Indecent Assaults in the Cinema

Content warning: This blogpost contains detailed discussions of indecent assaults in cinemas against both women and children across the twentieth century, which some readers may find distressing.

A few months ago I blogged about ‘assaults in the cinema’ based on reports in Kinematograph Weekly and local newspaper reports I’d found on the British Newspapers Online site. What started me thinking about this was the idea that cinema patrons may have got into fights which were extensions of irritations in the auditorium that we’re all familiar with – rustling crisp packets, big hair and hats obstructing the screen or inappropriate responses to the film itself. In fact it turned out that most incidents were attacks on cinema employees when they attempted to regulate more extreme behaviour by patrons – drunkenness, throwing bottles into the audience, trying to gain entry without paying, etc. I was interested in the idea of the cinema as a site of conflict and aggression as opposed to the togetherness and community feelings we more usually associate it with. I was also intrigued by the idea of the regulated, focussed space of the auditorium as a crucible – somewhere that everyday irritations could become magnified, blown up suddenly into incidents that demanded the attention of the police and the magistrates. There was no shortage of those.

Perhaps it was due to my own naïveté, or more likely to my patriarchal privilege, that I failed to anticipate that a large proportion of the incidents of assault in the cinema – fully a third of the ones I found – would be sexual attacks, or ‘indecent assaults’ in the language of the newspapers. Although these clearly have much in common with the other kinds of assault – they are sometimes violent, often fuelled by drunkenness, are shaped in particular ways by the conditions of the cinema space itself – I felt uncomfortable just lumping these incidents in with the other incidents I was talking about, so I didn’t include them in that post. I promised to talk about them separately, and that’s what I propose to do here.

I don’t feel particularly comfortable writing about these cases for perhaps obvious reasons. The vast majority of the incidents I’ve found are examples of indecent assault against women and underage girls (although there are also several assaults of underage boys). In every case the assailant is a man. Being assaulted in this way, either in the cinema or elsewhere, is not an experience I’ve had, and yet I have no doubt that it will be one recognised by many of my female readers. What right do I have to write about it then? Why not just leave the post unwritten? I have seriously considered that. Perhaps one argument against it is that I found these accounts in looking for evidence more generally of aggression in the cinema and not to write about them would be to give the impression that they didn’t happen. It would reinforce the patriarchal assumption I myself made when I first did the search. Another reason is that for every woman who has had this horrible experience, there is a man who has perpetrated it. Why should my status as a man let me off the hook of thinking through the implications of these behaviours and what they meant (and mean) in terms of the ways they affect female cinema patrons and their attitude towards cinema-going?  Actually, I did consult a female friend about that question and her response came as something of a surprise to me:

Women are always braced for when the man sits too close or the hand lands on the knee. There is always the anticipation of discomfort and unease. The possibility of assault and of being braced for it, which is real to many women’s experience of the cinema. A hyper awareness of bodies in cinema space, of where the man entering the cinema choses to sit once you are already seated. I suspect men who are not committing assaults might cluelessly contribute to this. Or not quite cluelessly – deliberately but unthinkingly – the ‘oh, she looks nice, I’ll sit near her and maybe there will be an opportunity for conversation.’ Enjoying their movie in a bubble of pleasurable anticipation and possibility that leads to nothing, but which comes at the cost of creating its anticipatory inverse experience for the woman that they have sat a bit too close to, according to the polite metrics of cinema audience density and spacing.

Thinking about the psychology of the auditorium and how the proximity of the bodies around you in the dark might create different anticipations for a woman than it does for a man, as my friend does here, is I think a useful starting point for interpreting the reports detailed below. And the reports themselves are perhaps a useful corrective to the rather more optimistic and nostalgic accounts of the auditorium as a place of sexual experimentation for courting couples with which we’re all familiar. Film historians have mined the investigations of public decency committees and morality campaigning bodies for useful information about the cinema cultures of the past in terms of lighting levels, attendance and of course sexual activity within the auditorium, but those bodies’ concerns about the depredations of ‘mashers’ and the cinema’s invitation to ‘vice’ and their calls for regulation have rarely been interpreted as anything more than prudish resistance to a popular pastime.

My own method has hardly been scientific – it is intended as a starting point rather than a final report. Searching the terms ‘assault’ + ‘cinema’ between 1915 and 1960 in the British Newspapers Online, I found 91 reports. 29 of these were reports of ‘indecent assaults.’ Of these indecent assaults, 19 were perpetrated against adult women (including four who are identified as married), and seven against underage girls – ages ranging from 12 to 15. There are also six reports of assaults against boys – ages ranging from 9 to 16. Reading through these newspaper accounts, one can’t help be struck by their highly formulaic nature – what we can know about these events is bounded by the conventions of crime reporting, and the particular conventions of reporting this particular crime, as we shall see.

