyline and kissing that interrupted the action!

What made the new screen and new sound system even more spectacular were my memories of the pre-CinemaScope screen of the Essoldo along with the quality of the old sound system. I remember that the old screen was set back quite deeply allowing a large stage area before the proscenium. I also recall that the old screen was taller than it was wide and had some curvature at the corners. If this were true, the screen obviously would have failed to conform to Academy Format where a projected aspect ratio of 1.37:1 was required. I had never seen a screen like the pre-CinemaScope screen before and, of course, it is possible that I should not trust my memory in this matter. Real or imagined, I found the old screen odd.

The CinemaScope screen was not only very wide, but it demonstrated a slight curvature. 20th Century Fox unashamedly advertised the new screen with an exaggerated curvature, as one of their original advertisements for The Robe clearly demonstrates and as did their logo for the cinematic process. Regardless of this, what was amazing about CinemaScope, and here I can personally attest to the validity of this effect, was that if you sat in the centre of the fifth or sixth row from the front stalls, seats most patrons would normally avoid, then you found that activities taking place on the whole screen filled the viewer’s visual field. This is to say, what was shown on the whole screen filled your viewing area and, as a result, you were not aware of anything else. This gave you the impression of actually being in the film! Naturally, this effect was helped if there weren’t other customers in the rows in front of you. In order to experience the full majestic effect of CinemaScope on a regular basis, I found it absolutely necessary to skip school and see these films during the early afternoon so as to be sure to have the cinema mostly to myself. As you can tell, I was very, very impressed by CinemaScope. It allowed me to marvel at the productions. One afternoon, I might be in ancient Rome (The Robe), another time, I might be sailing the China Seas (Soldier of Fortune) and on another occasion, I could be galloping across the central plains with the Cheyenne (White Feather). In those days, CinemaScope opened up the world to me and helped enrich my vista and fuelled my imagination. It also caused me to want to travel to those places seen on the screen once I got older. Finally, and on a more negative, and somewhat irritating note, CinemaScope caused me much trouble with school authorities since I never could offer them suitable and acceptable excuses as to why I was absent from school on so many Monday afternoons!

CinemaScope was said to allow the viewer to experience a sense of depth without the aid of special glasses. I never truly experienced this and it wasn’t until I first saw Cinerama that I experienced this concept. I remember Richard Widmark standing on the front of a moving locomotive in How the West Was Won and gasping at the sense of depth now noticeable as the train moved towards the audience.

In order to accommodate the wide screen required to allow projection of CinemaScope, changes had to be made to the cinema. As a result of the new and necessary projected aspect ratio, a new screen had to be installed and it had to be placed in front of the proscenium at the Essoldo, Bethnal Green. As a result, there were no longer any curtains or proscenium with decorative motifs separating the screen from the auditorium. Judging from old photographs, this was indeed a loss to its charm. Even as a child, I remember being amused by the dark material chosen to shape the screen. It did not seem to be of the normal black canvas used in other cinemas, but appeared to be akin to old blankets!

The first film in CinemaScope that I saw at the Essoldo was The Robe. I had had the opportunity to see Flight of the White Heron, which had played there for a week about a month earlier, but since I was not especially interested in the voyages of the Queen following her coronation, I did not go. I deeply regret this poor choice now since I have never again had the opportunity to see this film. I fear that it is amongst the lost.

In those days, one did not pay attention to when films began and ended. When one wanted to go to the cinema, one went in regardless of what point the screening had reached and then one stayed until one saw the whole film through regardless of having seen the ending already. I remember having my ticket torn by the usherette and then being allowed to go through the doors to the auditorium. The place was almost pitch black. I looked ahead and was surprised by the enormous screen stretching across what seemed to be the whole width of the building at the far end of the auditorium. I was stunned and froze in place. The scene was dim and slowly I began to make out that it was of a cabin on an old ship. I remember that the cabin moved gently back and forth as the ship glided through the waters. I could hear the sound of someone obviously beating time for the oarsmen to pull to. Richard Burton was having a nightmare and reliving his part in the Crucifixion. He was tossing in his bunk and murmuring inaudible dialogue. It was quite a creepy scene. Periodically, he would yell out some chilling dialogue thereby terrifying the ship’s crew and me and caused some disruption to their rowing. Meanwhile, my ears were ringing with that constant hammering sound that filled the auditorium and added to the eeriness of the mood. Even though I had no idea what was going on in the scene, I still found it to be quite disturbing. Fortunately, as the film progressed, I got the gist of the story and was able to follow and eventually enjoy it.

