Cinema was a popular way to escape temporarily the horrors of the First World War. Home on leave in 1916, Sgt. W F Martin told The Lincoln Leader about his experiences running a cinema seven miles behind the firing line ‘ while the shells whistle over head’……’we went to Pathé’s place in Paris and bought a complete set, with which we ‘rigged up’ a ‘show’……..We specialise of course in comedies, particularly Charlie Chaplin. That is what the boys come to see. They like anything but the war.’
Lincoln’s Cinemas in 1916
In the same year, on the home front, there were three operational cinemas in Lincoln:
The Central Cinema, The Picture House and Cinema Hall. The Central Cinema was situated in St Swithin’s Square, Lincoln (Thorngate House occupies the site today). Boasting ‘no noise and flicker free pictures which are rock steady’, the Central could not, however, compete in terms of accommodation and facilities with Lincoln’s newest cinema, The Picture House, which had opened on Monday January 18th 1915. Situated on the High Street, where Primark stands now, The Picture House was the first purpose-built cinema in Lincoln. It featured a café where ‘patrons may partake of afternoon tea and witness the programme at the same time’ as well as a grill and billiard room. Patrons did, however, have to pay for luxury! Balcony seats were 1 shilling (in today’s money £14.08), stalls & lounge 7 pence (£8.17), pit 4 pence (£4.79).
A cheaper option was Cinema Hall (today the Cornhill branch of McDonald’s) where patrons could be ‘comfortably seated’ in ‘the most Up-to-date Tip-Up Seats’ at a price of ‘2d (£2.25) 4d (£4.79) and 6d (£7.04)’. Cinema-going at Cinema Hall did have certain disadvantages though: the seating was not raked and every Thursday after the cinema show finished it had to be transformed into its secondary use as a Corn Exchange. All the seating had to be removed to be replaced with corn market stands and the curtains along the walls drawn back to reveal advertisements connected to the market. After the market finished on Friday afternoon the process had to be reversed.
Programming at the cinemas
All three cinemas had a similar approach to programming as Sergeant Martin. Over one hundred and ninety comedy films were screened in Lincoln in 1916 with Charlie Chaplin appearing thirty-two times. For instance Charlie’s New Job was shown at The Central Cinema during the second half of the week commencing 7th February 1916 followed two weeks later at the same venue by Charlie’s Elopement (known in the USA as A Jitney Elopement). Both films along with very many other Chaplin comedies are available for viewing on YouTube – evidence of their continuing comic charm.
Nevertheless, dramas outnumbered comedies with over two hundred and thirty being shown in Lincoln cinemas during the year. Like the comedies, many were American in origin – almost 75% of all films shown in Lincoln in 1916 originated in the USA. Mary Pickford was the big star in dramas though she also featured in comedies as well. Mary Pickford films were shown on twenty-six occasions in Lincoln during 1916. Typical examples are A Girl of Yesterday (‘A girl with old-fashioned values becomes a modern sophisticate’) shown at The Picture House in the first half of the week commencing 26 June and The Foundling (‘rejected by her father, Molly is cruelly retreated; when he returns from Italy a wealthy man, a rival impersonates Molly, forcing her to serve as his maid’) shown at Central Cinema during the second half of the week commencing 31st July 1916.
As the USA did not enter the war until 1917, it’s perhaps not surprising that very few films made in USA deal with war related themes. Some British made comedy and drama films do have war related themes but they tend to be jingoistic and anti-German in approach rather than related to the reality of trench warfare. For example: If (the story of a German Plot To Destroy London) in which ‘ a girl thief helps foil a Count’s plan to divert defences with fake airships while hidden guns destroy London’ shown at Cinema Hall during the second half of the week beginning the 18th September and Strafing the Kaiser, (a comedy in which a conscript arrests Kaiser Bill) which could be seen at Central Cinema during the first half of the week commencing 21st August but which was subsequently banned.
Screenplays about the aristocracy and relationships between the aristocracy and commoners fascinate audiences today as witness the success of Downton Abbey. This was also the case in 1916. For example in The Climax (The Picture House, first half of week commencing 29th May) ‘a Tory magnate rejects his ward’s socialistic suitor until a dying seamstress reveals he is her bastard son’ and in Her Nameless Child (second half of the week commencing 10th April at The Central Cinema)’a smith’s daughter secretly weds an Earl and has a baby while posing as a spinster to secure an inheritance for her weak brother’.
