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


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.


Cinema-going in Wartime

During the research for my dissertation I looked at the experience of cinema-going in wartime and unearthed some great quotes from contemporary resources about why cinema was so popular.

It has been well documented that cinema was at is most popular during world war two with admissions rising from 990 million in 1939 to 1585 million in 1945 (Browning and Sorrell 1954, 134) Browning attributes the increase in admissions of nearly fifty per cent between 1940 and 1943 to the financial prosperity of the British public due to full employment and the lack of other ways of spending money (1954, 135). His view is backed up by Wallace (1941)

The war has made no difference to the cinema-going of my friends. Everyone I know has ample “pocket” money so that the loss of matinee prices does not affect them much. Actually they tend to go to the cinema more in the evening as there is no advantage to get there before 3 o’clock as there used to be. I go to the cinema just as many times as I used to before the war, on an average, during 1939, one visit to every 10 days. Sometimes I go twice a week and then not for a fortnight, varying with the quality of the releases.

While this certainly explains some economic reasons for the upturn in attendance the desire for escapism appears to be a reason as valid as the economic ones as people wouldn’t have paid repeatedly to see films they didn’t enjoy. The high level of admissions and mass observation contributions (Richards and Sheridan 1987) suggest that many people saw films more than once.

I like the cinema because I get ideas, ideas about politics, make-up, wit, life, service – in fact, you go in and you don’t know what you are coming out with. One might come out with a new hair-style, or a solution to the world’s problems.

Have seen as many as three films in a day, and don’t feel tired. If there is a double feature programme and there is one film I don’t want to see, I time it so that I do not have to sit through the one I don’t want to.

(Cross, Beryl. 1940)

People commented that the war had made people more vocal while watching a film:

Mussolini (left) and Hitler sent their armies ...
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Wartime cinema audiences are definitely more responsive than they were before the war, except possibly for the short period immediately before the outbreak. With regard to chorus-singing, for instance. People will sing perfectly happily in a music-hall, and extremely unwillingly in a cinema, yet, when I went to one of our larger local cinemas on the evening of Sept. 2nd, everyone, myself included, bawled happily at the tops of their voices. This chorus-singing, mainly with an organ, is catered for to a much larger extent since the war….
To sum up, it would appear that the war has made the cinema more popular, especially for afternoon and early evening entertainment, but it has also made it dearer. However, in their rush for enjoyment, the audiences have not lost their interest in the films they see. They are just as critical, and certainly much more carefree whilst they are in the cinema. Hence the chorus-singing1. In fact as far as the general public is concerned, the war will probably do the cinema good rather than harm.
(Carley, R. 1940.)

Children, by the way, are amused at the sight of any Germans “Goose Stepping,” they shout with decisive laughter. They also boo loudly at any picture of Hitler.

(Ausden, 1940)

Not everybody appreciated the increased interaction in the cinema  ‘there is much more clapping, cat-calling, whistling during a feature film. This can be directly connected to the enormous numbers of evacuee children and of soldiers now billeted in this neighbourhood.’ (Wallace 1940, 5) It is difficult to know if the bad behaviour was directly attributable to the influx of soldiers and evacuees but another Mass Observation correspondent commented on increased noise at her local cinema:

‘…there is now a strong “Foreign” element of Welsh,MidlandandNorth countryfolk (the result of the trainee system). These keep the cinemas in a state of continual murmur… if a film goes wrong, even a momentary blackout, the whistling and catcalls are very nasty. We ‘natives’ sit quietly to wait for the film to go on, knowing that operators cannot hear anything in their ‘box’ and not wishing to fluster them as they mend a broken film. But the noise now is really disgusting, though the films are listened to more quietly.’

(Ausden 1940)

The increased interaction led to some interesting reactions to newsreels …

Quite a different aspect of people’s rather free-and-easy attitude in the cinema was shown by the fact that quite large numbers of the audience booed and hissed when Hitler appeared on the screen. Rude remarks were shouted too such as “I’d like to wring his bloody neck”, and “Pity somebody doesn’t bump him off.” These, however, have died down not, although there are occasional humorous remarks when any members of the German Government appear on the screen. The sudden outburst of songs and jokes about them have made the German Cabinet appear to the average man in this country to be a secondary “Crazy Gang.

(Carlyle, 1940)

Even when escaping to the cinema the public was reminded that this was a war very much on British shores not in a distant land. Cinemas displayed notices advising that the programme would continue during air raids and each cinema had an Air Raid Warden attached to it. Some managers stopped showing the warnings because they felt it turned people away.

Well, one evening I was sitting in the gallery just behind a party, I should say a son and his wife and his mother, the mother coming to the pictures for the first time since the war broke out, and obviously the old girl had got out of herself. Then came this air raid warning notice. And within five minutes they had left the theatre. May be they had seen the programme round. I don’t know. But as soon as they saw that notice they became very quiet and within five minutes they had left. Now it’s been cut out.


Once the air raids began it was clear many would stay and watch the film. Len England1 reported

It is true that less than one fifth of patrons leave on hearing that a warning has been sounded – observation and official pronouncement agree on this point – and it is also true that many people go into the cinema when the warning is heard.


As the war continued people became more immune to bombs falling as this conversation overheard on 25/9/1940 shows:

S: The other night when we were in the cinema the sirens went and the manager said his little peace [sic] and I don’t think one person left. I tried to see because Graham always likes to know.

F: I’m not surprised, when this trouble started quite a number left, but now I’ve noticed hardly anyone leaves, after all one is as safe in a cinema as out in the streets.

S: Unless a direct hit occurs on the building.

F: That might happen anywhere, even when one is in a shelter, though I saw Tussauds cinema last week and there wasn’t much of it left.

S: Oh well, I’m never going to leave until I’ve seen the program right through.

(Mass Observation  Film 17/2/H)

Some cinema-goers were sceptical before the bombs started falling about whether it would be sensible to stay in the cinema during an air raid:

“A good cinema is not necessarily a good air raid shelter, and a bomb on a cinema-full of people would make a nasty mess.

(Carley 1940)

What these quotes show is that the experience of escaping the war was important to boosting morale and this is demonstrated by the fact people chose to stay there rather than go to air raid shelters.


Ausden, Joyce. 1940. Film Report. Mass Observation Archive TC17 M36Box1.

Browning, H.E., and A.A. Sorrell. 1954. Cinema and cinema-going in Great Britain. Journal of the Royal Statistical Society, Series A (General) 11:133-165.

Carley, Robert. 1940. Report on the War and the Cinema – observations. In Mass Observation Archive TC17 M36-50 Box 1.

England, Len. 1939. Interview with the manager of the Classic Cinema, Tooting. Mass Observation Archive TC17Box4.

———. 1940. Note on the Film Trade. Mass Observation Archive TC17Box2.

Wallace, G.L. 1940. The Cinema in Wartime. Mass Observation TC17 Box 1 page 5.

1 Len England was responsible for Mass Observation’s film work and after the war became acting director of the project.

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