The Robe had been chosen by 20th Century Fox to be the first film released that was made in CinemaScope. The Fox executives were determined to make the maximum of their new process and decided that their first film should be one where they could pull out all the stops and produce a spectacle. They certainly achieved their aim. It not only made money, it also spawned a sequel, which went into production immediately after completion of The Robe so as to maximize returns on their initial outlay on the cost of the sets. The film set the scene for further epics that were to follow throughout the 1950s.

What I liked best about The Robe, besides the magnificent arena and court scenes, was the Emperor. The film is set during the time of the Emperor Tiberius, who we meet living out his old age on the Isle of Capri and centres around the centurion Marcellus who commanded the Crucifixion of Jesus. Marcellus wins Jesus’ garment when soldiers cast lots for it. His servant, Demetrius, played by Victor Mature, takes The Robe when he leaves Marcellus’ service. Marcellus, for his part loses his reason and is sent back to Rome. Eventually, he is given an audience with Tiberius who after discussion sends Marcellus off on a quest to find The Robe since Tiberius believed that it has powers!

It is evident that the Fox moguls were not going to waste time on historical accuracy regarding the order and life spans of Roman Emperors in their film and since they dispensed with any reference to the Emperor Augustus and swiftly move to the obviously more marketable Caligula. By focusing on his manner, tastes and cruelty, the moguls were able to tease and titillate the public and indulge the macabre side of their taste. After all, this is what sold and still sells tickets! It must be remembered that the moguls were primarily businessmen and were much more interested in their bottom line than in producing historically accurate films.

Up until then, the great Peter Ustinov had set the standard for madness and over indulgence of a Roman Emperor with his portrayal of the Emperor Nero in Quo Vadis in the early 1950s. I saw this film at the ABC Mile End Road one Thursday night when it first went on general release. I remember that the advertisement screamed that the film contained a cast of thousands, which it seemed to. It also promised the throwing of Christians to the lions! Being a child, I took this assertion in a literal manner and believed that these poor people were to be hurled into the arena. Actually, they all walked into the place and some even sang as they did! We had gone to see this film at the insistence of my father, an obvious devotee of spectacle and over the top Roman Emperors. I have been lucky enough to see this film on giant screens a number of times and it is without doubt one of the better and more spectacular epics. However, what makes the film memorable is the acting of Peter Ustinov. I am still able to laugh out loud, as I did at that first viewing, when the Emperor Nero, played by a young Peter Ustinov, while in a supposedly sad mood, calls for his tear glass! For some reason, the calling for such an object is still amusing to me!

In my opinion, in 1953, with the release of The Robe, Jay Robinson rivalled Peter Ustinov for entertainment and camp with his portrayal of Caligula. What set his interpretation apart was that he introduced a sense of true evil into his role and, despite finding his portrayal amusing, I also found it quite frightening. I could see that the character was quite capable of doing the most heinous of acts. As great as Peter Ustinov was as Nero, even at my young age, I found him more amusing than frightening. Jay Robinson, although playing Caligula to the hilt of camp, nonetheless infused a creepy aspect to his interpretation, which is recognizable today in this film and in its sequel, Demetrius and the Gladiators, which was incidentally an entertaining film with a great soundtrack and also memorable for the presence of Susan Hayward.

I sat through a second showing of The Robe and marvelled on both occasions at the finale where Richard Burton and Jean Simmons walked out of Caligula’s court and up into the sky while this glorious and triumphant music played. This was great stuff and easily lived up to the promises made by the advertisements of this film. Unfortunately, I was not able to sit through another showing since I was already late in getting home.

