How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 8

Alacazar, Edmonton

We come to the eighth and last instalment of the series of extracts taken from the c.1912 guide How to Run a Picture Theatre. We have covered selecting and fitting out the building, taking on staff, and putting together an effective programme. The last thing to consider is the licence.

In January 1910 the Cinematograph Act was introduced, the first piece of government legislation directed at the new film and cinema industry. Previously, cinema had had to be licensed under schemes designed for music or theatre performance, though the majority of them chose to avoid such bureaucratic necessities (there are even some examples of cinemas that put on purely silent shows, to avoid the demands for a music licence). The unregulated nature of the industry, and in particular the threat that such venues posed as a risk risk, led to the drafting of the Cinematograph Act. Despite its ‘compulsory’ nature, there were many cinemas which chose to ignore the new scheme and pay the fines, as Jon Burrows’ recent research into cinemas in London pre-1914 has shown. But the coming of the Cinematograph Act ultimately encouraged the huge boom in cinema construction that swiftly followed its publication. There were 4,000 cinemas in Britain and Ireland by the end of 1914.

Obtaining a License. The Cinematograph Act 1909. Under the Cinematograph Act, 1909, it is compulsory that every place to which the public is admitted, where exhibition in which inflammable films are used, shall be licensed …

It is not, however, necessary to obtain a license for premises used not more than six days in a year for a kinematograph exhibition provided that notice of such shows are given to the County Council or the Chief Police Officer, but these occasional exhibitions must confirm to the regulations …

The penalty for using an unlicensed building for an entertainment which comes within the meaning of the Cinematograph Act is a fine not exceeding £20, with a penalty of £5 per day as long as the offence continues, and power is given to the authority to revoke the license.

Music and Dancing License. Every kinematograph theatre in which music is employed – except such music be provided by automatic means – must possess a music and dancing licence.

In the case of premises situated in the Administrative County of London these are granted in November of each year …

All eight parts of How to Run a Picture Theatre can be accessed here.

(The photograph shows the Alcazar in Edmonton, one of the new breed of super-cinemas, which seated 2,000. It opened in 1913, and the poster outside advertises the British & Colonial epic The Battle of Waterloo, released in that year.)

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 7

Back to our on-going series on how to set up your own cinema, taken from the publication How to Run a Picture Theatre (c.1912). Having got the building and equipment all prepared, the staff recruited, it is time to select the films we are going to show and to decide how we are to present them:

The Programme. In the selection of the program, the tastes of the locality in which the show is situated is the governing factor. Films that will please the audience of a theatre located in a neighbourhood made up of the labouring classes will not gain favour in a house situated in a high grade residential district, but it is surprising how well the films that please in the exclusive neighbourhood are received by the lower classes. I refer to high class subjects, such as classic romantic dramas, travel subjects etc. Theatre owners will do well to cultivate the taste of their audiences by gradually increasing the number of high class film subjects, thus cutting down the demand for some of the rubbish sold as comics …

Proper film selection is really a system of insurance. It is the best policy of protection against competition and loss …

The shame or embarrassment that many cinema owners had for their lower class audiences is noticeable throughout the literature of this period. There was an insistent drive towards higher-class presentation, in venue as well as in the films. This was partly a strategy to attract a more genteel clientele which would pay more for tickets, of course, but also just a general wish for ‘class’. Nevertheless, it is odd to see the dismissal of ‘rubbish’ comics which were the bread-and-butter entertainment for so many cinemas.

Sunday Selections. … the films shown on that day should differ from the general run on week days. They should be of a more sacred and educational character …

Much of the odium attaching to the opening of the kinematograph theatre has been due to the lack of judgment shown in the selection of the Sunday programs …

The question of Sunday shows was hugely controversial at the time. The audience was naturally interested in finding cheap entertainment available on what was generally its one free day of the week, while others were shocked at the idea of entertainment – and particulaly such vulgar entertainment – on a Sunday. Many cinemas put on special Sunday shows of a more ‘suitable’ character to overcome such censure, and to protect their licence. It was common for these to give the profits from Sunday shows to charity.

First Runs and Repetitions. “First runs” faddism was born of a desire to compel the other fellow to follow suit. The “first-run” fiend figured that if he could get the newest picture first he would kill it for future use in his town, and that those who came next would just be “imitators” …

There is a mistaken idea among picture theatre managers that if a picture has been once run in a town, it is useless to show it again.

Keeping Track of Films. The card system should be adopted for keeping track of films, both coming releases and films that have been had from the renter …

When you get your KINEMATOGRAPH WEEKLY go carefully through it from first page to last and make a careful lists of all the films that have not been previously released …

The Kinematograph and Lantern Weekly was one of the main British film trade papers (its big rival was The Bioscope, of course), and the publisher of How to Run a Picture Theatre.

