What people watched at the cinema in world war two.

The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp
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As shown in my post on cinema-going in wartime despite the potential threat to life and limb people needed to occupy themselves and people flocked to the cinema. According to Kinematograph Weekly’s annual round ups (Table 1) the most popular films at the British box office were often melodramas and part of the counter-narrative. Few of the critically acclaimed films such as Millions Like Us appear in the listing with only This Happy Breed featuring.

Although it doesn’t appear on the Kinematograph Weekly’s list, the most popular film released in the UK during World War Two was Gone with the Wind which showed continuously between April 1940 and D-Day. It remains the most successful film of all time at the British Box Office[1] (BFI 2004). The Wicked Lady is often considered a wartime film despite featuring in the list in 1946. It was produced during the war and was the most successful of the Gainsborough melodramas.

Year Biggest Winner(s) Best British film
1940 Rebecca Convoy
1941 49th Parallel 49th Parallel
1942 Mrs Miniver The First if the Few
1943 In Which We Serve,Casablanca, The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, Hello Frisco Hello, The Black Swan, The Man in Grey In Which We Serve
1944 For Whom the Bell Tolls, This Happy Breed, Song of Bernadette, Going My Way, This Is the Army, Jane Eyre, The Story of Dr. Wassell, Cover Girl, White Cliffs of Dover, Sweet Rosie O’Grady, The Sullivans, Fanny by Gaslight This Happy Breed
1945 The Seventh Veil The Seventh Veil
1946 The Wicked Lady The Wicked Lady

Table 1: British Box Office Information, 1940 – 1950[2] (Lant 1991, 231-233)

The Seventh Veil
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It is clear a large number of the most popular films  were American and the idea that American films could be the films consumed in Britain was something to be feared during the pre-war years

Of all people they [Americans] are closest to ourselves in mind and spirit. But to allow these cousins of ours to put a stranglehold on this fundamental power of national expression, which is the British cinema, is carrying blood-relationship a trifle too far.

Editorial essay  1937

The reasons for the appeal of American films included in large part the perceived glamour. Something that the films produced by Gainsborough Pictures began to address. They signified an increase in escapism. The importance of glamour in British wartime cinema will be explored in later posts.


[1] This is in terms of tickets sold.

[2] Due to the lack of British Cinema statistics this table is taken from Kinematograph Weekly’s  annual survey, compiled by R.H. “Josh” Billings and collated in Antonia Lant’s Book Blackout

References

BFI. 2004. The Ultimate Film, 4/9/2006 2004 [cited 03/07/2010 ]. Available from http://www.bfi.org.uk/features/ultimatefilm/.

Editorial essay. 1937. World Film News (No. 8):5.

Lant, Antonia. 1991. Blackout : reinventing women for wartime British cinema. Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press.

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The First Born (1928)

Silent, black and white and full of drama. Not The Artist but The First Born, a British film made in 1928 and with all the drama and suspense of any film out today. Directed and written by Miles Mander, based on his play. Mander is the lead Sir Hugo Boycott, Madeleine Carroll his wife Madeleine and John Loder is David, Lord Harborough. All give great performances with the requisite over the top gestures and dramatic looks.

This is a tale of adultery, deceit and double standards with twists you don’t expect. All to a backdrop of English Manor houses and political intrigue. Who needs Downton Abbey with all this lurking in the archives? It also has one of the best death scenes in cinema. Whereas The Artist is all about staircases (one day I will bore you with a long post about staircases in The Artist) it is doors which feature in First Born, everything happens with the use of the door. You can even tell which house they are in by the door.

It is the story of a caddish aristocrat who marries a beautiful young woman but when she doesn’t provide an heir he leaves for Africa. She then sets in motion a plan winger him back. Little does she know what she has started. A lot of the narrative is moved forward by letters and telegrams which works very well.

There are many things that are questionable about this film to modern eyes, the depiction of Africans and the giving a child a pipe to smoke to name just a couple. However the storyline and film techniques seem well ahead of their time.

The BFI have restored First Born as part of a project to restore films from the hey day of silent cinema in the UK. Part of the restoration included matching a 16mm print with the 35mm orignal and there are a few points where there are slit jumps however by using shot-by-shot analysis the amazing team at the BFI have met the challenge and delivered a film of great quality.

Jess and I saw this at the BFI with a live score written by Stephen Horne performed by himself (piano, flute and accordion), Janey Miller (oboe) and Martin Pyne (tuned percussion). The score appears perfect, it reflects what is happening on screen and doesn’t give anything away. I am amazed at the skill of fitting a piece to match the film so well.

Watching this made me think again – what is film? Without words you are transfixed to the screen because everything that is happening is happening visually. It is aided by the score but without the images the score is just some nice music. We didn’t need anything else to know what was happening. I have seen a fair few silent films over the years but this is the first original silent film I have seen at the cinema and it is at the cinema that the experience really hits home. Nothing can distract you and you are immersed in the pictures.

Of course the experience of watching silent films in the 1920s would have been quite different, reports suggest people chatted while watching and, as continued for many years, they came and went throughout the film so they may have come in 20 minutes before the end.

I think one of the most interesting things about The First Born was that it had a Hitchcockian feel to it. The focus on eyes, the use of psychology and many shots I can’t mention without ruining the plot. The thing is Hitchcock’s name doesn’t appear anywhere on the credits however Miles Mander worked with Hitchcock and Alma Reville produced the scenarios alongwith Mander and she is otherwise known as Mrs Alfred Hitchcock. It makes me think back to arguments about Auteur Theory. It is well known Reville was Hitchcock’s closest collaborator but how much did they influence each other’s work?If you are lucky enough to get the chance to watch this on the big screen I suggest you don’t hesitate.