My mother was angry when I eventually got home and wanted to know why I was so late in getting home from school. Also, as it was a Monday, I had to take the week’s laundry to the launderette. At the best of times, I did not look forward to this chore and now I not only had to go there and watch as the washing went ‘round and ‘round in the machine, but I would get home even later than usual and probably have to go straight to bed. I hated going to the launderette although it did have its compensations. One of the women working there would send me to buy her a bag of chips from the fish and chip shop further along the Bethnal Green Road. She was a kindly and friendly woman and always willingly shared them with me. She came from Yorkshire and supported York City Football Club, which was having a good run in the F.A. Cup that year. That year the team got to the semi-finals and on their way had defeated the mighty Tottenham Hotspur, 3-1, in an earlier round. I remember that she bought me my own bag of chips to celebrate this event. Whenever I check the football results, I always glance down to those of the old Fourth Division to see how York City is doing. Sadly, the team has seen better days!

I saw many 20th Century Fox CinemaScope presentations following The Robe until being made to move out of London in 1956. Although I was able to see many of the productions shown at the Essoldo, unfortunately I was not able to see them all. And this was of no fault of my own! My inability to see then all was due to both the British Board of Film Censors and also to previous agreements made by the cinema with MGM and Warner Brothers. This was, and still is, a great sense of annoyance to me.

The British Board of Film Censors was responsible for viewing all films to be released in the British Isles and awarding certificates that stated who, and under what conditions, younger members of society would be admitted to viewing. Many films received a U-certificate. Such a status allowed anyone and everyone into the cinema to view the film, assuming that they were able to pay the price of a ticket. This was fine and allowed me to see many Fox productions. However, they also awarded other certificates detailing any restriction to the admission of those members of society under the age of 16-years. As I had mentioned earlier, the Board awarded X- and H-certificates, which denied access to anyone less than 16-years of age. Such labelled films were not generally a problem since most major film studios realized that these certificates meant lower revenues for their films. As a result, they saw to it that any possibly offending scenes did not find their way into the final cut of their films. Although there was certainly a market for X-rated films, they were generally made by smaller companies who produced them on smaller budget so as not to cut too deeply into their profit margin. I can only remember 20th Century Fox releasing two films in Britain produced in CinemaScope, which were awarded an X-certificate. These films were Bigger Than Life with James Mason, which dealt with steroid addiction and The Fiend Who Walked the West with Hugh O’Brien, which dealt with a fiend who walked the West! Years later, thanks to Cinemax and the Fox Movie Channel, I saw both films and television and yawned my way through them both!

What did cause me and my friends problems at times was the A-certificate awarded by the Board. Such a certificate limited access to those under 16-years of age unless accompanied by an adult. This was not a problem when I went to the cinema with my parents, but could become one during those Monday afternoon jaunts unless one could persuade an adult to take us in. This meant asking complete strangers, or occasionally someone we knew, to buy our tickets for us. People today are naturally very concerned about contacts that their children make. When I was a child, a child also had to be extremely vigilant. There were bizarre people out there contrary to what many people will say when recalling the past. I had been brought up never to do certain things when I was out with my parents. I had been told to look for certain responsible-type people when I needed to go to a public toilet or when I got on a train where there were individual compartments. I had been warned to keep my wits about me and to find a policeman if I was concerned about anything. Of course this was in the days when the police walked a beat.

I had also been warned not to ask strangers to take me into a cinema no matter how much I wanted to see the film. And I had promised faithfully to never do so. Naturally, children did not always listen to their parents and do not always keep promises especially when the drive to see a certain film is strong. With me and with my friends, the wish to see a film always won out and strangers were approached for help. I was lucky with those that I approached since I chose carefully and I was able to part company with all strangers once the tickets were torn. Still, there were those times when no stranger was willing to take me in and I was unable to see a particular film. One film that I missed and which irked me very much at the time was Garden of Evil. This film starred Gary Cooper, Susan Hayward and Richard Widmark, three great favourites of mine at the time. I had seen Richard Widmark as a child while he was working on a film at Billingsgate Fish Market and had also seen him in 20th Century Fox’s Hell and High Water at the Essoldo. Again, years later thanks to Cinemax, I saw the full-screen version of this film. Again, it was a disappointment. The storyline was somewhat disjointed and moved at a slow pace despite all the fast and furious horse riding that occurred in the film. Unfortunately, none of the actors were at their best. What I found most odd about this film was that the actors, at one point, were trying to escape a group of Indians. They were fired upon and a number of them were killed, yet the audience never got to see an Indian throughout the film. This struck me as both strange and annoying, especially since I have always preferred Indians over cowboys any day of the week! I have to confess that the real star of this film was the scenery. Some of the scenes were set in a Mexican village, which had been destroyed either by an earthquake or volcano, I can’t remember which. As a result of this, some of the scenes contained some amazingly strange sites: for example, one scene included the steeple of a church sticking up out of the lava!