How to Make Feature Films Money Earners. Feature films may be divided into two classes, firstly those running well into 3,000 feet or over, such as Vitagraph’s “Tale of Two Cities”, or “Vanity Fair”, Nordisk’s “In the Hands of Impostors”, Selig’s “Christopher Columbus”, Jury’s “Lady of the Camelias”, E.S. Williams’ “Carmen”, or Clarendon’s “Saved by Fire”, and secondly those of 1,000 feet, such as Selig’s animal pictures, B. and C.’s “Lieut. Daring” and Clarendon’s “Lieut. Rose”, or Vitagraph’s Life Portrayals.

A fascinating selection of what were considered strong sellers in 1912. American productions predominate, but there is still some merit seen in the output of British producers British and Colonial (B. & C.) and Clarendon. In the Hands of Impostors was a sensational ‘white slave’ melodrama from Denmark. The 3,000-foot film (50 minutes or over) indicates that the feature film is on its way; that is, a main attraction of an hour or more in length, around which the rest of the programme has to fit.

There is no doubt that the three reel subject has come to stay and as a money earner, provided care be taken in its selection and it is properly handled, there is nothing to equal it …

… These three reel subjects are in great measure handled on the exclusive system by renting houses and are in many cases let out on the principle of one hall, one town …

Program Number Indicators. Nearly every kinematograph theatre that is worth speaking of now has programs printed describing the pictures, and it is therefore most desirable to install some form of number indicator so that each forthcoming item is made known to the audience.

Finally, it is worth remembering that the early cinema was full of song. There were films which were synchronised to gramophone disks (such as Hepworth’s Vivaphone) and live singing, often to lantern slides. Interestingly, this was more popular in the provinces than in London, and a necessity in Australia.

The Singing Picture and Singing to Pictures. In all up-to-date picture theatres it is now the custom to provide one or more singing pictures, or one or two vocalists to sing to the pictures, and this even where a fairly large orchestra is employed. This may not be so general in London, but in the provincial towns this variety in the program is much appreciated, whilst in Australia and the Colonies it is a necessity for success.

We will end our series with the eighth part, on obtaining a cinematograph licence.

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 6

Electric Theatre

Continuing with our series on how to set up and manage a cinema, taken from How to Run a Picture Theatre (c.1912), we come to the crucial question of staff. The remarkable thing is the number of workers considered suitable for even a small operation. The average small pre-First World War cinema in London had eight to ten staff. Here it is recommended we have a manager, door keeper, box office assistant (note the coldly calculating recommendation for women in this role, being both ‘more reliable’ and cheap), ushers, pianist (with an interesting revelation that some cinemas relied upon mechanical pianos), someone to generate sound effects (a common role in pre-1914 exhibition), the projectionist (and his assistant), and those selling chocolates and programmes. We even learn the salaries, and what they should be wearing.

The Staff. Its Duties and Salaries. … As a general rule, it may be taken that from ten to twelve persons are required for the competent management of a theatre running a continuous show. These are: Manager, Cashier, Doorkeeper, Checktaker, two male or lady Attendants, Operator, Assistant Operator, Spool Boy, Effects Worker, and in some cases Program and Chocolate Sellers.

The Manager. Many a proprietor owes his success to his manager’s personality … The public like to go to a place of entertainment where the manager evinces a personal interest in them … His salary is calculated on the seating and earning capacity of the hall and may vary from £3 to £5 …

Much will depend on the way in which the manager engineers the opening ceremony … It is well to secure the attendance of the Member of Parliament for the Division, the Chief Magistrate of the City or Town, … Vicar of the Parish or some equally big wig to declare the show open.

Advantage should always be taken of this occasion to press home the educational aspect of the kinematograph and the high class nature of the entertainment which is to be provided.

The Doorkeeper. His wages run from 25s. to 40s per week.

The Box Office Attendant. It is best to put a woman in charge of the box office, partly because women are apt to be more reliable, and in part because they ask less money … One who is not too old to be attractive, and one who is steady enough to refuse the numerous opportunities for flirtation will become an asset … she is not too well paid at £1 per week, although cashiers can be had at 12s 6d.

The Ushers – Inside Attendants. You want bright youths or young women who are willing to work and whom you can trust to do as well when you are absent as when you are there … In many houses the attendants are supposed to polish up the brasswork in the morning and help with the place generally … As a rule these attendants are paid from 10s to 18s. per week, to which of course has to be added their commission on the sale of chocolates and programs.

They should each be provided with an electric torch … and should be instructed to always direct the light from their torches towards the ground and away from the faces of those who are following them.

The Pianist. Get a good one – the best you can afford. … [T]he patient plodder with a fair technique will sometimes be found to be better than a brilliant performer who has a soul above the pictures The man or woman who can read music well enough to memorize standard melodies, and who can pick up popular stuff “by ear”, is better than the more advanced player who cannot play without the music on the rack. … An automatic piano is to be preferred to a bad player.

