Our latest blog comes from stipend holder Dr Rosie Hickey, Heritage Officer at the Strand Arts Centre, Belfast (Northern Ireland’s oldest surviving cinema, established in 1935) who writes about using our collection to research cinema-going during World War Two.
My research focuses on cinema-going in Northern Ireland during the ‘golden years of cinema’ of the 1930s and 1940s and therefore incorporates cinema-going during World War Two (1939 – 1945). Early this year I gathered a remarkable story regarding Whitehead Cinema – located on the east coast of Northern Ireland - in which projectionists during wartime would change the colour of the proscenium lights to notify audience members of an air raid (carefully not deploying any sound alerts that would impede viewing pleasure!). Subsequently, I collected similar stories illustrative of an astounding allegiance to cinema-going during the war.
I used my time at the Bill Douglas Cinema Museum (BDCM) to learn more about this fascinating period in cinema history and to question the role of cinema-going during wartime. Was it purely escapism or a way to forget one’s troubles, or did it have a more complex role during this period? Often cited as a ‘morale booster’ in contemporary writing on WW2, was cinema-going actively promoted as such during the war? At the museum I had the opportunity to consult a range of invaluable primary sources - posters, programmes and Kinematograph Year Books produced during the war - alongside literature written in the immediate aftermath of WW2.
I started my exploration by consulting film posters that dated from wartime, all of which contained no mention of the war. More surprisingly, Picturegoer magazines published in the months after the outbreak of WW2 did not acknowledge the war, with the implication that ‘picture-going’ was viewed as utter escapism, detached from political realities. It was actually within an Odeon programme dated September 1940 that I had my earliest encounter with an explicit mention of war within the BDCM reading room (albeit introduced by a somewhat long-winded allegorical story told to the audience by cinema management). Within the introductory ‘Manager’s Chat’, cinema is presented as a source of pleasure and relaxation. However, more than that, there is an implication that relaxing in the cinema actively contributes to war effort due its engendering of “better work on the morrow”.
Figures 1 and 2: Cover and manger's chat of Odeon programme, Newport, IOW, September 1940 (EXEBD 17239)
Further into the programme is an advert for The Blue Bird, with the tagline “Travel to Happiness on the wings of THE BLUE BIRD” emphasising the role of cinema as a source of escapism (see Featured Image at the start of the blog). Interestingly, the advert also includes a quote from Lord Southwood, the British newspaper proprietor and Labour politician: “I agree that ‘THE BLUE BIRD’ film is a delightful fantasy and will be doing a great service at present, for its beauty and charm will serve to distract the mind of the public, at least for a little time, from the worries and troubles of the war.” Within this quote, escapism is not presented as a frivolous activity but is explicitly equated with sense of service. It is telling that the Odeon use a quote from a politician advancing the virtues of the film, as opposed to a film critic, to essentially ‘sell’ The Blue Bird.
However, it should be noted that this programme was dated September 1940, meaning it would have been printed prior to the Blitz which began in later, in autumn 1940. How would the very real threat of aerial attacks affect conceptions of the cinema-going? At BDCM I was able to consult Picturegoer magazines published during the Blitz. Significantly, a Picturegoer magazine dated 11 January 1941 proclaimed the following:
“the screen has become one of the greatest social forces of our time. In 1941 it will play a more important part in our lives than it has ever done before. Events have amply justified our campaign at the beginning of the war against the threat to close the cinemas or, at least, impose severe restrictions. Today no one doubts the value of the morale-building relaxation offered by the screen to a nation that is in the front line.” (EXEBD 24019)
Figure 4: Picturegoer Magazine , 11 January 1941. (EXEBD 24019)
This quote is a remarkable contrast to the lack of acknowledgment of the war in the same magazine in the autumn of 1939. However, it highlights the social role of ‘the screen’ as opposed to the institution of the cinema itself. And, indeed, specific films – including documentaries, war films and news reels - took on a new social importance during wartime (Powell, 1947 (EXEBD 35123)). However, I wanted to question: was there more than just the lure of a particular film behind the continued popularity of cinema-going during the war? What social and psychological value did the public attach to the cinema itself in the context of the war?
One particular book in the BDCM collection was invaluable in helping me to navigate such questions. Red Roses every night. London cinemas under fire (Morgan, 1948 (EXEBD 15045) set forth multiple psychological readings of the cinema during war time. This text anthropomorphises the cinema: “The cinemas never let us down” (p.7) and highlights popular conceptions of the cinema as a safe space: “far from subscribing to a pre-war official view of cinema as a deathtrap, patrons came to regard it as a refuge, a strength and an escape. Audiences actually felt safer in cinemas” (p.11). The author even highlights a remarkable period during the early months of the Blitz when Granada cinemas remained open throughout the night as a place of refuge. But was this faith in the safety and solidity of cinemas justified? At the BDCM I was able to consult with the 1940 Kinematograph Year Book (EXEBD 16738) which outlined cinemas’ air-raid precautions:
“The safety requirements in the circumstances are not particularly onerous: they include obvious precautions such as the protection of large windows […] but do not insist upon the sandbagging of vestibule entrances, the removal of chandeliers and other heavy glass fittings” (p.213).
This suggests that conceptions of the cinema as a safe place were based less on the physicality of the building and more on psychological readings of the cinema space. Interestingly, the 1940 Kinematograph Year Book goes on to explicitly refer to the importance of the psychological dimensions of a cinema during wartime:
“War time restrictions on street lighting and the absence of brilliantly lighted facades […] have led exhibitors to pay considerably greater attention to the lighting of auditoria and their approaches. In this they are prompted by the necessity of affording their audiences some psychological compensation for the mental condition induced by black-out conditions” (p.221).
A more contemporary book in the BDCM collection - Researching Historical Screen Audiences, edited by Kate Egan et al and published in 2021 (EXEBD 100786) – also highlighted psychological readings of the cinema space during wartime: “Local patrons often viewed their cinema as a ‘home’; a place of familiar surroundings where they could feel comfortable” (p.140). The participation in a shared emotional experience, bringing with it a sense of camaraderie, belonging and reassurance, was of heightened importance during wartime: “[Cinemas were viewed] as comforting and domestic spaces in which people found safety in a group” (p.110). Evidently, these emotional dimensions of the cinema during wartime were influenced by both the unique physical and social aspects of the cinema, not just what was on screen.
Overall, my research at the BDCM allowed me to explore – and further appreciate - the role of cinema-going during WW2. Access to a wide range of sources at the BDCM – alongside help and expertise – was invaluable in helping me to probe this fascinating period in cinema history. Moreover, my research helped me to re-engage with and appreciate the basic premise and lure of cinema in the golden years of cinema-going and beyond. It underlined the importance of the cinema as a unique psychological and social space, beyond a place of escapism through the power of film.
Strand Arts Centre, Belfast
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