Flicking through the magazines

A new publication, Emily Crosby and Linda Kaye’s Projecting Britain: The Guide to British Cinemagzines, opens up a hidden corner of film history, a corner in which the silent cinema played its part. The book’s subject is the cinemagazines, or screen magazines, or just plain magazine films, those unconsidered programme fillers that were a mainstay of cinema shows for decades and out of which sprang the television magazine format. Overlooked by practically all film histories, the cinemagazine has a rich tale to tell, not simply for its form and content, but for the diverse audiences that it reached and the various bodies – entertainment, governmental, industrial – that used the magazine film format to hook audiences to their purposes.

The richest history of the cinemagazine, as indicated by that title Projecting Britain, comes from the sound era, when the British government in particular latched onto the form in the post-World War II era as means to further its strategic aim of ‘national projection’ (i.e. we may have lost an empire and it may be a post-war world, but we still have our part to play in it). But the cinemagazine was an invention of the silent cinema, and it was not the sole preserve of Britain.

The first person to come up with a magazine film series (as opposed to the newsreel – a related form, but tied much more to topicality) was Charles Urban (have I mentioned him before?). Late in 1913 Urban devised the Kinemacolor Fashion Gazette, directed by Abby Meehan, a magazine series highlighting women’s fashions, filmed naturally in colour using the Kinemacolor process. It probably did not extend far beyond Kinemacolor’s London theatre, the Scala, and only lasted a couple of months, but a new film form was born. The next pioneer was the naturalist and filmmaker Cherry Kearton, who devised The Whirlpool of War, a behind-the-scenes war magazine presenting footage from Belgium and France in the first few months of the First World War.

Title design from Around the Town no. 105, 1921 (BUFVC)

But the cinemagazine as a regular entertainment in the cinemas really began in 1918 with Pathe Pictorial. This offshoot of the Pathe newseel in Britain amazingly ran uninterruptedly until 1969, bringing together light stories of fashion, personalities, travel, customs, sport, hobbies, innovations, animals, quirky events – anything that didn’t quite define itself as news. The idea swiftly caught on. In Britain, though the 1920s, there was Around the Town (1919-1923), created by Aron Hambuger, distributed by Gaumont, concentrating on London goings-on, especially theatrical; Eve’s Film Review (1921-1933), Pathe’s iconic magazine series for women; Vanity Fair (1922), produced by Walturdaw; Gaumont Mirror (1927-1932), sister series to the newsreel Gaumont Graphic; and British Screen Tatler (1928-1931), sister series to the newsreel British Screen News. Ideal Cinemagazine (1926-1932), produced for Ideal by Andrew Buchanan, gave the form its name, and introduced a (limited) educational element that was to characterise later developments of the cinemagazine.

Also throughout the 1920s the cinemagazine was becoming a staple of American screens, with Charles Urban once again the pioneer. When Urban established an American film business after government service during the First World War, he based much of his hopes on two cinemagazine series, Movie Chats (1919-1923) and Kineto Review (1921-1923). A typical Movie Chats issue (no. 4) contained the stories ‘View of the River Thames at Henley on Regatta Day’, ‘Experiments in Static Electricity’, ‘Visting the Sacred Monkey Temple at Benares India’, ‘Camel Fight in Desert of Turkey’, and ‘Three Views of the River Seine with Cloud Effects’. Ever the one to make good use of library material, much of Urban’s cinemagazine content came from films his companies shot in Britain before the First World War (and in turn Movie Chats footage was sold to Britain and used by Andrew Buchanan in his Ideal Cinemagazine).

Other American cinemagazines of the 1920s were Screen Snapshots (1920-1958), which focussed on Hollywood stars; Grantland Rice’s Sportlights (from 1924 at least), a mainstay of American cinemas for decades; and several series from James A. Fitzpatrick, an Urban protégé, whose Fitzpatrick Traveltalks (begin 1931) were an equally enduring feature of American screens (with the legendary closing lines “… and so we say farewell to …”). Undoubtedly the form spread to other countries, though information on these seemingly inconsequential components of the cinema programme is particularly difficult to find.

Light the cinemagazine may have been, but inconsequential it was not. An enduringly popular form, it spoke to audiences in an engaging, comforting manner, sometimes quaintly, sometimes with a degree of sly subversiveness. The use of the cinemagazine form in the 1920s to attract women audiences, through a mixture of knowingness and unknowingness, is covered by Emily Crosby in Projecting Britain and by Jenny Hammerton in one of the few other publication to consider the genre, For Ladies Only? Eve’s Film Review: Pathe Cinemagazine 1921-33. There’s also a German thesis available commercially, Nicola Gölzhäuser-Newman’s Eve’s Film Review: Genre und Gender im britischen screen magazine der 1920er Jahre. Some information on the American cinemagazine at this time (though the term is not used) can be found in Leonard Maltin’s The Great Movie Shorts. The use of the cinemagazine in the 1920s to tackle educational subjects remains under-researched, and I know of no publication that I can point you to (though I have some unpublished writing myself…).

You can find plenty of examples of Pathe Pictorial and Eve’s Film Review on the British Pathe site (same content also available through ITN Source). Examples from issues of Around the Town are available on the British Universities Film & Video Council’s Video Showcase (look out in particular for H. Grindell Matthews demonstrating his sound-on-film invention in 1921). It was the BUFVC which hosted the ‘Cinemagazines and the Projection of Britain‘ project which resulted in this book, a project in which I played a small part (mostly obstructive). The BUFVC’s newsreel database now included records of some 19,000 British cinemagazines.

There’s still so much to be discovered in film history, particularly early film history, if we will only start looking in the right places. Projecting Britain (a collection of essays, original documents and reference guide) opens another door.