The duties and responsibilities of the accompanist are by no means light or few – always excepting the cases where a mechanical piano is left in charge of the erratic and ubiquitous “chocolate boy”. Besides, a complete command of the keyboard, the pianist must have quick discernment, and a sense of the fitness of things …

The skilled accompanist will manage, with well-timed improvisations, to smooth over any awkward pauses and abrupt transitions … Finally, the pianist should commit to memory, or have to hand, a selection of pieces which are likely to suit the various idiosyncracies of the films …

The pianist should have the films at every change of program projected for his special delectation in order that he may arrange his musical program to suit the pictures and may know what is coming next. Too often films are changed and the man at the piano has no inkling of the subjects excepting what he has gained from a perusal of the synopsis … £2 to £3 a week is none too much to pay him. Where there is an orchestra, of course, the pianist’s salary is allocated to the conductor.

The Effects Worker. … It falls to him to give life to the picture by the aid of mechanical or other means … From 12s to 15s. a week is the usual age for a boy and 30s. for a man.

Program and Chocolate Sellers. …the vending of their wares shall not be to stentorian, for nothing detracts more from the pleasure of patrons than to have a loud voiced boy or girl continually brawling in one’s ears “Chocolates” or “Programs”.

The Operator and his Assistant. … The young man who knows a little about the machine, but who needs more experience and is willing to work cheaply in order to obtain it, is the most expensive operator who can hire. He only takes one pound out of the box office on pay day, but presently you have to pay for repairs to an abused machine that will run up, the shows will have been so poor that your attendance will have dropped off, and all at once you will realise that there are occasions when it is cheaper to pay a man three pounds than one. Your operator will cost you up to £3 a week, or even more.

You can get men to turn the crank for very low fees if you have only night shows, but a night operator who has other employment during the day is not apt to be in shape for his work, and a good operator is worth every penny you pay him.

How the Staff Should be Uniformed. The male attendants should be uniformed … The female attendants should be attired in black dresses with white aprons and caps or of preferred they may be made up as vivandieres, or in the style made famous by Marie Antoinette with powdered hair, patches and pannier dresses, as is done at some London theatres.

Next, we will need to consider how to go about selecting a programme of films.

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 5

I’m running this series taken from the 1910 [correction – probably 1912] publication How to Run a Picture Theatre, which eventually I’ll put up all together in a new Texts section. Anyway, having taken care of the exterior, foyer and auditorium, now you need to think about your projectionist. Note the fire precautions, but also the need to install a stereopticon, or lantern slide projector, for advertisements, in-house announcements and sing-a-long slides:

The Operating Chamber. The operating chamber is, of course, subject to very stringent regulations by the authorities which appear in an index to this work …

There should be three traps, one each for the projector, the stereopticon, and the look-out in preference to a larger trap permitting all three. If two machines are used, the number of traps is increased …

A bucket of sand and a wet blanket must always be kept in the operating room for fire extinguishing purposes …

Allow reasonably ample room and make the operator comfortable. A high stool with a comfortable back is a necessity rather than a luxury. If the chair induces the operator to loaf, get rid of the operator, but retain the chair …

It is best to provide two machines, using them alternately, and then if one breaks down, there is a second to run on, until the other is repaired. The assistant operator, too, is always handy in rewinding the films, because if there is only one operator who has to divide his time between projecting and rewinding, both tasks will suffer.

Next up, choosing your staff.

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 4

Back to the 1910 [correction – probably 1912] publication How to Run a Picture Theatre (see previous posts). Having attended to the location, exterior and lobby, it’s time to consider the auditorium itself. As before, the emphasis is on convincing the potential cinema owner of moving on from the slack, short-termist practices of the past and make the venue the sort of attractive proposition likely to attract a loyal clientele.

The Auditorium. The good impression created by the outside appearance and the entrance lobby is of no avail if it is not sustained by the auditorium.

The prosperity of the picture theatre depends upon its attracting a regular patronage. The evanescent visitor is of but little use to the exhibitor, except as a walking advertisement spreading the fame of the show and thus attracting other patrons …

For floor covering, it is becoming increasingly universal to use a good carpeting instead of linoleum. There is something in the feel of a velvet pile that sub-consciously suggests and conveys the impression of luxury …

Cinemas had been established on the principle of attracting a passing trade, but as it became clear that film was no flash-in-the-pan then new strategies were called for. Cinemas were becoming a long-term investment. Cinema owners also needed to take far more notice of fire precautions and cleanliness. Disinfectants were not only used on the building but on its customers as well. It was common for attendants to pass up and down spraying people with sweet-smelling disinfectant. Cinemas were not known as flea-pits for nothing, but is remarkable that there seems to be no evidence of audiences protesting at such patronising treatment.

