Last week’s ‘Picture Postal’ post on the Providence Art Club incidentally had Lovecraft mentioning that, on returning home to Providence from what he called ‘the pest zone’ of New York City, he visited the Art Club and…
In the evening a cinema show at the good old Strand in Washington Street completed a memorable and well-rounded day.” (Selected Letters II).
Here is a fine picture of the “good old Strand”, which I’ve lightly colorised…
Actually it was not so “old”, even by American standards. It had opened in summer 1915 as a dedicated movie theatre, with variety-theatre stage facilities. By “good old” Lovecraft probably implied its reliability rather than its antiquity. Since it guaranteed that once inside its patrons would find a “wonderful, big, beautiful place – and the shows presented will be fine always.” This was in an era of hand-cranking and movies were often shown at too great a speed, were jerky or the film mangled in the projector and bits had to be cut out. One could even find that the film was simply not the one that had been paid for. There were also the common problems of ventilation and heating. The Strand presumably did not tolerate such lapses.
What might Lovecraft have seen playing? The visit appears to have been on the very evening of his return to Providence. That was Saturday the 17th of April 1926.
One imagines that, after escaping the ‘pest zone’ of New York City, the Italian movie The Last Days of Pompeii might have been deemed suitable if a little heavy. Another possible foreign candidate is Lotte Reiniger’s debut The Adventures of Prince Achmed, the world’s first animated feature and made in silhouette animation. But neither had yet been released in America.
Several more 1926 movies likely to appeal to Lovecraft had not yet been released, such as Mary Pickford’s major swamp-horror Sparrows, Faust, The Sorrows of Satan, and the horror The Magician. Similarly the New England historical movie The Scarlet Letter was not released until August, and the grand failure Old Ironsides not until December.
There was no Chaplin movie that year, though The Gold Rush (June 1925) could still have been playing if fronted with a more recent comedy short.
Most likely are The Sea Beast (a Moby-dick adaptation) which had been an enormous hit in January and February, along with the lavish Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, but if either was still playing in a large main house several months later must be debatable. However, spring-summer 1926 seems an especially sparse time in terms of quality movies and my guess is that these two might have become a “double-bill” aiming to keep seats filled. The other possibility is the Douglas Fairbanks pirate-adventure vehicle The Black Pirate, released in early March, which de Camp later suggested as a R.E. Howard inspiration. This seems to me the most likely movie seen by Lovecraft, as he may have seen the other two while in New York City. Brisk and engaging, it’s now thought of as one of the most watchable surviving swashbucklers of the 1920s and can be had in a restored technicolour version as originally shown. The strong ‘love angle’ would also have had an appeal for his aunts.
Incidentally, search for this post revealed the supposedly mighty Google Search doing the dumbest word-substitution…