Jeffrey Richards / “1. Going to the Pictures” / The Age of the Dream Palace: Cinema and Society in Britain, 1930-1939 / 1984

What was it like going to the pictures in 1930s England?

WHO WENT TO THE CINEMA? 1932, Commission on Educational and Cultural Films: “The cinema has become the staple entertainment of the average family.” First systematic survey of cinema-going, 1934, by statistician Simon Rowson. 80% cinema-goers were in the “cheap seats.” Working class. The Social Survey of Merseyside (1934): 40% total population went to cinema in any one week. Of these, 1/4 to 1/3 go twice or more. Especially young people. Especially working class. Carnegie Trust’s study of unemployed youths, Glasgow, Cardiff, Liverpool, 1936-9: “Attendance at cinemas is the most important single activity of the young men of the inquiry.” 80% went at least once per week, 25% of those more often. Enthusiasts (those visiting 1 and more times per week) especially tended to be young, working class, urban, female more often than male. Though cinema appealed to all classes, the classes tended not to mix. I.e., social hierarchy of cinemas. Cinema took a place in community life analogous to church and pub. [Shift from PUB -> CINEMA.]

MOVIE HOUSES. 1950s were tail end of era (many movie houses demolished). 1930s were heyday, era of the super cinema. [See Denis Sharp, The Picture Palace and Other Buildings for the Movies. David Atwell, Cathedrals of the Movies. Allen Eyles, “The super-cinema in Britain, in F. Maurice Speed (ed), Film Review 1980-1. P. Morton Shand, Modern Theatres and Cinemas.] Earliest cinemas, “penny gaffs,” were usually converted shops. [Shift from PUB -> CINEMA.] 1920s, age of cinema building. 1921, 4,000 cinemas in operation, and estimated 2,000 more needed for demand. 1st “atmospheric” outside London was Alhambra in Birmingham, 1928. “The ceiling is beautifully finished and lighted by means of reflectors artfully concealed in special troughs, behind the striking imitation Moorish tile cornices, which help, as much as anything, to create the illusion of an outdoor setting.” [See Odd Man Out, images in beer bubbles.] Designer Komisarjevsky’s Granadas and Tooting and Woolwich. Style = High Theatrical. K: “The picture theatre supplies folk with the flavour of romance for which they crave. The richly decorated theatre, the comfort with which they are surrounded, the efficiency of the service contribute to an atmosphere and a sense of well being of which the majority have hitherto only imagined. While there they can with reason consider themselves as good as anyone, and are able to enjoy their cigarettes or their little love affairs in comfortable seats and amidst attractive and appealing surroundings.”

CINEMA ADVERTISEMENTS. Paraphernalia of promotion and advertisements. Trade paper Kine Weekly describes Adelph Cinema car park: build to look like football field for football movie promotion; Empire Foyer -> railway station for Shanghai Express, handed out tickets that looked like train tickets, etc. Cinema cafe for luncheon and tea. Lots of evidence: cinema as escapist, wish fulfillment.

CLASS and TASTE: Working class people preferred American films over British overwhelmingly. 1937, World Film News publishes survey results, divided audience into 3 types. Working class, mixed “family,” middle class. Survey: for working class, “romance and melodrama of the better type are popular, whereas history is almost universally condemned.” Middle class taste exact opposite: “Good, clean comedy and society drama with interesting dialogue, something people can think about and discuss afterwards.” Richard Carr’s 1930 report on cinema-going in the East End: “Differences in taste are noticeable: the audience in one of the smaller cinemas, catering mostly for working class people, is much more responsive to speed, action and fast dialogue than in cinemas attended mainly by families, by women and by young girls, or middle class people.” [If in Odd Man Out James Mason sees a movie in the beer bubbles, what sort of movie is it?] Quota quickies, often so bad they would be played in the morning while charladies cleaned the theater, to comply with the letter of the 1927 Cinematograph Films Act.


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