Precautions from Fire and Disinfection. … every well-equipped building should contain a plenitude of automatic sprinklers, hand grenades and the like. It should also be well provided with fire hydrants, and it is well to give the staff a periodical turn out in order …

In a theatre well equipped with fire appliances the audience experiences an added degree of safety and the likelihood of panic is reduced to a minimum …

The interior of the theatre should also be well disinfected not only after each performance, but during the time the pictures are being shown. There is a multiplicity of sprayers and deodorising compounds on the market, most of which are of great service not only in warding off disease but in keeping the atmosphere pure and sweetly scented…

As deodorisers, Pinozal, Ozone, Empire Essence are probably the most effective.

Next, raking. Early shop-shows inevitably had a level floor. To enable everyone to be able to see the film, an inclined floor was essential.

The Rake. The floor must be inclined from screen to rear, a good rake being one in ten. Steps should always be avoided, as when the hall is in semi-darkness, accidents are likely to happen, with consequent actions at law, besides which, in an emergency, steps militate against a speedy emptying of the house.

And then there was the screen. Numerous types were available on the market. Intriguingly, the recommendation here is for a coated plaster screen. The reference to ‘daylight’ means those cinemas which were experimenting with an auditorium lighted during the performance, as some had expressed concern over audiences being left in the dark. It did not catch on.

The Screen. There are many kinds of screen, patent and otherwise, daylight and mirror, but the best is generally said to be one of plaster built into the wall and coated with preparation.

Interestingly it is recommended that seats not be too comfortable lest people stay too long. Most cinemas operated on a continuous show policy where people could come in when they liked and stay as long as they like, with the assumption that they wouldn’t stay forever to see the same programme shown over and over again. A surprise recommendation is for somewhere for people to place their hats, not least so that they could have hands free to hold the cup of tea that many cinemas provided.

Seating. Tip-ups for seating cannot be beaten, and care should be taken to see that they are comfortable, but remember that you do not wish your audience to remain the entire evening unless you are giving a one house a night show …

It is well to have a centre, as well as two side aisles where floor area permits. The sides can be used for entrance and the centre for exit. Give as much space as possible between the rows of seats, from 2ft. 6in. to 3ft. is a fair distance …

It is a good idea to have hat racks under the seats, as these not only conduce to the comfort of those who are considerate enough to remove their hats, but leave the hands free to hold the cup of afternoon tea, or the program, or what not.

Lastly, attention is given to the decor, and ventilation. Early cinemas, filled with smoke, could be unpleasantly fuggy. But fresh air was clearly something of an alien concept for some cinema owners.

Decoration and Upholstery. … most of the architects, builders, decorators and exhibitors are making a grave mistake, in having the interior walls and ornaments of light colours. Such colours will suit an opera house, but not a moving picture theatre. Sombre colours will undoubtedly bring out better effects from the screen …

A good plan is to have the panels in a rich red colour with the border of still a darker shade, and have all the plastic ornaments painted imitation walnut or mahogany …

Ventilation and Heating. There are still a great many showmen who, incredible as it may seem in this enlightened day, still have no artificial means of ventilating their theatres, or what is just as bad, depend entirely upon the electric fan revolving on a shelf or bracket, and simply churning up the air in the room, without renewing it.

Ventilation means change of air … Ventilation is good for everybody …

All healthy persons accustomed to living in fresh air, having to sit for three or four hours in an over-heated atmosphere, invariably experience the sensations, first of drowsiness, followed by headache, then a period of lassitude, and almost entire prostration …

The advent of a ventilating genius who could succeed in revolutionizing our present method of ventilation would be welcomed by all right livers and true thinkers. Certainly the ventilation of some of our picture theatres, music halls, and public buildings is anything but satisfactory …

The British Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company, Ltd. stands in the forefront amongst firms manufacturing ventilating apparatus …

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 3

More from How to Run a Picture Theatre (1910) [correction – probably 1912]. Having chosen the building and taken care of the outside appearance, we turn to the interior and the first places to be seen by the prospective customer – the lobby and waiting room. The comments on the lobby indicate how many drab cinemas (usually shop or other such conversions) there still were, with bright lights outside but dismal within:

The Lobby or Entrance Hall. A dingy lobby betokens in the minds of many a poor entertainment. How often the mistake is made that all the public expect for outside appearance is a blaze of light.

Nothing short of 18ft. should be devoted to the lobby. Nor is this waste of space, for it enables an advertising display to be made to advantage, and the passers-by who stop to read the program boards or day bill are well against the pay-box before they realise that their curiosity has already got them almost inside the theatre.

The flooring should be of tiles or cement. A board flooring is an abomination suggestive of hasty construction and a fleeting stay …

Greater variety of material is permitted in walls and ceilings. As a general thing, plaster casting is to be preferred to imitation marble. The last may be sparingly used in the large lobbies, but is almost too heavy to be in keeping with the style of performance. A plaster cast lobby, is tastefully done, finished in white and gold, and kept always fresh by the use of paint and gold leaf is much to be preferred.