The failure to incorporate the voices of the victims of these assaults, or really address the question I posed above, about how these incidents might affect female cinema patrons and their attitude to cinema going, is most striking. Numerous magistrates make statements congratulating women who bring cases thus doing ‘a good turn to every decent woman who goes to a cinema’.[1] They emphasise that ‘women must be allowed to go about their tasks and interests without fear of assault and molestation’, and condemn such assaults as ‘rather a pest to some women when they go to the pictures alone’.[2] Nevertheless, the women themselves very rarely get to speak in these reports, either to describe the assault itself, or to reflect on its affect on them. This is in contrast to the male perpetrators who are frequently quoted attempting to explain their actions, and expressing regret about the consequences. In a curious way the reports themselves, by naming the men accused, giving their age and occupation, offering them a chance to speak and explain themselves, and detailing the consequences their actions will have for them (in terms of punishment), encourage us to place ourselves in their shoes. The female victims by contrast are (for understandable reasons) much less frequently named, often they are simply described as ‘a woman’ or ‘a girl’, and their actions are described in the most detached language, if even at all. ‘Complaint having been made to the attendant’ is the entirety of the agency afforded to the 13 year old victim of a 21 year old man in Morecombe in 1927, while a married women assaulted in a cinema in Pontefract in 1923 is described simply as ‘calling for the management’.[3] Other women are described as giving more dramatic reactions although perhaps ones filtered through the generic codes of the period. In a cinema in Filton in 1946 the nameless victim of a 19 year old Ministry of Aircraft production controller trainee ‘smacked the accused’s face and told him she would report him’, while the un-named victim of a 50 year old diamond polisher in a Margate cinema had a more dramatic – and anti-Semitic – response. She ‘threw his coat off her lap and said, “You dirty rotten Jew. I’ve a good mind to report you to the manager”.’[4]

While such reactions might recall the behaviours of assaulted women in Tom and Jerry cartoons, they have a clear logic which is particular to the space of the cinema auditorium. The codes of concentrated viewing enforced by the auditorium itself – the fixed chairs all pointing in the same direction, the dimmed light, the social expectation of hush and physical stillness policed by the omnipresent ushers – these are the conditions which have been exploited by the male assailant in order to make his assault possible. He has relied on the reluctance of his victim to ‘make a fuss’, on her winking at the unclear boundary between the unfortunate pressure of a knee forced outwards by inadequate legroom and the invasive intention of one placed deliberately to push against her own. For every woman who leapt up and slapped their assailant there must have been many who suffered in silence. But those women who did break the spell, did it in the most unambiguous way possible. The two women mentioned above who told their attackers they ‘had a good mind’ to report them, effectively did that very thing in the act of their utterance, drawing the attention of the ushers and the rest of the audience both to the infraction and to the identity of the culprit. As soon as the man is stripped of the powerful anonymity conferred by the functioning auditorium, his power over the woman vanishes too. In at least five cases where this public accusation was made in the auditorium, the culprit immediately ran away out of the cinema, and was caught on his way out either by the manager, or by another member of the audience chasing after him.[5] In a number of other cases the parties go directly to the manager’s office where the accused pleads for the police not to be called. Only two of the reports suggest any prolonged argy-bargy in the auditorium, and both of these involve an altercation with the accused man and the husband of the women he has assaulted.[6]

