Movie memories: Selections from the diary of a Mississippi girl, 1936.

During my senior year of college at Mississippi University for Women, I took an independent study course under the supervision of my mentor, Dr. Bridget Smith Pieschel. The subject was Women’s Autobiography, and my job was to transcribe and notate the diary of a former student of the school, Martha Smith (Dr. Pieschel’s aunt–one of several women in the Smith family to attend the university over the years). Martha was a student at the college (which was then called Mississippi State College for Women, or MSCW) from 1934 until her graduation in 1937. This particular diary covered the year of 1936, from the start of the second semester of her sophomore year. [1]

MSCW/MUW campus, circa 1901. The faint blue arrow on the right points at Callaway Hall, the dormitory where Martha lived in 1936. [Incidentally, the faint blue arrow on the left highlights what is now Hastings-Simmons Hall, and it’s pointing at the dorm room that Nikki and I shared when we were roommates senior year.] Image courtesy of the Columbus-Lowndes Public Library.

Martha was eighteen years old throughout much of the year, and like many teenagers (both then and now), she used her diary to remember good times, record her frustrations, gossip about her friends, and complain about her schoolwork. Taken in the context of the time period, there are some interesting references to life in Mississippi during the tail-end of the Great Depression, as well as some entertaining anecdotes revolving around college life. But as an avowed classic film fan, to me, some of the most fascinating entries in Martha’s diary are the ones in which she mentions the movies that she went to see on a regular basis at the local theater.

In the 1930s, Columbus, Mississippi was not exactly a hotbed of activity (nor, to be honest, is it now). It was sometimes difficult for students to find ways to entertain themselves–in her diary, Martha often complains of boredom and longs for “something exciting” to happen. That excitement largely comes from frequent trips to the cinema–a new-found privilege for MSCW students, apparently, and one that Martha takes full advantage of. On January 6, 1936, Martha ends a frustrating day’s entry with a bit of good news: “Oh yes! We can go to the Princess Theater for 15ct.–nice if I ever had time to go.”[2] [3]

Martha’s diary. Image courtesy of the CWRPP at MUW.

Her moment of pessimism is misplaced. Partly to be sociable, and largely to ignore the homesickness that never quite went away, Martha becomes an avid moviegoer. Over the course of 1936, she goes to the theater thirty-four times. While this many not seem to be an impressive number of visits to us now–after all, it averages out to less than one a week for the entire year–considering that Martha’s family was far from wealthy and the fact that the college placed many restrictions on young ladies’ behavior (including limits on their off-campus time), thirty-four movies in one year is a remarkable number to me!

*

Martha’s “reviews”–such as they are–of the films that she saw are relatively brief. After all, her space for writing about each day was limited: the diary itself is, as you can see from the picture above, quite small (if Twitter had existed back then, Martha could have written 140-character film reviews with no problem!). Still, she manages to make her opinions about these movies known despite the page limitations.

Martha’s favorite movie star is Ronald Colman; throughout the year, she goes to see several of his films, and she professes a great affection for a particular 1935 Charles Dickens adaptation:

Tuesday, February 18: Just got back from the Show—“The Tale of Two Cities.” It was the grandest thing I have ever seen. Ronald Coleman was so sweet—wish I knew some one like that.

But her love for Colman does not mean loving all of his films:

Wednesday, March 25: Went to the show & saw “The Man Who Broke the “Bank of Monte Carlo” with Ronald Coleman. It wasn’t extra good.

She also likes Bette Davis films, even sneaking out of a sports exhibition and risking being late back to campus to go see one:

Friday, February 21: Went to see Bette Davis & Franchot Tone in “Dangerous” before the tennis was over. Show was grand. Didn’t end until five until six and did we run (Polly Kate Carolyn, & I) a woman picked us up–Luck I calls it & we got back by six, but were we tired!

And later that spring:

Saturday, May 16: Saw “Petrified Forest” with Bette Davis and Leslie Howard. It was real good.

It is in 1936 that Martha sees a film in color for the first time, though she’s not all that detailed about her impressions:

Tuesday, April 28: Went to the show this afternoon–“The Trail of the Lonesome Pine“–Good. First picture I’d seen it technicolor.

Sprinkled throughout the diary are old newspaper clippings regarding the various things Martha has recorded on the pages. One of these is a snippet from a review of So Red the Rose (1935), which states: “There are more silly things in So Red the Rose than in any major picture your spy has caught all winter.” But Martha’s opinion doesn’t seem overly affected by the critic’s point of view; all she writes about the movie is:

Monday, January 27: Went with Polly, Martha M. & I went to town–Saw “So Red the Rose”–cried–

Martha views her frequent trips to town to see “the show” as a lifeline. When her friend Kate is given a “campus” (a type of demerit that prevented the students from leaving the school grounds), Martha’s entry reveals her latent frustration with the rules imposed by the college:

Saturday, February 1: Went to the show this evening. Claudette Colbert in “She Married Her Boss.” Kate had a campus and couldn’t go. You know, she never complains about what she can or can’t do. I wish I were more that way. If it had been me I would have been raising Cain if I couldn’t get off the campus.