The second reason for my not seeing all of 20th Century Fox’s CinemaScope Productions was due to their not being shown at the cinema. Secondary to some pre-existing contract, the Essoldo Bethnal Green was required to continue to show certain MGM and Warner Brothers’ films, which fortunately had also been produced in CinemaScope. I remember seeing a number of good films amongst these releases such as Lucky Me, A Star is Born, with Judy Garland, Drumbeat with Alan Ladd and The Command, which was the first western made in the process and was entertaining since it contained lots of Indians. I also saw The Student Prince, which is the film where Mario Lanza had been denied the right to play the prince due to his girth, but was allowed to be the singing voice of Edmund Purdom who had replaced him thanks to his slimmer frame. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers with Howard Keel and Jane Powell was shown at the cinema. 7B for 7B, as this film was advertised has become famous for its dancing sequences, which neither of the mentioned stars actually took part in. The director Martin Scorsese, who is also a devotee of CinemaScope, uses the Raising of the Barn scene from this film to illustrate the value and use of the process to his classes of film students at New York University. As a result of the need to show these films, certain 20th Century Fox’s CinemaScope Productions were bypassed for showing at the cinema, but I will return to this matter later.

Lucky Me was the first musical made in CinemaScope

Seagulls Over Sorrento was the title of The Crest of the Wave when the film was released in Britain

An MGM film that was not shown at the Essoldo Bethnal Green, which I wish had been, was Valley of the Kings. This film offered chases through Egyptian tombs, down the Nile and across the Sinai Peninsula. Now who would not want to such a film when they were young? I do recall that the Essoldo forewent showing this film in favour of treating us to 20th Century Fox’s King of the Khyber Rifles, with Tyrone Power. This film contained chases through the Khyber Pass and skullduggery in the British Army in India. Despite my regret at not seeing Valley of the Kings, this was more than compensated by King. Later, as a student, I spent a summer in Egypt and was able to travel through the Valley of the Kings astride a donkey, float down the Nile in a boat with a large billowing white sail and travel across Sinai. Soon after the film was shown in a small local cinema close to where I was living and got to see many of the sites that I had actually seen shown in the film, and yes, the chases were still mildly exciting!

Although the Essoldo Bethnal Green did not show all of the films released by 20th Century Fox in Britain, they did show a sufficient number, most of which I got to see, many with my pals on a Monday afternoon and some with my mother or with both parents. My father enjoyed musicals and one that he insisted on seeing was There’s No Business Like Show Business. This was a film to showcase the words and music, as the advertisement read, of Irving Berlin. There were a huge number of stars in this film including Marilyn Monroe. Despite the stars and the music, the film was somewhat wooden, but was memorable for Ms Monroe’s interpretation of Heat Wave, which was both sultry and seductive at times. The other major stars were Ethel Merman and Dan Dailey, who was a great favourite of my mother. The film also starred Johnnie Ray, who was extremely popular at the time. I believe that this was his one and only appearance in film. The other members of the cast included the great Mitzi Gaynor who was just about ready to go into South Pacific and the entertaining and talented Donald O’Connor. My parents loved this film and I liked Marilyn. Mind you, I also like Mitzi too and still do not understand why she did not make more films.

There's No Business Like Show Business
with Ethel Merman, Dan Dailey, Donald O'Connor, Marilyn Monroe, Mitzi Gaynor & Johnnie Ray

As I have said, by this time, we had left the pie ‘n’ mash shop and my father was working for British Railways and doing shift work. When he worked from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m., my mother and I would often go to the cinema on a Monday evening. My mother always wanted to go to the Excelsior, which was her favourite cinema. She never seemed to mind which film was being shown, as she would be sure to find it enjoyable. My mother had a history with the cinema (link to come – The Excelsior) and found the Ex perfectly suited to her tastes. She always sat in the same place: on the edge of the row of the wide central aisle. She liked this seat since it was close to the exit – an absolute must for my mother – and also, she did not have to stand up to allow other patrons to pass. Once my mother was comfortable, she was loathed to move. As the reader can tell, it often proved difficult to pry my mother away from the Excelsior.