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What exactly was the nature of these assaults? Here is another case where the newspapers offer only a partial insight. In most cases reports simply rely on legal language – the phrase ‘indecently assaulted’ or ‘assaulted’ is deployed with no further elaboration. The lengthy report of a 59 year old sail-maker’s assault on a 9 year old boy in Penzance in 1941 gives details of many of the circumstances around getting into the cinema and of the man’s eventual identification and arrest (as we shall see) but of the assault itself, it says only ‘Soon after the start of the big picture, the man committed the offence, the subject of the charge. He only spoke once to the boy.’[7] Where there is elaboration, again it comes from the accused rather than from his victim, and is often a part of his defence. In 1923 a lady ‘felt defendant interfere with her’ in a cinema in Pontefract and called for the manager. The accused (a miner) assaulted the manager when challenged, and then bolted. When he was finally apprehended he explained that he ‘fell asleep and his hand dropped on the lady’s knee’.[8] Similarly in 1954 a 46 year old hall porter on a charge of indecently assaulting a 16 year old boy in the Queen’s Cinema, Paddington explained ‘I fell asleep and my hand must have slipped’.[9] The Margate diamond polisher (mentioned above) contended that his ‘coat must have slipped and touched the woman’ who had accused him.[10] In only two of the cases I’ve found do the accused men try to make out that their victims were complicit in their actions. In 1956 in Somerset a 34 year old labourer offered a range of excuses for his behaviour. On his initial arrest he apologised for touching the woman beside him, claiming that he’d felt someone kicking him from behind. Later at the police station he made a statement to the effect that he had ‘sat very close to the woman for about two hours and he thought she was trying to get friendly’. Finally in court he claimed that the ‘woman changed her position so that her knees were tight against his’, a statement that caused uproar in court as the husband of the woman rushed at the defendant shouting ‘you dirty liar!’ and had to be ejected. This case was eventually thrown out for lack of evidence.[11] The other case of an accused man ‘doubling down’ in his defence concerns an incident in Falkirk in 1935. The accused pleaded guilty but his solicitors pushed hard for a lenient sentence, arguing that he was ‘slightly mental’, but was a respectable, sober, churchgoing citizen who had never been in trouble before. The report implies, but does not state, that he lived with his parents. Outrageously the solicitor further argued that this ‘was not the usual case of a man interfering with a young child, because in point of fact the lady was 53 years of age’. According to the solicitor the man had ‘got talking’ to the lady, and mis-interpreting the situation had ‘put his arm around the lady’s waist’ whereupon she called for the management.[12]

A hand on the knee. An arm around the waist. Knees pressed together. A dropped coat. These are the most detailed descriptions offered in the newspaper reports. They come out of the mouths of the accused and are of course statements made specifically with the intention of persuading the magistrate that the infraction is trivial, accidental, easily misunderstood. The sentences passed down to these men tell a different story. They range from fines of between £2 and £8 to prison sentences from one to six months. One case (the earliest – of an assault on a 13 year old girl by a man with two previous convictions) attracted a sentence of four months hard labour.[13] Despite the detailed statements of some of the accused men, it is clear that the magistrates were not fooled into thinking ‘indecent assault’ comprised of a sleepy hand inadvertently dropped on a knee.

As we’ve seen, most men when challenged in these acts did not ‘push back’ but either ran away or immediately admitted their guilt. The statements they make resonate with those made even today by men in similar situations. The Penzance sail-maker accused of assaulting the 9 year old boy mentioned above is typical. He, ‘said he had made a mistake – a thing which everybody did at times. He did not do it on purpose, and tried to keep himself decent. He had been well brought up … and hoped that the magistrates would take a lenient view of the case.’[14] Another man who had initially run away when accused stated ‘I am a respectable man with a wife and children. I shan’t do it again.’ The magistrate was not impressed, stating that it was a ‘very deliberate assault’ and that the accused ‘fully understood what he was doing’[15] One man, a soldier accused in Taunton of assaulting a 12 year old girl offered a weak initial defence, saying ‘I have read about such things in the papers, but I would not do such a thing myself’. Later, he did admit the offence, saying he was ‘ashamed of himself and wished to apologise to the girl and her parents.’[16] Such statements of regret and apology litter the reports. They are designed, like the ‘explanations’ quoted above, to minimise the suggestion of predatory behaviour – to suggest a temporary loss of self-control and self respect, a ‘temporary insanity’. Yet paradoxically they also hint at an ongoing impulse. There seems to be a world of meaning in the phrase ‘I try to keep myself decent.’