Martha loves her romantic comedies, even when they are just too much:

Wednesday, September 23: Went to the show with Dad, Goldie and Chris tonight. “To Mary With Love” with Warner Baxter & Myrna Loy—very, very, sentimental. The silliest, most pointless comedy I ever saw, but on the whole, I really enjoyed nearly every minute.

Sometimes, Martha’s pithiness is frustrating, particularly when she neglects to name the film she’s mentioned, such as in an entry on October 30th, in which she claims to have seen “a very sorry picture,” or on August 5th, when she cannot recall the title of the movie she’s just seen:

Went to the show with Miss Tilla Belle and Kate–a very gruesome picture. Lionel Barry More played. Can’t seem to remember the name of the show.

[My best guess as to the “gruesome” movie would be Mark of the Vampire, a 1935 horror film co-starring Bela Lugosi.]

*

Some other films that caught Martha’s fancy throughout the year:

Saturday, February 7: Went to the show—Kate and I. “A Feather in her Hat” with Pauline Lord & Lewis Haywood. It was good & I enjoyed it.

Wednesday, February 26: Went to the show with Polly and Kate—“Hands Across the Table” I just love Fred McMurray (I think he was the one that played).

Thursday, March 5: Went to town with Kate & Polly. Saw “Rose Marie with Jeannette McDonald & Nelson Eddy—and could the sing! “The Indian Love Call” was simply superb.

Friday, June 19: Narcie Roberts came today. We went to the show tonight—“Desire”. Cute as could be.

Monday, August 10: Went to the show this afternoon with Kate—“Rythym on the Range.” It was real cute especially when that crazy black haired girl in it was dancing. She could really shake it.

Monday, November 9: Took off from work and went to the show with Kate, Carolyn, & Eliz.—Ladies in Love—Rather enlightening.

And some movies (and stars) with which Martha was less than impressed:

Wednesday, May 6: went to the show with Kate and Polly. I wasn’t particularly crazy about it but it was a rest, at least. Astaire and Ginger Rogers in “Follow the Fleet.”

Monday, August 3: Went to the show this aft. with Kate. Jean Harlow in “Suzy” —Pretty good for a Jean Harlow picture.

*

Martha’s final film-centric entry, on December 2nd, sums up the importance of these theater visits for the young student:

Broke out this afternoon and went to the show with Kate–“Come and Get It“–very on–lightening after a day of work and worries. I keep telling myself that I shouldn’t have gone, but I can’t help being glad I went.

I can’t help but be glad that she went, too. The thirty-four films Martha saw over the course of 1936 brought her some measure of peace and laughter (however brief), allowing her to forget about her troubles for an hour or two and lose herself in another world. And that, in a nutshell, is why we all love the movies. They let us escape, just for a moment, and give ourselves over to pure joy and entertainment. There are few things more valuable than that. It’s why we treasure our cinematic memories, and it’s why we continue to celebrate the wonders of film, year after year.

 

Martha Smith graduated from Mississippi State College for Women in 1937. She became a dietician and worked at Louisiana State University. She and her husband, Jim, married in 1950 and had a daughter named Rachel. Jim died in the 1970s. Martha eventually developed Alzheimer’s in her later years and passed away in 2005 as a result of the disease. [4]

[1] Martha Smith’s diary is archived in the Center for Women’s Research and Public Policy at Mississippi University for Women, of which her niece, Dr. Bridget Smith Pieschel, is the director.
[2] Note: all excerpts of Martha’s diary are reprinted as she wrote them–punctuation, spelling, and all. Some of the films are misspelled or otherwise titled incorrectly. The embedded links will direct you to the correct film for clarification.
[3] The Princess Theater, where Martha saw most of these movies, is still standing in Columbus to this day, though it no longer screens films. It was established in 1924 as a live venue for vaudeville and performing arts, and showed movies up until 1985. When I was a student at the W, the theater was used as a concert venue for indie bands, and the lobby had been converted into a makeshift bar of sorts (I only went there twice–it was WAY too smoky inside to be enjoyable for me). It’s a beautiful old building, though the last time I was inside (five years ago) it wasn’t in the best of shape.
[4] Photo of Martha Smith (1950) courtesy of Bridget Smith Pieschel.
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14 thoughts on “Movie memories: Selections from the diary of a Mississippi girl, 1936.

  1. I absolutely loved this! I devoured every word! Thanks for sharing Martha’s memories with us. I hope she’s up there in the sky watching some great Bette Davis movies.

  2. Wow, what a fantastic resource that diary is! I always love reading reviews/impressions of classic films from the years in which they were originally released, both from regular viewers and critics. Thanks for sharing Martha’s movie-going with us!

  3. Fascinating! Did she comment on any other Carole Lombard films (he wrote, slyly pondering a potential “Carole & Co.” entry)?

  4. These are like movie Tweets from the other side! I love it! Martha’s diary entries remind us of how little times have changed. That’s a lot of movies to see in one year – she was clearly a fan. Thank you so much for posting this!
    http://thegreatkh.blogspot.com/

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