Although I liked the Excelsior very much and generally enjoyed the films shown there, once CinemaScope became de rigueur, the films of Universal, Rank, Paramount and R.K.O, which were shown there, could not compare, to my mind then, with those of 20th Century Fox. Although many of the films shown at the Excelsior were advertised as being produced in either CinemaScope or VistaVision, I fear that they were not shown in these formats. To my youthful eye of the time, the post-CinemaScope screen of the Ex looked to be of the same size as before. I have since learned that many films of that time were in fact shown in what is referred to as flat format. At that time, films were often filmed simultaneously in widescreen and regular (flat) formats in order that they could be shown in all cinemas.

Regarding many of the films seen at the Excelsior, I feel that it is only fair to offer a confession. Where once I thought a particular film as mediocre and perhaps a trifle dull when originally seen at the Excelsior, I have to admit that upon re-seeing some, many have proven it to be much better and worthy of a higher rating than originally given. For example, I once found Roman Holiday to be of little interest and dismissed it with a yawn – go figure!!! Similarly, and often with great reluctance, I have regretfully found that many of the spectacular 20th Century Fox CinemaScope Presentations to be less than sterling upon re-seeing. It disturbs me to think that my taste was not as good as I thought when I was young!

Be that as it may, whenever a new CinemaScope film came to the Essoldo, I had to see it. Sadly, I often had to resort to the telling of a white lie to convince my mother to go there instead of the Excelsior. However, whenever I did convince her, it was not always certain that we would indeed get there, since the walk to the Essoldo took us past the street where the Excelsior was. The architecture of the Excelsior was most appealing and it would beckon and seduce a patron as he or she crossed Mainsfield Street, as they made their way along the Bethnal Green Road to the Essoldo. Once my mother saw the Excelsior out of the corner of her eye, she would become hypnotised and would instinctively turn and off we would go there, much to my annoyance. At this time, I was too old to throw a tantrum or cry to get my own way. Were I to attempt this, I would have received a deserved slap for my pains. Instead, I would sulk and drag my feet and walk behind her to show my displeasure. My mother would tell me to stop being silly or else we would go home. Since going to ANY cinema was better than going to NO cinema, I would shape up and allow myself to be drawn to the Ex along with her. I hate to say it, but once inside the wonderful Excelsior, I would most likely be enjoying the mediocre film that I was being forced to see.

As a result of the effect that the mere passing of the Excelsior had on my mother, I had to become devious to combat its influence. Thankfully, I had been brought up by my mother to treat women in a respectful manner and had learned to always walk between them and the road. This practice came in practice, I am told, to protect ladies from being splashed from the mud thrown up by passing carriages! Walking along Bethnal Green Road towards the Essoldo meant that my mother was between me and the Ex when we crossed Mansfield Street. To avoid her seeing the cinema, I needed to be sure to engage her in conversation so that her head was turned towards me as we crossed the street. If I could achieve this then she would not see her cinema of choice and so not become mesmerised by its sight and we could proceed merrily on our way up to the Essoldo.

In order to be certain that my mother would maintain her walk towards the Essoldo, I often had to resort to subterfuge! I began this prior to our leaving home. My mother liked certain actors and would always want to see their films. George Raft was one such actor and James Cagney another. I began my subterfuge by telling her that a George Raft film was showing at the Essoldo. This would be sure to peek her interest. Next I would reinforce her interest by giving her a synopsis of the film, which was often not quite the truth. My mother liked the gritty films of Warner Brothers that starred her favourites and others including Edward G. Robinson, The Dead End Kids and Humphrey Bogart. She also liked films with dancing. Both George Raft and James Cagney were good actors and both danced – the perfect combination as far as she was concerned. Knowing her tastes, I would pepper my synopsis with little white lies where I pretended that one or other of her favourites would be either the leader of a good gang or else was a policeman and would dance! Whether my mother believed me or not, I never knew, but I would maintain my patter along Bethnal Green Road until I felt certain that there was no going back. Once inside the Essoldo, I would complain how the management had changed the programme and I would feign disappointment while settling down into my seat to enjoy the latest offering from 20th Century Fox. My mother never complained about this change in programme, I am happy to say, and enjoyed the film too. 20th Century Fox did produce one film in CinemaScope starring George Raft, Black Widow. Here he played the policeman investigating the murder of a young woman. This was one of those films often produced at the time, which were not especially interesting, but were memorable only for the huge number of stars appearing in it, with this one including Gene Tierney and Ginger Rogers.

