[The young Isherwood becomes fascinated by cinema, and joins a Film Society at Cambridge]
I was, and still am, endlessly interested in the outward appearance of people – their facial expressions, their gestures, their walk, their nervous tricks, their infinitely various ways of eating a sausage, opening a paper parcel, lighting a cigarette. The cinema puts people under a microscope: you can stare at them, you can examine them as though they were insects. True the behaviour you see on the screen isn’t natural behaviour; it is acting, and often very bad acting too. But the acting has always a certain relation to ordinary life; and after a short while, to an habitue like myself, it is as little of an annoyance as Elizabethan handwriting is to the expert in old documents. Viewed from this standpoint, the stupidest film may be full of astonishing revelations about the tempo and dynamics of everyday life: you see how actions look in relation to each other; how much space they occupy and how much time…. If you are a novelist and want to watch your scene taking place visibly before you, it is simplest to project it on to an imaginary screen. A practised cinema-goer will be able to do this quite easily….
[the film club goes to visit the set of a film in London, where they work as extras]
Noise was my chief impression of the day… I had one big moment: together with a dozen others, I was told to descend a flight of steps, drunkenly, my arms round two girls’ necks. This was a close shot: I must have been clearly recognizable. Needless to say it was cut out of the finished picture.
Our day ended at 10 pm. With the others, I limped to the pay-desk and was given 24 shillings. It was the first money I had ever earned in my life, and certainly the last I shall ever earn as a film actor.
observations: Here’s a second book of university memoirs – events taking place 20+ years after The Babe BA, Saturday's book by EF Benson, and about as different a book as it is possible to be. And yet there are points in common….
Isherwood was roughly a contemporary of Evelyn Waugh’s, and it’s interesting to compare his Cambridge years, recorded in this book, with the Oxford of Brideshead Revisited. Lions and Shadows is a fictionalized memoir or autobiography: some parts – where he gives the plots of books he almost wrote, and describes in detail a strange game he played with a friend – are very dull. But it’s well worth it for the patches of brilliance that pop up. I loved this description of why films are important, I thought it was original, incisive and a revelation.
Although he was something of a literary figure, it seems somehow appropriate that what he is most famous for are the stories on which the film Cabaret is based (and also the stage show currently on Broadway, never out of fashion). He also wrote A Single Man, made into an Oscar-nominated film starring Colin Firth in 2009.
And Isherwood – who lived in California for many years - did appear in another film: in the 1981 Rich and Famous, directed by George Cukor, he was ‘Malibu party guest’ – perhaps unpaid? – various other moderately famous people seem to have played themselves at two parties in the film.
The film he appears in here – Reveille, directed by George Pearson – is a 1924 silent starring Betty Balfour, and is one of the BFI’s 75 most wanted films – (ie the reels are missing and they would love to find them.) The 24 shillings would be about £35 in today’s money – not a generous amount. Interesting that he’d never worked before.
There’ll be another entry on this book later.
The image of a filmset is from a motion picture trade directory of 1917. The young woman is Betty Balfour, star of the film.