White and gold is advocated as a general colour scheme …

A waiting room is considered a necessity on account of the prevalent system of the ‘continuous show’, whereby the same programme of an hour or so would be repeated eight or more times per day, with people able to come in at any time, and often to stay as long as they liked. This contrasted with a more theatre-based policy of two or three longer shows per day with set opening hours, which would become the model a few years later.

The Waiting Room or Lobby Adjunct. … A waiting room has another advantage which should be seriously considered by the exhibitor. With the present system of continuous performance and of allowing anyone to enter or leave the auditorium while a picture is on the screen, you discourage many devotees of motion pictures who, deeply interested in a scene, have either to move to allow someone to pass in front of them or to have some newcomer making the view while looking for a seat, or a lady removing her hat as slowly as possible, and at this most pathetic moment. More than one spectator has expressed disgust when reading a sub-title, to have someone pass in front of him and shut off the view, and the moment he cannot read the sub-title on the screen, he loses the thread of the story and becomes dissatisfied with the show.

… A waiting or ante-room would be a genuine remedy to this drawback …

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 2

More from How to Run a Picture Theatre, the guide to setting up your own cinema, published in 1910 [correction – probably 1912]. Having chosen our site, we now have to consider the building:

The Building and its Fittings. If your venture is to be a “converted” building, either shop premises, a public hall, or a chapel, make certain that the alterations planned are practicable before you sign a lease …

… In the early days of the picture theatre, the mistake was frequently made by those who should have known better, of thinking that anything was good enough for such a place, with the result that ofttimes endless expense had to be incurred after it was opened, to the dislocation of business and irreparable financial loss to the proprietors.

Strange to say, from the very start a certain type of construction has been adopted and has been followed by nearly everyone; a white exterior, a long hall with very little light, bad ventilation and no gallery, a waste of space for a lobby, open to the winds and decorated with a profusion of plaster reliefs and white and gold paints.

The “converted” is now almost a thing of the past. The successful picture theatre of to-day must not only be especially arranged for the purpose, but it must present as pleasing an architectural and decorative aspect as it is possible to make …

How to Run a Picture Theatre – part 1


I’m going to start up a new series of posts, telling you how to set up your own cinema, in 1910. The posts will present extracts from the book How to Run a Picture Theatre: A Handbook for Proprietors, Managers and Exhibitors, published by The Kinematograph Weekly in 1910 [correction – probably 1912]. First thing to consider, where are you going to build it?

On Selecting a Site. It requires but a very slight stretch of memory to go back to the time when the opening of an electric Theatre was an extremely simple operation. Any disused shop to which could be added an attractive looking front, was considered good enough for the purpose of a moving picture display. But with competition has come a change, and to-day, he who would succeed as a moving picture exhibitor needs not only capital, but an artistic taste and business acumen …

… The value of a site naturally depends to a large extent on local circumstances. It must be borne in mind that the public on pleasure bent does not frequent the residential areas in search of entertainment. Therefore a main business artery is to be preferred and care should be also taken to have the theatre on the right side of the street. It is strange, but nevertheless true, that twice as many persons frequent one side of a street as are to [be] found on the other side, and it is the side most used by pedestrians that is best fitted for the electric theatre …

… It is well to consider also from whence your clientele is likely to be drawn when you have opened your theatre. It does not pay to expect one’s patrons after the turmoil of the day to walk miles to the theatre. Therefore, the site should be as near as possible to the part most densely populated by the comfortably-positioned artizan or middle classes, as they are the greatest supporters of the picture theatre.

Electric Theatre was a standard term for cinemas at this time. It seems to have been first used for Thomas L. Tally’s Electric Theater, a storefront show which opened in Los Angeles in 1902. The term was exported to Britain in 1908 by New York businessman Joseph Jay Bamberger, who established the first cinema circuit in London with his Electric Theatres (1908) Ltd. His cinemas were each called Electric Theatres, and the name became generally used for a time. Another name for early cinemas was, of course, a bioscope.

More to follow.

Pen and pictures no. 3 – J.M. Barrie

There were many authors in the silent era of cinema who dabbled with the film business, usually by having their works adapted for the screen. But some went further. J.M. Barrie, now chiefly known for Peter Pan, and for his custody of the sons of the Llewellyn-Davies family, the ‘Lost Boys’ (as recently retold in the film Finding Neverland), was among the most highly regarded writers of his time, as a novelist and especially as a dramatist. Barrie was fascinated by the cinema. Many silent films were made from his plays, among them Male and Female (1919, based on The Admirable Crichton), Peter Pan (1924) and A Kiss for Cinderella (1926). For Peter Pan Barrie wrote an original script, though it was not used. But Barrie did more than dabble with film scripts – he had been making his own films, which experimented with the relationship between film and theatre, fantasy and reality.

