From the first theatres that dared to show pictures at the end of the 19th century to the current networks of competing chains and small independents, cinemas have changed drastically in the course of their lifetime. Alongside the shifts in the cinemas themselves, our relationship with these spaces has changed too. We wanted to delve a little into the history of cinema going in the UK, so we asked film academic Lisa Stead about what she’s learned about the cinema culture of the past in her research into the cinema going of the 1920s and 1930s.
Whats the biggest change in cinema going from the period you’re researching?
The biggest changes that take place within the period I research the interwar years — are about gender, and about class. What those changes produce are different textures of cinema-going. As more women and more middle class folks are targeted by the film industry as everyday cinema-goers,the venues that house cinema change to accommodate and attract them. So into the 1920s and 1930s we get the rise of the Picture Palace and super cinemas in Britain. These are palatial venues that can offer you everything from shopping to creches to powder rooms and tea rooms, and replace the benches and uncomfortably chairs of the flea pits with red velvet seats and grand balconies. Of course, not all cinemas were super cinemas, and smaller and grottier venues lived on, but there’s a real push to cinema as being a more luxurious and grander affair. If you look at some of the programmes for these venues, you could see how much they foreground the pleasures of the cinema environment, alongside the pleasure of the film programme itself, emphasising their exotic decor and dazzling exteriors and the finery of their uniformed commissionaires. Cinemas were much greater in number at this time: urban and suburban spaces were peppered with theatres presence as cinema building expanded and some of the major early chains like Odeon and Gaumont took hold in the 1930s. This made cinema increasingly a major part of everyday life.In contrast, this is one of the biggest changes to cinema going now. Cinema is far less embedded in our day-to-day lives: it no longer occupies our everyday spaces so immediately, nor takes up so much of our leisure time. But in the days before competing technologies like television, cinema was one of the primary leisure options for British people, and into the interwar years more and more people went to the pictures.
What about the people going to the cinema: how have they changed?
Cinema going was much cheaper between the wars, and was screened in a quite different ways to cinema today. Films would play as part of a continuous programme, meaning that people had quite a different temporal relationship with cinema spaces and cinema fictions. This emphasis upon flow fits with cinemas larger presence in everyday life at this time: people could come and go from cinema venues during the day and the evening, drop in after work, attend a children’s cinema club at the weekends, and generally spend more time in these venues.
Between the wars, women also constituted the majority of the cinema going audience, which is quite different to how the film industry thinks about its audience now: there is a great emphasis upon younger male cinema-goers in film content and film marketing.
I think some of the biggest changes are around affordability. One reason we go to the cinema less these days is simply because it costs so much to do so. We are also arguably less likely to be drawn to the cinema for the experience of being in the cinema venue in the same way as earlier cinema-goers. What cinema gives us now is in some ways a spectacular alternative to home media: the big screen, the immersive sound, the exclusion of distraction in a hypermediated everyday world. Back then, cinema wasn’t competing with smaller screens: it was spectacular, but it was also a place of luxury, are spite from the streets, a dream palace to use the popular term for movie theatres in the 1930s where, as Dorothy Richardson put it writing in 1927,you could purchase shelter, stimulation and excitement at less than the price of an evenings light and fire.
Whats one thing that you wish you could resurrect from cinema going in the past?
I would love that have that experience of grandeur to put on a cloche hat and wear a marcel wave and dress up for a night at the picture palace! I would want, in essence, to resurrect that sense of place and purpose and light and colour that I don’t feel when I step into a multiplex. Id also want to connect to the kinds of relationship cinema-goers had with stars in this period. In asocial media age were so very saturated with their personal and private lives;in the 1920s and 1930s, cinema-goers had access to the real lives of screen personalities through things like fan magazines and tabloids, but there was much more mystery and romance about their personas, and the big screen was the place to see them embodied. If picture palaces were akin to cathedrals of the movies, stars were the idols worshipped in those velvet seats. Id love to connect with that sense of glamour and romance.
Lisa Stead is the author of Off to the Pictures: Cinemagoing, Women’s Writing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain, published by Edinburgh University Press and is a lecturer in Film Studies at the University of East Anglia.