The Dead End Kids,
James Cagney, George Raft & Edward G. Robinson

Of all the 20th Century Fox CinemaScope Productions that I saw at the Essoldo Bethnal Green, there were a number that were memorable. These included River of No Return, Heaven Knows Mr. Allison, White Feather and The Deep Blue Sea.

River of No Return was a film directed by Otto Preminger of Laura and later Carmen Jones fame. The film, filmed in the Canadian Rockies, starred Robert Mitchum and Marilyn Monroe and centred on a trip down a dangerous river with murderous rapids. Although the film contained exactly what I liked – marauding Indians and Marilyn – it was not without fault and the major fault lay with the clipped delivery of her dialogue by Marilyn herself. Despite this, she looked remarkable when dressed either as a saloon girl or in outdoor ware and sang some really great songs including the title song, which she did towards the end of the film. For some reason, the powers-that-be had Tennessee Ernie Ford sing the song over the credits.

Heaven Knows Mr. Allison also starred Robert Mitchum playing a lone U.S. Marine on a deserted island except for his co-star, Deborah Kerr playing a nun. Together they hide and manage to survive the Japanese occupation once they arrive. We follow their tribulations until the Marines arrive, when they are separated to continue with their lives. The film, directed by John Houston, received both critical and public acclaim, and was greatly loved by my mother. I remember that we stayed in the cinema and watched it a second time, which was rare for my mother to do. Although I enjoyed the film too and have always enjoyed the films of Deborah Kerr, I found her attempt at an Irish accent to be both jarring and painful.


White Feather is a western that has never received the credit that I have always felt that it deserved. It deals with the time of Indian resettlement and the refusal of two young Cheyenne braves and the challenge that they issue to the U.S. Cavalry. The film stars Robert Wagner, Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter, but to my mind, it is Eduard Franz playing the tribal chief, Broken Hand, who steals the film. Debra Paget had already become a firm favourite of mine having fallen in love with her, as the Louis Jordan character had, and wept copious tears, as she walked to her death to quench the wrath of the volcano in Bird of Paradise. Prior to this film, Robert Wagner had left no lasting memory.

Edward Franz as Broken Hand

Robert Wagner was a young actor at the time of the advent of CinemaScope and was under contract with 20th Century Fox. He appeared in their third film produced in the process, Beneath the Twelve Mile Reef, which I had seen at the Essoldo. Unfortunately I was not too impressed with either him or the film. He had little luck with me either with Prince Valiant or Broken Lance. However, here in White Feather and especially in A Kiss Before Dying, which he made with a young Joanne Woodward, he showed his potential. What is interesting about A Kiss Before Dying is that although everyone associated with it were contracted by 20th Century Fox, the film was released through United Artists and was shown on the Odeon circuit and not by the Essoldo. The film was remade in 1991, and although it had an impressive cast, did not compare well with the original.

The Deep Blue Sea was an interesting film and was based on the play of the same name by Terrance Rattigan and both starring Vivian Leigh. The film was directed by Anatole Litvak and had a particularly strong supporting cast. Ms Leigh played Hester Collyer, the wife of a British High Court Judge, played by Emlyn Williams, who leaves her husband after a number of years of marriage for an ex-R.A.F. pilot, played by Kenneth Moore, who calls her Hes. They live, I believe, in a bed-sit in the once seedy area of Pimlico in London. I often go to Pimlico during my visits to London and always marvel at how un-seedy the area is now. Things do not go well for the couple: he takes various jobs as a flyer, but crashes while working in Canada. We meet Ms Leigh after she has attempted suicide and is in the process of being revived by a neighbour who lives in the bed-sit below and played expertly by Eric Portman. Mr. Portman is another of those actors with a memorable voice. It seems that the neighbour is not without his past and appears to be a doctor struck off the medical record.