Two of these films were each connected with a combined theatre-and-film revue that Barrie had dreamt up in July 1914, only to abandon. Barrie had become fascinated by the French music hall actress, Gaby Delys, and wanted to write a revue for her that would extend his dramatic capabilities, and which would allow him to experiment with the borderline between cinema and theatre. He made notes to himself that indicate his radical way of thinking:

Combine theatre with cinematography – Cinema way of kissing. Burlesque of American titles, ‘Nope’ & ‘Yep’ – Gaby a chorus-girl, flirts with conductor in pit.

Barrie’s ideas became more ambitious. He organised a ‘Cinema Supper’ at the Savoy Hotel in London, to which he was able to invite such luminaries as the Prime Minister Herbert Asquith, Edward Elgar, George Bernard Shaw and G.K. Chesterton. His august guests first went to the Savoy Theatre to a series of short sketches written by Barrie and acted by such theatrical greats as Marie Lohr, Dion Boucicault, Marie Tempest, Gerald Du Maurier and Edmund Gwenn, before moving to the Savoy Hotel for supper, Barrie having hired a team of cameramen to film everyone arriving and then seated at their tables. Many apparently had no idea that they were being filmed, though the necessary lighting must sure have raised some questions among some. At one point in the evening Bernard Shaw got up and started delivering a speech haranguing three other guests present, namely G.K. Chesterton, the drama critic William Archer and the philanthropist Lord Howard de Walden, getting so heated as to start waving a sword around. The three he had insulted then all got up, bearing swords of their own, and chased him off stage. This was all a further part of Barrie’s plan, and according to Chesterton, Barrie had ‘some symbolical notion of our vanishing from real life and being captured or caught up into the film world of romance; being engaged through all the rest of the play in struggling to fight our way back to reality’.

The following day came the second part of Barrie’s plans. He had hired a cameraman, and with the playwright and theatre producer Harley Granville-Barker as director, he made a comedy Western, starring Shaw, Archer, de Walden and Chesterton. Chesterton has left us with the best description of this extraordinary little episode:

We went down to the waste land in Essex and found our Wild West equipment. But considerable indignation was felt against William Archer; who, with true Scottish foresight, arrived there first and put on the best pair of trousers … We … were rolled in barrels, roped over fake precipices and eventually turned loose in a field to lasso wild ponies, which were so tame that they ran after us instead of our running after them, and nosed in our pockets for pieces of sugar. Whatever may be the strain on credulity, it is also a fact that we all got on the same motor-bicycle; the wheels of which were spun round under us to produce the illusion of hurtling like a thunderbolt down the mountain-pass. When the rest finally vanished over the cliffs, clinging to the rope, they left me behind as a necessary weight to secure it; and Granville-Barker kept on calling out to me to Register Self-Sacrifice and Register Resignation, which I did with such wild and sweeping gestures as occurred to me; not, I am proud to say, without general applause. And all this time Barrie, with his little figure behind his large pipe, was standing about in an impenetrable manner; and nothing could extract from him the faintest indication of why we were being put through these ordeals.

Chesterton says that the film was never shown, while Barrie’s biographer Denis Mackail suggests that Barrie’s ideas were still half-formed and objections from some of the participants (notably Herbert Asquith, who sent a stern letter from 10 Downing Street forbidding his celluloid likeness from being used in a theatrical revue) caused both films to be withdrawn. However, the cowboy film was shown publicly, two years later at a war hospital charity screening at the London Coliseum on 10 June 1916, where it was given the splendid title of How Men Love. A review of the event indicates that Chesterton’s description of the action is what was seen on the screen, with the added detail that the others hanging from the rope over a cliff were too much even for a man of his great bulk to support, and he was forced to drop them. According to Mackail, a print was still in existence in 1941, but sadly no copy is known to exist today. Happily, this photograph does exist to demonstrate that it was not all just some mad dream:

(Left to right) Lord Howard de Walden, William Archer, J.M. Barrie, G.K. Chesterton and Bernard Shaw, in the middle of making the cowboy film How Men Love. From Peter Whitebrook, William Archer: A Biography

After a revue of his, Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus (1915), starring Gaby Delys, had a filmed sequence directed by Percy Nash included in one scene, Barrie turned filmmaker again in 1916. The Real Thing at Last was a professional film production by the British Actors Film Company, for which Barrie supplied the script. 1916 was the tercentenary of Shakespeare’s death, and among numerous celebratory productions, there was to be a Hollywood production of Macbeth, produced by D.W. Griffith and starring the English actor-manager Sir Herbert Beerbohm Tree. The idea of Hollywood tackling Shakespeare filled many with hilarity, and Barrie wrote a thirty-minute spoof which contrasted Macbeth as it might be produced in Britain, with how it would be treated in America. The film starred Edmund Gwenn as Macbeth, and among a notable cast Leslie Henson and A.E. Matthews both have left droll accounts of its production.