The cinema proprietors were, however, eclectic in their selection of films: music hall star George Robey headed the cast in The Anti-Frivolity League (‘the purity league chairman has a blood transfusion from a burglar and becomes a rake’) shown at The Central Cinema during the first half of the week commencing 11th December; Cabiria was an Italian made film set in the ancient world and said to be the first ‘epic’ (Cinema Hall second half of the week commencing 6th November); The Apache Dancer’s Sacrifice (‘Empire Theatre dancers synchronised to a music score’) was shown during the second half of the week commencing June 5th at The Picture House.
As well as showing what today we would call ‘feature films’, all three cinemas presented newsreels: World News in Pictures at the Palace, Pathé’s Gazette at Cinema Hall and Topical Budget at the Central. In addition specialist documentaries about the war were shown. An example that readers may view online is A Machine Gun School at the Front (http://www.iwm.org.uk/collections/item/object/1060022703). In this anodyne film, shown at Cinema Hall during the second half of the week commencing February 7th 1916, grinning officers and trainees demonstrate how to set up machine guns and fire them at a non-human shaped target.
One documentary shown at Cinema Hall, however, was much more realistic in its approach. It was this horrifying realism that led The Central Cinema to advise cinema-goers in their advertisement for the week commencing September 25th 1916: ‘If you want to ENJOY yourself, come to the CENTRAL and be HAPPY’. The Central was up against strong competition though in the form of an endorsement of the documentary by His Majesty King George himself: ‘The Public should see these pictures that they may have some idea of what the army is doing and what War means’. Cinema Hall advertising proclaimed: ‘Battle of the Somme The Most Thrilling Picture in the History of Cinematography The Official Record of ‘The Great Advance’ Photographed on the actual field of battle……’. So highly did the cinema rate the film that it felt justified in raising its usual prices to 2½d (today: £2.82), 5d (£5.91), and 7d (£8.17), making seats bookable and hiring an augmented orchestra for every performance as well as showing the film both in matinees and in the evening for the whole week.
The Battle of the Somme (available to watch in full on YouTube) was an immensely popular film throughout Britain and the British Empire. Estimates suggest that 20 million tickets were sold (in the UK) in the first 6 weeks of distribution. If this is correct about half the population of Britain at the time (43 million) would have seen the film. (This figure was not apparently broken until the release of Star wars: Episode 4 – A New Hope in 1977!) It is certainly the first film to show the destructive power of the weaponry as well as, in very graphic images, the human cost of the war. Nevertheless the film which was released on 7th August 1916 is (understandably as an official film) partisan and appears to suggest a British victory in the battle. According to the Imperial War Museum on just the first day (July 1st 1916) nearly 20,000 British soldiers were killed and 40,000 wounded. The battle in fact dragged on until 18th of November and was a bloodbath in which 420,000 British, 195,000 French and 650,000 German soldiers were killed or wounded. Readers can judge for themselves whether the film reflects this.
A recent book has suggested that the political elites that led Europe to war were ‘sleepwalkers….. blind to the reality of the horror they were about to bring to the world’. The fare offered to UK cinema-goers seems to have encouraged them to be ‘dreamers’ escaping the reality of the war that was being fought. Dreamers who, however, were more than willing to awake to see The Battle of the Somme which presented a more authentic picture of life on the front line. In Lincoln in 1916 there were 3 ‘screens’. Today the number of screens (cinemas, televisions, desktops, laptops, tablets and smart phones) must be several times Lincoln’s population but have we been informed any more accurately or led to reflect any more deeply about the true nature of our wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria?
In 1916 films were occasionally shown at The Theatre Royal in Clasketgate, Lincoln and at The Palace Theatre in Newland, Lincoln (now The Alive Church). The Grand Electric Cinema, High Street, Lincoln (now a shop ‘Agatha’) which had opened in 1911 temporarily ceased either advertising or showing films in 1915 and did not re-commence during 1916.
Information about the cinemas and their programmes came from The Lincoln Leader and Weekly Advertiser, The Lincolnshire Chronicle, The Lincolnshire Echo and The Cinemas of Lincoln written by George Clark published in 1991 by Mercia Cinema Society. I used the International Movie Database (www.imdb.com) and the website of the Imperial War Museum (iwm.org.uk) for details of the films shown in Lincoln in 1916. The Sleepwalkers was written by Christopher Clark and published by Allen Lane in 2012. Price comparisons are taken from MeasuringWorth.com (www.measuringworth.com) using the labour value of commodities comparison.
The Charlie Chaplin and Mary Pickford film posters are in the public domain. The still (Q79501) from The Battle of the Somme is © IWM but may be produced for not-for-profit study provided the Imperial War Museum is acknowledged. I took the photograph of Lincoln Corn Exchange.
A version of this post was published in Lincolnshire Past and Present Summer 2016 (www.slha.org.uk).