I’m going to close by focussing on two specific reports, both more detailed than the others and both particularly interesting in terms of what they reveal about the specificity of the cinema space as the location for these incidents. Firstly, let’s return to the Penzance sail-maker who attacked a nine-year old boy. This is quite a complicated case demanding a long newspaper report, since the boy didn’t report the incident immediately and as a result there was a process of detection leading to the arrest of the accused. In common with one of the other under-aged cases, the boy had gone to the cinema directly after school, and as it was an ‘A’ picture had been ‘walked in’ by an adult. The report stresses that he was not ‘walked in’ by the man who attacked him; perhaps the editor was anxious that suspicion should not attach to this (what he describes as) ‘usual practice’. (In the other case of this kind – that of the girl in Taunton in 1948, who was ‘walked in’ to the cinema with her two school friends, it is unclear whether it was her attacker who did this. The suspicion hangs, unspoken in the report, that this too may have been a ‘usual practice’ among would-be attackers of children.) When he got into the auditorium, the boy left the man who had ‘walked him in’ and sat down ‘on the right hand side… in the fourth row from the screen, and in the second seat in. The outside seat was then empty, and there was another boy on the left.’ It was a little while later that the accused sat next to him and made the attack, and ‘only spoke once’ to the boy. The report tells us that the boy got an idea of what the man looked like, and later was given a chance to confirm this when the man dropped a cash box and struck a match to look for it. ‘The boy was frightened at what had happened, and moved into the front row. After the pictures, the boy went straight home, and immediately made a complaint to his mother.’ Two things are perhaps worth noting here – firstly that while evidently the boy was too scared either to move, or to draw attention to what had just happened, the man was unconcerned – drawing attention gratuitously to himself by striking the match and showing his face. It’s hard to imagine now a cinema auditorium where striking a match would not be an extraordinary act, but of course in the era of smoking, it would have barely been noticed, except by the boy. Even so, after his frightening experience, the boy did not leave the cinema immediately, but rather he took an opportunity to move to the front row where he could at least see the rest of the programme. Is the front row a significant choice? The light from the screen would have meant that it was a safe place perhaps, too conspicuous to attract men with unpleasant intentions. Either way, leisure time in the cinema was hard won and long anticipated throughout the school day. It was not to be jettisoned simply because of a frightening earlier experience. Nevertheless, his mother lost no time in taking his complaint straight to the police – a swiftness of action for which she was congratulated as the magistrate said it greatly assisted the apprehension of the culprit. Indeed a Constable was directly dispatched to the cinema to make enquiries. It speaks surely of the power imbalance involved that everyone assumed (rightly it turned out) that although the culprit had committed a crime for which he would eventually spend a month in prison, he didn’t consider it worth leaving the scene of his crime, but instead he, like his victim, lingered in the cinema until the show was over. In fact he had left the cinema by the time Constable arrived. The report simply states that not finding him at the cinema, the Constable went on to make enquiries at the accused’s lodging house. There’s no indication of how he knew where the accused lived. Later in the report the accused is reported as stating that he comes from South Wales but has been unable to return there ‘owing to the air raids and so forth’. Was the lodging house in question well known for harbouring stranded Welshmen? Either way, someone in the cinema must have had an idea where he was to be found, and the Constable eventually recognised him in a nearby street, confirming the identification by the presence of a cashbox in his pocket.

It’s hard to read this report (which is after all a report of what we’d now describe as a paedophile attack) without concluding that the crime was treated by everyone involved as serious – worth investigation, prosecution, imprisonment – but also somehow mundane, run of the mill and commonplace. ‘You have pleaded to a very serious offence and you ought to have known better’ said the magistrate, ‘these boys have got to be protected.’ At no point did anybody question the practice of strangers ‘walking in’ children to cinemas showing films the suitability of which the censors had deemed it the responsibility of their parents to assess.

Earlier I stressed the difficulty of hearing the women’s point of view in these reports. Not only are the men accused routinely quoted while their female accusers remain nameless, voiceless figures, but of course the whole infrastructure of the court proceedings as well as the newspaper reporting is completely male. The named magistrates and solicitors are all men, and it seems likely that so are the (anonymous) newspaper correspondents and editors. My final report offers a modest reposte to this state of affairs, giving some details of the experience and point of view of a female film-goer, Mrs Emily Lock, who complained of being assaulted in a cinema in Coventry in 1939. Mrs Lock was actually in the cinema with her husband, who was a policeman. His presence may in fact account for the way in which this report gives Mrs Lock an unusual amount of agency in both describing what happened to her and in following the accused subsequent behaviour. She was sitting next to her husband watching the film, when the man sitting on the other side of her ‘began to interfere with her.’ Not liking to challenge the man but wanting to end the experience, she swapped places with her husband without telling him why, and continued to monitor the behaviour of her attacker. The man, she reports, moved places immediately, choosing to sit next to another woman who shortly afterwards herself moved away from him. Mrs Lock reports that she watched this behaviour repeated six or seven times before she finally pointed it out to her husband, who promptly arrested the man. He was fined £3 and 7s 6d costs for the assault.[17] The report itself goes on to quote the accused man, who offers a denial and an ‘explanation’ in direct speech as is typical of these newspaper reports. But that sense of Mrs Lock’s ‘hyper awareness of bodies in cinema space’ is nevertheless vividly conveyed and accords well with the description offered of the contemporary experience for women in the cinema offered by my friend above.