The film had a director, L.C. MacBean, but according to Matthews, ‘Barrie did all the work – MacBean just looked on admiringly’. The film gained all its humour from the contrasts in the British and American interpretations of Macbeth. In the British version, Lady Macbeth wiped a small amount of blood from her hands; in the American she had to wash away gallons of the stuff. In the British, the witches danced around a small cauldron; in the American the witches became dancing beauties cavorting around a huge cauldron. In the British, Macbeth and Macduff fought in a ditch; in the American Macbeth falls to his death from a skyscraper. The intertitles were similarly affected; a telegram was delivered to Macbeth that read, ‘If Birnam Wood moves, it’s a cinch’. Sadly, no copy (nor even a photograph, it seems) of this happy jest of Barrie’s is known to exist today.

What does exist, however, is The Yellow Week at Stanway. This film was made in 1923, and is a record of a house party held by Barrie at Stanway, the Cotswolds home of Lord and Lady Wemyss, which Barrie rented every summer. Barrie invited his many guests, which on one occasion included the entire Australian cricket team, to take part in theatricals, cricket matches and other such entertainments, and in 1923 he hired a professional cameraman, name unknown, to film a story that he initially called Nicholas’s Dream. Nicholas, or Nico, was the youngest of the five Llewellyn-Davies boys, and a little of their history is required to put the film in proper context.

The five boys were the sons of Arthur and Sylvia Llewellyn-Davies, friends of J.M. Barrie and the models for Mr and Mrs Darling in Peter Pan. Both died tragically early, with Barrie assuming the guardianship of the five boys. They were, of course, the inspiration for the ‘Lost Boys’ of Barrie’s imagination, and Michael Llewellyn-Davies in particular became the inspiration for the character of Peter Pan. But the family was to be visited by further tragedy. George, the eldest, was killed in action in 1915, then Michael, Barrie’s favourite, was drowned in 1921. Two of the others, Jack and Peter, moved away from Barrie, and the youngest, Nico, still at school at Eton, stayed with Barrie during holidays but felt Michael’s death deeply and knew that he was no substitute for him.

It is with this background, knowing both Nico and Barrie’s great personal sadness, that we should look at The Yellow Week at Stanway, which records a Stanway house party in 1923 to which Nico invited several of his Eton friends, with a complementary female component made up of friends of the Wemyss family, whose daughter Cynthia Asquith was Barrie’s secretary. She has provided us with a short account of the film’s production:

He [Barrie] was in marvelous form all through the cricket week, and in his most masterful mood – presenting the Eleven with special caps at a speech – making dinner, and summoning from London a ‘camera-man’ to film a fantasy called Nicholas’s Dream, into which he’d woven a part for everyone – a bicycling one for me. He also wrote a duologue for me and sister Mary. It was great fun having her to beguile the Etonians. Pamela Lytton, as lovely as ever, came, too, with her daughter, Hermione.

The film is largely in the standard home movie style (albeit at a time when home movies were a comparative rarity), with some simple trick effects and a distinctive tone of whimsy typical of Barrie, who wrote all of the rhyming intertitles as well as directing the film. It begins with the title, ‘The Yellow Week at Stanway. A record of fair women and brainy men’. The opening shots establish Stanway house and the Wemyss family. Nico Llewellyn-Davies greets the various guests for the Cricket Week, including roughly equal numbers of young men and women.

A game of cricket follows, where the umpire appears to be Barrie. A couple of rudimentary trick shots, with people disappearing or riding bicycles backwards come next, before an extended fantasy sequence. Nico is seen to fall asleep in ‘the forest of Arden’, and in his dream he seeks ‘his Rosalind’ but sees all the other house guests pair up without him. Mary Strickland leaves him for Anthony Lytton; another couple walk away when he greets them; another couple hit croquet balls at him; two others cycle past him; even Nico’s dog abandons him. Each vignette is accompanied by Barrie’s rhyming titles documenting Nico’s series of rejections.

Nicholas, Antony and Mary –
‘Your offer’s read sir, and declined
I will not be your Rosalind.’

Edward and Pamela –
From the East to Western Ind
To Edward comes his Rosalind.

Sam and Rosemary –
Same drove him off with deeds unkind
And so did gentle Rosalind.

Pasty and Hermione –
If t’were not that love is blind
He’d keep an eye on Rosalind.

Eventually he wakes to find himself petted by all of the women, while the men walk away in disgust.

Following some further general shots, there comes the film’s most intriguing sequence. A title introduces ‘The Pirates’ Lagoon. An intruder’. Barrie and Michael Asquith (Cynthia Asquith’s young son) are seen on a small punt on a pond. The next title reads, ‘Michael the captain could stand when pressed. But drink and the devil had done for the rest.’ Michael and three other children, including his younger brother Simon, are seen in a boat. ‘’Ware the Redskins’, reads the next title, and Michael points a gun and a smaller boy a bow and arrow. ‘Escaping the tomahawks by a miracle’, reads the title, ‘Red Michael reached Stanway by a perilous descent.’ Michael is shown climbing through a window. The film concludes with Nico pretending to sleep and embracing an imaginary person; final shots of Stanway and the house guests; shots of Eton school; and concluding with Simon and Michael Asquith waving handkerchiefs through windows in a garden wall.