Alexander Korda with Orson Wells, Eric Portman, Vivian Leigh,
Terrance Rattigan,
Emlyn Williams & Kenneth More

Despite my young age and the lack of action in the film, I was fascinated by it and have remembered it. However, the outing to see this film was not without a certain sadness! I had persuaded my mother to see this film despite her wish, as usual, to go to the Excelsior. Unfortunately we arrived late at the cinema and did not, as was usual, see the ending before we saw the beginning. This proved to be most tragic, as we had to leave the cinema before the film ended. My father was working late shift that day, which meant that he could be home anytime after 10.30 p.m. Sadly, the film did not end until this time. There was a very good chance that he would be late since he was always late coming home at that time as he was drinking heavily with his friends once his shift was over. However, my mother did not wish to take the chance that he would be home early and risk a confrontation with him were he to arrive drunk. My father always took which the offensive when he had drunk too much and an argument would generally ensue. As a result of our need to hot foot it home, I missed the ending of the film.

Click to hear Big Ben!Adding further to my tragedy is that I have never seen this film being advertised to be shown on television. It has since never been released either on videotape or disc. Although this film was photographed in CinemaScope, it was not produced by 20th Century Fox. It was produced by Alexander Korda’s London Films, but was released by Fox and shown on the Essoldo-Granada circuits. Since London Films seems to no longer exist, I fear that all prints of this film have been either discarded or lost. Of course, I live in continual hope that a print will suddenly be found and that someone will realize its value and set about restoring it for public viewing. I shall, however, not hold my breath. The play was revived in 2009 on the London stage and I hoped that this would generate some interest in the film. Alas, the production failed to generate much interest and it closed after a few performances.
(click on the picture to hear Big Ben)

The last film that I saw in CinemaScope at the Essoldo Bethnal Green proved to be a special film and one which has been re-seen and enjoyed a number of times over the years. My parents like so many people of their generation enjoyed musicals. Most musicals that I saw with them were made by MGM and Warner Brothers, however we did see some made by 20th Century Fox. As was the way then, Fox musicals had a distinctive look and even I, as a child, was able to recognise which studio made a particular musical. I suspect that it was the colour process that stamped these films like a trademark and made them distinctive. Many of the Fox musicals that I remember seeing as a child starred Betty Grable with a couple starring June Haver. In the 1950s, Fox either made and/or released a number of musicals written by Richard Rodgers & Oscar Hammerstein. Both Carousel and The King and I were both made and released by Fox and also became of interest as being the only films filmed in CinemaScope 55. The company also released South Pacific, which was filmed in TODD-AO.

One of the problems occurring with a widescreen format was that the increased magnification of a 35 mm film frame produced a grainy image. Apparently VistaVision had addressed this problem through the use of a larger print. Fox hoped that by photographing a film that produced a negative 55.625 mm wide and then reducing the final print back to a 35 mm would overcome this problem. They achieved their aim, to some extent, with their CinemaScope 55 system. Despite the company’s faith in the clarity of the 55 mm negative, they never released a film print using 55 mm frame size, and soon abandoned the process in favour of the TODD-AO process, which was used to photograph their later epics (Cleopatra, Those Magnificent Men in Their Flying Machines and The Agony and the Ecstasy) and big-budget musicals (South Pacific and The Sound of Music).

Tragically, I have never seen Carousel in a cinema. Yet another example of my deprived childhood! My father was working early shift during the week that the film was shown at the Essoldo Bethnal Green and was arriving home late from work thanks to his drinking with friends. During that period, my mother and I suffered much from his behaviour and things were coming to a head. But this is another story and will be saved for another time.