My thanks to Melanie Selfe for reading and advising on this blogpost, and for offering her insights into the experience of being a woman in the cinema space.

Unfortunately of course, incidents of the kind described here are not confined to the past. Only last month a fellow festival goer in an event in Italy experienced something similar. In her blog here, she describes the way it has affected her attitude to cinema going.

[1] Liverpool Echo 21/10/1936:7

[2] Grantham Journal 13/10/1950:8; Warwick and Warwickshire Advertiser 24/11/1950:12

[3] Morecombe Guardian 25/6/1927:12; Sheffield Daily Telegraph 2/7/1923:5

[4] Western Daily Press 19/12/1946:4; Thanet Advertiser 28/1/1949:1.

[5] Pall Mall Gazette 19/3/1923:12 (‘followed by a woman, who secured his arrest’); Western Daily Press 28/5/1936:4 (‘detained by one of the attendants’); Nottingham Evening Post 8/10/1946:1 (‘accused ran away, but was caught by a transport driver.’); Western Daily Press 19/12/1946:4 (‘ran away but was caught by the manager’), West London Observer 3/12/1954:10 (‘Accused then ran out of the cinema and he [his victim] ran after him. A lorry driver also chased the accused and detained him’); Somerset County Herald ([husband of victim] was walking back when he saw the accused leaving and barred his way’).

[6] Evening Despatch 29/3/1939:4; Somerset County Herald 9/6/1956:8.

[7] The Cornishman 10/7/1941:8.

[8] Sheffield Daily Telegraph 2/7/1923:5

[9] West London Observer 3/12/1954:10.

[10] Thanet Advertiser 28/1/1949:1.

[11] Somerset County Herald 9/6/1956:8

[12] Falkirk Herald 27/4/1935: 7

[13] Pall Mall Gazette 9/3/1923: 12

[14] The Cornishman 10/7/1941: 8

[15] Nottingham Evening Post 8/10/1946: 1

[16] Taunton Courier and Western Advertiser 18/12/1948: 3

[17] Evening Dispatch 29/3/1939: 4

3 thoughts on “Indecent Assaults in the Cinema

  1. sorry, once more with a proofread…

    This is a great post, and one whose importance and originality you slightly undermine in your preamble. While the use of cinemas as places of freedom by courting couples is the well know stuff of the Bamforth postcard, and the assault by unprompted sexual advance whether it be the hilarious penis in popcorn ruse (as seen in i think ‘Diner’) or the equally stock gag of pretend to yawn and cop a feel with the stretch (as in ‘Grease’ – and one of the Hellboy movies with a ‘well done my son’ commentary from the heroes). And there are veiled warning of illdoing by concerned social critics back in the day. But as for film historians uncovering the stuff of sexual activity or misdemenors – if it’s out there I’ve not found much of it.

    I made an assertion that people saw the darkness of the cinema as morally unsafe and sexually dubious in a paper and was quite suprised when my reader would let me get away with this received truth, but when I looked for academic work – it was hard to find. And article like this would have been dynamite – as unscientific as you might feel it is. There’s a neat joke in A Brief History of Time where Hawking takes about a drunk man looking for his keys, not where he dropped them, but under the lamppost where he can see. Hawking’s point – you can only find evidence where the light shines, so that’s where you look. You’ve found the data here – and if that’s ‘scientific enough for Steve it should be for you. I hope this is working toward a publication, because this is great data – it may be ‘small data’ as i call it, but it’s great when you drill down into it as you have here.

    There a great book Artificial Darkness a social history of darkend spaces – which does have some great material on the moral crusades against cinemas, and is a cracking book all round. I think I cite it in my Grindhouse paper. I also cited another book Teardrops on My Drum (GMP) which has a length account of 8-9 year old boys being picked up for sex in the poorest of possible cinemas in the thirties, which might give some context to you account above. It’s a disturbing read as it’s an account of how the authour’s grooming and abuse proved an escape from the even grimmer reailies of poverty, violence and hunger of lower working class life at the time. I can dig out the references to both if you want them.

    One final point – did you search indecent exposure or public outrage? Many assaults may have been described as such. And Ancestry has access to criminal registers up to the war I think, which give scanter descriptions than the papers, but might give you further examples you can go on to find in the papers where they didn’t use ‘cinema’ to refer to the pictures, theatre or Odeon.

    Once again, a great and valuable read, and i hope an outline for a significant paper.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks Phyll. I only searched ‘cinema assault’ but yes I think there’s indication here of what else may be available. These could be followed up in local court records I guess but I don’t plan to take this further at the mo.

      Like

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