J.M. Barrie and Michael Asquith in The Yellow Week at Stanway, from

The film is jointed, illogical and often plain silly in the manner of many home movies. The two fantasy sequences are notable, however. The ‘Nicholas’s Dream’ betrays some unfathomable and unconscious cruelty on Barrie’s part, depicting Nico as the unloved outsider, rejected by his peers, denied the pleasures of young love. Its allusions to Shakespeare’s As You Like It prefigure Barrie’s later involvement in the 1936 film of the play (the later film’s credits read ‘treatment suggested by J.M. Barrie’), with Elisabeth Bergner as a Peter Pan-like Rosalind. The pirate sequence, though brief and not elaborate in any way, is remarkably close in conception to his photo-story The Boy Castaways which was in turn the inspiration for Peter Pan.

The Yellow Week at Stanway is preserved in the BFI National Archive, and you can read the minutely detailed shotlist (penned by yours truly, long ago) on the BFI database. And there is just a fleeting extract from the film available on the Knebworth House website, showing Barrie and Michael Asquith on a punt.

Finally, just for the record, here’s a filmography of films from the silent era made from Barrie’s plays (play’s name where different in brackets), demonstrating just how popular his works were – and how ingenious producers were in renaming The Admirable Crichton:

  • US 1910 Back to Nature [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1913 The Little Minister
    d. James Young p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1913 Shipwrecked [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Kalem
  • US 1914 The Man of her Choice [The Admirable Crichton]
    p.c. Powers
  • US 1915 The Little Gypsy [The Little Minister]
    d. Oscar C. Apfel p.c. Fox
  • GB 1915 The Little Minister
    d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune
  • GB 1915 Rosy Rapture, the Pride of the Beauty Chorus
    d. Percy Nash p.c. Neptune [for use in the play’s stage production (scene six)]
  • GB 1917 What Every Woman Knows
    d. Fred W. Durrant p.c. Barker-Neptune
  • GB 1918 The Admirable Crichton
    d. G.B. Samuelson p.c. Samuelson
  • US 1919 Male and Female [The Admirable Crichton]
    d. Cecil B. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1920 Half an Hour
    d. Harley Knoles p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • GB 1920 The Twelve Pound Look
    d. Jack Denton p.c. Ideal
  • US 1921 The Little Minister
    d. Penrhyn Stanlaws p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1921 Sentimental Tommy
    d. John S. Robertson p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1921 What Every Woman Knows
    d. William C. DeMille p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • GB 1921 The Will
    d. A.V. Bramble p.c. Ideal
  • US 1922 The Little Minister
    d. David Smith p.c. Vitagraph Company of America
  • US 1924 Peter Pan
    d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1925 Peter Pan Handled (Dinky Doodle series) [featured Peter Pan as a character] [animation]
    d. Walter Lantz p.c. Bray Productions
  • US 1926 A Kiss for Cinerella
    d. Herbert Brenon p.c. Famous Players-Lasky
  • US 1927 Quality Street
    d. Sidney Franklin p.c. Cosmopolitan Productions

The Theatre of Science

The Theatre of Science – hard to imagine a general guide to the cinema having such a title nowadays. But Robert Grau’s The Theatre of Science: A Volume of Progress and Achievement in the Motion Picture Industry was published in 1914, when cinema was seen as a home of knowledge as much as place of entertainment (at least among commentators), a product of science and a technical achievement par excellence.

Grau’s book, published in a limited edition of 3,000, has become a standard reference source for the early cinema period. It provides an extraordinary amount of detail on the history and development of motion pictures in America to 1914 – their technological, economic, social and artistic changes, and the key events and personalities involved. Grau (a theatrical agent) was witness to much of the history he describes, and if his understanding of the development of the pictures towards the ideal of the theatre, he was a keen observer who provides hugely useful factual information on histories such as the rise of the nickelodeons and the emergence of a film trade press which scarcely exist elsewhere. He champions the names of pioneers of the industry who would otherwise be forgotten, the run-of-the-mill performers as well as the stars, and the book is rich in portrait photographs. It has much information on the leading and not so leading film companies of the period, and is at all points particularly interested in the business of making pictures. It is thrilled with how motion pictures were made, sold and exhibited, and for that enthusiasm alone it is strongly recommended.

It’s available from the Internet Archive in DjVu (21MB), PDF (66MB), b/w PDF (23MB) and TXT (711KB) formats, and it’s been added to the Bioscope Library.