The last CinemaScope film that we did see at the Essoldo was The King and I. The film tells the story of Mrs Anna Leonowens, an English woman who goes to Siam to teach the royal children, and follows her dealings with the King. This was a musical adaptation of the story previously filmed by Fox, Anna and the King of Siam, starring Irene Dunne and Rex Harrison. The film was a delight to see. Each tune was memorable and helped move the story along. There were excellent performances from both Yul Brynner and Deborah Kerr, but what I found truly memorable were the performances of the beautiful and talented Rita Moreno, who later went on to greater fame playing Anita in West Side Story and the wonderful Terry Saunders who played Lady Thiang and gave a terrific rendition of the song Something Wonderful. The King and I was such a great success when first released in 1956 that Fox re-released it several months later. This was something hardly ever done at that time. Until then, the only film that I recall being re-released was The Great Caruso with Mario Lanza in 1951.

The last non-CinemaScope film that I saw at the Essoldo was The Flesh is Weak. This film dealt with prostitution in London and showed how a man was able to persuade a woman to go on the game for him. Although this was far from being an important or even memorable film from a cinematographic point of view, it was nonetheless memorable to me since it was the first X-certificate film that I saw. As I said earlier, only those members of society of 16-years and older were supposed to be admitted to see this film. Cinema managements were subject to hefty fines should youths be found admitted to showings of such rated films. What made seeing this film remarkable for me was that I had only reached the ripe old age of twelve years at the time! Although I was the envy of my friends at having seen an X, to be honest, I cannot accept credit for fooling the box-office staff into believing that I was of age since, and here is something that still amazes me, I was taken to see this film by my parents! I cannot say that I duped my parents into seeing this film, as I had given my mother the gist of the story several days before we went. I assumed that when we went out that evening, we would be going to the Excelsior. Anyway, my entry to the auditorium was not barred. I remember entering the cinema foyer with some apprehension, but my parents were not questioned about my age either when they bought the tickets or when they were presented to the usherette. I can only conclude that I must have been invisible to everyone that evening!

On the 6th November, 1956, we moved to Langley. Both my mother and I were soon missing London and we missed Bethnal Green much more than we could have realised. Although Langley could hardly be considered to be in the country, we were very urban and were not used to the quietness that suddenly surrounded us in our home. I remember that we missed the sound of traffic more than anything. Amidst our sadness, we were delighted when we learned that The King and I was to be shown at the Granada Slough. We could not wait to see it again. I remember that we enjoyed it just as much this time as we had several months earlier at the old Essoldo Bethnal Green.

Granada Slough and its Walkway of Fame

Once I moved out of London, I only went into the Essoldo on one other occasion. By then the Essoldo circuit no longer screened 20th Century Fox CinemaScope Productions and had been reduced to showing films of lesser importance. The last film that I saw there was The Duke Wore Jeans with Tommy Steele. At this time, the décor of the cinema had become even seedier in appearance, which caused me some sadness. The seats were now in a terrible state of disrepair and the walls were scarred and marked from lack of attention.

With the further passage of time, the presentations grew poorer and the cinema slipped into showing second rate films that had been shown elsewhere without much success. Sadly, the cinema closed on 5th August, 1964 after showing Devil Ship Pirates with Christopher Lee and The Invincible Seven with Tony Russell.

The Secret Seven was released in Britain as The Invincible Seven

Soon after, it closed as a cinema, it became a Bingo Hall and the building functioned as such until about 1990. The founder of the Essoldo chain had been dead set against Bingo. Even in the face of a falling cinema audience, he refused to consider the conversion of his cinemas into Bingo halls in order to bring in revenue.  Unfortunately for him, once he died and his empire passed into the hands of others, many ex-Essoldos were converted and used for Bingo.

Although the Essoldo, Bethnal Green Road is no longer a cinema, the building is still present and a number of features of the old auditorium survive. As I said, the auditorium is now a warehouse and used to store fabrics and cottons. Thanks to the heart and consideration of the present owners, the building has been maintained and renovated and many people come from all over the world to photograph it and to marvel at its design. The present state of the building is a credit to the owners and to Bethnal Green – thank you Frankle Trimmings!

I would like to thank Mr. Brian Hall and Mr. Kevin Wheelan for their kindness in allowing many of their pictures to be reproduced here.

Continue to Part Six - Poster gallery of additional films shown at the Essoldo, Bethnal Green

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

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Copyright© 2010 - : Charles S. P. Jenkins